Middle Class

A recent analysis of bus drivers for the Minnesota Metro Transit system provided some interesting data:

  • Base pay for drivers is nearly $50,000 a year.
  • The top earner in the system made $120,000 a year.
    • He did this by working, on average, 74 hours a week.
  • Overtime in the system has jumped by 52 percent from 2008 to 2010.
  • A driver on overtime – paid at time and a half – saves Metro Transit $4 an hour on average.
    • This due to the fact that the agency would have to pay for training, additional benefits and pension.
  • A union agreement says that no more than 24 percent of Metro Transit’s workforce can be part time – prompting the agency to turn to overtime.
  • In October, 89 percent of weekday overtime assignments were during rush hour and lasted less than three hours.

The incentives are undeniable.  For a system that demands flexibility; traffic doesn’t occur in neat 8 hour blocks, the rules prohibit the proper response.  Further, regulations surrounding benefits, those benefits that include vacation, retirement and health care, make it more cost effective to work an already employed person than to hire someone else.  And lastly, being a Metro Transit driver isn’t all that bad; 50 large is a good deal of money.

Finally I’d like to point out that for at least one of these drivers, the overtime is a feature and not a bug.  And it’s a feature because of decisions HE’S made in HIS life:

Lance Wallace is happy to drive a few extra hours if it means his wife can stay home with their four children – all younger than 5.

The New Hope man is among the top 5 percent of overtime earners at Metro Transit. Picking up extra shifts and working nearly every day, he averages 60 to 70 hours a week. The $37,700 in overtime he earned last year pushed his total earnings to $86,400.

“I don’t really want to work overtime,” Wallace said. “But I do it to make up the income.”

The extra work doesn’t make him “overly tired,” Wallace said. In fact, after working two jobs before, he “feels good” to now work where he can dictate his own hours.

Mr. Wallace is a father.  A father of FOUR.  A father of FOUR in a family that has the mother stay home.  And of those FOUR kids, all are younger than 5.  And this father of four young children is happy that he’s able to work the hours he does in order to prevent having to carry two jobs.

My point?  Incentives matter.  Raising the cost of hiring means that you will see less hiring.  Wage earners will enjoy working more hours if it benefits them, not the other way around.  Government union work pays well.  People who have 4 kids in 4 years time have a more limited ability to dictate their time.

In the last few days and weeks we’ve been hearing a lot about the payroll tax hike/cut.  Lately the pitch has ramped up for two reasons.  One, the Senate was ale to negotiate a bipartisan agreement to extend the tax cuts.

For 2 months.

Now, most recently, the House Republicans have declined to accept that compromise.  They voted Tuesday to reject the Senate deal and are asking for the two bodies to meet in committee.  We’ll see who blinks.

However, for me, what has been lost in all of this is why the Democrats are fighting for a tax cut to begin with?  I certainly understand the whole “We-They” thing, after all, the whole payroll tax cut idea was the Democrats brain child.  But why, at all, do the tax more, big state liberals want ANY tax cut?  Especially one that funds their most precious social program, Social Security?

Why?  Because Social Security is SO broken, so in debt and so “no chance of survival” that the Democrats feel they have little to lose.  In fact, they KNOW the government will “bail out” Social Security.  So, in some perverse way, the payroll tax cut can be seen to be a stimulus program.  Albeit not a perfect one.  For starters the more you make the more it benefits you.  And, you have to actually be working to benefit.  But other than that, any money not sent to Social Security is just added to the bill that Congress will eventually pay.

Rascally Rabbits!

A week and a half ago I posted about the distribution of wealth in a controlled population of people that were EXACTLY like one another.  Exactly.  They contributed to 401ks the same, they saved for houses the same, they worked at the same wages and got raises the same.  The result, after just 15 years of life?

…the poorest third of people control less than 20% of the net wealth while the richest 14% control more than 20% of the net wealth.

6/15th’s of the poorest control less money than the top 2/15ths.

I have expanded my model to include home ownership.  Again, this is done with the assumption that ALL people do the EXACT same thing in the same way.  They buy a house at the same time, in the same housing market and the home they buy is worth the same.

Here’s what we get:

Again, the money shot:


The control of wealth explodes after year 15.  That’s when my peeps buy a house.  What was a net worth growing by about 30k a year now grows much quicker; near 40 or 50k a year.  And this is just by buying a home.

So, after 30 years, where is the wealth?

The total wealth is $14,112,947 with a quintile at $2,822,589.

The lowest quintile.  That group of people that control the bottom 20% of the wealth in this equal society, defined equal society, compromises fully HALF the people in that society.  The bottom HALF of our population controls just 20% of the wealth.    The top 3/30, or 1/10th or 10% control 20% of the wealth as well.  In fact, the top 3% controls as much wealth as the bottom 33%.

And we’re just 30 years into the life of the exactly average 18 year old.  We’re just at 48 years of age.  We haven’t even begun to take into account poor choices or good choices.  This model is assuming that all kids make the exact same choices with their money, career and finances.

And we STILL have “wealth distribution” issues.

Occupy Wall Street is having an impact.  There’s little doubt that they have generated much conversation and debate.  Some think that the impact they’ve had is positive; others negative.  For me, it’s focused the debate on income distribution, income mobility and wealth distribution.

We’ve talked about the GINI.  That’s the tool, in general, that measures distribution.  It could be World Series Titles or brown hair.  It could be the letter “W” in license plates or it could be income.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that the GINI, as reported by the major players, isn’t reporting anything useful.  The GINI measures income per family.  And all families aren’t created equal.

So, next up is wealth.  This time I built a thought experiment.  A simple and crude one to be sure, but, based on feedback, could be refined.  In fact, it’s my goal to refine it as I go.  The idea is to create a world that is as equal as possible.  I’ve built a population that is the same in every regard.  They make the same, save the same and spend the same.  And they advance the same.  Given such a world, what does income and wealth distribution look like?

Let’s look at wealth.

I assume a number of things.  All in the name of equality:

  1. 1000 people per year
  2. A starting salary of $30,000
  3. A raise of 3% a year.
  4. Progressive living: roommate-own apartment-saving for home
  5. Progressive retirement savings – none to 401k
  6. Rent and food don’t increase in real terms
  7. People only have living and food expenses.  And save ALL other money.

If we start at year 1 and continue to build our population, it looks like this for the first 15 years:

The graphics are tough to see without clicking through.  Lemme give ya the money shot:


Using the gross assumptions above, I have identified the “Total Worth” of the individuals year over year.

Each row above represents another cohort advancing and the previous year taking it’s place.  That is, this year’s “Year Ones” becomes next year’s “Year Twos”, And this year’s “Year Twos” become next year’s “Year Threes”.

We like to break down distributions by quintiles.  Let’s do that.  Let’s break it down by quintile.

If you sum all the wealth of the 15 represented years, you get $2,771,905.  If you divide $2,771,905 by 5 you get $554,381.  The first SIX years of cohort classes don’t equal one single quintile.  On the other end of the spectrum, just 2 cohort classes are at $712,081.  Nearly 40% more than the top quintile.  In other words, more than the poorest third of people control less than 20% of the net wealth while the richest 14% control more than 20% of the net wealth.

6/15th’s of the poorest control less money than the top 2/15ths.

And this in a world controlled by exact equality and accounting for no good/bad decisions.

My last post in this space demonstrated that the Middle Class in America has gotten larger, not smaller, over time.

I made the point that more and more people are making more and more money even as we keep the dollar values locked into 2008 values:

In 1967 [earliest data available] 83.7% of the families in America made less than $75,000 in constant 2008 dollars.

That percentage in 2008? 59.7%.

In other words, 16.3% of Americans were making $75k or more in 1967. In 2008, better than 4 in 10, or 40% of Americans were making that same money.

And the mean income in 2008? $79,634.00 compared to $49.606.00 in 1967. Not only has the median income gone up, but the % of people making it has gone up as well.

But how does it FEEL today vs. yesterday? Are we able to enjoy a standard of living that is significantly better now than it was then?

Well, I think so:

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I’ve done some work on the Middle Class.  One of the things I’ve learned is that “The Middle Class” isn’t what people think it is.  Virtually everyone feels they are middle class.  Literally, virtually everyone thinks that.

How can that be?

I think it’s because we tend to think of the middle class as a state of mind rather than a set group of people.  A mindset rather than a demographic.

I think we see and think of the rich as those folks who are “stoopid rich”.  People that are able to afford jet planes and mansions.  People who have yachts and commercials and just have $MONEY$!

We see middle class as having the ability to continue to climb the income ladder.  Especially important in this classification is the ability to allow your children to have it better than you do.

So, if you’re not “stoopid rich” AND you continue to gather wealth, you are middle class.

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The middle class. The Great MC.

What is it, how is it defined? Is it growing? Shrinking? Is it, more importantly, being exploited by the rich and the powerful to enable their largess?

Is Obama right? Is it true, in fact, that the folks-the “Us”- are being used and manipulated in some grand game to keep the rich richer?

For me, the rhetoric needs substance; needs some form of validation. There has to be some means by which the idea has a backdrop to judge the truth. There has to be a definition of the middle class that we can use to see if, in fact, what is being said is true. Or not true. And for me, it comes down to two things:

  1. The earnings of the middle class.
  2. The life style, or things, that the middle class can buy.

So, let’s take a look:

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I just went upstairs to change clothes; I’m going to mow the lawn.

When I came down, my son had paused the Cubs game so that he could go to the bathroom.

My son is 5.

When I was 5 I didn’t have cable, couldn’t watch Cubs games and certainly had to wait until they changed sides to take a leak.

I think life is like baseball. Which makes it pretty hard to day that we don’t have it way WAY better today than we did 37 years ago.

For a long time now I’ve been interested in “The Middle Class”, or as I call it, The Big MC™ .  What it is, what it means and how it’s been used over the years. My fascination comes from two sources; my own personal experience and then the use of The Big MC in today’s Liberal shaping of the term.

America’s greatest allure is that through the promise of Liberty any individual is able to achieve that goal of leaving the days of back breaking labor to the days of our fathers and giving a better life to our children. It is our birthright as a nation that our citizens are able to have a better tomorrow rather than a better yesterday. It’s our hope, our collective yearning, that our drive to and from the salt mines will bring better days, has framed our national dialogue.

It is both ironic and horrifying that the same should be used as a wedge to drive us apart and serve to prevent that very dream from it’s manifest.

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