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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Legends & Lies: The Patriots

We’re working on some commentary about the dramatic vote results in the UK “Brexit” vote about membership in the EU.

Meantime, especially as July 4 approaches, we want to call your attention to a very interesting TV show on Sunday nights.  Legends & Lies: The Patriots is showing on Fox News at 8:00PM.  While this is a Bill O’Reilly production, it has absolutely nothing to do with contemporary politics.  It is indeed about the American Revolution.  The first two episodes dealt with the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere’s ride.  This week we’ll have stories about Ben Franklin and the battle of Bunker Hill.  The material includes some dramatized scenes interspersed with commentary by O’Reilly and by university history professors who are experts in the period.

Our regular readers know that we are fascinated by the Revolution and that we talk about it every year at this time.  So this TV program obviously fits in to Ways of the World themes.  The series will run all summer on Sundays at 8:00PM.  Again, it’s on the Fox News cable network.  Check it out; we think you’ll enjoy it.


Monday, June 20, 2016

Jo Cox and the EU

Most of what you’ve been hearing about since June 12 pertains to the mass shooting in Orlando.  Clearly we are upset about that horrible tragedy.  But we want also to give attention to a not-totally-unrelated event in northern England on June 16.

This Thursday, June 23, people in the U.K. will vote on whether to remain in the EU or leave.  The EU is an association of 28 European nations enjoying free trade among each other and whose citizens can move freely among the countries, living anywhere they choose at any time.  Nineteen of these countries, obviously not including the U.K., also use a common currency, the euro.

There is dissatisfaction among some U.K. citizens over belonging to the EU, such that when he ran for re-election to Parliament in 2013, the current Prime Minister David Cameron promised that Parliament would authorize a public election over whether to stay in it.

This hardly sounds like an issue that should spawn violence.  But as the voting date has approached, two vociferous camps have emerged and campaigning has been raucous and nasty.

Still, the nation – and many others – was shocked last Thursday, when Jo Cox, a Member of Parliament supporting the Remain camp, was shot and stabbed in front of the public library in her town of Birstall.

Violence.  What is it about these days that political disagreements seem to be spurring such deadly violence?  The gentleman who murdered Jo Cox on Thursday was known to have mental problems, but still, outright killing is extreme.  Tommie Mair even used a sawed-off shotgun to do this in a country where almost all guns are outlawed, and most police don’t even carry them.

We have to talk first about Jo Cox herself.

An extraordinary person.  She is from Birstall in Northern England, just north of Leicester and south of Nottingham.  The region is a factory community; it includes a large Muslim population, apparently mainly from India, as workers were needed for factories.  Jo Cox’s father worked in a factory.  She apparently always presumed she would do the same.  But she had the opportunity to attend Cambridge and she was the first member of her family to attend university.  She spent 10 years as an aid worker, affiliated with Oxfam, the Gates Foundation and the Freedom Fund, this last an organization that fights modern slavery.  The Wall Street Journal explains that in Parliament “she pushed for international action to help Syrians who had been caught up in fighting there .” She was also a vocal proponent of the UK staying in the EU.

She lived simply, with her husband and two children on a houseboat, and, according to The Economist magazine, she commuted to Parliament on a bicycle.  Ms. Cox was on her way to conduct constituent appointments at the local library in Birstall when she was attacked.  A witness reported that the attacker shouted “Britain first” as he struck her.  In Mr. Mair’s court appearance, the prosecutor stated that he had said, “Britain first, keep Britain independent, Britain always comes first.”  Perhaps coincidentally, “Britain First” is actually an organization committed to banning Islam in the U.K.  The group denied responsibility, however, although they are concerned that immigration is the root of many of the U.K.’s current problems.  When asked to state his name during his court appearance Saturday, June 18, he replied, “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”

Thus, we seem to face three forces here.  First, the awful killing of a highly regarded public servant, popular in her community and respected in Parliament.  A bright, relatively young woman, age 41, who obviously had much to say and do toward the benefit of the people she represents.  Second, a raucous, divisive campaign about whether the U.K. should Remain in the EU or Leave it; indeed the groups in support of each side are “Remain” and “Vote Leave”.  Polls show sentiment is almost evenly divided and oscillates from one preference to the other, so it is not at all clear which will come out ahead in the vote.  Campaigning was suspended altogether from Thursday after Jo Cox’s death through Saturday.  Third, there is the immigration issue.  Being part of the EU means that immigration into the U.K. from Europe is relatively easy.

This last issue, immigration, even strikes us as bearing some resemblance to at least one of the factors in the Donald Trump campaign in the U.S.  Trump’s supporters tend to blame immigrants for some of our problems, similar to the U.K. citizens who blame immigrants for whatever distress they are feeling.

While we have no answers to any of this, we can offer you a prayer concerning the U.K. vote, published by the Church of England back in April.  It is obviously directed at this specific issue, but its themes can apply to many topics of public debate:

God of truth, give us grace to debate the issues in this referendum with honesty and openness. Give generosity to those who seek to form opinion and discernment to those who vote, that our nation may prosper and that with all the peoples of Europe we may work for peace and the common good; for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

And among the myriad tributes to Jo Cox, here is one offered at a prayer service at a church in Birstall last Thursday and published on the website of the Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales:

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Friday, June 03, 2016

Why Workers Might Favor a Businessman for U.S. President

Back at the beginning of the Presidential primary elections, a friend sidled up to me and growled, “Can you explain Donald Trump to me?”  The gentleman thought that I, as a political conservative, might have some insight into this unusual candidate for high public office.

I think I might have some modest insight about this, but it’s my penchant for economic data, not my political views that might help us out.  Indeed, there's nothing politically motivated in what follows.

Many voters are frustrated in the lack of economic progress in recent years.  We hear all the time that incomes have stagnated and inequality has worsened.  Our latest wanderings around the website of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) yield some interesting information on how pervasive these conditions are.  We can thus understand better Trump’s appeal to working-class people who think this outspoken businessman might have some ideas for helping these conditions, for “making America great again.” 

Many comments about income inequality refer to total income, which, of course, includes dividends and investment capital gains, flows that favor the high-end.  Or comments about wages just talk about CEOs’ oversized compensation as a huge multiple of average workers’ wages.  There’s little mystery in these as causes of frustration among hard-working laborers.

Wage Stagnation and Inequality Pervade Labor Market
But what we found goes deeper.  First, workers’ compensation has indeed been stagnant overall.  Average wages and benefits were $21.50 an hour in 2014, down from $21.91 in 2007, just before the Great Recession started.[1]  This overall result comes from an annual survey of companies’ pay in some 800 different occupations, summarized in 19 “groups”, from management at the top ($59.93/hour in 2014) to food preparers and servers at the bottom ($8.88/hour).  Some groups near the middle include construction workers at $24.67/hour, production workers at $21.31 and office and administrative at $20.53.  Over the last seven years, averages increased for nine of the 19 groups, but they declined in ten of them.  Among the declines are ones you’d think: office workers, transportation workers and installation and repair people.  But hourly compensation also declined for higher-skilled occupations, including computer scientists, scientists and even a bit for healthcare professionals – really.[2]  So it’s hard to generalize, to make a simple statement about wage stagnation.

Further, and in some ways more irritating, inequality measures increased, even within these narrow pay categories.  While the overall 50% median compensation number went down 41 cents an hour over the seven-year period, the 90% level increased; so the top 10% of workers made $56.73 in 2014, up from $54.31 in 2007.  And seeming to add insult to injury, the degree of inequality went up within individual occupational groups: in eight occupations where the average went down, an inequality measure went up.   Thus, high-end positions in those eight occupations, including computer techs, healthcare professionals, social service workers, installers & repairers and transport workers continued to rise even as middle and low-end salaries struggled.  Workers may not see our data, of course, but they surely have a sense of the awkward pay relationships among their own colleagues. Workers in all kinds of jobs have reason to feel exasperated.

Possible Remedies: Reorient Education, Encourage Business
I don’t know a simple answer to these compensation issues.  The economist in me says, let’s encourage business investment and better skill-training so workers can do their jobs more easily.  As you can see from the variety of occupations we’ve mentioned, “skill training” is probably a better term than “education”.  Kids can learn coding for computer apps or they can become truck mechanics rather than heading for college to get a broader, but possibly less practical cultural background.  In fact, one brand-new book, Reskilling America, by sociologists Katherine Newman and Hella Winston[3], argues for renewed emphasis on vocational education over the recent “college for everyone” approach that often leaves graduates without a well-defined, real-world expertise, but plenty of debt.

Some of you might think greater government regulation is necessary to realign workers’ pay.  But that may well have the opposite effect of diluting business’ incentives to do better, thus worsening productivity, to say nothing of the cost of designing jobs to match government specifications.  It’s a very important economy question of the 2010’s.  In fact, the National Federation of Independent Business, a trade association representing small businesses, says that government regulation already adds to the cost of hiring workers, such that businesses are tending to favor temporary employees now rather than permanent ones.[4] This adds emphasis to our main immediate point about how frustrated workers might indeed want a new kind of leader in Washington who better understands the business world.

Further, the Dean of the Harvard Business School says in a recent Wall Street Journal [5], “solutions to problems like inequality and the lack of employment opportunities or wage growth aren’t going to come from government alone. They’re also going to require imaginative businesses that find new ways to employ people and create real value.”

Other Economic Policy Questions Add to the Quandary
We see that what we have here is a can of worms.  And this is just one issue, frustration over inadequate pay and lack of progress.  We have to mix this with all the other issues of the day.  An important Trump theme is immigration, for instance.  We thought to discuss this here, but it’s really a whole separate article on some recent information about the motivations of immigrants; these facts differ markedly from Mr. Trump’s usual arguments.  But it’s still an issue that middle-class workers of today care about.  Other issues that might give them headaches include national security and the protracted wars in the Middle East.  And while gasoline prices have at least come off their highest levels with the drop in oil prices, workers in North and South Dakota and Texas are being laid off as some oil production becomes unprofitable at the lower prices.  Apparently, we also have figure out how to deal with coal miners; coal is clearly an important climate-change issue, but the economies of West Virginia and other Appalachian regions depend on it.  We can’t just leave all those people out in cold – so to speak.  And on and on.

1.  Kristen Monaco and Brooks Pearce.  “Compensation Inequality: Evidence from the National Compensation Survey”, Monthly Labor Review.  July 2015.   U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. .  The numbers quoted are adjusted for inflation, so we’re talking about constant purchasing power.  Also, they are median averages, in the middle; half of workers make more and half make less.

2.  Ibid.  Note that while average pay for healthcare professionals decreased somewhat, the number of those workers, including doctors and nurses, rose markedly.  We still were startled that median pay and benefits in that profession did not go up.

3.  Katherine S. Newman and Hella Winston.  Reskilling America: Learning to Labor in the Twenty-First Century.  New York:  Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt and Company).  2016.

4.  Juanita Kuggan, quoted in NFIB Small Business Jobs Report, May 2016.  Ms. Kuggan is President and CEO of the National Federation of Independent Business. .

5.  Nitin Nohria.  “Imagine an Economy Without Wall Street.”  The Wall Street Journal. June 2, 2016, page A12.  Also online:

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