Thursday, May 12, 2016

Last Call For Middle Of The Road

In a report that should surprise precisely no one, the Pew Research Center has found that America's middle class has shrunk so far this century in almost 90% of US metropolitan areas.

The American middle class is losing ground in metropolitan areas across the country, affecting communities from Boston to Seattle and from Dallas to Milwaukee. From 2000 to 2014 the share of adults living in middle-income households fell in 203 of the 229 U.S. metropolitan areas examined in a new Pew Research Center analysis of government data. The decrease in the middle-class share was often substantial, measuring 6 percentage points or more in 53 metropolitan areas, compared with a 4-point drop nationally.

The shrinking of the middle class at the national level, to the point where it may no longer be the economic majority in the U.S., was documented in an earlier analysis by the Pew Research Center. The changes at the metropolitan level, the subject of this in-depth look at the American middle class, demonstrate that the national trend is the result of widespread declines in localities all around the country.

This report encompasses 229 of the 381 “metropolitan statistical areas” as defined by the federal government. That is the maximum number of areas that could be identified in the Census Bureau data used for the analysis and for which data are available for both 2000 and 2014 (an accompanying text box provides more detail). 1Together, these areas accounted for 76% of the nation’s population in 2014.

With relatively fewer Americans in the middle-income tier, the economic tiers above and below have grown in significance over time. The share of adults in upper-income households increased in 172 of the 229 metropolitan areas, even as the share of adults in lower-income households rose in 160 metropolitan areas from 2000 to 2014. The shifting economic fortunes of localities were not an either/or proposition: Some 108 metropolitan areas experienced growth in both the lower- and upper-income tiers.

In other words, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer, and income inequality continues to grow. But not all metro areas were affected equally:

In Goldsboro, NC—an old railroad junction town and home to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base—the share of adults who are middle income fell from 60% in 2000 to 48% in 2014, or by 12 percentage points. This was one of the greatest decreases among the 229 metropolitan areas analyzed. It was also an unambiguous signal of economic loss as the share of adults in lower-income households in Goldsboro increased sharply, from 27% in 2000 to 41% in 2014.

But in Midland, TX—an energy-based economy that benefited from the rise in oil prices from 2000 to 2014—the shrinking middle class was a sign of financial gains. The share of adults in middle-income households in Midland decreased from 53% in 2000 to 43% in 2014, the fourth-largest drop in the nation. But this was accompanied by rapid growth in the share of adults in upper-income households in Midland, which doubled from 18% in 2000 to 37% in 2014. 2

The heart of this change: the Bush economic disaster.

The widespread erosion of the middle class took place against the backdrop of a decrease in household incomes in most U.S. metropolitan areas. Nationwide, the median income of U.S. households in 2014 stood at 8% less than in 1999, a reminder that the economy has yet to fully recover from the effects of the Great Recession of 2007-09. The decline was pervasive, with median incomes falling in 190 of 229 metropolitan areas examined. Goldsboro ranked near the bottom with a loss of 26% in median income. Midland bucked the prevailing trend with the median income there rising 37% from 1999 to 2014, the greatest increase among the areas examined. 4 

Things have gotten a smidge better in 2015 I expect (although I'm betting things are a bit different in Midland, TX with the oil crash) but I just don't see America getting back to 2000 income levels anytime soon.  There's been too much structural damage to the economy, and not enough done to try to fix it (thanks Republicans in Congress!)`

Hyper Active Business

Fresh off its successful working concept test run in the Vegas desert on Wednesday, transportation tech startup Hyperloop One announced it has achieved its funding goal for the next stage of product testing and will complete the project before the end of the year.

Hyperloop One, a Los Angeles company working to develop the futuristic transportation technology, on Tuesday announced the closing of $80 million in financing and said it plans to conduct a full system test before the end of the year.

A hyperloop would whisk passengers and cargo in pods through a low pressure tube at speeds of up to 750 miles per hour (1,207 km per hour).

Maglev technology would levitate the pods to reduce friction in the city-to-city system, which would be fully autonomous and electric powered.

Hyperloop One builds off a design by Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who has suggested it would be cheaper, faster and more efficient than high speed rail projects, including the one currently being built in California.

Speaking on the eve of the first demonstration test of the propulsion in the Las Vegas desert, Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd tried to dispel criticism that the technology is unproven and better suited for science fiction than practical use.

"It's real, it's happening now, and we're going to demonstrate how this company is making it happen," he said at a press conference.

He likened hyperloop technology to the emergence of the U.S. railroad system and the era of prosperity it ushered in.

Lloyd also announced a competition to determine where the first Hyperloop One system should be built, with an announcement expected next year.

If you'll excuse the obvious pun, I thought the project was a pipe dream (or very large tube dream, anyway).  Securing the technology was never the real challenge, the challenge was building the tracks on what would become the most ambitious transportation project in human history, but it looks like for now that Hyperloop will be limited to short cargo runs for now.

The dream of a national hyperloop system is still decades out in the future, and given that America is already tens of billions behind in working infrastructure like water, bridges, roads and power grids, a giant series of tubes really can't be that high on the list right now.

Besides, by the time this gets built, a whole lot of coastal land is going to be underwater.  We have bigger projects to be worrying about.

Texas-Sized Disaster, Criminal Edition

So remember the fertilizer plant in Texas that exploded three years ago, killed 15 people, and injured scores more?  The one that hadn't been inspected in years, and should have been flagged to the Department of Homeland Security as a potential threat because of tons of stored fertilizer that could detonate?  Where the plant owner deliberately avoided telling the feds about the stored and possibly deadly fertilizer that could explode?

Turns out that, after a multiple-year investigation into the plant accident, that it wasn't an accident at all.  The BATFE announced on Wednesday that this is being treated as a deliberate, criminal act.

A 2013 fertilizer plant blast in Texas that killed 15 people and injured 160 others was caused by a "criminal act," federal officials said Wednesday. 
The findings were revealed in a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigation into the origin of the deadly fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. on April 17, 2013, in the town of West. 
The explosion flattened the rural farming community of 2,800 people, just north of Waco, turning some 500 homes into rubble as people tried desperately to flee the horrific scene. The force felt was equivalent to that of a magnitude-2.1 earthquake, and a 93-foot-wide crater scarred the site of the fertilizer plant, where dangerous chemicals, including ammonium nitrate, were stored. 
ATF Special Agent Robert Elder said the agency is offering a $50,000 reward to help find the person who committed the crime, which was determined to be deliberate after "we ruled out all accidental and natural causes." But he could not say why someone would have set the fire. 
"I think it's too early to speculate on murder charges," Elder added. 
No arrests have been made, but more than 400 interviews have been conducted amid the investigation, Elder said.

If the plant's stored fertilizer was set on fire on purpose, this isn't an accident, it's an act of domestic terrorism that killed 15 people and nearly destroyed an entire town.

It's bad enough that all the safety precautions that should have prevented the explosion were ignored or never in place due to Texas ignoring the issue of worker safety.  But for this to be a deliberate fire to cause the explosion?  That's hideous.

After 3 years, who knows where the suspects may be?


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