The New Age Of News Fatigue

Any human being who put his ear to the heart chamber of the world and heard the roar of existence, the “innumerable shouts of pleasure and woe,” said the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, would surely break into pieces.

Nietzsche lived long before the Internet which provides an endless stream of shouts of pleasure and woe that 21st it is bad: global warming, the parade of death in Syria, the endless killing among Islamic sects, civil strife in Iraq, the degenerating situation in Afghanistan, Vladimir Putin’s mindless rule of a great nuclear power, rampant poverty and disease in the Third World, China’s suppression of human rights, disappearing animal species and errant airliners – the grim tidings just never stop.

And it should come as no surprise that a growing number of Americans are tuning it all out. Call it news fatigue. It isn’t that we don’t care, but the world is awash in problems we cannot control. We have a mighty military armed with high tech weaponry that costs many billions, but it struggles to cope with suicide bombers. A $5 improvised explosive device will blow up a $500,000 armored vehicle and send brave young soldiers into perpetual struggle with missing limbs and post-traumatic stress disorder. If we had no mighty military, perhaps we would be less inclined to get involved in these kinds of situations.

Even great issues not involving terrorists or armies leave us vexed. The scientists say our production of greenhouse gases is altering the Earth’s climate irrevocably, but most of that comes from burning coal which produces almost half of our electricity. In other nations, such as China and India, the proportion is even higher. To stop burning coal we would have to basically shut down our economy and throw countless millions of people into abject poverty. That is not a viable option, but then neither is climate change. Just thinking about it will give you a headache.

I believe this is a major reason the younger set is turning away from newspapers and TV news in favor of the Internet. You can pretty much get the information you want on the Internet but you have to know what you’re looking for. In contrast, if you pick up a newspaper or turn on the network news, you will be inundated with reports of terrible things you knew nothing about. I suspect people are moving to the Internet to escape from the deluge of bad news.

The challenge of news fatigue is one of perspective. We have to keep in mind that the world has always been a mess. Certainly the 14th church, breakdown of civil order was worse than this one. Indeed the previous century with two great world wars, the holocausts in Europe and Cambodia, flu and AIDS epidemics, etc., was probably even worse in terms of total lives lost.

Most of us in the west live lives of relative security and increasing longevity. There are potential disasters everywhere; that is part of life and always has been. We can take comfort in knowing that intelligent people are striving to deal with the endless problems and challenges we face. There are positive news reports among the media bedlam if you look for them. Our most pressing challenge is not to lose heart or faith in the future. Our children will do better than we have. Our species will survive.


The Demise of Economic Dogma

 Economists have long relied upon certain consensus truths that are universally shared by others in the profession, or at least were until recently. Economists might have disagreed – and in fact often disagreed – on how these basic truths should be applied to particular situations, but the truths themselves were sacrosanct.

But the last few years have witnessed some extraordinary economic developments that have stood the basic tenets of economics on their ear. I have heard prominent economists – most notably former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and columnist Bob Samuelson – express the same complaint. It is as if religious leaders suddenly discovered that the Ten Commandments were a forgery.

The first and most obvious of truths to bite the dust is the assumption that flooding the marketplace with money will stoke inflation. For as long as I can remember, fear of inflation has been the one solid cornerstone of economics. In the late 1970s, inflation was in the double digits and the result was economic chaos. Fed Chairman Paul Volcker hiked interest rates, touching off a severe recession, but he escaped unharmed because it worked – we squeezed inflation out of the system, teeing up the longest and deepest expansion of our history.

But the last few years have undermined fear of inflation. The outgoing Bush Administration and incoming Obama Administration collaborated with Congress to pump massive amounts of money into the economy to prevent what appeared to be a looming depression. Economists disagree on how effective that was, but they agreed all that extra money chasing a finite supply of goods and services would spark inflation. It did not happen.

The next consensus truth of economics is that the Federal Reserve can stimulate economic expansion by lowering interest rates. The Fed has held interest rates at basically zero for years. According to all we know about economics that should have both stoked robust economic growth and evoked a round of serious inflation. Neither happened – not yet, anyway.

More recently, the Fed embarked upon its Quantitative Easing program that has pumped trillions more into the economy, a move that many predicted would lead to inflation.  The QE is still in operation, though slightly reduced, but still we see no sign of significant inflation.

At the risk of promoting economic heresy beyond the pale, I have a sneaking suspicion that yet another basic truth of economics – that tax cuts stimulate economic growth – is another candidate for the dustbin. At the behest of conservatives in his party, President George W. Bush pushed tax cuts through Congress that transformed budget surpluses into deficits, but had little discernible impact on growth.

Conservative supply siders still contend cutting taxes is the one sure path to restoring economic growth. It is like a religion for them and without it they have nothing to say. But I don’t think the old theory works any more. An unprecedented combination of downward pressure on prices for goods and services coupled with anemic consumer demand mitigates against inflation – and also economic growth. What we need is a new economic theory to explain what is going on and presumably offer a way back to growth.

Make A Joyful Noise

“Of all the noises,” said Dr. Samuel Johnson, “I find music the least obnoxious.”

I have long earned my living as a writer in some fashion – as a journalist, editor, speech writer, communications consultant, media manager – but music has always been a critical element of my life. As a youth, I sang in our church choir and my high school glee club, and picked up some guitar licks from my older brother Gene (TV anchorman in Richmond) who once upon a time played in a rock band. For a while, I sang bass in a four man group we called The Golden Oldies Quartet which was a bit like Sha Na Na, at least in our choice of material. We sang four part harmony a cappella and closed up many a saloon with our warbles in that magic time of life when every night is a party, or at least could be.

In those same years, before I settled down to raise a family and be a responsible citizen, I played a solo act, just me and my guitar, at Mr. Henry’s, a bar on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. I was never a gifted guitarist but I can sing and have mountains of confidence in myself. The music fills a void and affords me an alternative means of expression.

As I segued into maturity, a rather lengthy and tortuous process, I would frequently participate in jam sessions with other old family guys in our neighborhood. My good friend Martin Lowery and I were the core of what would become a group, but in the early days it was just us. Martin has a PhD in philosophy from Duke so of course he plays the blues. Also, he is a great fan of Jerry Jeff Walker’s music.

It came to pass that in 1994 Martin and I took our families to Paris for a week where I insisted we all go to the Conceigerie where prisoners were held before their appointments with the guillotine during the French Revolution. One of the names on the wall was that of Charlotte Corday, my personal heroine, a beautiful young woman from Caen who went to Paris in the summer of 1793 where she assassinated the radical leader Jean Paul Marat. It was a brave and daring thing to do. It was murder, I know, but Marat had it coming. As I regaled Martin and our wives and daughters with the story of Charlotte, Martin and I decided then and there – over a couple of bottles of good French wine — to compose a musical drama about her.

Over a period of more than 10 years, we did compose that drama and in our humble opinion it is a good one. We hired professional singers to record the songs in a professional studio. It was an exciting adventure in creativity. We have never been able to get the drama on stage, but we are still here, the play is still in hand and it may yet happen. In any case, I can claim and justly that I have written a libretto. Not so long ago I would have been hard put to tell you what a libretto is, but now I know.

In a lighter vein, Martin and I continued to play music at neighborhood picnics and parties. One of our dear friends and neighbors Richard Weil, a song writer par excellence, began sitting in on a regular basis. Eventually we found a great lead guitarist named Jeff Almen and an inspired bass player named George Simpson. We are today the New Misty Crystals and perform frequently in public.

(People with a sense of history may recall that during the mid-19th century, there was a popular blackface music troupe called Christy’s Minstrels with whom composer Stephen Foster was associated. During the 60s, there was a popular folk group called The New Christy Minstrels. Why we picked the name New Misty Crystals for our group I cannot say. A lack of creative thinking perhaps.)

And I must add in all humility that we are pretty good at what we do which is mostly rock, blues, country and bluegrass. We started out humbly enough playing small venues such as the Takoma Park Folk Festival and fund-raisers for the Race for the Cure. We have for three years running played for the annual meeting of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) which is a large audience. The first two were in San Diego and New Orleans where we opened their final day sessions before crowds of 5-6000. The third was in Nashville in 2014 where we played their opening day ceremony before an estimated 10,000 people. That is heady stuff. (I acknowledge this is something of an inside job as some of us actually work for the NRECA, but that only explains our first appearance. They keep inviting us back because we’re good – and also because we don’t cost much.)

But perhaps the most memorable of all was a concert we gave in Jonava, Lithuania, which hosts a cultural festival every other year. How we got there is a convoluted story but there we were in a great hall with hundreds of screaming fans holding their cigarette lighters and pretty young women dancing in front of the stage. I sing lead on many of our numbers and for a while there I really felt like Mick Jagger. At one point I leaned over to our bass man George and ventured that this was the high point of our lives, unlikely to be equaled.

But I was wrong. Not long after returning from Europe, we began making plans for a CD of all original songs. It took us the better part of a year, but we finally got it done and we are proud of the result. You can catch our songs on ITunes or Amazon. Just type in New Mistry Crystals and a whole new world will open up for you.

All in all, I must say that music has enriched my life considerably. My harmonica playing needs some work, but I have the time and the determination to do it. And if I miss a note now and then, what of it? We all miss a note now and then, even those of us who do not play and sing.

Despair Over Income Disparity

During his annual State of the Union address President Obama identified the growing income disparity in our country as a major problem we should do something about. This is apparently going to become the mantra of the Democrats for the November elections.It’s going to be a long year. The income disparity is one of those fuzzy issues that lends itself to demagoguery. Everyone seems to agree the disparity is too big, but no one says how big it ought to be. Surely we don’t want everyone to have the same income. That vision got a workout in the last century. The results were poor. Income inequality is as American as pizza. We assume people with a lot on the ball should earn more money than slackers.

But how much more? There is no credible answer, nor is there any consensus regarding what we should do about the growing income disparity.
We hear a lot about curbing the excessive compensation of corporate CEOs, which generally speaking would be a good idea. Some of these guys are giving greed a bad name. But that would not rectify the problem. Also, raising the minimum wage is another red herring. Less than 3 percent of workers earn the minimum wage and most of those are middle class kids in their first jobs. Raising the minimum wage may be a good idea but it will not impact the income gap.

Likewise, raising taxes on the rich might have some impact, but not much. In 2013, the top 1 percent of wage earners paid 30 percent of tax revenues. The bottom 20 percent paid no federal taxes. We can tweak that balance but all our tweaking will not close the income disparity.

The real problem of course is not one of income but rather social and economic mobility. As long as people see reasonable hope for a better future, our nation will prosper. Unfortunately, opportunities for advancement are increasingly scarce for many people, especially those with limited education and few job skills. A major part of that stems from the loss of millions of low skill manufacturing jobs that once offered people with minimal qualifications relatively easy access to the middle class. We have a great potential to employ more people in well-paying manufacturing jobs, but jobs in modern manufacturing require advanced education and training that most of the displaced manufacturing workers simply do not have.

In sum, we are left with a growing wealth gap between the top and bottom. What are we to do about it? Should we do anything? I extol the importance of education, but too much of our higher education today is failing to endow students with marketable work skills in our rapidly changing economy. Today 15 percent of cab drivers in the U.S. have college degrees. Applications to four year universities are declining and for good reason.

The growing income disparity is a result of a stubborn unemployment that reasonable people working together can solve. One solution is a coherent program for training people of all ages for jobs that actually exist and offer potential for personal growth. The business community would eagerly join forces with government in support of such an initiative if it were truly bi-partisan, professionally led and based upon practical incentives.
In his State of the Union address, the President also called upon Vice President Joe Biden to lead an effort to rationalize federal job training programs. Without question, the plethora of federal job training programs is a mass of confusion and wasteful duplication. The Government Accountability Office had identified 47 job training programs in nine agencies that spent $18 billion in 2009. The House Education and Workforce Committee says the GAO left out at least nine programs.

And of course these are just federal programs we’re talking about. There are hundreds more at the state and local level, and even more in the private sector – including the Manufacturing Institute’s “Dream It, Do It” initiative of the Manufacturing Institute that is doing great work. It may be that the best training programs are in fact at the state and local level.

We have faced bigger challenges than the income gap. What we need is less demagoguery, more rational analysis and perhaps a bit of leadership.

Amazing Modern Manufacturing

I worked many years for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and I have never been as excited about the prospects for U.S. manufacturing as I am today. We are entering a new era – a new golden age of amazing modern manufacturing.

All of a sudden all the ingredients of competitive manufacturing are swinging our way. The biggest single reason is the dramatic drop in the cost of natural gas, which has always been a critical factor in our manufacturing base. We pay about $3.50 per million BTUs, opposed to $12 in Europe and $16 in Japan. And we will keep that edge for a long time, even as we are also ramping up our production of oil. By 2025, the U.S. will be a net exporter of energy.

Meanwhile, other key costs associated with manufacturing, such as labor and land, are rising faster among our main competitors. Wages and benefits in China are rising 15-10 percent a year and the yuan is gaining ground on the dollar. Also, industrial land is much cheaper in parts of the U.S. than in the coastal regions of China where most of the industrial base is located. Ergo, we are fast closing the gap in production costs between the U.S. and China.

But another advantage of U.S. manufacturing, and one that will have greater impact over the long haul than energy, is the creativity of the American people. Manufacturing accounts for about two-thirds of all private sector research and development, and the lion’s share of patents and innovation. Our legal system protects intellectual property which is a big reason why manufacturers pump so much capital into R&D. And the shop floor, today as always, is the real world where new ideas are tested – whether new products or new processes for  making products of  higher quality more efficiently.

As technology roars ahead, the U.S. is well positioned to build on its leadership because of our commitment to innovation. Today as always, manufacturing is our economy’s primary driver of productivity gains. Thanks to innovation, the turnaround time for new product lines is shortening, which adds yet another incentive for manufacturers to produce their products here where they can closely monitor the development process.

All of which means a growing number of manufacturers are bringing production back to the U.S. from overseas even as more foreign manufacturers are shifting production into the U.S. To be sure, U.S. manufacturing will never be the jobs machine it once was, but we will probably add 2.5 million or more new manufacturing jobs by 2020, nipping 2-3 points off the unemployment rate, and by and large they will be good jobs that pay well.

This is not idle speculation; it is happening and it will continue to happen at a quickening pace in the months and years ahead. Hang on to your hats, friends. This promises to be an exciting and productive ride.

Culture Clash

General Sir Charles James Napier, who conquered the Sindh Province of India (now Pakistan) during the heyday of British imperialism, was appalled by the quaint local custom of the suttee — burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. He issued an order banning such things. He was soon thereafter visited by some Hindu holy men who sought to explain to him that the suttee was an ancient and revered tradition in their society that he should respect. Napier heard them out courteously. “You say that it is your custom to burn widows,” he said. “Very well. We also have a custom. When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre. Beside it my men will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”

I have always thought that story, which I believe is credible, speaks volumes to the ancient quandary of clashing cultures. We are conditioned to respect other societies and their cultural values, which generally speaking is a good thing to do. But sometimes we come face to face with values so unspeakably abhorrent to our own that accommodation is virtually impossible.

Some years ago, I wrote a book, “Lincoln and the Sioux Uprising of 1862,” about how our 16th President handled the bloodiest Indian uprising in American history in the midst of the bloody Civil War. In performing research for that book, I was struck again by the clash of cultures when our ancestors tried to co-exist with Native Americans. The Sioux of southwest Minnesota went on a bloody rampage in part because they were being cheated out of their land and money, but even more because they resented the daily insults to their culture.

To be sure, our government was not overtly trying to insult the Sioux. Rather, we were trying to persuade them to become farmers like the European settlers who were moving into the area. The U.S. government offered generous inducements to the Sioux to take up the white man’s ways – free farmland, free farm equipment, instruction, seeds, animals, everything they needed to launch productive farms. A few of the Sioux accepted this generous offer and for the most part they prospered.

But to the majority of the Sioux, these few were sellouts. The Sioux men considered themselves warriors and hunters. Farming was women’s work. And by the way, virtually all of the menial work was performed by the Native American women. That also was part of their ancient and revered culture that our ancestors disrespected. In studying this history, I found myself sympathetic to the European settlers who were offering the Native Americans a better way of life. The traditional Native American culture, at least as represented by the Sioux in that area, was ripe for history’s dustbin.

Today we have yet another major league culture clash afoot between the modern world and the Islamic world – at least as it is expressed by its more traditional exponents. The contrast between that culture and ours is extraordinary. They build their entire lives around their religious faith. They tolerate no dissent. Anyone who is not a Muslim is a heretic to be destroyed. They seek to manage their governments and economies according to the Koran, a 7th century book written by illiterate camel drivers.

Worst of all in my book is their contemptuous treatment of women who have no say in public affairs, who are forbidden to have professional careers or even drive cars (at least in Saudi Arabia). In Afghanistan, a little girl was shot in the head for daring to attend school. The leaders of the Taliban publicly proclaimed this a good thing. Are we really supposed to pretend that this culture deserves our respect?

The rigid discrimination against women also retards Islamic cultural, political and economic development. Women are half the population. To simply dismiss half of the population from making critical contributions to their society, the Islamic world is condemning itself to endless stagnation and backwardness.

I understand the desire of our political leaders to seek to placate the Islamic world, and in fact the great majority of Islamic people are not captive to the extremist views I have herein described. But the discrimination against women is a basic tenet of Islam everywhere. I long to hear our leaders condemn this evil for what it is and call on the Islamic world to shake off its ancient shackles to join the modern world.