On the topside of 2016, we discussed the U.S. economy as it stood at the moment. He complained about the cost of his rent, and indeed, in the past five years rental rates have gone maddeningly upward. “Supply and demand,” I offered thoughtlessly, realizing after the words escaped my mouth that he knew exactly what it was.
Seven years ago he and his wife were caught in a short sale proposition in South Jersey. The home was figuratively under water. The property had been well above his and his wife’s collective means when they got the loan; then subprime mortgages and variable rates did their nasty duty. Credit default swaps blew the whole thing up, and the loan got far more expensive than the property was then worth. (Someone made money off that bet. It wasn’t him.) I did not bring up how, only a few years earlier, he crowed about what a genius he felt himself to be. Buying this beachfront home wasn’t living above his means; it was taking a system that generationally worked against him and turning it back around to work for him. That was then — now he had to eat (“absorb” is used more often, but someone was indeed getting bit here) a huge loss, trying to wash his hands of it all as expediently as possible, with a minimum of self-inflicted pain. Now they rent.
One forgets how weird the times were right up to the tanking of Bear Stearns, Lehman Bros. and on. Very small, very old houses were selling for insanely high prices. Postage-stamp parcels of land were being fought over. The banks were riding skyward in the fumes, and the lack of oxygen fueled unrelated businesses large and small to think bigger, even though there was little fiscal evidence to support the claims. A lot of the growth that came prior to 2008 was based on a presumption of wealth, so industries and markets that had nothing to do with housing also forced growth on that lie. “Everyone’s buying, selling, renovating and flipping houses! There’s money out there! We have to expand too! If not, they wouldn’t be moving real estate like wicker furniture!” There was little to no relationship between one or the other beyond the invented correlation that was willed into existence. And when the collapse came, all these other industries fell too. People aren’t going to buy your products with the money you incorrectly thought they had.
In the larger context, my friend was lucky in two respects. Someone eventually bought his property at “fire sale” rates and turned it around as a high-priced rental. He would not have to walk away from the property waving white flags, as so many had, with the debts being ignored to the point of legal action. Many people did that and are still suffering the consequences, the bankruptcies, the ruptured personal credit ratings. In another sense luck was with him because years after the short sale, the house would be torn in half by Hurricane Sandy (literally underwater), with the top floor dropped unceremoniously behind the bottom floor.
Most of the buyers who could qualify for mortgages at that time were investment coalitions, buying up the properties for rent, then charging rental fees that surpassed average monthly mortgage payment amounts and scooping up the profits. Because the homes were bought by businesses and not individuals, the risk was spread around. Because so many were socked between the eyes after their personal homeowner boom went bust, there were lots of people unable to get mortgages, couldn’t buy a new house again, and had to rent. The stars aligned, but not in their favor.
And that’s where he was at the moment. The idea of living with his parents for a brief period of time — to tide him over, as he phrased it — was abhorrent. It was also impractical. His wife commuted to Delaware for work while his parents lived in Northern New Jersey. Her parents were in the middle of the country, certainly a worse commute.
He moaned about the terrible economy, although in the greater view of the world economy, the United States is doing far better than almost everyone else. Some elements of the business reports were dead on the money: the participation rate in the workforce — meaning those who actively were looking for work and reporting as such, as opposed to dropping out and giving up — still weighs considerably on the overall unemployment rate. As of March 4, the U.S. unemployment rate stood at an impressive 4.9 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But much like one doesn’t know what they don’t know, one can’t know how many are unemployed if they’re not reporting in, if they’ve given up the hunt altogether.
Those who are firmly back to work are facing twin problems, the first being the full time/part time conundrum. While many are indeed drawing a paycheck, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re pulling full time hours. And if they are, wage increases remain in tepid territory, which is a polite way of saying they still suck.
What struck me, however, was hearing my friend talk about what he was “supposed to be making” as opposed to what he was making. The thing is that, prior to his adventures in the Subprime Savannah, he wasn’t making tremendous amounts of money either. Just as his large property was justified by a delusion, his over-inflated sense of his workplace value was equally pumped up with gas and didn’t co-exist with prior performance benchmarks. In this respect he was also far luckier than many of his peers. He never lost his job during the economic downturn. He was still drawing a paycheck.
As his company had cut away many of his peers’ jobs, he needed to take on other tasks, and the company was pleased that they were wringing the work of two departments out of one; the work of three people out of one. Their bottom line wasn’t hurting nearly as bad as his but — as they repeatedly reminded him — he was lucky to have a job at all. Yet during this time, he was working extra in fields he already had the skills for. He was not bolstering his personal portfolio of skill sets with new additions. In other words, he was expecting more without proving that he deserved to get more.
I was not in the mood to go into a long saga about the incongruity of what he felt was due him and what additions were actually warranted. He already made his mind up that he deserved a big raise and was being denied, much as years ago he decided he deserved a very large home he never could have paid for conventionally. It was the same mindset manifesting itself in two different ways.
I certainly wasn’t prepared to bring up how the company he worked for was feeling pretty good about themselves back then, riding the curve of the financial bubble prior to the collapse, and over-hired wildly to fill positions that — in many cases — were a job dilution, not a job creation, pulling apart preexisting job descriptions and making them into entirely separate ones.
Undoubtedly, companies were being unfair over how much more of a burden they were saddling their most loyal and reliable with, and took advantage of them. Still, if Jenny was in charge of all the photocopying; Sally all the collating; Millie all the stapling; and Luanne all the distribution, it could be argued that all these except perhaps the distribution were the provinces of the same, single task that was blown out of proportion. It isn’t shocking that Jenny has to do all of it now. The truth sat somewhere between the unnecessarily cushy chair and the hard concrete floor, but so many were wrapped up in the either/or of the situation.
In plain English: the employee deserved to be paid for the work he/she accomplished according to his/her job description, but because of corporate “showing off,” that one job description magically became three and was spread out accordingly, and now he/she was feeling the crunch as five (the original three and two tacked-on because we can) were coming down upon him. Still unfair, but maybe not as egregious as earlier assumed? Perhaps a more accurate measure of what an individual’s earnings in relationship to their work productivity is not what he or she was earning pre-recession, but instead pre-bubble, when a worker’s specific job requirement were (one hopes) a little saner?
And we cannot fully excuse these companies. Many of them used the downturn to cut loose long-time employees merely because they were drawing benefits. Plenty of them actually did victimize employees by quadrupling workload that would never have been parts of their work experience before. They could be retained cheaply, they didn’t want to lose their jobs, and so were acquiescent. But for every one of these individuals, there was another worker whose self-opinion of value was/is wildly out of proportion to what they actually provide. All house, no income.
My friend and I later had lunch — pizza slices, no big shakes — and I paid. I expected I would have to, so I didn’t bother to make a fuss. He vented, I listened. I think he appreciated ears other than his wife’s although I can’t pretend I was more sympathetic. Much as his home-ownership was out of proportion, his expected pay rate was equally not in sync with reality. I wondered to myself if this was the case with the majority of the American population. Perhaps we really are in a golden age of employment, but we cannot see a fair wage past the cartoonish wage we presume is due us. If that’s the case, the population is setting itself up to make rash decisions — again — based on a fallacy.