A Little Economics Goes a Long Way

According to pollsters, the economy is the number one issue on the minds of voters.  So perhaps it is time for a little economic information, as opposed to dubious claims and outright misinformation.

Question: Are we in a recession?  Answer: No. According to the National Bureau for Economic Research, the official agency charged with measuring recessions, “The official metrics used to determine a recession include negative gross domestic product (GDP), increased unemployment, a decline in retail sales, a slowdown in manufacturing, and diminishing income. When a nation’s economy begins to experience these events simultaneously over an extended period of time, there’s a good chance it’s in a recession.”

GDP grew at a 2.5% rate in the third quarter, and the unemployment rate remains at a historic low at only 3.5%.  Competition for workers has led to increases in wages, which don’t fully offset the inflation. Inflation is a result of not only worker shortages but also lingering supply change problems, a spike in post-pandemic consumer demand, lingering housing shortages, and the effect of the war in Ukraine on worldwide inflation (especially food and fuel).  Gas prices have settled down somewhat, about30 cents a gallon above a year ago.  But housing, good and energy continue to drive rising prices.  A typical recession has high unemployment, falling output, and low inflation.  Those conditions are the opposite of what we are seeing now.

Question. Is a recession coming?  Probably not immediately.  A lot of people look at the Index of Leading indicators as a forecast tool. The Conference Board Leading Economic Index® (LEI) is the most widely used predictor of recessions, with about a six-month lead over changes in GDP and unemployment. This index is a composite of a number of measures that turn up before the business cycle turns up and turn down before the economy begins to decline. Building permits, manufacturers’ inventories, and the stock market are included in these indicators.   In the US, the LEI index rose by 0.9 percent in October), following a 0.1 percent increase in September and a 0.7 percent increase in August.

Question: What about interest rates?  The Federal Reserve Board affects interest rates through its control over the Federal Funds rate, which is the rate at which banks can borrow from the Fed.  A series of increases in that rate by this independent board has affected mortgage rates, auto loan rates, and other key interest rates that affect household and industry borrowing and even borrowing by the federal and state governments. These rate hikes are intended to tamp down borrowing but there is always afear of overshooting and dampening economic activity.

The Fed ‘s board is appointed by presidents with seven-year terms and confirmed by Congress, so they are largely independent of the current president.  While some fiscal policy—changes in tax rates and spending programs—is under the joint control of Congress and the executive branch, the influence of presidential actions on economic activity is generally modest. Neither Trump nor Biden deserves much credit or blame, especially in a global economy where economic activity is highly influenced by what is going on in the rest of the world.  We used to say that when the United States sneezed, the world catches pneumonia, but today the spread of influence, like the spread of COVID, goes both ways.

If you haven’t voted, I hope this helps you factor in the economy in your choice. If you have, please share it with others.  And I shall l turn my blogging attention back to less mundane and more philosophical matters.

Saving Daylight?

On November 6th, we will have to turn back our clocks one hour (most of them automatically reset). When we wake up thinking it is 7 am, the clock says it is only 6 am and we can doze a bit more. Then in March, we will be reminded to reset the clocks forward to standard time, so the 7 am when  we were used to starting our day has been relabeled 8 am and you are LATE!!!

In fact, we can’t save daylight.  What we can do is choose a time pattern to ensure that as many people as possible have enough of the available daylight for their activities that need it. It is in the hands of Congress. Despite requests from 28 states, Congress has yet to act on keeping the same time zone times year-round rather than messing people’s sleeping and living patterns with a one-hour leap forward in March and a turnback of the clock in November. A few states have requested and received permission to stay on one time year-round. (I think their permission is to stay on daylight saving time rather than standard time).

What is the point of all this mass confusion and interrupted waking and sleeping patterns?  Nature encourages us to sleep more in the winter and be more active in the summer with the seasonal changes in both light and warmth, or lack thereof. The path of nature is gradual as we descend into winter and emerge from it about four months late. But adjusting the clocks every Sunday night by 5 or six minutes would be a big hassle, so we seem to have settled into this spring forward, fall back pattern as a grudging way of listening to Mother Nature. There are some reasons offered for the shift, but they aren’t very compelling.  It would probably be good to minimize the number of days children have to wait int he dark for school buses.  (That could be addressed by a healthier, later starting school day, but that’s a different blog and an even more intractable political choice.) Golfers like to extend the light into the evening so that they can play longer. People who work outdoors prefer to maximize the number of normal workday hours that fall into their standard schedules.  People like me who don’t like to drive at night might prefer year-round daylight-saving time to have light later in the day. And therein lies the problem.

Making a change requires that we talk to each other, weigh the advantages of one pattern or the other, and enact it into law.  It isn’t a partisan issue.  It’s not like Republicans want daylight saving and Democrats want standard time, or vice versa.  The consensus for change is strong but split between the “all standard time” supporters and the “all daylight-saving time” coalition. And thus, we are stalemated on a change that would ultimately benefit all of us by avoiding the twice a year confusion and disruption.

The time controversy is just a metaphor for our inability to make democracy work on the bigger issues. If a majority of states and people want a single time pattern year-round, why can’t we make it happen? And if we can’t solve the little problems, how are we ever going to make any headway on the big ones?

So, with one of my favorite holidays—Election Day– just ten days away, think about that challenge when you vote.  Ask yourself, or your candidates, how open-minded, flexible, and responsive is this person, or has he/she been if incumbent, or likely to be in the future? Because democracy only works if we are able to learn, discuss, compromise, make decisions, and move on.

A Doorway Into Winter

A week from today is the Celtic New Year ,October 31st (or November 1st).  Hallowe’en was Samhain (pronounced Sah-wain) in the Celtic tradition.  It was the day when the walls between this world and the spirit world were thinnest, and ghosts walked the earth. It was a day to honor the dead, and to begin again, experiencing the cold and dark of the womb of earth before being reborn again into the light and warmth of spring.

There are many times to celebrate a new year. January 1st is arbitrary, in deep winter, ten days after the winter solstice. (For an economist, that date is important as the start of a new tax year.)  Christians start their new year with Advent, four Sundays before Christmas. Chinese New Year’s Day is in February.  A new school year, for many who are teachers are students, is definitely worth knowing as a fresh start, usually in August or September.  I once hosted a new year’s eve party on August 14th, because Clemson University’s academic calendar and our nine month faculty contracts started on August 15th

.States celebrate a new fiscal year on July 1st, as the federal government used to until it was chronically unable to get a budget passed in time, so it is now October 1st.  The Jewish New Year is a moveable feast, being on a lunar calendar, but like the Celts, the Jews celebrate a new year by going into and through the darkness instead of starting with the return of the light. As for me, I observe two new years: July 1st, the day after my birthday, a new year of my life, and January 1st, because it dictates so many other events and financial matters, and I am an economist by profession and mental framework.

.The idea of going through the darkness and into the light is one worth contemplating, along with the two remarkable cultures that adopted that season as the time to celebrate their new year. The Celts and the Jews were wise and persistent peoples with a great deal of depth of being that persisted from ancient times until the present day.  The darkness they celebrate is a period of renewal—hibernation, reflection, a slowing down of activity, a time for closeness.  Central heating, foodstuffs from all over the world, electric lights, refrigeration, and television have made  winter less different from other seasons of the year in modern industrial culture. We can have fresh blueberries in December, displacing the more traditional holiday fruits. If we are wealthy enough, we can escape the winter cold by becoming snowbirds and spending up to half a year in Florida or Mexico or the Caribbean.

Aside from the expense and inconvenience, that never appealed to me. My body and soul need winter.  I know longer have any yard work to do for at least three or four months. I can turn my attention to nesting, to indoor improvements, to learning new skills and ideas and especially to catching up on my reading. (I have only read 95 books so far this year, the first time I have kept track, and there are so many more!). I can plan what I will do in the year that officially begins on January 1st, start new projects and finish old ones.  I can spend long winter evenings doing jigsaw puzzles and watching documentaries.

Poet Mary Oliver asks us, what we will do with our one wild and precious life?  That’s too big a question for me, but I can decide what to do with this one dark and quiet season before the earth (at least in South Carolina) bursts forth in glorious technicolor, sunshine, and new possibilities and demands. As you enter the darkness, what new possibilities are taking root and growing in the darkness to burst forth in March? How will you use this one precious and wild season of winter?

Morning Questions

I’m a longtme journal-keeper, starting the day with a page or two of what is going on in my life.  At the end of each day’s entry, I ask myself three questions.  The first two are “What do I hope for today?” And “What am I grateful for today?” The third question come from British author E.B. White, who posed it something like this.  “When I get up in the morning, I have to decide whether to enjoy the world or to improve the world. It makes it hard to plan my day.” In the form of a question, as the Jeopardy host would say, ?What do I plan to do (or not do) that will enable me to enjoy and/or improve the world today?”  Most days I try to do some of each, but there are some days that are mostly enjoy and some that are mostly improve. Over time, I have seen closer links among the questions because the enjoy/improve questions are grounded in what I hope for and what I am grateful for.

The practice of gratitude journaling has been around for a while. Those not inclined to do prayers of thanks (I’m one of those) find an alternative way of expressing thanks to be an alternative spiritual discipline.  There are so many big and little things that make our life more enjoyable that we can be thankful for and so many things we can do to make the world a better place. I have hopes for myself, about being a better person or getting more exercise or losing weight of being more mindful and more present. I have hopes for my friends and children and grandchildren, hopes for my state and my country and the world, hope for peace in Ukraine and slowing down climate change and preserving democracy. Gratitude is tied to enjoy, and hope is improving (or at least not to making things worse). All four of them are part of the mix of who we are and what we do and how that being and doing impacts our life and the lives of others.

Theologian Joanna Macy reminds us that hope has to be active hope, not wishful thinking.   She castigates both optimism (all will be for the best in this best of all possible worlds) and pessimism (nothing I do will make any difference) as a failure of hope, which those who read the New Testament may recognized as one of Paul’s cardinal virtues, along with faith and love. It is not enough to sit yon your recliner and think hopeful thoughts, but to find ways to work alone or even better with others to bring them about.  Similarly, gratitude means respecting the sources of joy, whether it is a sunny day, flowers, a cat on your lap, or a surprise phone call from an old friend. Gratitude calls us to be kind, attentive, and respectful of the atmosphere, the plants, animals, and other people.

What might it look like as a journal entry?  Something like this.  Today I plan to enjoy my weekly 4 pm visit with my women friends who largely share my values and attitudes but are enough different to challenge some of them.  I also plan to enjoy my exercise class, doing some writing, taking a walk, and making pumpkin bread.  I will finish up preparations for my congregational board meeting (I’m the president) and gather the supplies I need for a postcard to minority voters projects to launch after the Sunday service. I will get in touch with an old friend who recently suffered a fall and haul my recyclables to the local recycling center.  I will spray my doorways and windowsills with cleaning vinegar to discourage critters from moving in without resorting to poison. The postcards are part of my hope for democracy, the recycling and vinegar reflect my hope for the planet, and my call to my friend rests on the hope that it will cheer her up while she recovers. I am grateful for so many things, but the ones that are reflected in my enjoying and improving are my friends, my faith community, a good recipe for pumpkin bread, and the Botanical Garden in my community where I often walk.

We are what we think and what we do and what we refrain from thinking and doing.  Sometimes it helps to commit it to paper.

Lessons from the Pandemic

The pandemic is never completely ended, but most of us have returned to normal life, knowing that getting Covid is now more like getting the flu and for most of us, It’s not likely to be fatal. However, the pandemic has taught us some important lessons.

  1. Things go better when we cooperate.  Getting shots and wearing masks don’t just protect me, they also protect everyone else from me. We are all in this together.Sometimes teh government is a useful way of facilitating cooperation, and that’s not a bad thing.
  2. Electronic communication is very useful, but it is a complement, not a substitute, for in-person presence.  We have five senses.  Zoom gives us two, hearing and sight.  We don’t expect to smell or taste each other, at least not in public, but there is something meaningful about touch, even if it’s only an elbow bump.  Being physically present is a very different experience form seeing people online.  Body language is clearer and communication is more direct. It’s easier to break up into subgroups, and to move from one group to another. Groups that have resumed meeting in person seemed much more appreciative of the company of others whether it was at work, play, church, school, or social gatherings.
  3. Having said that, Zoom and Google Meet have become an important part of our lives, and remain very useful for gathering people together from disparate spaces from short periods of time. Other software like Slack also enables speedy and focused communications via the internet.
  4. The workplace will never be the same.  While some jobs always did and always will require physical presence, there is a whole lot work from home at least a few days a week that is especially helpful for people who have lives—spouses, children, community involvement.  Flexibility and hybrid work situations save commuting costs, make workers happier, and reduce the need for so much expensive office space.
  5. We learned to appreciate essential workers—nurses, caregivers, first responders, teachers.  Hopefully we will remember how essential they were and are when it comes time to consider they wages and working conditions.
  6. Some of us may have learned to appreciate the value of solitude, which is different from loneliness.  Spending time alone or at least at home can help us get better acquainted with ourselves and family members and encourage us to try out new experiences.
  7. Science doesn’t have all the answers, but it does know how to look for them.  Science is something we learn as we go.  The speed with which the vaccine was developed and distributed is mind-boggling. The investments we make in scientific research can have big payoffs in terms of human flourishing.

If we are mindful, or lucky, or reflective, maybe we can take those lessons with us on the next stages of our life journeys.

The Labor of Our Lives

The end of summer, the beginning of school, and the advent of fall is marked in this country by Labor Day. It seems like a suitable occasion to reflect on the meaning of work in its various incarnations.   Most work involves serving the needs of others, collaboration, and learning to do difficult or challenging or boring tasks in order that the work of the world may go on.

Homework.  Housework. Yard work. Volunteer work. Paid work. While all these kinds of work have a place in our lives, I want to focus mostly but not exclusively on those kinds of work that involve wages or salaries or the sale and purchase of services. My first job was in retail during my junior and senior years in high school.  I knew I wanted to go to college. My and my family could not afford to send me, and in those ancient days, scholarships were scarce.  I worked for a dollar an hour and managed to save $2000 by the time I left for college. The job had its satisfactions, the camaraderie of other working teens, the interaction with customers, the feeling of being useful and getting a paycheck.  But it was only a job. For some people, a job is something that pays the bills and buys the groceries while the real vocation is something else, such as homemaking, the arts, care giving, or community building.

My sophomore and junior years in college I earned money by grading freshman physics papers.  That too, was just a job for spending money.  It did teach me how little I liked grading paper.  Still, I knew I was headed for an academic career so that I could spend the rest of my life reading and learning and writing and teaching and thinking. I knew that academia was where I needed to be from the time when I started elementary school, even before I knew what the word academic meant. I had turned my attention from job to career and/or vocation.

A career involves more than a job. It means getting better pay and acquiring skills and credentials as well as doing things to advance your career, learning and applying new skills, and finding yourself in a competitive environment, which didn’t exist in either of my first two jobs.  A career, unlike a job, can get in the way of the rest of your life, your physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being and your relationships. Usually. you leave a job behind when you go home– that’s part of its appeal, a life that is not totally absorbed in work. The demands of a career create many of the tensions of midlife, that period when one is working full time and also raising a family and building a social network of friends and neighbors and co-workers.

Vocation evolves over a lifetime. Just as learning does not end with graduation,  neither does vocation, the place where your passions meet your gifts. Vocation is your answer to poet Mary Oliver’s question “what will you do with your one wild and precious life?” A sense of vocation may emerge in some nebulous form from our earliest years. One of the hardest tasks of parenting or mentoring is to hold up a mirror to a young person to see their passion and their gifts and how they might blend into a vocation.  Vocation is what Parker Palmer describes as letting your life speak.

Knowing that I wanted an academic niche as both career and vocation was not enough. Like lawyers and doctors, academics specialize, sometimes too much. My first semester, I fell In love with economics. I was drawn to economics because it was theoretical and applied and useful and mathematical all at the same time.   Most of all, it was the foundation for much public policy. I was passionately interested in politics, more from the policy standpoint than from the spectator sport part, although I liked that too. Like any good choice of a career that doubles as a vocation, economics was where my gifts met my passions.  That defined vocation for me.

My daughters went through their own vocational discernment.  My older two daughters knew very early that their passions were art and music.  My youngest daughter struggled more with defining her gifts and passions,; she has a career as a library director and a vocation as a photographer that takes up much of her spare time. Two of them followed careers that embodied vocations, while the youngest split her time between the two.

A career or a job are something from which you will, if you live long enough, eventually retire. Then the question becomes, how to fill that space.  After a few years of golf, bridge, and travel, most of my retired friends have looked for something more meaningful. .My late colleague, Jim Hite, used to say that he had retired from his career, not his profession.  That was also true for me. We just practiced it less full time and in different contexts than before.

 If a person hasn’t already found a vocation, it can and often does happen in retirement. I have a friend who spent her career in real estate management, but now finds her vocation in care-giving tour elderly neighbors. Retirees are often drawn into volunteer work that uses their skills and satisfies the passions in ways that their careers did not. It also gives them some flexibility they longed for during their working years.

In the feudal society of medieval Europe, birth and gender determined one’s station, serfs and peasants, craftsmen and merchants, knights, lords and king. Even then, there were deviants. The church was one of those places to find a niche for deviants, especially women. Over the centuries and around the world, women’s options were settled at birth. Only the brave and defiant managed to find expression for their gifts and passions outside of a very confined role, embracing what theologian Paul Tillich called The Courage to Be. Entering a convent offered options as intellectuals, teachers, nurses, theologians, and leaders. These options were not available to most women, who chose or were coerced into marriage as job, career, and vocation. Even in 19th century Britain, as we learn from reading Jane Austin novels, women’s task was to find a husband, manage an household, and procreate.

In the classical Hindu tradition, as in feudal European society, your vocation was not a matter of discernment.  It was assigned at birth.  Resistance was futile, as we learned from the Bhagavad Gita. It was age and gender and caste specific.  Children play until it is time to begin learning and preparing for their adult roles.  After the student years, it is time to embark on a career—there are more options now than when one was limited to peasant, merchant, warrior, or Brahman for men, wife and mother for women.  When you become old, your hair turns white, and you have seen your grandchildren, you are called to renounce worldly things and engage the life of the spirit.  This pre-ordained job-career-vocation track was mitigated by the promise that if you lived your assigned life well, you would get promoted on reincarnation.  And also the opposite. For traditional Christians and Muslims, heaven replaces reincarnation as the compensation for a lofe that did not let you find the joy of self-expression in vocation..

The pandemic turned the world of work upside down but also recalled an earlier time. For many centuries most families were farmers.  They worked from home without benefit of the internet.  Women and men were partners with each other and mother nature in making a living.  Industrialization and commercialization changed that pattern, and work became separated from home.

While there are many jobs, careers, and vocations that do not lend themselves to working at least partly from home, it is surprising how many there are. It not surprising how productive workers can be when they have less conflict between earning a living and living a life. Hybrid is becoming the new normal for many jobs, combining the benefits of less commute time and flexibility with the opportunity to collaborate in real time with physically present people.

After high school, many young people feel adrift, trying to figure out what next, what to do with their adult lives and what skills they need to acquire to find their niche in the world of work. They need mentors, but they also need to learn about themselves through work of most any kind. At the opposite end of the lifespan, many retirees find that they miss the companionship and collaboration that they had experienced in their work years and often seek out a form of work to develop relationships with co-workers and those whom they serve and to provide meaning and structure to their days.  For those in the middle, work in whatever form is a big part of the challenge of life balance, because those are also the years of marriage and children and competing demands for limited time.

For all of us, there is a tension between making a living and living an authentic and meaningful life, a lesson brought home by the pandemic, work from home, and a severe shortage of immigrants. With 3.5 percent unemployment, many workers have power to influence their wages, working conditions, and duties because they know they can find a better job. 

What does Labor Day invite us to think about the meaning of work Honest work, paid or unpaid, job, career, vocation, or all three, makes us better human beings. It builds community. Picking up garbage and delivering the mail, checking out of groceries and teaching our children, building our cars and mowing our lawns, caring for the sick, growing and harvesting crops, are just a few of the ways in which workers sustain our lives and our communities.

Labor Day offers an invitation to reflect on the role of work. To be thankful for the work we have been called or at least empowered to do and appreciative of the many kinds of work of others that makes our lives richer, safer, wiser, healthier, or more meaningful. To be mindful of those who struggle with the discernment about what to do with, as poet Mary Oliver says, “their one wild and precious life.” And to be advocates and supporters of those who struggle to find work that pays enough to provide for a decent life and hopefully other satisfactions as well.

Women’s Equality Day

The Declaration of Independence says that all men are created equal.  Man is a troublesome word in English. Sometimes it means a human being and other times it means a male human being. I took four years of Latin in high school, which taught me a lot about languages and how they shape and are shaped by their cultures.  Despite the patriarchal, misogynistic, authoritarian, slave-owning culture of the Roman empire, Latin did distinguish between a homo as a human being and vir and mulier as, respectively, a male human being and a female human being. In fact, the word man in the Declaration of Independence, the word man meant even less than that.  It meant a white male property owner. It took a Civil War and four constitutional amendments and several Civil Rights Acts and the Voting Rights Act to broaden our definition of man.  In this month we celebrate one of those acts, the 19th Amendment.

In 2010 I published a collection of essays called Economics Takes A Holiday. It explores the story of 28 holidays through the lens of economics, because after all, I am first and foremost an economist.  The origin of this book was in a series of weekly columns by faculty in my department in the Greenville newspaper.  One day about 50 years ago I decided to write a column for Valentine’s day, with the title of Heartless Capitalism.  That was the beginning of the holday series. Every month had at least two holidays, some four or more.  Until I got to August, and I was stumped.  Yes, there was the ascension of the blessed virgin, but I couldn’t do much with that.  I settled on an essay titled August, the month with no holidays. I lamented the long hours and few vacations and holidays for American workers compared to other developed countries. After the book was published, I hit my head and said Duh!  Women’s Equality Day. I celebrate this holiday  every August with my friends in the local League of Women Voters. We kick off a new League year with a party in which we celebrate voting, and famous woman, and fighting for our rights.  Even in South Carolina there was a celebration of this holiday in 2020 at the statehouse, while glossing over the fact that  the state only got around ratifying in  the 19th amendment in 1969 for its upcoming 50th anniversary.

This year we are once again fighting for women’s rights, the right of reproductive choice and control of our bodies, which we have enjoyed for fifty years.  I was married in 1962 in my native state of Connecticut where contraception was illegal.  Fortunately, condoms could be purchased for the prevention of socially transmitted diseases and birth control pills could be prescribed for menstrual irregularity, both of which were apparently epidemic in the state.  In 1965, SCOTUS handed down a ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut that overruled the Connecticut contraception blue law, , on the grounds of a right to privacy inherent in the 14th amendment. That case set the stage for Roe v. Wade. 

Only in recent years have we learned the extent to which rights are fragile—voting rights, civil rights, privacy rights, safety rights. A major difference between the contraception ban in Connecticut before 1965 and the new abortion laws was enforcement. There was no enforcement in the earlier era , but now some states have established criminal penalties for doctors, clinics, and women for having abortions—even miscarriages that someone claims was actually an abortion. The struggle for the 19th amendment may offer some insights into what comes next.

How did it finally happen after 72 years of agitation that women finally won the right to vote?  The movement was launched in 1948 at the Seneca Falls Women’s Convention with a Declaration of Women’s rights. Soon that agenda had to take a back seat to the battle over slavery.  In 1868 after the War of the Rebellion, as it was sometimes known in the north, the lesser known 15th amendment was ratified. It prohibited the federal government and each state from denying or abridging a citizen’s right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Efforts by women to explicitly include gender were ignored. 

Four other significant events took place in the intervening years that helped the suffrage cause. One was the settlement of the west, which was less conventional about women’s roles than the east. One by one, western states gave women voting rights.  Another was the 1913 constitutional amendment requiring direct election of senators by the people instead of appointed by state legislatures.  Western senators had to court the women’s vote, and increasingly, so did presidential candidates in states where women could vote.

The third event was the service rendered by women in so many ways for the war effort during the first world war.  They could fight, nurse, or do men’s jobs while the men were away, but they had no say in the government they were serving.   A fourth and final factor was the victory of the female-dominated temperance movement in enacting prohibition, passed in 2018. Many men and especially liquor interests saw a link between suffrage and prohibition, but when liquor became illegal even without women being able to vote, the opposition lost its steam. 

How do we explain the Dobbs decision and possibly other to follow? Backlash. The political right is dominated by wealthy old white men. Abortion gave them an issue that they could use to enlist unlikely allies in the religious right.  It has been an unholy but effective alliance that made it possible to  gain and control political power as they saw themselves becoming a minority. The Constitution was written by old wealthy white men, many of them slave owners. Today it has been weaponized to reinstitute the misogyny of in the right wing of Christianity and  control of their bodies away from women.

Most of us believe that the democratic process rests heavily on the first amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, yet the Supreme Court is embracing a religious minority’s interpretation of when life begins.  Not only do most Christians but also Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims consider abortion permissible.

When asked if I am pro-choice or pro-life, I always say Yes.  How can one not be pro-life? Would anyone claim to be either anti-life or anti-choice? But when it comes to a choice between the life of a living, breathing human being and a small, half-formed cluster of cells, I have to choose the woman. I’m sure there are occasional abortions for frivolous reasons, but I believe that most of them are important life-shaping decisions for the woman and her family and her future. Just ask the 10 year old rape victim in Ohio who had to go to Indiana for an abortion.

The 19th amendment in 1920 was the culmination of a 72-year battle. Tennessee, the 36th state to ratify, passed it into law by a single vote, giving the required ¾ majority on August 19th. The U.S Secretary of State enrolled the amendment in the Constitution on August 26th, giving us not Women’s Equality Day but Women’s Equality Week.  A fitting length for such a long labor before it was birthed. Only one of the original suffrage leaders was still alive in 1920 but too ill to vote. 

Back in the days before the 19th amendment, when my great-grandmother was marching for women’s suffrage, there was a split in the movement over strategy. Two splits, in fact.  One was whether to over focus on suffrage or push the ERA.  Realistically, the ERA would probably not have made it, but suffrage did.  Sometimes compromise is the best path.  But if the ERA had been enacted as a Constitutional amendment, then or later, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The other split was more tactical.  Get the right to vote state by state or focus on Congress and a Constitutional amendment? And the answer was yes.  It took both to get the 19th amendment through Congress and ratified by 36 of the 48 states..

In the case of reproductive choice, a state-by-state strategy is already underway, at least at the legislative level.  Blue states are strengthening the right to an abortion and preparing to serve the needs of those whose states embrace the minority view. Red states are busy rewriting their trigger laws and enacting punitive measures for all who conspire to help end an unplanned, high risk, unwanted pregnancy. Anti-woman forces are gathering steam to make it even mor restrictive, even as  pro-life, pro-choice folks are trying to pile up exceptions. Ectopic pregnancies. A girl under age 15, with the presumption of lack of ability to consent. Life and health of the mother. A fetus with no potential for viability. Some hope that a blue wave in the midterms may make it possible for Congress to codify abortion as a federal right.

I know that many of us are hopeful, although not optimistic, about using the power of the vote to change this situation.  We can contribute to campaigns, get out the vote, make sure people know what Is at stake. We can grill candidates on their position on this and other privacy rights issues, because the victorious majority of the court is now thinking about contraception and same-sex marriage.  We can support organizations that make abortion available through telemedicine and access to non-surgical abortions.  We can make sure that girls AND boys get sex education and know how to access and use contraception.

There are lessons in that struggle about compromising and holding firm, about strategy and tactics, and about the truth of Reinhold Niebuhr’s dictum that nothing worth accomplishing is ever accomplished in our lifetimes. Therefore, we are saved by hope. As we struggle to keep hope alive and make a difference in abortion rights, voting rights, democracy, and climate change, let us hold up and retell the stories of these past struggles to revive our commitment and determination.

Primary Solutions

It has been a bad week for the Republican party.  They saddled several states with unelectable candidates, Kansas demonstrated the consequences of the anti-abortion movement, Alex Jones turned out to be an idiot in a very public way, the Democrats are actually passing legislation, and it came to light that members of the former Trump administration engaged in electronic coverups worthy of Richard Nixon and Watergate.

I am a Democrat, so this should make me happy, but it doesn’t.  I want a real Republican party to go toe to toe with Democrats, to put some constraints on their excesses, so the job doesn’t depend on Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.  In that spirit, I would like to offer some constructive suggestions for rebuilding a Republican Party as my party’s loyal opposition, as the Brits would say. I think the answer lies in primaries.

The problem with primaries is that they often give the nomination to the leading candidate, even if that person doesn’t have a majority.  That’s particularly dangerous for Republicans because about 30 percent of the voters (all Republican) are hard core conspiracy theorist stolen election diehards. They are a majority of Republicans (whose numbers are shrinking) but a minority of the electorate, so the more extreme candidates win the primary but are likely to lose the general election.  They also create a danger that some of them will actually been elected. think Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Green and Madison Cawthorne.

.You know all this.  What could the Republicans do to change this situation, releasing them from the “Trumpylonan” captivity? There are several changes in primaries that might help the mainstream, sane Republicans recapture their party.  The first is a jungle primary, with several variants, which is used in California, Alaska, Louisiana, and Washington (state).. According to politicaldictionary.com, “A jungle primary is an election in which all candidates for elected office run in the same primary regardless of political party. It’s also known as the ‘blanket primary,’ ‘open primary’ or ‘top two primary,’ since the top two candidates who receive the most votes advance to the next round, similar to a runoff election. However, in a jungle primary there is no separate nomination process for candidates before the first round, and parties cannot narrow the field. In fact, it is entirely possible that two candidates of the same party could advance to the second round. For this reason, it’s not surprising that the parties haven’t rushed to embrace jungle primaries because they ultimately reduce their power. This voting system theoretically will elect more moderate candidates, as the victor may appeal to voters of both parties in a two-party system.” BTW, Alaska has four candidates rather than two on the November ballot.

It was the jungle primary in the state of Washington that saved two moderate Republican members of Congress who had voted for impeachment, and the jungle primary in Alaska which will make it more difficult for Sarah Palin to get the nomination to replace Lisa Murkowski in the Senate.

The second option is one actually used in South Carolina and Georgia, among other states.  First, it’s an open primary, so regardless of your party preference or affiliation, one can vote in either the Democratic or the Republican primary, but not both. I frequently choose the Republican primary because there are more contested races, and it enables me to choose the Republican I could most easily live with if elected.  In both South Carolina and Georgia, a candidate must get a majority to win, or face a runoff. This isn’t quite as satisfying as the jungle primary, but it does tend to produce more moderate candidates.

The third choice is about presidential elections, and it also involves primaries.  Democrats generally allocate delegates to the party’s nominating convention from a state based on the share of votes received.  Republican Presidental primaries award all the votes to the top candidate. Under Dmeocartic rules, former president Trump would only get 35 percent of the convention delegates from a state where he received 35 percent of the vote, which happened often on the road to the White House in 2016. Winner take all primaries get to the decision faster, but they miss a lot of useful information along the way.

I offer these suggestions to the sane remnant of the Republican party because I would dearly like to see that party resurface.  Democracy would be better off if we allowed broader participation in the nominating process to reflect the concerns of a larger share of voters. Jungle primaries, open primaries with runoffs, and presidential delegate allocation based on vote percentages are three significant improvements that both parties should consider.

Watching You (Economic) Language

The words inflation, recession, and stagflation have been tossed about by lots of political commentators who apparently either flunked college economics or rinsed their brains out too thoroughly with beer to remember any of it.  Perhaps, as an economist, I can shed a bit of right on these terms and how we measure and predict recessions and their companion ,expansions.

No, we are NOT in a recession. The stock market has  taken a nosedive, and while it matters—the value of all our pensions and retirement savings are down from their highs of 2021—it’s not even close to a gauge of our overall economic health. The stock market had been rising rather spectacularly over the last few years and was overdue for a correction.  Let’s look, instead. at the indictors that measure a recession–the unemployment rate and the rate of growth of GDP. A recession may mean too little money in circulation to enable consumers to buy an excessive stock of goods. That situation can result if excessive optimism about sales runs ahead of the ability of the economy to find buyers, resulting in rising inventories of unsold goods.  As firms cut back on production and lay off workers, inflation subsides, unemployment rises, and we are in a recession. GDP is projected to grow a respectable 3.5 percent for 2022, with a projected  slowdown in inflation, and the unemployment rate remains an impressively low 3.6 percent. A recession is officially defined as two successive quarters (= six months) of falling output, or GDP. That has not yet happened. If we were in a recession, we would see little or no inflation, rising unemployment, and a backlog of unsold goods and services. Sorry, guys, not a recession.

Inflation rarely accompanies a recession.  Inflation means rising prices of goods and services over a period of time, is sometimes described as the result of too much money chasing too few goods.  Inflation can result from too much money in the economy, the result of low interest rates at the Federal Reserve and a lot of pumping recovery money into the economy under both the Trump and Biden administrations in 2020 and 2021.  Now that interest rates are back to more historically normal levels and most of that extra cash pumped into the economy has been spent, too much money is not a continuing problem.

Inflation can also result from  competition for too few goods relative to consumer demand, and that’s a large part of what we are observing right now.  The pandemic. The labor shortage, due to lack of immigrants and the great resignation (people dropping out of the labor force during the pandemic), which drives up wage costs and therefore prices. The supply chain bottleneck. The loss of fossil fuels and wheat from Russia and Ukraine during the current war.   We have seen all kinds of shortages in the last year, but the biggest ones are a shortage of workers, shortages of many foodstuffs due to climate change, drought, and the Russian war against Ukraine, and the shortage of fossil fuels, which affects not only household transportation but also the cost of goods being shipped long distances in a global economic network. Some of these bottlenecks, particularly in air transportation, are due to layoffs of key personnel during the travel doldrums of the pandemic and the ability to ramp up again when demand returns.  It’s hard to produce truck drivers, pilots, and mechanics after many of them have retired, changed occupations, or just don’t want the job anymore. Labor markets work pretty well at attracting new workers by raising wages and benefits and improving working conditions, but the shocks of the last few years  are going to impact the economy for some time to come.

There’s been lots of vague references to stagflation.  That isn’t happening either.  In the 1970s, a series of supply shocks to the world economy resulted in rising prices, interest rates and unemployment rates. The monetary and fiscal tools that governments use to try to dampen fluctuations in economic activity are not very useful with stagflation. The tools to fight inflation are higher interest rates, less government spending or borrowing, higher taxes. The tools to fight slow growth and rising unemployment are lower interest rates, government deficits, increased government spending, lower taxes.

 Fortunately, stagflation is NOT our current problem.  It’s a whole lot easier to prescribe policies when you have the either of the more normal situations–high unemployment and stable prices, or low unemployment and inflation.  However, those tools tend to focus on pumping up or tamping down demand, and that’s not the problem right now.  What we are facing now, not just in the US but across the globe, is a supply problem, shortages of not only goods and services but also workers, and especially workers with specialized skills.  The Federal Reserve is cautiously raising interest rates and the federal government has reduced its budget deficits, but the real challenge is trying to lure more workers into the labor market and work on some of the supply problems that have created empty shelves and car lots at dealers and flight cancellations.

The good news is that we know which tools are useful.  The bad news is it will take some time to address the supply issues.  The other good news is rising wages and low unemployment.  As a general rule, working class and lower income households are better with a little inflation as long as wages keep pace, and for the past year wages have risen pretty dramatically, especially at the bottom of the scale. Signing bonuses and a de facto minimum wage approaching $15 an hour can do a lot to offset rising prices.  Low to middle income households have little in the way of financial assets that lose purchasing power during inflation, while wealthier families have more job security and more to lose from inflation in the value of their investment portfolios.  In fact, the average person on the bottom of the pyramid has more debt than assets, and the value of the dollars paid back are less than the value of the dollars borrowed. Maybe the self-interest of the talking heads class and their sponsors is the reason why we hear a drumbeat about inflation but no mention of low unemployment rates and opportunities to find a decent job at a reasonable salary?

What is there to take away from this quick trip through what old-time economists (like me) used to call business cycle theory? It’s not a recession yet, and I can’t see one being declared before the November elections. Anyone calling it stagflation needs to go back to school for remedial economics. We know what tools to use on inflation, but their effectiveness depends on getting past supply problems, and that takes time.  Treating workers well in both earnings and working conditions is always good business policy, but even more so right now. We could use a few more of those hard-working  immigrants to fill the labor ranks and more investment in skills at the next level to rebuild our labor force.  The stock market isn’t the economy, and the health of the stock market  matters more to those who have been getting all the tax cuts and contributed al the big money to political campaigns than to the bottom 90 percent.

See?  Economics isn’t all that dismal.  Sometimes it’s actually hopeful—and helpful.

How About a Girlcott?

One way of getting the attention of public officials is voting and advocacy.  On the issue of a woman’s right to choose, I have done my due diligence, contacting my state legislators and some others who ae willing to accept email from people outside their local district.  But there are other forms of pressure that are often effective, including economic pressure.  Chambers of Commerce and state  Departments of Commerce live in fear of being boycotted.  In an environment where there is a shortage of skilled labor, firms must pay attention to the concerns of their female employees. Votes, matter, but so do voice and dollars.

Here ae some pressure points.

  1. Travel. Abortion laws will be a factor in my travel decisions.  I can tolerate certain limited restrictions on abortion , but not the six weeks’ gestation (which as any woman knows, is actually about four weeks!), the criminal penalties, and the efforts to prevent travel and telemedicine and pills by mail. I’m glad I made it to South Dakota in May while abortions were still legal, but henceforth I will be more vigilant about where I spend my tourist dollars.
  2. Meetings and conventions.  Ditto.  If you belong to any organizations that have events, trips, etc., encourage them to focus on those destinations where women are still considered people with the right to make their own decisions
  3. Business firms and mobile workers. Firms looking to relocate or expand should be made aware of the conditions their female employees, or their employees’ wives and daughters, will face if they  need an abortion.  I have lived in South Carolina since before Roe v. Wade, and it’s too late in my life to relocate, but I would strongly urge anyone (or firm) that is mobile to locate, relocate, or expand in a state where women are treated as fully human.
  4. Shop and invest. I am a firm believer in the power of the group who refuse to patronize forms that are openly opposed to a woman’s right to choose. Some of them we know about—Hobby Lobby, for example. Others have to be sought out.  If you are a socially responsible investor, find out if your companies support a woman’s right to choose in all ways, not just by a health plan that covers abortion. Cross state lines to shop if you need to.  I can do that; I live close to the North Carolina line, and right now they have a Democratic governor and no trigger law. Check when you shop online to see where the firm is located.  And it’s not enough to boycott, you need to tell them why you are boycotting.
  5. Silence is consent. I once had a tire slashed for having an ERA bumper sticker on my car.  Speak up.  If you leave your hairdresser or your formerly favorite restaurant because they are openly anti-choice, tell them why you won’t be returning.
  6. If you’ve got a religion, speak from your faith.  Progressive Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other faith traditions do not share the distorted, mistranslated, overly literalized reading of selected passages of the Bible used to keep women barefoot and pregnant. The view that the embryo is a full-fledged human being from the moment of conception is not science. It’s a religious view, one of many religious views, all of which are supposedly protected by the First Amendment.  My religion calls me that I respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person, including pregnant women. It calls me to practice compassion in human relations, and to affirm democracy as the guiding process in our common life.
  7. Find strength in numbers. There are all kinds of organizations that work to support reproductive choice, starting with Planned Parenthood and the Women’s Rights Empowerment Network. Give them your support, financial and vocal, for protecting women from this disastrous Supreme Court decision as well as more that may be on the way.

Surely somewehre on this laundry list you can find one or more ways to protest this disastrous Court decision as an expression of commitment to the lives of those already born.