When “great economic news” isn’t

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

I’m not sure why I feel so compelled to make this post other than to document to my own satisfaction the outrageousness of Donald Trump’s complaint that the mass media is ignoring “the great economic news” since he took office. This ridiculous campaign to ping the minds of his supporters follows the pattern that I and many of my friends have expressed as honest concern for America. It’s the responsibility of every citizen to keep themselves informed, and I guess that’s what I’m trying to do here.

So, with apologies for burying the lede, let’s begin with the president’s assertions and his evidence.

The Dow and the Nasdaq are up since January. Well, yes, but they’ve been trending up for many years (since the collapse in 2008 corrected by Trump nemesis, Barack Obama).

According to Mother Jones, employment for the “drilling and energy sectors” has been flat since Trump took over, and “the S&P 500 Energy Sector has been dropping all year and is well below its Election Day level.”

600,000 new jobs? This is highly misleading, but who cares, right? Newsweek did some necessary research: “So far in 2017, the U.S. economy has added an average of 178,000 jobs per month—slightly lower than the 2016 average of 187,000 under the Obama administration. And Trump is currently some way short of his promise to create 25 million jobs in the next decade, or 208,333 per month.”

Unemployment has been on a downward path for many years, including when that awful Barack Obama was in office.

There are no real studies on “enthusiasm,” so even if we give that to the president, the whole glowing Twitter report is badly inflated.

What Donald Trump has accomplished with these tweets, however, is to make yet another assault on the press as “fake news” and provide talking points for followers who will gobble them up like candy. This is beyond dangerous for a free society that must rely on accurate economic forecasts to help the rest of us cope. Here’s what I mean.

The 1,000 Carrier jobs that Trump “saved” during the election were not saved at all. All will be gone by Christmas. The new coal mine that was opened in Pennsylvania was approved long before the president was even elected. According to CNN Money, “Get ready for more ‘closing sale’ signs in the windows of your local retailers.” It’s really quite dismal for retail. Malls closing. Department stores closing. Even mom & pop stores are closing. And then there’s this from CNN Tech:

Robots have already cost millions of factory jobs across the nation.

Next up could be jobs at your local stores.

 Between 6 million to 7.5 million existing jobs are at risk of being replaced over the course of the next 10 years by some form of automation, according to a new study this week from by financial services firm Cornerstone Capital Group.

That represents at least 38% of the current retail work force, which consists of 16 million workers. Retail could actually lose a greater proportion of jobs to automation than manufacturing has, according to the study.

There’s absolutely nothing about any of this that’s coming from the White House, least of all a plan on how the have-nots (you and me) will deal with this stuff. Maybe that’s what makes me so sick about the prancing Donald Trump, who is really only in this for himself and his silk stocking buddies.

Redefining Compassion

The Trump administration’s budget reveals a dramatic dismissal of programs designed to help the poor, including some, such as Medicaid, that have great favor with the majority in the land. This should surprise no one who’s taken the time to study the platforms of both the Democratic and Republican parties, because much of conservatism has always been about the worship of the individual and the protection of wealth. Poverty is one of those sticky issues that clearly divides, for in the narrative of the GOP, poor people are takers who take from the pockets of the wealthy. This cynical view is best depicted in our current administrations attempt to “redefine compassion.”

In the name of decreasing government spending, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney made this remarkable statement in front of the House Budget Committee on Wednesday:

“We no longer want to measure compassion by the number of programs that we have, or the number of people that are on those programs,” he said. “We want to measure compassion, true compassion, by the number of people we help to get off those programs.”

takemefishing.org

Trump supporters, including Evangelical Christians, will see this simply as the old adage “Give a man a fish, and you’ve fed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you’ve fed him for life.” This is part and parcel of the Gospel of Self and a very useful metaphor for those pushing a political agenda along with the faith. Unfortunately, the concept misses on two rather enormous assumptions. One, for it to be true in practical terms, the idea assumes an endless supply of fish for everybody, and the truth is that all resources are limited and mostly in possession of the top fishermen, those who also own the best lakes and streams. You can teach a man to fish all you want, but unless the supply is available to all, the story falls apart. Two, and this is a biggie for the Christian crowd, Jesus actually tied poverty to the unrighteousness of God’s people as written by Moses in the Torah in Deuteronomy 15. Therefore, the dream of redefining compassion by teaching people to fish directly contradicts the message of the Bible, which always includes restrictions on the rich getting too rich. Instead, the evangelical message offers the idea that humans can somehow “manage” their way out of poverty while others maintain a selfish grip on resources and income. Not happening.

So once again, I’m forced into the corner of declaring that the church is under judgment, not the nation of the United States, western culture, or “the world,” and it specifically relates to this issue. It’s not about visible “sins” that the faithful rail against and in so doing blame the victims of poverty instead of their own greed. It’s about a certain group of believers who espouse a formulaic version of life through their faith. That’s why this – and my book specifically – is a message for Christians, for the pathway to truth is the willingness to challenge one’s own assumptions, whether you call yourself a Christian or not.

Please do not interpret my statements as disrespectful, for I find nothing disingenuous about Mr. Mulvaney’s view or that of the many Evangelicals who subscribe to the fishing metaphor. I fully believe they believe this to be THE solution to poverty. The same day Mulvaney was testifying, HUD secretary Dr. Ben Carson – an Evangelical – was on Sirius XM radio being interviewed by his longtime ally Armstrong Williams:

“I think poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind. You take somebody who has the right mindset, you can take everything from them and put them on the street and I guarantee you, in a little while, they’ll be right back up there. And you take somebody with the wrong mindset, you can give them everything in the world and they’ll work their way back down to the bottom.”

Dr. Carson went on to add that this mindset begins in childhood and is passed along by parents. He, too, favors the “teach a man to fish” model, noting that there’s both “economic poverty” and “poverty of the spirit,” what he called “that defeatist attitude.”

“I think the majority of people don’t have that defeatist attitude, but they sometimes just don’t see the way, and that’s where government can come in and be very helpful. It can provide the ladder of opportunity, it can provide the mechanism that will demonstrate to them what can be done.”

In my experience, this is the thinking that dominates the Evangelical Christian crowd who believe that their form of “salvation” includes prosperity of mind, soul, body, and pocketbook. This set of religious rules can be highly self-centered by providing future rewards in this life and in Heaven for teaching people to fish. So it’s not just about the teaching; it’s about the reward for so doing, which doesn’t depend on the outcome. Hence, it’s very easy to say “teach a man to fish,” because that’s where the responsibility ends.

It would appear the Trump administration is attempting to change the way Washington looks at spending by invoking the shallow thinking of certain Evangelical Christian teachings, which is, I suppose, exactly what Mr. Trump’s followers asked him to do. They will try and it will all fail, because those teachings are self-centered and conveniently bypass entirely the “love your neighbor” mandate. Oh I know the contrary arguments. I used to believe them and teach them myself.

Life is not manageable, no matter what you believe. Life is chaotic. Order is “the dream of man,” as Henry Adams noted long ago. And the book says that “time and chance” occurs to everyone anyway regardless of their faith and witness.

You want to redefine compassion through a spiritual message? How about “Thy will, not mine be done?” Living life on life’s terms (and not my own) is the greatest personal challenge we all face in the expression of our compassion for others.

Media mergers and hanging on

I need to step away from book promotion for a minute to make a comment the current state of local media. First, there’s the merger/sale this week between Sinclair Media and Tribune Media that will give Sinclair over 200 local stations in the American TV world. In that world (mass marketing/mass media), the bigger the footprint, the greater the profit, for the core competency of media companies is the ability to produce an audience for marketers. Secondly, an interesting article today in the Columbia Journalism Review about the fiscal health of Gannett and its future headlines this way: “Gannett and the last great local hope.”

Sinclair and Gannett will take their places in the halls of commerce as the last buggy whip makers for the mass media industries of television and newspapers, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with this, there’s a much bigger problem ahead for local communities, and that is the loss of local advertising. I’ve been harping on this for so many years that I’ve grown weary of the sound of my own voice, and while the prophecies of 15 years ago are now coming to pass, the industry still doesn’t understand what’s really taking place.

The old saw about business disruptions goes like this: “If the railroads had known what business they were really in, they would have owned all the early airline companies.” The railroads were in the transportation business, not “the railroad business,” and that was their Waterloo. In like manner, media companies are in the advertising industry, not the radio, television, or newspaper industries. Follow the disruptions in advertising, and you’ll see the downfalls in local media.

But it’s even worse than you think, for the ascending advertising giants are all digital ad exchanges and ad networks. They have the ability to serve ads to any and every browser anywhere and at any time, so the collection of data about those individual browsers (you don’t need a person’s name) has been the task of anyone wishing to remain relevant in the ad space. Local media companies have simply turned away from this most important task (“It’s not our business model.”).

One of the most significant obstacles that the net overcomes is geography, and so local advertisers – who used to spend their money with all sorts of local media companies – are now spending that money outside their markets with people who can do this browser-level targeting.

Gordon Borrell

Ask Gordon Borrell about how much money – real money – is moving from businesses in your community to advertising companies outside your market. You’ll be shocked, or you won’t believe it. These outside interests pay no taxes, support no community chests, employ no local people, and support no local organizations such as youth sports and so on. The money goes straight out of your community and into their pockets. It doesn’t pass go. It doesn’t collect $200. It just strips your community of a vital part of what makes it a community in the first place.

And yet, there is silence where there ought to be cries for help, because local media companies have badly failed the communities they used to serve by assuming that one can remain an analog mass marketing vehicle in the age of digital competition – not for the content they create (which is all we talk about) – but for the money that supports the production and creation of that content.

And so Sinclair grows and Gannett hangs on, both victims of their own corporate malfeasance. One thing they will never be able to say is that they weren’t warned.

You may now return to your regularly scheduled programming.

The Mining of Christian Discontent

It’s never enough, never, never enough. Why is all that we have simply never enough?” Olivia Newton-John

To watch the news these days, you’d think that President Trump’s army of dissatisfied white Christian people is happily moving its agenda forward, but you’d be mistaken. Hundreds of the ear tickling promises made by Trump-the-candidate are off the table or have been brushed aside entirely by Trump-the-President, and people are having doubts about their man. This is most readily expressed in the social media discussions among friends. How long those people will cling to the guy can’t be known, but one important thing is being overlooked by the professional observers: the anger for a revolution against the status quo that Donald Trump originally tapped remains unsatisfied. This is only going to get worse. Victims of a film-flam man aren’t likely to buy in again, but that anger is still festering.

My father was a factory worker in the furniture industry in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He operated a router, cutting the same piece of wood for the same furniture over and over again as part of an assembly line. He was a working man and a Democrat of the Adlai Stevenson brand. My father simply could not vote for Republicans, because they represented the wealthy, including the boss, the owners, the managers, all those who got rich on the backs of others, especially labor.

At the annual company picnic, the children of employees were each given a silver dollar, and it was a big deal for all of us. They were heavy and big, and they made our eyes pop. However, those shiny coins were also emblematic of the reality that the people carrying the bags full of them were the overseers, and we, as recipients of their largess, were not. When you hold a big silver dollar in your little hand, the mind wanders to what it might be like to hold two. Or three. Or more.

“Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor.” Ecclesiastes 4:4 ESV

My father even disliked Gerald Ford, the local boy who became President in the wake of Watergate. Ford came from East Grand Rapids, considered the other side of the tracks from our modest means. The idea that the haves should govern the have-nots is straight out of the colonialist playbook, the outcome of which is only good for the conquerers. I think my father knew that, and it’s one of the things that drives me in my old age. I believe that the people can rule themselves and that the net makes this possible.

But amazingly, disgust with the rich is now gone from our culture. It’s been replaced by envy and the dangled carrot that liberals have robbed you of your chance at the good life through the tyranny of the minority. All you have to do, the carrot reminds, to get your share is vote against the troublemakers. This forms a fascinating paradox for the people who elected Donald Trump, because there simply aren’t enough bodies in the one percent to elect a candidate anywhere. You must have working class people included, and that remains the biggest mystery of the Trump phenomenon. How do you get people like my father to vote WITH those above you in every status measurement?

Television reality shows pay their stars well, so even “realities” like the Jersey Shore, a Louisiana swamp, or a small town in rural Georgia are skewed because everybody seems to have money. Then there are the Kardashians and other famous families, the Housewives of wherever, the Sharks, the Bachelors and Bachelorettes, and the bargain hunters who always seem to hit it big. Endorsement deals featuring reality show “celebrities” create a wannabe sub-culture that mimics the wealthy in ways that contribute to the envy of our neighbors. How much of the debt in our culture comes from young people trying to emulate those they see on TV or online? Johnny has that car, so why not me? This is the self-centered cultural core that we explored at The 700 Club to raise money and channel this discontent to the Republican Party. It’s all in my book, The Gospel of Self: How Jesus Joined the GOP.

Envy unsatisfied easily becomes stored anger.

And the problem with anger is that it can redirect energy away from truth. Resentments always color one’s existence, because the narrative can only present a skewed reality. Resentment also burns the insides. The revenge we seek by remembering, which we intend for the source of the resentment, has nowhere to go except inward. We end up beating ourselves with the two-by-four intended for someone else. We paint ourselves as victims who deserve better, but the best a victim can do is survive. Those willing to let go and embrace life, however, are free to win.

The paradox of prosperity is that discontent increases with opportunities for acting on it.

Despite the election of Donald Trump, that anger is still throbbing in the hearts of the working class, white Christian mid-Americans that supported him as an agent of change. What he’s changed mostly so far is to switch the welfare of the poor to the welfare of the rich, making rules that benefit the rich, so that they can be richer. The jobs won’t show up. The promises he made to that disgruntled heart of America won’t be fulfilled, and the real revolt lies just around the corner.

My hope is that somebody will come along someday with a message that points to the Bible’s categorization of the rich as “oppressors” and opens the minds of middle America to the possibility that perhaps God isn’t a Republican. The reason I’m not optimistic about this is that these people aren’t driven by reason; they’re driven by faith.

Any person who will dance and kick with arms raised in church, speak in tongues, fall to the floor “in the spirit,” lay hands on the sick for healing, and generally give themselves over to a public display of emotional worship can easily be convinced to step outside reason on matters of conscience. The mind is a fertile field when opened by extreme forms of worship, which is why it most often comes before the message in church. Sixties rock superstar Jimi Hendrix said in Life Magazine’s October 3, 1969 edition: “I can explain everything better through music. You hypnotize people to where they go right back to their natural state which is pure positive—like in childhood when you got natural highs. And when you get people at their weakest point, you can preach into the subconscious what we want to say.

The point is that the “personal relationship with Jesus” preached by the public face of Christianity has come to represent the gathering to one’s self for personal gain along with a Bible that’s used as a self-help manual from God Almighty. These Americans are not satisfied — nor will they ever be satisfied — as long as they are convinced that they deserve more due to their loyalty to Jesus. As George Carlin would say, they’re “out where the busses don’t run,” a place where reason is a mile wide and an inch deep. Donald Trump tapped their inner disillusion with promises he would never be able to keep, and that is only going to turn up the heat on their anger.

The press would be smart to understand that this battle has only just begun.

The real threat to the working class

My dad coming home from work at one of the big furniture factories in Grand Rapids circa 1959.

My dad coming home from work at one of the big furniture factories in Grand Rapids circa 1959.

In the endless litany of analyses over why Donald Trump was elected president, the winner seems to be the cultural subgroup known as “the working class.” All the nostalgia over making America great again was targeted to this group, people who once participated in the American Dream but have lost out to foreign manufacturing, among other things. As a working class guy and a transplant to the South, I can tell you this is serious business down here. Textile mills that used to dot the landscape have moved where labor is cheaper, leaving behind a legion of good people without a way to provide a middle class lifestyle for their families.

Mr. Trump blamed trade agreements that allowed other countries to steal the manufacturing sector out from under us, but he did so without ever mentioning two important aspects of this: cheaper products produced by cheaper labor, which benefit us all, and dramatically increased profits that didn’t have to be shared with the cheaper labor. Assuming all of that was somehow brought back to the U.S., consumer prices would skyrocket, which would not please anybody. I mean, what’s the point of a “good” job, if it means inflation and higher prices for everything from housing to a pair of jeans?

But the bigger story is what’s ahead for the working class regardless of the extent to which nationalism grows as a practical matter. Technology isn’t just disrupting hierarchies and those whose value to the economy is based on protected knowledge; technology is also stripping away working class jobs and will continue to do so at an accelerating pace. By 2019, the Labor Department projects that 40% of the labor force will be self-employed, which doesn’t bode well for those who whose parents went to the office, the plant, the mine, or whatever. No amount of “Yea, America” is going to make corporations care about the lives of their employees beyond what they can do for the bottom line.

And that means the digitalization of the kinds of jobs once thought untouchable will continue. Today, it means little that a truck can transport goods without a driver, but what about tomorrow? Anybody who drives for a living can be replaced. Robotics continue to advance in all directions, as does artificial intelligence, holograms, virtual reality, advanced military weaponry, and many, many other areas. This has brought about serious discussion about the concept of “uniform basic income” or “guaranteed basic income,” in which the government would give everybody money whether they worked or not. The election of Donald Trump, some within the basic income movement argue, may jumpstart the idea, while others, according to a Business Insider article, disagree.

“The election of Trump as president is probably not good news for the basic income movement,” Rutger Bregman, Dutch basic income expert and author of “Utopia for Realists,” tells Business Insider.

And with millions of jobs set to get displaced by robotic automation in the coming decades, Bregman could be right. As Business Insider’s Josh Barro argued, Trump doesn’t seem too concerned about the lack of manufacturing jobs in the future. That lack of clarity has experts like Bregman worried. The president-elect seems unwilling to acknowledge that humans could get booted from entire industries in a matter of decades.

That’s precisely why Trump has every incentive to cozy up to basic income, Pugh says. His fan base has serious fears about the future of the economy.

“Enacting basic income would help to revitalize parts of the country hit hardest by outsourcing and automation by spurring entrepreneurship in those areas.” Or as writer and basic income advocate Scott Santens put it, “Basic income is good for business.”

The working class faces a very difficult future, which is why it’s probably a safe bet that young people will continue to leave rural communities for opportunities in the big city. There are still innovative opportunities available to anyone within the Great Horizontal, but such opportunities demand a different mindset than one based on nostalgia and making American great (again) by going back to an era buried in the sands of human progress. The irony is that rural versus urban is an artificial barrier, for we have achieved a degree of omnipresence never even considered by the planners of old.

Personally, I’ll take small town living with a good internet connection any day of the year.

Another postmodern signpost – banks

Here we go again.

A new Citi Global Perspectives & Solutions (GPS) report on how financial technology is disrupting banks provides another look for us into our rapidly ascending postmodern future. According to the report, mobile distribution will be the main channel of interaction between customers and the bank, which will mean a dramatically reduced need for bank branches. This will lead to the loss of 1.8 million employees between now and 2015, down a whopping 40-50% from its peak in 2007.

banks

An article in Business Insider referencing the report compares it to earlier projections:

That’s in line with former Barclays CEO Antony Jenkins’ recent prediction that pressure from the tech industry “will compel banks to significantly automate their business” and “that the number of branches and people may decline by as much as 50% over the next years.”

The CITI report suggests that as more and more transactions move to mobile, there will be a “rebalancing of staff from transaction-based roles to advisory-based roles,” but I don’t believe such jobs will pay as much. As such, I’m not certain this “rebalancing” will make much difference for those out of work.

This is downside of the Great Horizontal, when it’s viewed from a strictly modernist, top-down perspective. These bank executives know that reduced expenses mean increased profits, so their concern about employees is disingenuous, at best. They will be surprised when faced with the granular investment opportunities that will occur along the bottom of their top-down paradigm, and then the real postmodern disruption of the banking institution will begin. A modernist culture requires banks, but I’m not convinced they will be at all relevant as the twenty-first century moves along.

One thing is absolutely certain: making a living will be completely redefined, and the time to start thinking about that is today.