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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Rising Interest Rates Will Add $233 to Monthly Household Expenses

The Daily Escape:

Snoqualmie Falls, WA

We are in the middle of the holiday shopping frenzy, so it may be a bad time for Wolf Richter to mention this:

Outstanding “revolving credit” owed by consumers – such as bank-issued and private-label credit cards – jumped 6.1% year-over-year to $977 billion in the third quarter, according to the Fed’s Board of Governors. When the holiday shopping season is over, it will exceed $1 trillion.

If that’s not bad enough, WalletHub points out that the Federal Reserve is planning on raising interest rates, and that will make credit card debt a lot more expensive, since credit card rates move with short-term interest rates:

The Fed’s four rate hikes since Dec. 2015 have cost credit card users an extra $6 billion in interest in 2017. That figure will swell by $1.46 billion in 2018 if the Fed raises its target rate again in December, as expected.

Everyone expects the Fed to raise rates today. This would bring the incremental costs of five rate hikes so far to $7.5 billion next year. So how do these rate hikes translate for households with credit card balances? Finance charges are concentrated in households that do not pay off their balances every month. Many of these households are among the least able to afford higher interest payments. More from Wolf: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

195.9 million consumers had a revolving credit balance at the end of Q3, with total account balances of $1.35 trillion. This equals $6,892 per person with revolving credit balances. If there are two people with balances in a household, this would amount to nearly $14,000 of this high-cost debt. If the average interest rate on this debt is 20%, credit-card interest payments alone add $233 a month to their household expenditures.

Economists are assuming that the Fed will hike interest rates three times in 2018. The Fed thinks that the “neutral” rate (the target at which the federal funds rate is neither stimulating, nor slowing the economy) is between 2.5% to 2.75%. Since today’s rate is 1.25% to 1.50%, that is a long way up from the current target range. Again, from Wolf:

Interest rates on credit cards would follow in lockstep. These rate hikes to “neutral” would extract another $8 billion or so a year, on top of the additional $7.5 billion from the prior rate hikes.

But there is a double whammy, because credit card balances will also continue to rise. Rising credit card balances combined with rising interest rates on those balances will produce sharply higher interest costs to people who already can’t pay off their monthly credit card balances.

For many card holders with poor credit, this will eventually lead to default. Credit card delinquencies have started to tick up, from 2.16% in Q1 2016 to 2.53% in Q3. That is a low overall level of delinquency, but we need to look at to losses in the subprime segment (those with the lowest credit scores) and at the lenders that specialize in subprime lending. And there, delinquency rates are jumping.

Debt is not always a choice. A catastrophic medical debt, the death of the primary breadwinner, or loss of employment with no new job for an extended period of time can destroy a lifetime of savings in as little as a few months to a few years.

Since the crash of 2007, a great many people have be unable to find employment that is enough to support a family. And they have taken multiple jobs to try to make ends meet. Or any job that they can find.

And this is in what economists and politicians say are the best of times, with the lowest unemployment rate since 2000.

Increased costs for consumer credit coupled with increased delinquencies could become a third point reason for populist economic anger. Tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, and the coming GOP attack on Medicare and Medicaid are also justifiable reasons for economic anger.

Where will voters turn for a solution?

After all, governance has ceased to be a part of the job description of our political parties.

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What Will Dems Do When The GOP Says: “The Deficit Matters”?

The Daily Escape:

Big Ben being cleaned. In order to clean the four clock faces, every 5-7 years, skilled climbers hang down from the belfry on ropes, and they clean the front of each clock face. There is one removable panel of glass on each face, which is removed during the cleaning so that the clock maintenance staff can talk to the cleaners while they’re working. (“you missed a spot?”) Hat tip to Wrongo’s friends at the Goodspeed Opera House!

Yesterday we pointed out that there is a very large program that the country needs to fund if we are to maintain our position in the global superpower competition. The issue at hand is the stunning thought that we might lose up to 75 million jobs to automation in the next 13 years, and that we need to train the out-of-work unfortunates for new jobs in a different economy.

It’s highly unlikely that we would need to train that many, but it could be 25 million Americans. And we have no idea where the money would come from to accomplish that. After all, the Republicans now plan to reduce tax receipts bigly, thus adding to the deficit and thereby, to the total debt of the country.

We know that as soon as the new tax cuts begin accruing to their patrons, the GOP will start talking about reducing the budget deficit by cutting non-military expenses. Ron Brownstein conceives the Republican tax plan correctly:

Gaius Publius observes: (brackets and editing by the Wrongologist)

As they did in the 1980s, Republicans are laying a “deficit trap” for Democrats. As they did before, they’re blowing up the budget, then using deficit [fear] to force Democrats to “be responsible” about cutting social programs — “because deficits matter.”

In the 1980s Republicans ran up the deficit, then insisted that Democrats work with them to raise taxes on the middle class to over-fund the Social Security (SS) Trust Fund. This converted SS from a pay-as-you-go system that increased revenues as needed via adjustments to the salary cap, to a pay-in-advance system. That allowed any excess SS money to be loaned back to the government, partially concealing the large deficits that Reagan was running up.

Today, Republicans are expanding the deficit again, and are already starting to talk about deficits to argue for cuts in what they call “entitlements” — Medicare, Medicaid, and eventually Social Security, even though Social Security can be self-funding.

Fear of deficits is the go-to Republican ploy to try to maim or kill the FDR and LBJ-created social safety net. To the extent that Democrats are willing to accept the GOP’s argument that both parties need to be responsible to decrease the deficits, they will support cuts in social services. Even Obama was willing to consider doing just that in the name of “bipartisanship”. More from Gaius:

The reality — Deficits aren’t dangerous at all until there’s a big spike in inflation, which is nowhere near happening and won’t be near happening for a generation…

Do we want the US government to shrink the money supply year after year after year, by running budget surpluses, or do we want to grow the amount of money in the private sector, making more available for use by the middle class?  The trillions spent on the current GOP giveaway to the already-rich could have been given to college students in debt, or people still underwater in their mortgages since the Wall Street-created crash of 2008. It could have been used to build better roads, airports, seaports or a national high speed internet backbone.

What would be the effect of that re-allocation of money?

Back to Gaius Publius for the final words. Which of these three options would you rather the government choose:

  • Spend money on the already-rich?
  • Spend money on you and the country’s needs, ignoring the pleas of the already-rich?
  • Hoard as much money as possible in a vault and spend the least possible?

The first is the GOP’s current tax plan. The second is a plan for the many, an FDR-style economic policy. The third is the GOP’s wet dream, one that they will ask Democrats to help them accomplish once the already-rich have banked their share of our tax money.

Wrongo’s fear is that at some point down the road, a compromise will be offered up: Cuts to social programs in exchange for a repeal of some of the more onerous tax cuts. The only issue will be the extent of the cuts to social programs.

It will be celebrated as bipartisan sanity returning to Washington.

Our system is revolting. Why aren’t we?

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Automation Will Cost 75 Million US Jobs By 2030

The Daily Escape:

Torres Del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile. Torres Del Paine is known for its mountains, glaciers and grasslands that shelter rare wildlife like Guanacos.

Wrongo has written many times about automation taking jobs that will not be replaced onshore. McKinsey & Co. has a new study that finds that job losses due to automation will take out anywhere from ten to twenty percent of the current global workforce by 2030:

As many as 800 million workers worldwide may lose their jobs to robots and automation by 2030, equivalent to more than a fifth of today’s global labor force.

The report covers 46 countries and more than 800 occupations. The McKinsey Global Institute study found that even if the rise of robots is less rapid than they expect, 400 million workers could still find themselves displaced by automation and would need to find new jobs over the next 13 years. McKinsey said that both developed and emerging countries will be impacted. Machine operators, fast-food workers and back-office employees are among those who will be most affected if automation spreads quickly through the workplace. Bloomberg made a chart summarizing the jobs lost by country:

Source: Bloomberg

This implies that some 75 million jobs are at risk in the US by 2030, to be replaced by…something.

The bottom line is that many of the unemployed will need considerable help to shift to new work, and as a result, starting salaries will continue to flat line. McKinsey paints a rosy picture about the future jobs market post-automation. They say that the economies of most countries will eventually replace the lost jobs, but are a little unclear on what the new jobs will be. They mention health care, infrastructure, construction, renewable energy and IT as likely job areas.

But the challenge is how the displaced workers learn the new skills necessary by 2030. Axios quotes Michael Chui, lead author of the report on the needs for retraining:

We’re all going to have to change and learn how to do new things over time…It’s a Marshall Plan size of a task…

How will America fund a Marshall Plan for retraining 75 million of us, particularly when we’ve just given the very corporations who are automating our jobs even more of a break on their tax bills? It’s unlikely that the Republican-controlled Congress will have any desire to fund the necessary comprehensive re-training effort. If Congress had any foresight, they could have made their new corporate tax cuts conditional on these same firms paying for the job retraining that their automation will cause for American workers.

But, it will be our job to figure out where these new training funds will come from, right along with the funds we have already given to the job creators Republican donors.

And what if you don’t have the money or learning aptitude to acquire these new skills? Well, you are likely to be both unemployed and poor. And that mean tens of millions more Americans will not have the resources to stay out of poverty.

Perhaps CEOs and Congresscritters ought to remember that there are enough guns for every man, woman and child in this country, and many are in the hands of the very people who would be hurt most by automation.

We can’t hold back the tide of automation, but we can be smart about how we, as a country make the transition to fewer very highly-skilled workers and many narrowly-skilled workers. There are questions to ask, and solutions to craft for the post-2030 world.

How will America’s forgotten workers survive in a society that is led by people who don’t care if they have a job?

How will America’s forgotten workers survive if the political establishment tries to unwind the social safety net while celebrating the progress of technologies that cost jobs?

That could lead to torches and pitchforks.

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Monday Wake Up Call – October 30, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Fall at the Statehouse in Augusta, Maine – photo by Robert F. Bukaty

Welcome to what we may start to call Robert Mueller Monday. Ray Dalio, the founder of the Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund has serious concerns about the uneven recovery of the US economy.

In a LinkedIn post, Dalio said that if politicians and business people look only at the economy’s average statistics about how Americans are doing, they could easily make “dangerous miscalculations” because the averages mask deep differences in how people in various income segments are doing.

Dalio divides the economy into two sections: the top 40%, and the bottom 60%. He then shows how the economy for the bottom 60% of the population, (that’s three in five Americans for you English majors), has been much less successful than for those in the top bracket.

For example, Dalio notes that since 1980, real incomes have been flat or down for the average household in the bottom 60%. Those in the top 40% now have 10 times as much wealth as households in the bottom 60%, up from six times as much in 1980.

Dalio says that only about one-third of people in the bottom 60% (20% overall) save any of their income. Only a similar number have any retirement savings. These three in five Americans are experiencing increasing rates of premature death. They spend about four times less on education than those in the top 40%. Those in the 60% without a college education have lower income levels, and higher divorce rates.

Dalio believes these problems will intensify in the next five to ten years. The inequality problem is caused by our politics and our fiscal policies, not by the Fed’s monetary policies.

OTOH, Dalio’s concerns aren’t a surprise to anyone who follows the political economy. In fact, it isn’t a surprise to anyone who has walked through any mid-sized American city, or driven through any small town in the heartland.

The problem is not low wage growth.

The problem is not long-term unemployment, as degrading and humiliating as that is.

The problem is that the US economy has been restructured over the past 30 years as an underemployment, low-wage economy in which most new jobs created are temporary jobs (whether you are a laborer, a technician, a service worker or a professional) with no job security, low wages and few benefits.

The real question is can we solve the problem? Many old lefties argue for a Universal Basic Income, (UBI), but Wrongo thinks that’s, er, wrong. If the UBI were high enough to provide even a subsistence living for every American, it would be massively inflationary. And it would merely allow businesses to pay lower wages, which is why some wealthy business people, like Peter Thiel, support a UBI.

Wrongo thinks we should support guaranteed work, not guaranteed income. Most people need and want to work in order to keep their place in our society. Getting a check just isn’t sufficient. If people matter at all, and if 95% of them lack the means to live without working, society must strive to employ all of those who have been deemed redundant by the private sector.

And there is plenty to do around America. Start with the 5,000+ bridges and dams that need replacing, or the 104 nuclear power plants that are falling apart.

We need real tax reform that can’t be loopholed. Corporations must pay more, not less. Stop the move to give corporations incentives to repatriate offshore earnings by lowering their effective tax rates. That only compromises our future tax stream. Corporations have to pay more in taxes, and agree to increase the wages of average workers.

Economically, we are in a pretty scary place. People across party lines and socio-economic levels are frightened for their financial security. We need a jobs guarantee, not a UBI.

So, wake up America! Letting corporations and the rich dictate our investment in human capital or infrastructure has us on the road to eclipse as a country. To help you wake up, here is Todd Snider performing “Conservative Christian, Right Wing, Republican, Straight, White American Male“, live at Farm Aid 2014 in Raleigh, North Carolina in September, 2014:

Why aren’t the Dixie Chicks singing harmony on this?

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Saturday Soother – October 27, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Fall at Crested Butte – photo by mellowrapp

The economists at Indeed’s Hiring Lab say that the areas of the country that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 face the smallest job growth in the decade ahead.

Indeed uses new projections by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to project the winners and losers in the American job market for the period 2016-2026:

The occupational projections suggest faster growth in urban areas than in suburbs, and slowest in rural areas. The two sectors projected to have no or negative growth — production and agriculture — are more concentrated in small towns and rural areas. Many technical, scientific, legal, financial, and healthcare jobs are clustered in big, dense cities.

The fastest growing occupations are projected to be in clean energy: solar photo-voltaic installers and wind turbine service technician jobs are expected to double. Four of the 10 fastest growing occupations pay at least $100,000 a year, according to the BLS: physician assistants, nurse practitioners, software developers, and mathematicians.

Indeed combined the BLS projections with 2016 US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data to show where the faster-growing occupations will be located. That suggests faster growth will be in coastal urban areas, and slowest growth will be in rural areas:

Indeed then overlaid voting patterns on the BLS job growth projections. It is clear that Blue America has a more favorable forecast for future jobs growth than Red America:

So what does this chart tell us? In places that voted for Trump by a 20-point margin, 16% of workers are in occupations projected to shrink, versus 13.2% of workers in places that voted for Hillary Clinton by a similar 20-point margin.

The next decade’s jobs growth could also increase inequality. The fastest growing jobs include several with the highest average wages, including healthcare, computer, and mathematics occupations. Occupations with the lowest average wages are also projected to grow fast, such as home health aides and personal care aides. Middle-wage job growth is projected to lag, at about half the rate of the highest- and lowest-wage jobs.

It seems that a big slice of Trump’s supporters will be losers when it comes to jobs and income growth over the next 10 years. Will they stick with the Republican Party when the job situation gets even worse for them? Of course!

Now, here comes the weekend!

This week we watched Jeff (I’m not a) Flake give a valedictory speech that excoriated the leader of his party. Catalonia succeeded from Spain, and the GOP pushed their tax cut agenda forward. The Trump administration tried to deny a young illegal immigrant woman an abortion, and Hillary Clinton was implicated in paying for the Steele Dossier.

But the worst was that Paul Newman’s Rolex wristwatch sold for $17.75 million. File this under: Idiots with too much money.

Plenty of hits to the system for a single week, so it’s time to take a break from the reality known as Trumpmerica.

Time to brew a very large mug of Celestial Seasons Bengal Spice tea, put your feet up, and put on the Bluetooth headphones. Now listen to Aaron Copland’s “Quiet City” from the 1989 album “Works by Husa, Copland, Vaughan Williams, and Hindemith”, performed by Wynton Marsalis with Phillip Koch on English Horn along with the Eastern Wind Ensemble.

Copland said the piece was an attempt to mirror the troubled main character of an Irwin Shaw play, who had abandoned his religion and his poetry in order to pursue material success. He Anglicized his name, married a rich socialite, and became president of a department store. But he continually returns to his guilty conscience whenever he hears the haunting sound of his brother’s trumpet.

See if Marsalis can take you inside your conscience:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Silicon Valley Will Escape the Revolution

The Daily Escape:

Waterfall Jumping Competition (from 69 feet up), Bosnia, August 5th – photo by Amel Emric

Antonio Garcia Martinez:

Every time I meet someone from outside Silicon Valley – a normy – I can think of 10 companies that are working madly to put that person out of a job…

Well, that makes most of us “normies”. In context, we are the people who do not work in Silicon Valley. We are the people who use technology, rather than invent technology, and many of us ought to see technology as a threat to our jobs and our place in society.

We are not in the beautiful peoples’ club. Our names are not on the list. We’re not software engineers who work just to pay the taxes on their company stock.

And who is this Martinez guy? From Mashable:

He’d sold his online ad company to Twitter for a small fortune, and was working as a senior exec at Facebook (an experience he wrote up in his best-selling book, Chaos Monkeys). But at some point in 2015, he looked into the not-too-distant future and saw a very bleak world, one that was nothing like the polished utopia of connectivity and total information promised by his colleagues.

Martinez pointed out that there are enough guns for every man, woman and child in this country, and they’re in the hands of people who would be hurt most by automation:

You don’t realize it but we’re in a race between technology and politics, and technologists are winning…

Martinez worries about how the combination of automation and artificial intelligence will develop faster than we expect, and that the consequences are lost jobs.

Martinez’s response was to become a tech prepper, another rich guy who buys an escape pod somewhere off the grid, where he thinks he will be safe from the revolution that he helped bring about. More from Mashable: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

So, just passing [after turning] 40, Antonio decided he needed some form of getaway, a place to escape if things turn sour. He now lives most of his life on a small Island called Orcas off the coast of Washington State, on five Walt Whitman acres that are only accessible by 4×4 via a bumpy dirt path that…cuts through densely packed trees.

He’s not alone. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn told The New Yorker earlier this year that around half of Silicon Valley billionaires have some degree of “apocalypse insurance.” Pay-Pal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel recently bought a 477-acre escape hatch in New Zealand, and became a Kiwi. Other techies are getting together on secret Facebook groups to discuss survivalist tactics.

We’ve got to expect that with AI and automation, our economy will change dramatically. We will see both economic and social disruption until we achieve some form of new equilibrium in 30 years or so.

It will be a world where either you work for the machines, or the machines work for you.

Robert Shiller, of the famous Case-Shiller Index, wrote in the NYT about the changing meaning of the “American Dream” from the 1930s where it meant:

…ideals rather than material goods, [where]…life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement…It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable…

That dream has left the building, replaced by this:

Forbes Magazine started what it calls the “American Dream Index.” It is based on seven statistical measures of material prosperity: bankruptcies, building permits, entrepreneurship, goods-producing employment, labor participation rate, layoffs and unemployment claims. This kind of characterization is commonplace today, and very different from the original spirit of the American dream.

How will the “Normies” survive in a society that doesn’t care if you have a job? That refuses to provide a safety net precisely when it celebrates the progress of technology that costs jobs?

The Silicon Valley survivalists understand that, when this happens, people will look for scapegoats. And we just might decide that the techies are it.

Today’s music is “Guest List” by the Eels from the 1996 album “Beautiful Freak”:

 Takeaway Lyric:

Are you one of the beautiful people
Is my name on the list
Wanna be one of the beautiful people
Wanna feel like I’m missed

Are you one of the beautiful people
Am I on the wrong track
Sometimes it feels like I’m made of eggshell
And it feels like I’m gonna crack

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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IMF Reports US Standard of Living is Falling

The Daily Escape:

Haleakala Crater, Maui

Is it the best of times or the worst of times? This is no longer a partisan discussion. We have an economy in the midst of a long expansion, the third longest since 1850. The statistics say we are close to full employment. But, our mortality rate is moving in the wrong direction, and we have an opioid epidemic that is serious enough to cause jobs to go unfilled. The NYT reports that in Youngstown Ohio, middle class factory jobs go begging:

It’s not that local workers lack the skills for these positions, many of which do not even require a high school diploma but pay $15 to $25 an hour and offer full benefits. Rather, the problem is that too many applicants — nearly half, in some cases — fail a drug test.

The Fed’s regular Beige Book surveys of economic activity across the country in April, May and July all noted the inability of employers to find workers able to pass drug screenings.

So the best of times? Probably not. Bloomberg reports that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) looked at the US economy. This is what they see:

For some time now there has been a general sense that household incomes are stagnating for a large share of the population, job opportunities are deteriorating, prospects for upward mobility are waning, and economic gains are increasingly accruing to those that are already wealthy. This sense is generally borne out by economic data and when comparing the US with other advanced economies.

The IMF then goes on to compare the US with 23 other advanced economies in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in this chart:

The chart is a bit of an eye test unless it’s viewed on a big monitor, but its overall point is that the US has been losing ground relative to its past OECD reports by several measures of living standards. 35 countries make up the OECD. The members include all of Western Europe, Russia, Japan, Australia, and several developing nations like Korea and Panama.

This from Bloomberg:

And in the areas where the US hasn’t lost ground (poverty rates, high school graduation rates), it was at or near the bottom of the heap to begin with. The clear message is that the US — the richest nation on Earth, as is frequently proclaimed, although it’s actually not the richest per capita — is increasingly becoming the developed world’s poor relation as far as the actual living standards of most of its population go.

This analysis is contained in the staff report of the IMF’s annual “consultation” with the U.S., which was published last week. The IMF economists haven’t turned up anything shocking or new, it’s just that as outsiders, they have a different perspective than what we hear from our politicians and economists.

For example:

Income polarization is suppressing consumption…weighing on labor supply and reducing the ability of households to adapt to shocks. High levels of poverty are creating disparities in the education system, hampering human capital formation and eating into future productivity.

What is to be done? Well, the IMF report concludes:

Reforms should include building a more efficient tax system; establishing a more effective regulatory system; raising infrastructure spending; improving education and developing skills; strengthening healthcare coverage while containing costs; offering family-friendly benefits; maintaining a free, fair, and mutually beneficial trade and investment regime; and reforming the immigration and welfare systems.

In other words, they suggest substantial reform. It’s doubtful that America can take care of these things anytime soon.

The subtext to most of their suggestions is that other affluent countries have found ways to improve in these areas, while the US has not. We don’t have to look too far into the past to see when those countries were modeling their economies on ours. But today, on all sorts of issues, like taxation, labor markets, health care, and education, the opposite is now true.

One major difference between the US and the rest of the developed world is ideological: Voters and politicians in the US are less willing to raise taxes to finance a better life for our citizens.

Other wealthy countries have figured out how to raise revenue, provide quality education, help the the unemployed, reduce poverty, and keep their citizens healthier than America has.

We must catch up, or admit our time as the world’s indispensable economy is over.

Today’s music (dis)honors the turmoil in the White House. See ‘ya Mooch! Remember that in just six months, Trump has gone through two National Security Advisers, two Chiefs of Staff, two Communications Directors, two Press Secretaries, and two Directors of the FBI.

Here is “Disorder in the House” by the late Warren Zevon and Bruce Springsteen:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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“We Don’t Need No Education”

The Daily Escape:

Antarctic Relic, 2017 – photo by Daniel Kordan

Pink Floyd’s big mainstream hit has new relevance today, since Pew Research produced these interesting findings on US attitudes towards higher education: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

While a majority of the public (55%) continues to say that colleges and universities have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country these days, Republicans express increasingly negative views.

A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year. By contrast, most Democrats and Democratic leaners (72%) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, which is little changed from recent years.

The Pew study, conducted from June 8 to 18 among more than 2,000 respondents, found that Democrats and Republicans are growing substantially more divided in their opinions on public institutions, including higher education.

According to the survey that Pew released on Monday, this is the first time that a majority of Republicans have thought that higher education is bad for the country. As recently as 2015, 54% of Republicans said colleges and universities had a positive impact on the way things were going in the country, but by 2016, those results split to 43% positive and 45% negative. On the other side of the aisle, 72% of Democrats continue to think colleges and universities have a positive effect on the country, holding steady with past years’ results. Here is a chart with the study’s top findings:

And if we get granular about the viewpoints, we see the positive view by Republicans has declined dramatically in just three years:

Only 1/3 of Republicans who have graduated from college now believe that college is a positive contributor to the way things are in America today. In fact, Republicans over age 50 support college and universities the least (28%). Even a majority of GOP Millennials do not see higher education as a positive force in our society.

While Pew doesn’t speculate on the reasons for the shift in thinking, it is clear that the last few years have not been kind to higher education. Elite colleges have made headlines for a series of controversies and protests around racism, free speech, and civil rights. We hear constant debate about “trigger warnings”, and “safe zones” for students who can’t be exposed to uncomfortable ideas or situations.

In 2015, the football team at the University of Missouri went on strike to protest the handling of racist incidents on campus, and Yale was rocked by controversy about the proper way to address insensitive Halloween costumes.

More recently, students have protested and sometimes disrupted appearances from controversial figures. But only 28% of college-educated GOP’ers support higher education? From Booman:

It’s really not compatible with being a country club Republican to have a negative view of a college education. A college degree confers respectability and signals status.

Booman makes the point that more and more of them home school their kids to protect them from the opinions of educated people who might have different views, and fewer of them want their children to go to a college where those religious and political views may be undermined.

Perhaps it also says that college is NOW no longer a good thing, either due to economic factors, or all the strict social/cultural paths people want their kids to follow. But, in America today, the unemployment rate for college grads is 2.4%, while it is 4.6% for those without a degree.

Why would Republicans want to deny their children the opportunity to earn a living?

And there is our PISA ranking. PISA rankings are produced by the OECD based on tests taken by 15-year-olds in more than 70 countries every three years. Comparing the US ranking in both 2012 (the last time the test was administered) and 2015, the US fell to 38th from 28th in math out of 71 countries. We ranked 24th in science. For whatever reasons, we just don’t do a good job educating our kids.

But to the larger point, perceptions of college’s value/non-value is symptomatic of a much deeper and very dangerous schism, the devaluation of facts and scientific evidence. The GOP discredits facts and reality. They emphasize school choice (although it is the only thing that they are pro-choice about).

Resentment and fantasy based on ideology drives our discussion of education. So education has become a low priority for the young and old alike.

Today’s tune is appropriately, “The Wall” by Pink Floyd. It was their 11th studio album, released as a double album in November 1979:

Takeaway Lyric:

We don’t need no education

We don’t need no thought control

No dark sarcasm in the classroom

Teachers leave them kids alone

Hey! Teacher!

Leave them kids alone!

All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall

All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall

 Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Saturday Soother – June 3, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Trolltunga (Troll’s Tongue) Norway – photo by B. Krustev

What is left to say about Trump pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement? The world is looking at a post-agreement future as if we were standing on the edge of Troll’s Tongue. The Paris deal wasn’t a binding agreement, it was aspirational, with voluntary targets and no mechanism for enforcement. But, this quote from Abu Ivanka tells all:

At what point does America get demeaned? At what point do they start laughing at us as a country? We want fair treatment. We don’t want other countries and other leaders to laugh at us anymore.

This is the core problem with Trump’s view of the world: He and the members of his Party see the world agenda as a zero-sum game, in which only one nation can win. Therefore, we gotta win, or else we lose, and God forbid, we can’t lose. At anything.

Zero-sum thinking is what causes voluntary agreements to fail; they require non-zero sum thinking to succeed.

But, in a zero-sum world, there will always be someone in some country who thinks, rightly or wrongly, that they’re being screwed over, that other countries are using the climate issue to pursue an economic advantage.

In this case, Trump gets into power. He then abandons the agreement, or attempts to renegotiate it.

The new terms on offer will be unacceptable, possibly even designed to fail. So it will be with Trump, who is looking to force both China and India into binding targets in order to continue with the agreement. That’s what Republicans consider “fair treatment”.

In other climate news, the Tampa Bay Times points out that the hurricane season started with nobody in charge at FEMA or NOAA.

What could go wrong?

And farther south, a massive crack in the Antarctica ice shelf grew 11 miles in only 6 days.

But America’s coal miners gotta work. Trump is in thrall with an industry that is among those dying out in America. In March, the WaPo reported that:

The coal industry employed 76,572 people in 2014, the latest year for which data is available. That number includes not just miners but also office workers, sales staff and all of the other individuals who work at coal-mining companies.

That’s fewer people employed than at other shrinking industries, like travel agencies (99,888), used-car dealerships (138,000), or carwash employment (150,000).

Maybe Trump will gin up a reason why climate change is killing jobs in those industries as well.

You need to relax, you need to think about something other than Trump, Ivanka and Jared, or Putin and Megyn Kelly. In other words, you need to turn off your devices, sit quietly and take a long look out the window at the natural world. It helps if you can have a strong cuppa something while you kick back.

Wrongo recommends brewing some Sumatran Mandheling coffee (only $11.44 for 16 oz.) and some beautiful music. This morning, we are listening to a Russian and a Latvian singing beautifully together. Here are Anna Netrebko & Elina Garanca performing the Flower Duet by Léo Delibes at the Baden-Baden Opera Gala in 2007:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Retail Stores Are Closing Fast

The Daily Escape:

Cougar with Radio Collar – Griffith Park, Los Angeles, via Nature Photography

Retailers are closing thousands of stores and going bankrupt at a rate not seen since the Great Recession, and tens of thousands of people are losing their jobs as a result. Retailers blame Amazon and other online vendors, and e-commerce sales are booming. While some brick-and-mortar retailers are doing well, many are losing money. The Atlantic reports that:

Overall retail employment has fallen every month this year. Department stores, including Macy’s and JC Penney, have shed nearly 100,000 jobs since October—more than the total number of coal miners or steel workers currently employed in the US.

Wolf Richter has the following chart showing the nature of the problem for retail stores:

But the e-commerce industry won’t rescue out-of-work retail employees. Most warehouses are regional, and located far from residential areas, which means they might not be within a reasonable commuting distance for displaced workers. By contrast, retail stores are typically located near residential centers. E-commerce warehouses also employ fewer people than retail stores, since the warehouses are increasingly automated.

Yves Smith offers this idea: (parenthesis by the Wrongologist)

One of the reason so many real world retailers are hitting the wall so hard is that private equity leverage and asset stripping made them particularly vulnerable. While the losses to online retailers would have forced some downsizing regardless, the fact that so many are making desperate moves in parallel is in large measure due to the fact that…their private equity (PE) overlords have made them fragile.

That’s a new angle for evaluating Amazon’s performance: it’s not that retailers are closing because Amazon is expanding, but Amazon is expanding because retailers are closing. Jeff Bezos should be thanking the PE firms for looting the retail industry.

The Federal Reserve’s low interest rates also made it easier for Private Equity funds to load these retailers up with debt. Management could borrow more money than necessary, pay themselves cash bonuses, and claim “interest rates are low; making payments will be easy“.

They would even show you the math. Of course, that math assumed that store sales would continue climbing in the future. If sales fell, high debt payments could quickly become an outsized burden.

The Private Equity all-stars often follow a particular deal model. After purchasing the retail company, the PE firm sells the real estate owned by the retail company to another entity (owned by the PE fund). Then the retail company makes lease payments to its new landlord. This splitting of the assets into an operating company and a property company allows the PE fund manager to make a cash distribution to its investors early on, producing a quick return on the deal. Later, the property company will be sold.

The problem with this approach is that businesses that choose to own their real estate are typically seasonal businesses, as all retailers are. Or they are low margin businesses particularly vulnerable to the business cycle, like restaurants. Owning their property reduced their fixed costs, making them better able to ride out bad times.

To make this picture worse, the PE firms often “sell” the real estate to itself at an inflated price, which justifies saddling the operating business with high lease payments, making the financial risk in the operating company even higher. Of course, those high rents make the property company look more valuable to prospective investors, who may fail to look close enough at the retailer who is paying the rents.

Companies with little debt generally can survive lower sales. They can engage in cost-cutting, maybe encourage some employees to retire early, etc. It’s easier to survive if they own their own property. But when you’ve got a lot of debt, and servicing that debt requires that sales continue to rise quarter after quarter without fail, then things become a LOT more fragile.

Trump claims he’s created 500,000 new jobs in his first 100 days. Notice that he doesn’t say what these jobs are, or where they were created. Certainly they weren’t in Retail. Or Coal. Or Steel. Those jobs aren’t coming back.

Here is Jonathan Richman with his 1990 song “Corner Store” which laments what towns have lost to the malls:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Takeaway Lyric:

Well, I walked past just yesterday
And I couldn’t bear that new mall no more
I can’t expect you all to see it my way
But you may not know what was there before
And I want them to put back my old corner store.

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