Enlightened Economics

Economics for an Enlightened Age

Posts Tagged ‘americans’

• Short Term Gain, Long Term Pain

Posted by Ron Robins on April 12, 2011

By Ron Robins. First published March 31, 2011, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

Unacknowledged as key causes of most developed countries’ growing and unsustainable debt is their citizens’ lack of happiness and well being. This induces people to seek immediate comfort in material goods, drugs, and activities and lifestyles that eventually cause them, and their societies, great harm, ill health, and massive debt!

After decades of study, Robert E. Lane, the Eugene Meyer Professor Emeritus of Political Science, at Yale University in the US, found that it is a lack of happiness and well being that is eating away the moral fibre of the populations in advanced market democracies. In Professor Lane’s seminal book, Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, he writes, “amidst the satisfaction people feel with their material progress, there is a spirit of unhappiness and depression haunting advanced market democracies throughout the world, a spirit that mocks the idea that markets maximise well-being and the eighteenth-century promise of a right to the pursuit of happiness under benign governments of peoples choosing.”

Continuing, “the haunting spirit is manifold: a postwar decline in the United States in people who report themselves happy, a rising tide in all advanced societies of clinical depression and dysphoria [anxiety, malaise], especially among the young; increasing distrust of each other and of political and other institutions, declining belief that the lot of the average man is getting better, a tragic erosion of family solidarity and community integration together with an apparent decline in warm, intimate relations among friends.”

It is these conditions which Professor Lane observes that give rise to individuals seeking immediate comfort anyway they can. Hence, most developed countries’ populations gravitate to instant solutions that might ameliorate their lack of happiness and anxieties. This, no matter the long term monetary, psychological, or physical consequences and costs to themselves or society. Professor Lane believes it is imperative for western democracies to give the highest priority to improving the happiness and well being of its individuals. And this means their focus should be on human psychological health and relationships—not about income levels.

By looking for hedonistic joys in the present, many developed countries’ individuals seek excessive material consumption which then creates unsustainable levels of consumer debt. In the US, though to a lesser degree in other developed countries, consumer debt has grown far faster than individual earnings gains over the past several decades. Despite a respite in consumer debt growth during the past two years, signs are emerging that US consumer debt might well begin to outpace actual earnings gains again in 2011, thereby creating conditions for yet another future financial crisis.

Also, and again much ignored in the debate concerning debt, are other individual behaviours that induce it. For example, to provide a modicum of happiness and to make life more bearable, people in America (and in many developed countries) consume drugs (legally and illegally) in extraordinary amounts. These drugs—alcoholic beverages, marijuana, cocaine, cigarettes, prescribed and non-prescribed medications, etc.—often create dependencies that impair health, brain and psychological functioning. These dependencies then lead to greater crime to support drug habits, increase prison populations and criminal/legal costs, raise the number of accidents everywhere, and encourage unhealthy lifestyles that in turn produce epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and all manner of health problems.

Americans spend more on healthcare, by far, than anyone else. In 2009, according to the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services, Americans spent $8,086 per person on healthcare, equal to 17.6 per cent of their economic output or gross domestic product (GDP). And such expenditures continue spiralling 4 to 10 per cent a year, far faster than GDP itself. Thereby they add inexorably to future unfunded US federal government medical liabilities that Boston University’s Professor Laurence Kotlikoff believes is about $125 trillion over an infinite timeframe. To fund that liability would require every man, woman and child in America to pay about $407,000 to the US federal treasury!

And among public companies a short term focus on near term profits that potentially create longer term costs and debt has been endemic. Consider this 2001 quote by Maryann Keller on the US automobile industry. In Forbes magazine, she said, “[That] Chrysler, GM and Ford spent billions of dollars to buy their stock in the open market… It was always obvious that product spending [developing new autos] was being sacrificed to provide trading liquidity [ease of selling stock] for big investors while boosting earnings per share. GM, Ford and the Chrysler Group today [in 2001] find themselves with growing gaps in their product portfolios as they lose market share…”

Thus, the US automobile industry preferred to spend profits on supporting their near term stock prices rather than developing new products for longer term profits. By 2009 all but Ford were bankrupt. After losing tens of thousands of jobs and engaging in a massive automobile industry restructuring program, the US government bailed out the industry (for now?) at a cost of about $85 billion. (Canadian governments also supported GM and Chrysler to the tune of $13.5bn CAD.)

Total societal US debt (private, corporate and government) is now likely to continue moving higher again as consumers are forever encouraged to spend now while saving is discouraged due to artificially mandated low rates. Increasing employment, though welcome, is not likely the answer to mounting unsustainable societal debt. In fact, it might well exacerbate it if former long term trends of debt growth outpacing income gains continue.

The US, like most other developed countries, is on a path to increased human suffering and tragic financial circumstances unless it deals with the fundamental issue: enabling individuals and families to become intrinsically happier and experience feelings of greater well being. Only then can the compulsion towards short term thinking and gratification—which builds huge unsustainable long term debt—be stopped.

Copyright alrroya.com


Posted in Consciousness/Psychology, Economics, Labour Issues, Spiritual | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

• US Healthcare Delivering a Heart Attack!

Posted by Ron Robins on February 16, 2011

By Ron Robins. First published February 10, 2011, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

Medical spending could deliver a debilitating heart attack to the US economy, despite the recently passed healthcare legislation that hopes to significantly control costs. Depending on assumptions made, the unfunded US government medical liabilities range as high as $125 trillion, equivalent to about eight times America’s annual gross domestic product (GDP). These unfunded liabilities—money that might have to be borrowed—have the possibility of totally derailing the US economy.

In 2008, Richard Fisher, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas cited the US government’s unfunded Medicare program liabilities at $85.6trn over the infinite horizon. He said that including the unfunded liabilities of US Social Security the total rises to $99.2trn. Mr. Fisher further added that were they to be funded, it would require a lump sum payment of $1.3 million per family of four to the US federal treasury! Or alternately, an increase of 68 per cent in federal taxes for all individuals and corporations, for now and forever.

The unfunded liabilities figure of $125trn arose from a conversation I had recently with Boston University’s renowned Professor of Economics, Laurence Kotlikoff, who believes they could range that much also using an infinite horizon time frame.

Now really ‘low-ball’ medical unfunded liability estimates come from the 2010 Annual Report of the Boards of Trustees of the Federal Hospital Insurance Trust Fund and the Federal Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Fund. They are the reports of the Medicare trustees of the US government. The 2010 estimates of US government medical unfunded liabilities have been shaved dramatically from their prior year reports.

And the Medicare trustees make the following remarks in that regard. They say that, “the Affordable Care Act [the recently passed healthcare legislation] improves the financial outlook for Medicare substantially. However, the effects of some of the new law’s provisions on Medicare are not known at this time, with the result that the projections are much more uncertain than normal, especially in the longer-range future… the actual future costs for Medicare are likely to exceed those shown by the current-law projections.” In other words, their low-ball estimates are based on such flimsy assumptions as to make them untenable.

And the record of government predictions and cost containment in regard to Medicare expenditures is anything but encouraging. As Gary Shilling, a US economist recently remarked, that in 1967 a special committee of the US Congress predicted by 1990 that Medicare would cost $12 billion. It actually cost $110bn. Quite likely the estimates of US government medical unfunded liabilities, by Richard Fisher and Professor Kotlikoff are nearer the reality, barring truly significant program cuts, changes and increases in taxes.

The US government’s Medicare program began in 1965. It primarily covers medical expenses for people over 65 years of age and for certain disabilities for people younger than 65. Medicare was envisaged as being able to pay its own way through payroll deductions, and for many years it did even more than that: it built up surpluses. However, in January 2011 the US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) showed that the cash flows of the Medicare trust funds had now grown significantly negative. Also, the CBO sees US government Medicare related costs jumping from an estimated “$870bn in 2011, or 5.8 per cent of GDP… to $1.8trn in 2021… and 7.4 per cent of GDP.”

Also, the US spends disproportionately higher on its healthcare than other developed countries, yet with frequently poorer outcomes. Mark Pearson, Head, Health Division, of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), made these written comments to the US Special Committee on Aging on September 30, 2009. He wrote that, “the United States spent 16 per cent of its national income (GDP) on health in 2007. This is by far the highest share in the OECD… Even France, Switzerland and Germany, the countries which, apart from the United States, spend the greatest proportion of national income on health, spent over 5 percentage points of GDP less: respectively 11.0 per cent, 10.8 per cent and 10.4 per cent of their GDP… For all its spending, the US has lower life expectancy than most OECD countries (78.1; average is 79.1).”

Further illustrating the enormity of the US healthcare spending problem, the US government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said that total US national health expenditure (NHE) “grew 4.0 per cent to $2.5trn in 2009, or $8,086 per person, and accounted for 17.6 per cent of GDP [up from 16.6 per cent 2008].”

Additionally, CMS found that US government Medicare and affiliated Medicaid 2009 program expenditures grew even faster at 7.9 and 9 per cent respectively, accounting for 35 per cent of NHE. The US federal government’s share of health care spending rose by just over 3 per cent in 2009 over 2008, to 27 per cent.

Reining in the growth of US federal government Medicare and related spending will require huge healthcare industry adjustments, spending cuts and continuing modification of government health funded programs. And it will probably require substantially increased taxes to fund its remnants. In recent polls by CNN/Opinion Research Corp Poll and Gallup, the vast majority of Americans said no to cuts in Medicare. A healthcare expense heart attack could be on the horizon for Americans.

Copyright alrroya.com

Posted in Economics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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