The Green Divide

March 24, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Half of the country’s voters live on 80% of the land, which the political analysts color red. Half of voters live on the remaining 20% of land, which is colored blue. The needs, values and outlooks of those in the red are not the same as those in the blue. As the country’s population continues to migrate from rural to metropolitan areas, the country becomes ever more divided. As economist Paul Krugman wrote this week, no one knows how to fix the continuing economic decline in rural areas (Note #1).

A person’s views on an issue may depend on the state they live in. In the past several decades, immigration has had much more impact on California and the southern states. In 1980, 15% of California’s population was foreign born, almost four times the national average of 4.3%. In 2015, that share had doubled for both California and the nation as a whole. However, the national average is only a third of California’s numbers (Note #2). How does the nation adopt a single policy toward immigration when there are such differences in circumstances?

Regardless of our different experiences and outlooks, we are dependent on each other. 20% of Americans are on the Social Security and Medicare programs (Note #3). 24% are on CHIP and Medicaid (Note #4). 40% of the two million farms in America receive subsidies (Note #5). The transfers of money between Americans has reached 14% of GDP.

TransfersPctGDP

In 1962, Ronald Reagan took a stridently conservative tone when he warned that the Medicare program being developed in the Democratic Congress would lead to socialism and the destruction of American democracy (Note #6). Having married into wealth, he could afford a dramatic interpretation of social policy. Few Americans hold such extreme views today (Note #7).

The reasonable arguments of today might look oppressive to future generations, and progressive ideas seem natural to our descendants. Our ancestors had different views toward slavery, racism, voting rights and social programs than we have today. What has not changed is our distrust of those we regard as “other,” and our desire to make our principles universal for our fellow Americans. We want everyone to play by our rules, or our interpretation of the rules.

In the debates on the ratification of the US Constitution, some asked what the terms “provide for the …general welfare” meant (Note #8). Was the new government to become a national charity? The Federalists argued for the inclusion of the term to give the government a degree of latitude in changing circumstances. The anti-Federalists argued that this new government would eventually become the home of beggars and lobbyists wanting to promote their own welfare as the “general welfare.” In the past century, the phrase has become a constitutional bedrock of Supreme Court precedent underlying social programs. A person could argue that the size of social welfare spending and the extraordinary power of lobbyists in Washington has proven the anti-Federalist’s case.

America is the land of debate because the Constitution was structured to promote debate. While Americans had a platform to argue with each other, it was hoped that there would be less bloodshed, rebellion, and dictatorship (Note #9). Some days we might be less sure of that premise. As the circumstances of urban and rural America diverge further, we will struggle ever more to reach consensus. Each side will feel the need to impose its will on the other.  As we debate these issues, we should be just as careful of our own instincts as we are about the instincts of those on the other side of the debate.

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Notes:

1. Krugman op-ed on lack of solutions for the economic decline in rural America
2. Four decades of immigration numbers – pdf page 6
3. 62 million Americans on Social Security and Medicare – numbers here
4. 74 million Americans on CHIP and Medicaid – numbers here
5. 39% of 2.1 million farms receive agricultural subsidies
6. Reagan warns against Medicare
7. During the debate before the passage of Obamacare, some Tea Party members advocated a return to the days when we just let old people die.
8. U.S. Constitution, Section 8.1 “provide for the common Defence [sic] and general Welfare of the United States” http://constitutionus.com/
9. Former colonies of Great Britain have struggled with free speech issues. South Africans has only had freedom of expression for twenty years . Canada still does not have complete freedom of speech

 

Free Stuff

January 21, 2018

by Steve Stofka

I like the 21st century. I get a lot of free stuff. Opinions, news and information, and directions to anywhere on the planet. Free apps and games for my phone. Free porno and free sermons.

I get so much free stuff that I can afford to pay for fancy coffee and smart phones, television and internet access. I can now afford a personal guru to align my chakras. My personal assistant, Alexa, listens to me and answers my questions.

Goodbye and good riddance to the 20th century with its clunky records, cassettes and DVDs. I say “Alexa, play me blankety-blank song,” and millions of tiny electrons do my bidding, and out comes my song!

My real personal income has doubled since 1973 (Average per capita income ) so I got all this extra free money. I’m getting paid more at work than 45 years ago. My total compensation has gone up 44% (Total real compensation per employee ). My employer provided benefits have doubled (Real employee benefits ). My employer kicks in more free money into my retirement program, and into my health care insurance. That’s real dollars, after inflation.

I got so much extra free money coming in that I’m living like royalty. My income has gone up 100% in 45 years, but my spending has increased 137% because I’m a first class 21st century person that banks want to loan money to.

Outlays1973-2017

Since 2000, I eat out a lot more – like 75% more (Real restaurant sales ). I deserve it cause I’m making all this extra money and I’m too busy to cook. In 2000, I was spending $11.50 a day for shelter but I needed more personal room and modern conveniences. Now I got more room but I’m spending $16 a day.

HousingCostRealPerCap2000-2017

Living first class means that I’m saving a lot less of my free extra money.  45 years ago, I was saving 12% of my income.  Now it’s 3%. But there’s an easy fix to that. More free stuff!
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Farming Communities

This past summer, my wife and I joined the many thousands of solar eclipse watchers who visited western Nebraska, where the totality and length of the eclipse was near its peak.  At hotels, shops and restaurants we were greeted with a cordiality that is typical of Nebraskans.  They worked extra hours to accommodate the influx of visitors. At one restaurant, our waitress remarked that the extra business would make up for the slack earlier in the year.  The reason?  Not the food and service, which were both excellent. The locals weren’t eating out as much. And why was that?

Last week, I wrote about the seven-year downturn in commodity prices that has affected many rural communities.  Although agriculture contributes about 6% to GDP (USDA) the changing fortunes of the people who produce our food gets little attention in urban areas.

A few hundred miles away, Denver is booming.  Gentrification and rising housing costs have stressed the pocketbooks of some families.  In Nebraska, it is declining prices that have caused stress fractures in the community (Denver Post ). Land values declined 4% in 2015, and another 9% in 2016 (U. of Nebraska-Lincoln report).

Despite a strong export market for corn, soybeans and other agricultural products, Iowa has had falling land prices for three years. In a recent survey, 40% of responding Iowa farmers reported lower sales in 2017.  However, there was a slight uptick in land values this past year and the hope is that the Iowa agricultural community may be turning a corner.

As land values decline, banks lower lending limits, refinancing terms become more strict.  Families sit at the kitchen table and try to pay higher bills with less money.  Property taxes decline so that there is less money for schools and other public infrastructure.  Seeing the stress that their parents face, younger folks are attracted to urban areas where there is more economic opportunity.  Farms that have been in the family for several generations get sold to large farm management companies.

The governors of western states must understand that they serve all the people of their state.  As people concentrate in the urban centers, they demand more resources from the state.  Those in rural areas feel as though they are being left out.  They will form elective coalitions within state legislatures to offset the growing urban power.

To those in the dense population centers of the coastal states, the shifting political and economic alliances in the fly-over states might earn a shrug.  Our federalist system of voting was a grand bargain to offset the dominance of high population states.  The 2016 election was a good lesson in the power of electoral federalism.  State and federal politicians must build a bridge that crosses the divide between the fortunes of those in urban and rural areas.

Ten Year Review

January 14, 2018

by Steve Stofka

To ward off any illusions that I am an investing genius, I keep a spreadsheet summarizing the investments and cash flows of all my accounts, including savings and checking. Each year I compare my ten year returns to a simple allocation model using the free tool at Portfolio Visualizer. Below is a screen capture showing the ten-year returns for various balanced allocations during the past several years.

10YrReturn20180112
The two asset baskets are the total U.S. stock market and the total U.S. bond market. A person could closely replicate these index results with two ETFs from Vanguard: VTI and BND. Note that there is no exposure to global stocks because Portfolio Visualizer does not offer a Total World Stock Asset choice in this free tool. An investor who had invested in a world stock index (Vanguard’s VT, for example) could have increased their annual return about 1.3% using the 60/40 stock/bond mix.

I include my cash accounts to get a realistic baseline for later in life when my income needs will require that I keep a more conservative asset allocation. An asset allocation that includes 10% cash looks like this.

10YrReturnStkBondCash20180112
In the trade-off between return and risk, a balanced portfolio including cash earns a bit less. In 2017, the twenty-year return was not that different from the ten-year return. From 2009 through 2011, ten-year returns were impacted by two severe downturns in the stock market.

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The Hurt

Falling agricultural prices for seven years have put the hurt on many farmers. This decade may turn out to be as bad as the 1980s when many smaller farms went belly up because of declining prices. Remember the Farm Aid concerts?

The Bloomberg Agriculture Index has fallen about 40% over the past five years. While farmers get paid less for their produce, the companies who supply farmers with the tools and products to grow that produce are doing reasonably well. A comparison of two ETFs shows the divergence.

DBA is a basket of agricultural commodity contracts. It is down 33% over the past five years.
MOO is a basket of the stocks of leading agricultural suppliers. The five-year total return is 31%.

The large growers can afford to hedge falling prices. For family farmers, the decline in agricultural prices is a cut in pay. Imagine you were making $25 per hour at the beginning of 2017 and your employer started cutting your pay bit by bit as the year progressed? That’s what its like for many smaller farmers. They work just as hard and get paid less each year.