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Why So Sad?


In the last two weeks, a key element of how we got into our present sorry state has surfaced. Our national attention is often focused in strange places for long periods of time. During these times, the earth does not stand still. The last two weeks have hosted a bizarre and crazed fascination with Michael Jackson. Leading news outlets have suspended their usual scant coverage of world and national events completely. In these times our cable news system truly becomes irrelevant all the time. I will not pretend to know or understand exactly why Michael Jackson suddenly means so much for so many. I don't doubt the feelings are real and intense. I haven't the faintest idea why and how Jackson became the symbolic icon for national grief. But I do know that many missed a few very, very real news stories over the last two weeks.

The "green shoots" theory about imminent or arrived economic recovery has withered under the pounding rain of actual data. Last Thursday we learned that wages are completely stagnant, hours worked have fallen and 467,000 net jobs were lost in June 2009. Since December 2007 approximately 7 million Americans have lost their jobs and the total number of jobless Americans is just under 15million. Four and half million Americans have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks. Male unemployment is officially at 10%. The Bureau of Labor Statistics broad unemployment measure U-6 includes marginally attached workers and involuntary part-time workers. The June measure of U-6 unemployment stands at 16.5%. The average American work week declined to 33 hours in June. This is the lowest number recorded in the 45 year history of the measure. It is fair to think of the falling number of hours worked as another form of unemployment impacting millions. Perhaps this is part of the reason millions are interesting in grieving?

Our national debt problem continues to fuel rising delinquency, late payment and default. Housing prices continue their decline as late payment of mortgage and other bills accelerate. The Office of Thrift Supervision, OCC and OTS Mortgage Metrics Report, reveals that 1Q2009 mortgage delinquencies and defaults rose from 4Q2008. Nearly 3% of all prime mortgages are now either seriously delinquent (more than 60 days overdue) or in default. Subprime mortgage delinquency and default rates continued to rise. In 1Q2009 subprime mortgage delinquency rose from 1.5% to 16.7% of all subprime loans. 844,389 homes were in the foreclosure process in the first quarter of this year. This is a 73% increase from the same time period in 2008 and a 22% increase from 4Q2008. The American Bankers Association (ABA) reported on July 7, 2009 that credit card delinquencies reached 4.75% in the first quarter of 2009. The delinquency rate on a composite index of auto, mobile home, home improvement, home equity, and marine loans broke its 30 year record rising to 3.23 in the first quarter. It is clear that falling home prices and rising unemployment are the drivers of these numbers. The Federal Government OFHEO measured House Price Index and the S&P Case Shiller Index both registered declines for April and in their most recent measures. This is surely part of the reason we feel like grieving!

Perhaps we can move toward serious and structural solutions to our problems? That remains to be seen. I have a feeling that real action will require us to summon the strength and will to stay focused on the great national losses that are harder to agree on and process. It is always sad to see a famous and celebrated artist pass. I wonder if this sudden mass outpouring and fascination with Michael Jackson is also an outlet for economic grief?