Current Affairs

Charlottesville

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This commentary was co-authored by Philippa Dunne (The Liscio Report) and David Kotok (Cumberland Advisors). It reflects their personal views. Philippa notes it was a real honor to write this with David. And that it was so very “David” of him to remind her that James Alex Fields, Jr., is innocent until proved guilty.

A saga unfolds. First, snippets of online news, followed by TV images and “breaking news” reports. “Another one,” she thinks. “Ugh!” he exclaims, “madness! Why? What is the matter with these people?”

Two thousand miles apart, each in their own home, these two friends experience a similar aching angst over the futility of their efforts to try to improve a world that now seems to be rejecting their vision. After all, hate and anger triumphed in Charlottesville. Death arrived on scene, and innocents and innocence were among the casualties. Hate always seems to end that way.

Is hate learned, or is it embedded in some strand of DNA passed down through every human generation? Nazis hated, and Jews died. Then millions more died worldwide. Generations were seared and scarred. For what? To what end?

Geneticists who have decoded the human genome tell us that there is really only one human race, not multiple races within the species, yet the notion of a color scheme still grips some human imaginations, with disastrous results. White hated, and black and red died. And within this awful spectrum, each race’s history is replete with its own internecine murder and torture. Yellow on yellow, brown on brown. White on white. Red on red. That’s our history.

Bling! That little noise is now nearly continuous, announcing incoming mail in the wake of tragedy. A quick look. She has written:

“I am guessing you are sharing my grief today. I know grief isn’t much better than hope as a tactic – perhaps worse, but…”

Yes, he thinks. Grief, like regret, is an emotion that is not very effective, since it occurs after the damage is done.

He taps her cell number on his iPhone. They chat, just as if they are in the same room. How can his miracle of communications and the hate that ripped through Charlottesville occupy the same space and time? How can humanity have come so far and yet never seem to progress?

How can the many heroes who put their own lives on the line to shelter Jews and fleeing slaves people the same world as an individual who decides to plow his car into a group of people he has never met, or one who feels OK about walking down our streets wearing a T-shirt quoting Hitler. Quoting Hitler, you understand.

Pained, each recalls the writings of Joseph Conrad, and they share that sad understanding. Each feels the heaviness of this latest door opened into a “heart of darkness”.

Those of good will must not succumb, she and he agree, as futile as their efforts may seem at times. That is their closing pledge.

Conversations like ours must have taken place among friends all over the country, as we as a nation reckon with the events that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia, last week.

How do we brighten that dark heart? Platitudes abound, but first, we should take an honest look at our own motives. Listen to the stories we tell about why the economy is the way it is, why there is a growing number of disenfranchised citizens in our country.

If our theories are overly complicated, they are likely constructed to obscure basic truths. Think, by way of an analogy, of the tortuous paths the planets were said to follow in order to keep the Earth at the center of the old Ptolemaic view, obscuring for centuries the simple beauty of the heliocentric system.

Reality insists that we seek answers to life’s puzzles – and answer to ourselves. We’re forced to admit that we’re probably not up to sitting down and having a chat with someone who believes certain groups of people are subhuman. How do you shake hands with someone who was happy to call Sasha Obama a monkey on her sixteenth birthday? You don’t.

But we can do something about the decades of reckless neglect that are an integral part of our heritage. Targeting each other is clearly not working; targeting the neglect that drives the anger is, perhaps, the only way through.

Jobs are just one telling example: Yes, jobs are being generated by the sharing economy, but many of them are makeshift and do not make up for jobs lost to globalization and displacement of industry. The state of our workers is not an artifact of poor measurement. If that’s your argument, you aren’t looking at the facts on the ground.

There are many simple things to do. Someone recently suggested that PTAs in rich districts might take some of the money they raise to struggling sister schools. We’d add: Don’t mail it to them. Walk it over and tell the kids you are funding a specific project.

The US economic pie isn’t growing as it once did. Maybe we can do something about that through broader capital investment, especially in research & development.

Maybe we can’t… or maybe we won’t. We have to think about what it means that our workers are worse off today than they were in the 1950s. We need to recognize how easy it is for some to manipulate the anger that hardship generates. Set up a straw man, and by and by, someone succumbs to the urge to drive his car into a group of people he has never met. Wherever did those guys marching by eerie torchlight last Friday get the idea that Jews are out to “replace” them? Many of them are feeling shunted aside, that’s for sure.

We get to decide if the threat of manipulated anger is something we want our children to live with. Yes, that’s right. We get to decide. Note indecision or do nothing is also a decision.

As it is, everyone loses. Though James Alex Fields, Jr., is innocent until proven guilty, if he took Heather Heyer’s life as alleged, it’s hard to believe he didn’t also ruin his own.

(Photograph: The thousand-foot garden at Monticello)

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What Diesel Fuel Usage Knew in October

This is, admittedly, a very noisy graph, even presented year over year. But it’s worth getting through the noise.

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We’re about to have a new president, one who has promised to bring back our manufacturing jobs. BTW, those words were the most painful for our colleagues in the manufacturing midwest who have lived with the disruption caused by the erosion of manufacturing work in the region; the situation has improved but those on the ground know those jobs are not coming back.

But, as the graph shows, diesel fuel usage tends to lead manufacturing employment, and it really spiked in October. Historically, that would lead to an improvement in manufacturing employment in, you guessed it, early 2017.

So if the manufacturing outlook brightens as we move into the new year, remember those tea leaves were thrown in October, not on inauguration day.

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Coffee into the Waves

For us, a good remedy for the brutal political tenor in the country these days is to read long and hard. You always figure that someone like Stuart Hampshire, who during his high-school years in the 1930s watched the men unemployed by the closing of the Mersey shipyards stamping their cold feet in the streets of Liverpool, while the women sold wildflowers to passers-by. He saw kids without shoes while shoe factories were laying off workers because they couldn’t sell their shoes, and coffee jettisoned into the sea for price controls. He knew those shipbuilders could well remain unemployed unless or until the looming war ramped up demand for ships. When that war did so he went into intelligence work focusing on the espionage efforts of Himmler’s Central Command, and came to believe there is nothing we are not capable of doing, and that a “thin layer of procedural justice” is crucial in balancing competing moralities within a society. He calls such justice more important to morality than courage (we’ll add that’s “acting from the heart”) because, say, a bookish life might require little courage. “Not so for justice, always required.”

Hard to argue with him, and he does a far better job of incorporating Shakespeare throughout his books than we ever have.

But we bring Hampshire up because he makes the distinction between restrictive morality, what we must not do, and the immorality that results from a lack of imagination. It’s not being Pollyannaish to say that the posturing that has replaced insight and discussion as we confront the economic issues we face these days has led to a profound failure of imagination, to all of our peril. And all the while the combatants fiendishly defend their negatives, what they believe cannot work.

Oh, and, Hampshire calls, “Which side are you on?” a “fatally over-simple question.”

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Hey, the market is working!

“Finally, our insurance system drives up costs for everyone. Between 1998 and 2015, the cost of cosmetic surgery for top procedures, which is paid by the consumer and not covered by insurance, rose at about half the rate of inflation, while overall health care rose at around double the rate of inflation — more than a threefold difference.”

 

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A Missed Opportunity

We’ve often lamented the low level of capital spending—bad news for productivity and income growth—despite high rates of corporate profitability. Here’s another perspective on that: real rates of return are higher than returns on financial assets, but that hasn’t led to a rush of capital into real investment.

Graphed below are two financial rates of return—the earnings yield on stocks (the inverse of the P/E ratio) and the ten-year Treasury yield—against our measure of nonfinancial corporate profitability (pretax profits from the national income accounts divided by the value of the tangible capital stock from the Fed’s financial accounts). Note that in recent years, returns on real capital have been comfortably higher than financial returns. Since 2012, the earnings yield on stocks has lagged real returns by an average of 1.1 percentage points—not as big as the 1.9-point gap of the late 1990s, when there was a gusher of real investment that produced a serious acceleration in productivity growth, but still wide compared to the -0.3 point average of the full 1952–2015 scope of the graph.

Missed_opp

The gap with Treasury yields is even more striking—4.4 points since 2012, compared to an 0.3 point average in the late 1990s and 0.4 for the full 63-year history presented here.

Profitability is now weakening, so the relative lure (at least on paper, or its silicon equivalent) of real investment is losing some of its charm. But this period of high real returns and low investment is looking like a missed opportunity. That so much corporate cash has been either hoarded, or devoted to buybacks and M&A, is not what long-term prosperity is made from. (Along with mildly tightening standards on C&I loans, the Fed’s recent loan officer survey found weakening demand for them, with “decreased investment in plant or equipment [as] the most commonly cited reason.”) Thirty years ago, as the buyout and buyback booms were just getting going, Peter Drucker wrote: “Everyone who has worked with American management can testify that the need to satisfy the pension fund manager’s quest for higher earnings next quarter, together with the panicky fear of the raider, constantly pushes top managements toward decisions they know to be costly, if not suicidal, mistakes.” It’s amazing how little has changed since the mid-1980s.

 

 

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