The view from the ground: Seeds of recovery

Monday, September 17th, 2012 

We first heard from Bill Cotter more than a year ago, when he wrote to tell us about his father's economic experiences and views on taxes. We recently checked in with Cotter to get an update on how his business is progressing.

Bill Cotter began working in his father’s title insurance company when he was 16 years old and took over at 21 when his father died.  The housing bust and recession were dark days for Cotter’s business.

“I’ve seen all sorts of recessions. I lived through the 19- and 20-percent interest rates on mortgages," he said. To Cotter, the housing collapse and subsequent financial crisis of 2008-'09 was among the worst. "We were close to the precipice as I’ve ever seen,” said Cotter, a resident of Media, Pa.

But he says he sees visible signs of a recovery.

“We’re seeing, in those areas that were very hard hit, that there is beginning to be a light at the end of the tunnel,” Cotter said. “Business is increasing everywhere we look. Pricing is beginning to go up or stabilize.”

Cotter shared with the Investigative Reporting Workshop how his father’s experiences influenced his ideas about the importance of the middle class and the American Dream. Below is the text of his letter to the Workshop from April 2011.

I am in a real estate-related business and, as you can imagine, it has been very difficult. My story is not about me, however. It concerns my Dad, and it concerns the illogical belief that lowering the taxes on the very rich somehow or other produces a great economy that will "lift all boats."

Bill Cotter and wife Jean

Bill Cotter and wife Jean

My Dad went through the Depression and, like so many, lost everything. Ultimately, through hard work and, as he would admit if he were here today, some good luck (and a lot of persistence), he landed on his feet and started a company that still exists today. Dad ultimately did very well for himself and for our family.

My story is so appropriate because this is the time of year I remember him working on his tax return and usually cursing because he couldn't find something or another. At the end he would sit down and write a check — always a hefty one for the times to IRS (the withholding wasn't that strong in those days). Once I commented on how that must have hurt, but Dad said: "This is the greatest land in the world: Why would I complain? I am proud to make enough money to pay these taxes, and proud it helps people who are now the way I once was — poor and needy."

The middle class rose during those days — the '50s and early '60s — and Dad paid 65 percent at his highest (incremental) rate. He was damn proud of that. The millionaires and billionaires of today maybe didn't go through two World Wars and a Depression, which may explain why they are so selfish and out of step with what is really good for America. I believe that the top tax rate was about 90 percent, if I remember correctly, yet our nation flourished and the middle class grew, not shrunk like it is doing today. 

We need another Harry Truman!


What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.


Back Story

The authors talk about What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele talk about the project, and why they decided to revisit a book they wrote two decades ago, in a series of video clips produced by the Workshop.

Nation's Story

Who pays the taxes?

Who pays the taxes?

We feature charts, maps, photos and other visualizations that reflect the state of the economy as part of our What Went Wrong project. This column chart shows the growing disparity between what individuals and corporations pay in taxes. In the 1950s, the difference was 22 percent. Recent figures show the difference is 62 percent.

Rags to rags: Economic mobility hard to come by

New Pew Center on States report confirms that moving up the American economic ladder is difficult, even though most people have more income than their parents.

Homelessness takes it toll on Florida's youngest

Florida, as a center of the housing boom, still struggles to recover from the Great Recession. Financial stresses and widespread foreclosures have placed families in precarious situations, resulting in a spike in child homelessness. Susannah Nesmith reports in the Broward Bulldog.

Older workers face challenges in Silicon Valley

An advanced degree and experience in the tech sector should be a ticket to a job in today's economy. But older workers in the heart of the new economy, Silicon Valley, are finding their resume is not the issue. Aaron Glantz reports in The Bay Citizen.

 Subscribe to the RSS Feed

Read an Excerpt

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.