Partners - Stock market, economic and political commentary by Patricia Chadwick

Posts Tagged ‘social conscience’

Moderate Republicans (How did we end up in this vale of tears?)

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

It’s been a bleak election season for moderate Republicans — I know because I’m one of them, and I’ve been commiserating for months with like-minded centrists.

I used to think that we (moderate Republicans) comprised the base of our party. All the wackiness of the presidential primaries and caucuses was mere grandstanding, designed to placate the small Evangelical and Tea Party factions of the party’s base in early primary states such as Iowa and South Carolina. But once the silly season was over, I felt we could count on nominating a solid citizen as our candidate for President. This confidence was not based on naiveté but on a stellar record; we did it in 1979 with Ronald Reagan, a brilliant visionary and an adept pragmatist who knew how to work both sides of the aisle, and most recently, with Mitt Romney, a less-than-natural campaigner but an honorable man with vast talent who had been a successful governor of the most Democratic state in the Union.

But this year has turned out to be downright depressing, as we witness a modern day “Luddite” spout vitriol and diatribes against anyone who doesn’t pay him the respect he craves but can’t earn.

Moderate Republicans are so mainstream that some people mistake us for moderate Democrats. I like that because what we have in common is our moderation. We are more alike than either of us is relative to the far reaches of our respective parties. I tend to think that together we represent a significant majority of voters in the American electorate —in effect, the vast silent majority.

Moderate Republicans believe that government is necessary but should not be overwhelming — and never intrusive. We believe the government needs to stay out of the bedroom and out of the doctor’s office.

Moderate Republicans realize that government is not the solution to all problems; we know that it’s the private sector that generates profits, and profits are what’s needed for both economic growth and individual wealth creation. So, limited government is essential, and regulation should aim to support, not stymie, free-market behavior.

Moderate Republicans respect science and are committed to the responsible stewardship of our planet. Our leaders were the instigators of public discourse about air and water quality, which was the genesis of the Environmental Protection Agency, and they played a key role in the mitigation of acid rain from the Midwest to the Northeast. But they also acknowledge that onerous and excessive regulation that does not take into account legitimate cost benefit analysis is deleterious for the well-being of the country.

Moderate Republicans believe that a minimum wage that keeps a head of household below the poverty level is a hindrance to economic growth, and that it’s also morally deficient.

Moderate Republicans support immigration reform, abhorring the notion of deporting millions of workers, the vast majority of whom pay income and Social Security taxes, contribute to our economic growth and, in many cases, bear the pain of separation from their loved ones thousands of miles away in order to support them. They also believe that our borders need to be more open to the many around the world who want to benefit from the opportunities this country offers to those who are willing to work hard to improve their chance of a better life.

Moderate Republicans make an effort to educate themselves on social issues that have a bearing on the lives of those who might be victims of discrimination, prejudice and retaliation. They respect diversity and support a social order that allows human beings to lead their lives without fear. (And, yes, moderate Republicans believe that gender police should stay out of the bathroom!)

Moderate Republicans find abhorrent the notion of our nation defaulting on its debt  because a government that would not honor its financial obligations is the moral equivalent of a government run amok. That’s what happens in failing states in the third world, not in the most powerful nation on the planet.

Moderate Republicans believe that the Second Amendment was written during a time when our newly formed country had to be defended by a ready citizen militia, and that the right to bear arms should not stand in the way of government regulation to ensure the safety of the population at large.

Moderate Republicans believe that their president should show leadership by actively embracing members of the opposite party, building respect and having the courage and integrity to compromise when it’s in the best interest of the country.

These are but a few of the many ways moderate Republicans think about the issues facing our country today. Sadly, we have no candidate who represents our values. We are left holding our noses (as an Italian friend of mine said she would do when voting for Berlusconi) on election day and voting for whomever we think is the lesser of two bad choices.

And, dear Democratic friends, I’m already anticipating your invitations to join your party. But I can’t — I am a true and tried moderate Republican and proud of it.

© Copyright 2016 Patricia W. Chadwick

Keeping Things in Perspective – Campaign Spending vs. Saving Lives

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

A week in Zimbabwe spent working at several clinics that serve HIV/AIDS patients was enlightening and thought provoking.Admittedly, it was distressing to see how rampant, even now, HIV is in some of the poorest parts of Africa; it’s not an exaggeration to say that in some Zimbabwean villages a large majority of the people are HIV-positive.On the other hand, advances made in the treatment of the disease are truly astounding. A once-a-day pill, taken faithfully, can restore patients to a full and meaningful life. Pregnant women who are HIV-positive are giving birth daily to HIV-negative infants. HIV is no longer a death sentence.Arriving at an outreach clinic 65 miles from Victoria Falls, we (volunteers and medical professionals) were greeted by a throng of nearly three hundred residents, some of whom had walked as far as five miles from their own villages in unforgiving heat. Most were HIV-positive, yet nearly all of them looked healthy and well-nourished, despite the fact that they live from hand to mouth as subsistence farmers in an area that has been plagued with drought.

Patients, ranging in age from three to seventy-five, came to the clinic with their medical records book, and they stood patiently in line to have blood drawn and tested. There was no shoving or pushing; infants and children tagged along with their parents. The fact that most of the children did not need to be tested was a tribute to their mothers for taking their daily dosage of life-saving medication during their pregnancy. It was also evidence of the significant progress among the population in understanding the importance of adhering to the daily therapy prescribed to contain the wracking harm of HIV infection.

At the end of a work schedule that began at seven o’clock in the morning and concluded just before midnight, fatigue and deep satisfaction meant that sleep came fast.

After a few days, it dawned on me that I had been blissfully oblivious to the shenanigans roiling the political silly season back home in the U.S. I didn’t know and I didn’t care about which presidential candidate had inched ahead by a nano-percent in the polls.

I reveled in not feeling hostage to the tedious drone of pundits, from left and right,  whose chief raison d’être seems to be analyzing the latest slip of the tongue by an  addled candidate as a pivotal event worth exhaustive and exhausting chatter.

In the balance of life’s realities, what was consequential came into sharp relief. The HIV initiatives in Zimbabwe are vital to the survival of many members of the human family and being part of that worthy project, though only for a week, brought a sense of balance that even the most compelling punditry cannot provide.

The eye opening truth was the realization that nearly all the funds required to provide medications to the patients at the clinics in Zimbabwe are coming from private donations, while back home more than $1 billion is being raised in the pursuit of a single job, the presidency of the United States. What an irony that the costly pursuit of that office, viewed from the perspective of an HIV clinic, seems suddenly so inconsequential.

Think of the societal good that might be wrought if only a small portion of that money were spent to better the lives of the poorest and most needy around the world.


© Copyright 2015 Patricia W. Chadwick

Ravengate Partners LLC Patricia Chadwick, President
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Marriage — Both a Civil and a Religious Institution

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

Perhaps it’s hubris on my part to write a blog about the definition of marriage with the Supreme Court only weeks or perhaps even days away from ruling on the matter (Obergefell v. Hodges), but I have to admit being flummoxed by the state of near hysteria that has been generated in this country over the definition of the word.

It seems to me that, in our culture and under our system of government, marriage has two definitions. It is (a) a civil contract and (b) a religious institution.

This distinction is based on the premise of the separation of church and state as a fundamental tenet underlying the first amendment of the Bill of Rights of our Constitution.

Religions that practice in the U.S. are free to define marriage within the context of their own principles and philosophy. It is not unusual for some religions to deny, or require a special dispensation for, couples seeking to marry if they do not share the same religion. The government (AKA the state) may not ordain what constitutes a valid religious marriage.

To the best of my knowledge, every state in the union accepts as valid the marriages performed by members of religious groups (except for polygamy which was outlawed by the U.S. Congress in the late 19th century).

The other side of that coin is that the state governments have the authority to establish their own criteria for civil marriage. In the past, many states required blood tests to help maintain public health and safety, but over time, nearly every state has abolished that requirement.

Today more than a handful of states (some of them in the heart of Bible Belt America) allow for common law marriage, but most do not. But that does not in any way require a religious organization to sanction common law marriage (and few do).

Most religions condemn adultery; many also condemn common law marriage. But there hardly seems to be a wave of hysteria over the fact that such “sinners” might be customers of religious-minded business owners. The issue has only arisen over the discussion of same sex marriage. It seems a bit hypocritical to me.

If the self-righteous are truly honest in their claim that their religious freedom is threatened by the requirement that they might be “forced” to do business with sinners, they should be willing to post in their place of business a sign that might read something like this:

Please note: We value our customers and want to give you the best service. However, if you have ever engaged in any of the following acts that we consider to be sin, please be advised that we do not wish to have you as a customer.

Following would be a list of everything they deemed to be a sin.

That would be honest and forthright and truly nondiscriminatory, allowing them to bear the commercial impact of choosing to deal only with those they considered to be sinless. It would also put them out of business in about a day.

Nearly forty years ago, a gay friend of mine with a serious heart problem told me of his concern that should he die before his partner, the inheritance taxes would force the sale of their modest weekend cottage in the Hudson River valley. In my mid-twenties at the time, I was haunted by the gross unfairness facing so many Americans. Some fifteen years later, my friend’s heart gave out as he sipped a martini during a Sunday lunchtime in his beloved retreat. His partner never had to face the loss of his home, as he succumbed to cancer three days later. They were spared the heartache they feared.

Much progress has been made since then, which is good. Let’s hope that the impending decision by the Supreme Court will put an end to the chimera that freedom of religion can deny citizens their civil rights.


© Copyright 2015 Patricia W. Chadwick

The Minimum Wage — A Two-Edged Sword

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

It’s been interesting (and gratifying) to observe that a number of the largest employers of minimum-wage workers in this country have “voluntarily” pre-empted Congress by announcing an increase in their base wages to a level that is higher than what Congress proposed in the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2012.

For those who think that the minimum wage is paid primarily to teenagers, the statistics may be surprising. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2013, over 75% of minimum-wage earners were older than twenty, and about one-quarter of them were above the age of forty. Fewer than 3% were over sixty-five, and women comprised 62% of minimum wage earners.

This past month, Walmart raised its starting pay to $9/hour with the promise of a further increase to $10/hour in February of 2016. Target, Gap and McDonald’s (at its 1,500 owned outlets in the U.S.) have made similar announcements.

For years, we have heard that any legislated increase in the minimum wage would actually hurt workers because companies would be compelled to lay them off in droves. But it’s the employers themselves who are now upping the ante! Is this a case of: (1) “moral suasion,” (2) guilt, (3) economic reality, or (4) doing what management believes is in its own best interest?

Perhaps it’s a combination of all four.

Increasing the base pay for workers at large and profitable companies like Walmart and Target will surely translate into a happier workforce (and there are many studies that indicate a positive correlation between employee satisfaction and improved productivity). In addition, workers at retail and supermarket chains tend to do their shopping with their employer, so increasing the employees’ pay will likely lead to enhanced revenues.

It seems to me that Walmart and others have made a logical business decision, even if it took them years to get there. Now let’s hope they will stay ahead of the curve and increase that minimum wage as they continue to reap productivity increases. Remember, wage increases that don’t outstrip productivity gains will not cause inflation.

I can still hear Sam Walton (founder of Walmart) when he would discuss his growing company in the late 1980s. “Walmart is unlike any other retailer,” he’d say. “Every quarter you should see our gross profit margins fall.”

Fall? That seemed like heresy in the retail industry.

“I plan to pass on the cost savings I get from my manufacturers to the consumer,” he said over and over again. “The reward will be in my revenue growth.” He was right — that’s what made Walmart the outstanding retailer it is today.

Let’s keep an eye on the earnings growth of these companies that are leading the pack in terms of raising wages for their employees. I bet we’ll be pleasantly surprised to see that rising wages won’t hurt profits.

But there’s another side to the minimum wage debate. Many of the businesses that hire minimum wage workers are not highly profitable corporations. Rather, they are the core of what makes up middle America — myriad small enterprises that rely on temporary and relatively unskilled (and often youthful) employees. For them, the burden of a significant mandatory increase in wages could be devastating.

Going from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 (as President Obama has called on Congress to do) is a nearly 40% increase, far higher than any previous raise. Inflation (CPI) since 2009 (when the rate was last raised) has been a cumulative 10.5%. That would suggest a minimum wage of $8.

It appears that the government has a separate agenda — namely to bring minimum wage earners to the point that their income will exceed the poverty level. That sounds like a noble cause, and it may even be a sound economic one. Why should the public be funding a transfer payment to subsidize those on the minimum wage? (And if anyone today is trying to live solely on a minimum wage income, they will require welfare payments.)

On the other hand, if the minimum wage is raised too sharply, it will likely backfire. Small companies really will have to lay off workers.

The history of minimum wage increases in this country is odd, to say the least. Unlike Social Security payments, which have been indexed to inflation since the 1970s, the minimum wage, first introduced in 1938, is not. In fact, there have been ten-year gaps when it wasn’t changed at all.

Congress could mitigate the negative impact on small businesses by phasing in the change and also legislating that the minimum wage be increased in January of each new year by the CPI of the prior year (as is done with Social Security). That would treat minimum wage earners no worse than most other employees and would provide small businesses with more predictable labor costs.

After years of Congressional gridlock, it’s been gratifying to see a number of bipartisan issues be resolved since January. Congress needs to address this issue in a common-sense way. Much of the rhetoric from the right about how “any” increase in the minimum wage would have serious negative impact on the economy has been de facto refuted as the large companies have become the leaders in this round of increases.

And maybe the leadership taken by these major corporations will serve as a catalyst for other companies. At the least, the bar has been raised. Workers know that some companies will pay more than others.

© Copyright 2015 Patricia W. Chadwick

Social Security and Means Testing – Chris Christie is Right; Donald Trump is Wrong

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Two prominent Republicans recently came out on opposing sides of the Social Security “means testing” debate.

Governor Chris Christie (who has yet to declare himself in the 2016 Presidential race) dared to touch that “third rail” (one that most politicians fear will electrocute them) by declaring that Social Security benefits should be means tested because as it stands today, the arithmetic simply doesn’t work.

Donald Trump (who has hinted that he might throw his hat in the ring for President) took a different tack, arguing that Social Security isn’t an entitlement; it’s honoring a deal.

But if the point is to protect the beneficiaries, will be destroyed by bankruptcy?

Over the weekend, I did a simple analysis by going online to my own social security account (www.ssa.gov/myaccount). You can do it too; when you go to the site, simply click on “Sign In” and set up your own account. You will be able to see year by year your FICA and Medicare wages, and there is a summary of what you and your employer(s) have contributed since your first day of work.

I have already reached the age at which I can collect social security, but I have chosen not to take it yet because I am still working and don’t need it.

BUT and this is a HUGE BUT,

I am eligible, by virtue of the fact that I have turned 66, to receive (and have in fact elected to do so) a monthly payment that is equal to half of what my husband currently gets. Note that this is in addition to what he receives and my current Social Security income does not tap into my future benefits. In fact, my future benefits will increase because I have chosen to receive them at a later date.

Had I chosen to take my normal Social Security payments at age 67, the amount that I (and my employers over the years) had accumulated would have lasted nine years. That’s right. I would have used up all the money associated with my earnings by the time I was 75. But my life expectancy at 67 is another 18.62 years!!!  That means from the time I reach 75 until I die (and if I live till 75, my life expectancy is another 12.77 years or nearly 88 years of age) I will be receiving Social Security money that I never contributed.  Even a third grader can make that calculation.

So Governor Chris Christie is right. The arithmetic simply doesn’t work and it never will, particularly now that the 76 million baby boomers are retiring at the rate of 10,000 per day!

In large measure the numbers no longer add up because longevity has so vastly improved since Social Security was instituted during the Depression in 1935. Back then, life expectancy at birth was 67 years for men and 73 years for women.  Contrast that with today – 76 years for men and 81 for women. And it goes without saying that trend will continue – the older you get, the longer you will live.

Means testing is the only way today to make a dent in the Social Security deficit. In fact the very concept of “SOCIAL SECURITY” implies a benefit for someone in need, as so many were during the dark days of the Great Depression.

Retirees who have been fortunate enough to accumulate significant assets by the time they retire are not in need of that security. But is there anyone in Congress who is bold enough to touch that “third rail” with a logical, sensible and viable formula for means testing? Is anyone principled and courageous enough to take a short term political risk in order to tackle a serious long term problem? Sadly, I doubt it.

Donald Trump is right on one thing: his recommendation that individuals be allowed to dedicate a portion of their own payroll taxes to a personal Social Security account that they could invest is spot on.

Today the money you have deducted from your wages to fund Social Security is not yours; it’s the Government’s money. And if you die prematurely, it is not part of your estate. A personal Social Security savings account would be yours.

For those who fear that private social security accounts run the risk of being subject to the vagaries of the markets, there are plenty of safeguards that could be installed to minimize those risks. The value of compounding returns to monthly contributions is monumental. But that will be the subject of another blog in the near future.

© Copyright 2015 Patricia W. Chadwick


Cut Taxes for the Middle Class But Not for Business and Not for the Wealthy!

Friday, April 10th, 2015

The employment numbers are up and then down. Consumer spending is strong and then weak. Student loans are up, and they never go down. What does this mean for the prospects for economic growth in the U.S.?

One thing is for sure — without vibrant consumers, our economy will not grow at a robust rate. And without a decent level of earnings and rising wages, there will not be vibrant consumers.

So what to do? Here’s one suggestion — cut income taxes for the middle class! They’re the ones who are responsible for the vast majority of the day-to-day consumer spending in the country. They’re the ones who need to save month in and month out for their own retirement. They’re the ones who are burdened by the albatross of educational loans.

All we seem to hear about is how the tax rate for corporations is too high, and capital gains tax rates need to be cut. Nonsense!

Let’s look at the economy in three parts: the corporations, the 1% and all the rest.

During the Great Recession, Congress, as part of its enactment of the stimulus package, gave a special tax break to the corporate sector, in the form of what was called “bonus depreciation.” It was meant to entice companies to engage in capital spending projects that they might not otherwise have made. Frankly, that was a bit of a silly notion. Companies do not (and should not) make long-term investments based on depreciation schedules.

Furthermore, if it was meant to help an economy in dire straits, why is that tax break still in effect seven years later, when corporate profits are at an all-time high? For each of the last several years, Congress has deliberately allowed this benefit (call it “corporate welfare”) to stay on the books, enabling many giant and highly profitable companies to reduce their federal income taxes. It was an ill-fated idea that has been a boon to corporate cash flows and a bane to the coffers of the U.S. Treasury.

Quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve has been a stimulus to the stock market, allowing the already well-to-do (call them the 1%) to become even wealthier. But relative to the vast population as a whole, the uber wealthy can’t spend enough money to impact the economy. Sure they can buy $100 million pieces of art and more private planes and make worthwhile contributions of appreciated stock to good causes, but most of their wealth is invested and turns into even more wealth. I’m not saying that this is evil, but it certainly lacks as a meaningful stimulus to the economy.

Since the Great Recession, the vast middle-class population of this country has found itself squeezed between meager salary increases and rising costs for a wide array of items that somehow don’t seem to be reflected in the CPI — rising co-pays for doctors and medicines, insurance premiums, real estate taxes (based on the increasing value of a house they have no intention of selling), sales taxes, airfares, water and on and on. The one bright spot has been the fall in the price of energy, but who knows how long that will last?

So let’s get to the point. How about a massive income tax cut for the middle class? Something that would hit their pocketbooks in a real and positive way right now? Let’s start with eliminating all federal income taxes on the first $30,000 of wages. According to the tax form calculator (www.taxformcalculator.com), that would provide an additional $2,493 of spending money each year to every wage earner.

Given that there are about 77 million wage earners in this country, that would put an additional $200 billion in consumers’ pockets, or 1.2% of our nearly $17 trillion GDP.

If someone complains that the government can’t afford to lose that $200 billion transfer from its coffers into the hands of consumers, my advice would be to end the bonus depreciation for capital spending; then the spigot from corporate taxes will start to flow once again into the U.S. Treasury.

We are entering the silly season — political gamesmanship for the throngs who think they want to become president in 2016. Let’s see if any one of them addresses this issue of such economic and social importance. If one candidate is bold enough to tackle this issue in a constructive and comprehensive way, I’ll vote for him or her.





Sunday, March 1st, 2015

Here to Stay – Side by Side with the Taxi Industry

It’s easy to bash Uber — a brash new-age “bull in a china shop,” gunning to upend the traditional order of life that was the yellow cab system of transportation. And it’s fair to say that Uber’s cofounder and CEO Travis Kalanick has done little to make himself loved by the powers that regulate the taxi industry.

That being said, Uber is a prototypical example of “disruptive technology,” whereby an emerging technology upends existing markets and products. In this case, Uber is fulfilling a need — specifically, providing the public with rides on demand, something the taxi industry has been unable to achieve. Why? Because the taxi medallion industry has for years been able to limit the supply of taxi cabs.

Now, smartphones (themselves an example of disruptive technology, by annihilating regular cell phones, MP3 players and a horde of other now-defunct hand-held devices) are allowing ride seekers to get on-demand service.

There has been much hand-wringing over the safety of hiring an “unvetted” Uber driver or the Uber drivers’ lack of insurance coverage, as well as their paltry wages. Much of that angst is unwarranted, and as Uber expands, so does the sophistication of its communication and security.

Two days ago, I ordered an Uber-x (the cheapest and least flamboyant option) in Boston. Because it was during the evening rush hour, my smart phone told me I would have to pay 1.6 times the “normal rate,” and I had to type in the digits 1 and 6 to confirm that I understood and accepted that premium. As the vehicle approached my hotel, I received a notice on my smart phone: “Be sure to check this picture and license plate before getting into the car,” and below the notice was a picture of the face of the driver and the license plate on the vehicle. That was the first time I had ever received such a notice. Is Boston ahead of New York? Or is this an example of Uber responding to the social media rumors that Uber rides were unsafe?

I love to chat with taxi and Uber drivers. This driver shared with me that he had been on the job for three weeks, having left his cab company after forty years. Why did you quit? I asked. He replied that the cost of the medallion fee was too much ($800 per week, whether he worked or not), and now he was able to work whenever he wanted and keep 80% of the revenue he generated. But you’re using your own car, I said, and putting all those miles on it. I know, but it’s worth it to be my own man. What about insurance, I asked, knowing that some people have made an issue about Uber drivers being underinsured. He had the answer: Uber has a $1 million policy on each car, the driver told me.

When I arrived at the restaurant, not only did I receive an email receipt on my smart phone, but I also had the opportunity to rate my driver (I gave him 5 stars), and I was able to see exactly how many minutes the trip took (15 minutes and 31 seconds) and, importantly, the route that the driver took. In other words, Uber itself can monitor how its drivers take you to your destination. Oh, and by the way, the 1.6x fare for the trip cost a total of $12.38. That implies $7.73 during non-peak hours, which I thought was very reasonable.

Pondering that conversation, I realized how Uber is providing the opportunity for individuals to be entrepreneurs, in control of their hours and their earnings. If an Uber driver does not want to use a personal car, Uber will provide one on lease, and from my discussion with other drivers who use that approach, the weekly lease payments are far less than the medallion payments paid by a taxi driver.

Is this the end of the yellow taxi industry? Certainly not! When I’m in New York, I grab a taxi first and go for Uber second. And in my conversations with taxi drivers about the impact Uber is having on their business, almost all of them acknowledge that there is enough business to go around.

The medallion industry is smart, and I fully expect that it too will develop an on-demand service. Uber is the wake-up call the industry needed; if they respond creatively, the outcome will mean even better and faster service for consumers. That is good news.

A Must Read Book!

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (by Austen Ivereigh)

Pope Francis has been invited by Speaker of the House John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress in September when he visits this country.

The pope has been criticized by many “talking heads” and pundits, most particularly on the right, for his statements about issues relating to the economy, profits and employment. Rush Limbaugh has gone so far as to tag him as “a Marxist”, which is patently false. Pope Francis, as Ivereigh points out in The Great Reformer, was highly critical of Marxist ideology and of those (including Jesuit priests) who supported it during his tenure as bishop and cardinal in Argentina.

There is an uninformed point of view by many that the pope has no real comprehension or understanding of capitalism and is guided solely by the crony capitalism of Argentina, where he spent most of his life prior to becoming pope.

But before heaping criticism on the pontiff for phrases, clauses or statements that, in many cases, have been extruded from long and thoughtful writings, his critics would be well-advised to read the eminently researched book by the English author and journalist, Austen Ivereigh, entitled, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.

The book, reviewed in the New York Times by James Martin, is not a quick read. But it is packed with research and information that give great insight into the thoughtful, pragmatic and intelligent man who is now pope. It seems evident to me, after reading the book, that Jorge Bergoglio, as the pope was known before his election to the papacy, is hardly naïve or uneducated on issues of economics and politics. He does indeed rail against what he calls “unfettered” capitalism as “a new tyranny.” Indeed, the antitrust laws that were enacted in this country one hundred years ago were designed precisely to counter the economic ills of unfettered capitalism, also referred to as robber baronism.

That Pope Francis lived in Argentina (through both good economic times and bad), as opposed to having spent years in the US, is not what guides him today in his statements about capitalism. Rather his concerns are the effect of unbridled capitalism at the expense of the greater good.

I would hope that every member of the US Congress would take the time necessary to read this book before the pope’s arrival in September. It will be hard to come away without at least a great measure of respect for the man.

Confiscatory Student Loans Are a Huge Drag on Our Economy

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

The housing market, while still under water and providing little contribution to economic growth, is at least seeing light at the end of the tunnel. That is because mortgage rates are now at a fifty year low, providing significant economic incentive for buyers to enter the marketplace. The excess supply of homes is slowly dwindling.

However, just as the housing market appears to be coming out of its depression, the country faces another threat. It is an insidious economic cancer that threatens to sap potential growth for decades to come. This cancer is none other than STUDENT LOANS!

An entire generation of twenty somethings who were not privileged enough to be provided higher education by their parents is entering the work force with a giant noose around its collective neck. And that noose is in the form of huge student loans they were required to take out in order to get an education that would give them a competitive entrée in the work place. It is the magnitude of the debt that is frightening. In many cases, their middle class parents are broke and now they are starting their careers broke as well. By some measures, the total student debt outstanding is over $1 trillion, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal on March 23, 2012.

The economic impact of this scenario is scary. Today’s young college graduates should be the trailblazers for the continuation of the American dream. Their energy, stamina, creativity and appetite for risk are the ingredients for entrepreneurship. It has been that way in this country for decades and even centuries. But now suddenly that ability to dream big and take risk is being choked off by the crushingly high level of debt they must repay. They cannot afford to take risk or to invest. They can barely afford to spend on discretionary items because they have so little money left each month after paying their student loans.

Student loans have long been a part of the American way of life. I had such a loan myself for seven or eight years. But there is a huge difference today. When I paid my student loan, it was in the late 1970s, a period of extraordinarily high inflation and consequently high interest rates. However, the interest on my student loan was a manageable 5.5% and the loan carried simple interest.

Today, with interest rates under 2% on the 10 year Government note, student loans carry rates of 6% at a minimum and as high as 11%, most of them under a Federal Government program. And to add insult to injury, the interest on many of these loans is amortized. The newly minted graduate, assuming he/she gets that far, is racing just to service the debt without paying down the principal.

I recently spoke to a young woman who put herself through college and graduate school with no financial support from her family. Upon graduation, her eleven separate Federal loans totaled $135,000. She currently earns nearly $65,000 annually by working a full week and one day on the weekend. Since she started working, she has paid more than the monthly minimum required on her loans and after nearly two years of payments that have totaled $26,000 her balance today has grown to $141,560! She is deeper in debt than at graduation because some of the loans are paying down no principal at all. She is caught in a vise that will make home ownership an impossible dream for decades. She called Sallie Mae, the company that services the vast majority of Federal student loans, to inquire about consolidating her many loans the possibility of getting a lower rate. The Sallie Mae employee said that the company was willing to consolidate but would give her no break on the interest rate. And when she inquired as to why no one at Sallie Mae reached out to her, she was told that policy prohibits such action. If that is true, that policy is criminally negligent.

Another young woman, the daughter of a friend of mine, has a $42,000 private student loan with Discover carrying an 11% interest rate. When her father contacted Discover in an attempt to negotiate a lower interest rate, the (evidently naïve) employee said there was nothing that could be done. In further conversation, she admitted that the student loan business was Discover’s most profitable and that employees were provided incentive compensation based on how successful they were in ‘selling’ loans to students. Again, if true, such a corporate ethic is moral turpitude. And Discover’s website advertises student loans for “as low as 6.79% APR”.

These stories are far from unique. They are repeated hundreds of thousands of times in this country. The lenders decry the fact that student default rates are high. Well of course they are high when the interest rates are so onerous. The system is downright Dickensian.

The recently passed bill signed by President Obama unfortunately will not relieve the interest rate burden on the generation of young graduates who are drowning in debt, although it does alleviate conditions from getting even worse for some students. In response to the new law, Sallie Mae and other student debt servicing companies have bemoaned the fact that they will be forced to lay off employees. But I argue that those layoffs are nothing compared to the negative impact on the economy from a generation of workers who have diminished resources to buy basic goods and services, much less to take on economic risk.
So what is to be done? How can this cancer be cured?

A complete overhaul of the student loan industry is essential. For one, the business should be tightly regulated, in much the same way that utilities are. I am sure this concept is anathema to many, and I myself abhor overregulation, but the abuse that is being heaped on the vulnerable (i.e. young, desperate students) warrants such a response.

And something must be done about the cost of higher education, which has spiraled out of control. There are many studies that show that the cost of college tuition has increased at multiples of the rate of inflation. When an asset (college education) is priced to become a liability (it bankrupts the buyer) the price must fall. That is simply an economic fact of life.

Ruminate on these statistics for a moment or two.
Tuition Per Annum 1960 1960 (in 2008 $) 2008 Actual
Harvard $1,520 $10,147 $33,709
University of Texas $100 $695 $7,530
Michigan State $279 $1,939 $8,843
Source: ClearPictureOnline.com

Is it no wonder that parents can no longer afford to provide a college education for their children? But without such higher education, the outlook for gainful and fulfilling employment is miserable.

The debt being incurred by the young in this country has reached the level of a national crisis. We had better address it now before this it takes on the proportion of our Federal Government’s debt.

Patricia W Chadwick
Ravengate Partners LLC

A Lesson from the Movies

Monday, January 4th, 2010

The week after Christmas is always my favorite time to go to the movies. Shopped out, and with no more appetite for food, the indulgence of sitting (popcorn free) for two hours in the cinema is sublime. I choose my movies carefully. I am not a “special affects” person; blood and guts disgust me. So my list of possible movies to attend is always far shorter than most people’s.

This past week, I saw four movies and did not regret going to one. In case that sounds a bit like damning with faint praise, I should clarify by saying that of the four, one movie stood out from all the rest. It was Invictus. The combination of brilliant acting by Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon as well as the deep message was a moving experience. At times I actually forgot that Morgan Freeman was on the screen – I thought I was looking at Nelson Mandela.

The movie seemed so perfectly timed, so relevant and so needed right now. It depicted national leadership at its best – the ability of a man, despised by so many, to rally his country together against all odds and to find the best in each other. It actually brought tears to my eyes on several occasions.

The economic and social problems of South Africa in the mid-1990s were far graver than those we face here in the U.S. today. The political divisions among its citizens were far deeper than those existing in our country now. But as elected President, Nelson Mandela led his country and his countrymen and women by his own example. He did more than just cross the aisle, to use American parlance. He forced people who hated each other to come together, to work together and to achieve greatness through that bonding.

In this country today, we have serious issues that need to be resolved – health care, national security and recession are but the largest. Unfortunately, partisanship appears to be of greater importance to our Congressional representatives than reaching mutual agreement on solutions. What we need now is a Nelson Mandela, a leader who can bring together the warring factions within the Government and make Government work for, not against, the common interests of all of us. Let’s hope President Obama can wear that mantle in the second year of his presidency.

Oh, by the way, the three other movies I saw and enjoyed – in varying degrees of enjoyment – were An Education, It’s Complicated, and Up in the Air. Meryl Streep (It’s Complicated) is simply the finest actress today.