The Numbers That Worry Me

Things that cause permanent damage.

Mar 21, 2014 at 1:12PM

I'm an optimist because most of the things we worry about self-correct and recover in due time. I don't worry about stock market crashes. I don't worry about whether profit margins are too high or if earnings are about to fall. Most of these issues are overblown. And even when they do become problems, they are short-term problems.

I worry about problems that can cause permanent damage to businesses and the economy. They're really the only things we should worry about because they're the only things we will probably look back on 50 years from now and think, man, I wish we did something about that.

Here are three. 

I worry about the long-term unemployed
Ten million Americans are currently unemployed. More than a third of them have been out of work for six months or longer. Most of those -- 2.6 million -- have been unemployed for more than a year.

The longer someone is unemployed, the lower the odds are that they're regain employment. According to the Council of Economic Advisors, those unemployed for less than five weeks have a 31% chance of getting a job in the next month. At 27 weeks of unemployment, it's 12%. After a year out of work, it's just 9%.

The problem is that employers view the long-term unemployed as tainted goods. A year ago, Rand Ghayad of Northeastern University sent out 4,800 fake resumes to 600 random job openings. He found that employers were more likely to call back candidates with no relevant job experience than those with experience but who had been out of work for more than six months.

Rapper Lil' Boosie just got out of jail after five years and talked about how shocked he was at how much the world has changed. Technologies like Instagram and Facetime blew him away. There's a similar shock for the long-term unemployed. New technologies that workers have mastered over the last few years are totally foreign to the long-term unemployed. That makes them less valuable to employers.

Every day this continues it gets worse. I worry we're at a point where it's so bad it's unfixable, creating a black hole where millions of Americans will literally never recover from the financial crisis. People who could have grown their talents and made the economy better may be permanently held down. That hurts the growth outlook for everyone.

I worry about how correlated success is to your parent's success
Capitalism works best when the smartest people with the best ideas who work the hardest succeed in a meritocratic way. That's how it works most of the time in America, but there's a growing perversion where success has less to do with how innovative and driven you are and more to do with who your parents are. The single best predictor of future income is your level of education, and the one of the best predictors of your level of education is your father's income. Put these together and you don't get meritocracy, you get dynasty.

In 2001, economist Bhashkar Mazumder calculated the heritability of income. He showed that if a father earned $1 more than average, his children could expect to earn $0.50 to $0.60 more than average. Amazingly, Mazumder found that incomes among brothers are more correlated than height or weight. Literally, if you have a brother who is rich and tall, you are more likely to also be rich than you are tall.

Everyone knows someone (or is someone) who started from nothing and became something. The problem, as they say in journalism, is that the plural of "anecdote" is not "trend." Yes, some are born into poverty and work their way to the top. But most don't. Just 4% of those born into the lowest income quintile eventually make it to the top income quintile, but 40% of those born into the highest income group will stay there as adults, according to the Pew Economic Mobility Project. Of those born into the lowest income quintile, more than 70% won't make it out of the bottom half of wage earners as adults. For those born into the top income quintile, two-thirds will remain in the top half as adults.

This worries me not because of jealousy, but potential. There are an untold number of geniuses who were never able to succeed only because they couldn't afford the education and networking that comes from attending a good school. And there are an untold number of people in power not because they're geniuses, but because their parents got them into good schools. When so much of an average person's future is determined before they exit the womb, the entire economy loses. 

A hundred years ago, America decided that an education through high school was important enough to guarantee it to everyone regardless of income. We figured this out before most of Europe, and it's been credited as one of the reasons America dominated the 20th century. Given how important knowledge is in today's economy, I have a feeling whoever figures out the public importance of college and trade-school education will dominate the 21st century. Right now, that's not us.

I worry about how pervasive short-term thinking has become
As a share of the economy, we spend 60% less on infrastructure today than we did 40 years ago. Corporations are spending less on long-term capital expenditure projects and more on share buybacks. Consumer spending is at an all-time high, and the personal savings rate is half its long-term average. Fifty years ago, the average stock was held for more than eight years. By 2010 it was down to five days.

One of the biggest ironies of the last hundred years is that while we're living longer, we're thinking shorter. Life expectancy at birth has increased by 10 years since 1950, but our attention spans seem to have contracted by at least as much.

Whether it's a person or a company or a country, a common denominator to success is the ability to think long term. But almost everywhere today -- from politics to companies to individuals -- short-term thinking is winning. I think it's a product of a 24-hour news cycle, which was born in the last 20 years, and, in order to fill time, blows the most trivial nonsense out of proportion.

I worry that 30 years from now we'll realize that companies could have been more successful if they weren't so concerned about profits in the second quarter of 2014. Or that politicians' laser focus on the next election seriously hurt the country. Or that investing in infrastructure, science, education, and R&D is more important than what the Dow did yesterday.

But that's about it. "I'm an optimist," Winston Churchill once said. "It does not seem too much use being anything else."

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan House's columns on finance and economics. 


Contact Morgan Housel at The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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