Paul Krugman is my hero

Paul Krugman, Laureate of the Sveriges Riksban...
Paul Krugman, Laureate of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2008 at a press conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Paul Krugman says call it what it is: a depression. “A recession is when things are going down; a depression is when things are down, and stay that way for a long time.”

Krugman offered this opening comment to a sell-out crowd in San Francisco, where he was highlighting a Commonwealth Club event and promoting his new book, End This Depression Now. Ending this depression now is entirely possible, if you believe Nobel Prize-winner Krugman, and this writer believes Paul Krugman. Aside from in-house economist Bud Johns, who has accurately foretold so many economic events as to be spooky even if he hasn’t yet won a Nobel Prize, Krugman is the only living person able to make economic sense to my mathematically-challenged right-brained self. During his San Francisco talk he ticked off enough data to paint the picture — and it is not a pretty picture. Krugman compared the problematic impasse to a family car that had broken down. Its battery was dead. A new battery would make it run. But the man of the house refused to recognize the bad battery or consent to getting a new one, suggesting instead that the rest of the family just walk or take the bus. “You have a problem,” Krugman noted, “but the problem isn’t with the battery.”

So how to fix it? Before offering the answer, Krugman said first we have to understand that “government workers” aren’t the evil bureaucrats in Washington, but are the teachers, firefighters, service workers everywhere who are out of work, with their numbers threatening to be increased. Then he listed steps he would recommend:

First, a huge infusion of money (none of this timid stuff, which Krugman reminds us is what had FDR triggering a double-dip depression in the late 1930s) from the feds to the states, so they can start re-hiring those teachers and public sector workers.

Second: debt relief, starting with mortgage debt and soon extending to other areas like student loans.

Third — then we get into monetary policy, and not even Bud Johns and Paul Krugman can explain that to yours truly in adequately simplified terms.

So the national debt remains staggering and everybody worries about what we’re bequeathing our grandchildren. At least we might keep the country afloat, mass desperation relieved and families together, and that would be something to bequeath.

Paul Krugman did not approve this over-simplified message. But he still gets my vote.

Running for fun & medals: it's been (and still is) a long, good race

Sunset Runner
Image by joshjanssen via Flickr

We’ve come a long way since Chariots of Fire, as Denver runners, coaches and serious peak-performance guys Jon Sinclair and Kent Oglesby point out in a report for Coloradoan.com.
Their column was inspired, in part, by the FireKracker 5K which was part of the weekend festivities in Ft. Collins. As commonplace as it now is to see joggers and runners on the trails, in the parks and (sometimes noisily, I regret to say) on the urban sidewalks just below your bedroom window at 6 AM, it was not always thus.

Everyone stand up. All of you that began running after 1976 can sit down. Those that still are standing can smirk proudly at those sitting.

I’m (Jon) sure there aren’t many of you standing. For us “pre-boomers,” or pbers, the current state of running is amazing and we should all feel happy about it.

Pbers, remember when there wasn’t such a thing as a running store? We bought our running shoes at the sporting goods store, which usually was manned by some guy named Al or Bill and the selection consisted of two to three different shoes. The guy selling those shoes was (absolutely, definitely) not a runner and knew nothing about the sport but made some money off of the local high school kids who ran track.

Not only were the shoes different (and under $50), Sinclair and Oglesby point out, but the timers and timing devices were different, the attitudes (sneers from onlookers, not runners) were different and the races were few.

In the early 70s, the entire yearly road racing schedule for the Denver area could be easily printed on an 8.5-by-11 piece of paper. Really, all of it. In summer, there might be two or three races per month. That’s why to a pber, any race older than 30 years, should be treated with great respect. Pre-boomer races weren’t certified and most were measured with some guy’s old pickup … accurate to within 400m. Oh, and no meters or kilometers back then either; we used good old miles. Races in Denver might attract more than 100 runners, but a field like that was out of control big.

But about this “pre-boomer” business. This runner/writer was delighted to discover the designation. There is even a pber who blogs regularly on pbers. And all this time I thought we were just Children of the Depression, or, in a word, Geezers.

By whatever term, some of us who were running before 1976 had experiences that are a little hard to imagine today. Especially the distaff side of the aisle — we were few and far between for some time there.  Once, following a neighborhood 10k in Atlanta, I hung out watching the awards ceremonies. I was still in the high school PTA mode, feeling myself both fit and acceptably chic. “Oldest Male Finisher” was called to the front for his plaque, a balding, gray-haired gent on rather wobbly, spindly legs. We clapped loudly. Then they called out the “Oldest Female Finisher” plaque and — you guessed it — my name. Last year I paired it with my lady geezer award from the Rabun Ramble 5k, about the same time I decided a brisk walk beats running these days. The Rabun Ramble people (OK, my daughter Sandy started this nifty Lake Rabun, Georgia charity event) wised up after a few years of too many medals, too little time. My award is a generic medal on a blue ribbon proclaiming Best in Class. I’ll take it. Some things never change: runners are pushovers for prizes.

Sport of running has traveled a long distance since the ’70s | coloradoan.com | The Coloradoan.

Jenna & Barbara Bush doing good? Building better global health? Believe it

Saying good things about anyone named Bush has not been a priority of this space. But an article by Sarah Adler that appeared in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, and a quick visit to the Global Health Corps Web site, suggest that the former first twins have found a way to turn their considerable name recognition and fund raising skills into an innovative program at work to improve health access and care in the U.S. and across the globe.

When first daughter Jenna Bush attended a Bay Area AIDS summit hosted by Google.org two years ago, some skeptics doubted it would amount to more than a photo op.

But they were wrong. In a conversation with a Google staffer and a Stanford AIDS activist at one session, she helped come up with a big idea: A plan to improve health care access in the poorest parts of the United States and the world. What may have seemed like a pie-in-the-sky plan has morphed into a nongovernmental organization with an impressive roster of donors and more than $1 million in funding. Few may have heard of the Global Health Corps, but as its influence grows, that is likely to change.

“So many ideas come up in group conversations that never get realized,” said corps founding director Dave Ryan, who at the time was the executive director for Face AIDS, a nonprofit group that helps Rwandans living with HIV. “But when we all got together, we saw there was something special that could happen.”

Having watched friends transition from college into careers through organizations like Teach for America, they wondered whether they could create a similar organization dedicated to health care.

“We felt like there should be a similar program for public health,” said Charlie Hale, who works in Google’s direct ad sales division and is one of the group’s co-founders.

They enlisted an eager group of socially conscious friends and secured $250,000 in seed money from Google.org. Jenna’s sister, Barbara Bush, became the president of the organization, after spending time working in Africa with UNICEF and the U.N. World Food Program.

Rather than plunging into provision of health care or supplies, GHC finds people with skills in supply chain, design and technology often learned outside of the health care field, and partners with public health organizations to fill such needs within the field. These tend not to be old fogeys over 30, either; it is twenty-somethings like themselves that GHC seeks to attract. They have thus far sent 22 fellows to 12 countries in East Africa and the U.S., and plan to send 36 new fellows out this year.

The organization has also formed partnerships with the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative, which is part of former President Bill Clinton’s global nongovernmental foundation, and Partners in Health, which was co-founded by Dr. Paul Farmer and has a large presence in Haiti.

The Global Health Corps has four staff members in New York and three volunteers in San Francisco and relies on group calls, e-mail and video conferencing at cafes, such as the recent session at Philz Coffee where Barbara Bush, Hale and Chief Financial Officer Jenny Miller exchanged updates.

The group has raised more than $1 million, and Hale said that while he’s aware that the group has more advantages than others, it also has a greater obligation to prove itself.

“Our contacts got us in the room, but at the end of the day, no one is going to significantly fund you unless you show that your good idea can work,” he said.

The Global Health Corps is accepting applications for fellowships in Burundi, Malawi, Tanzania and Rwanda, where Barbara Bush recently traveled to meet with the group’s fellows.

Boomers and beyonders need not apply. This is a new-grads generation thing. Working backwards from the Greatest Generation through the Depression-scarred and the super-achievers and the me-firsters and the whateverers, it is encouraging to see a new generation of energy and optimism deciding to take on global issues of real significance and need. Even if the decider is named Bush.

Opportunity, optimism in Global Health Corps.

Will consumerism rise again?

For some reason, maybe it’s the stock market, maybe it’s just wishful thinking-of-anything-but-wars-&-health-reform, consumerism is all over the news of late. Summer tourists didn’t tour as much or buy enough, clunkers were eagerly turned in for cars, caution abounds in the land. People are even beginning to save for the rainy days that have not yet cloudburst upon them.

A closer look at all this was taken through a couple of recent studies reported on by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Tom Abate this morning. Abate focuses on California, but the trends are all over.

California will trail the nation in emerging from the Great Recession, as consumers save more and spend less in a behavior shift that will slow growth and job creation in the short term but eventually lead to a stronger economy.

That message emerged from two separate reports released Tuesday by the UCLA Anderson Forecast and Beacon Economics, a consulting practice with offices in San Rafael.

Both forecasts characterized California as the epicenter of back-to-back consumption binges fueled by the dot-com boom and the housing bubble, and argued that now the state faces big adjustments as it recovers from ills that have long plagued the U.S. economy.

“Consumers have been on a spending binge ever since 1995,” said Jon Haveman with Beacon Economics, as soaring 401(k)s and, later, inflated home prices made Americans feel so wealthy they stopped saving money.

California, of course, rather outdid itself in the business of spending too much, buying too much and borrowing to do more of the same, but none of this was peculiar to the left coast.

It did not go unremarked, however, by one of the current candidates for Mayor of New York, Rev. Billy. You don’t know Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping? You’ve been missing something. The Rev, probably going on the ballot as Bill Talen, does not get the coverage that other candidates do, but he is dead serious about his mission and pretty raucous about delivering the message. He is seriously running for Mayor. He doesn’t like consumerism, or the corporate takeover of America, or war. At times his church becomes the Church of Stop the Bombing. In any event, if we’d been listening to Rev. Billy all these years we might have missed getting in quite so deep a mess — but we’d also have missed a lot of Starbucks lattes.

Now comes word that senior shopping at Walgreen, Rite-Aid and Family Dollar stores is going to be made more comfortable, just in time for Boomers to start turning 65 in 2011. According to a recent Wall Street Journal story by Ellen Byron, in one exercise designed to help participants in a Kimberly-Clark program understand the difficulties confronting senior shoppers, Kimberly-Clark executive Don Quigley tried going through the aisles with dark-tinted glasses, un-popped popcorn in his shoes and his thumbs taped to his palms. This rather hurts my senior-shopper feelings if it is how Rite-Aid sees me, but I will try to appreciate the effort.

It appears that we current savers/cautious spenders are not expected to change back to rampant consumerism overnight, which is good news to the senior seniors of us, brought up so rigorously in the save-first-spend-later mode that we feel better within it anyway.

Ed Leamer, director of the UCLA Anderson Forecast, said consumers usually roar back from recessions with spending that lifts production and fuels hiring, but he thinks that is unlikely during this recovery because Americans have been living beyond their means for too long – borrowing too much and importing more than the country sells abroad.”We need to turn our shopping malls into factories,” Leamer said “Our economy over the next decade is going to have to build more of the stuff we buy.”

Haveman said the painful adjustments now under way should eventually benefit California and the Bay Area, which lead in technology, biotechnology, clean energy and other cutting-edge industries.

“The light at the end of the tunnel is visible, but it’s still a long way off,” he said.

That business about turning shopping malls into factories and living within means — that’s going to please Rev. Billy.

Fundamental economic shift underlies recovery.

Saving for Retirement: Take Two

About those initiatives to encourage Americans to save for retirement (see below)? There are those around the country who would say, Phooey. Or possibly something stronger.

Born in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, these are people who did everything right: they saved a respectable percentage of all earnings, invested cautiously in companies that seemed to be socially and fiscally responsible, some of which were supposed to be subject to regulation, and switched funds to other choices when those companies acted badly. They paid off their mortgages and credit cards on time (credit card companies never liked them) and lived within budgets. Most of these folks raised their own children on the time-honored formula that said when you have a dollar you give ten cents to your church or synagogue, ten cents to charity, put ten cents into U.S. Savings Bonds, etc, etc, and only with the last five cents would you buy an ice cream cone.

These citizens have now watched their IRAs fade to nothing and their investments income disappear. Want an example? That $10,000 carefully saved for a cash cushion in case of an emergency and invested in a money market fund or savings account once could be counted on to grow, or to pay for a weekend trip. Now, thanks to the Fed’s target rate for fed funds it might earn $25 in a year. The citizens do not notice any hardship, meanwhile, being visited upon the CEOs of those investment fund companies, or anybody at Goldman Sachs.

Beyond saying Phooey a lot, these citizens are worried. The same people who got them in the mess Mr. Obama inherited now seem to be running the economic show in Washington. The citizens want universal healthcare, but can’t help wondering if they’re going to be sunk, themselves, by a catastrophe for which they no longer have funds. The citizens can’t exactly re-enter the workplace.

In short, the prospect of golden years ahead for others is not ameliorating the tarnish of their own.

The Joys (and Angst) of Housing Choices

Close up picture of a :en:shuffleboard scoring...
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What is it about the term “adult living” that seems so, well, one-foot-in-the-grave to me? Being surely one foot in the grave myself, if one chooses to look at actuarial tables which I do not, you’d think my opinionated mind might be pried slightly more open.

It’s a dilemma. Not whether one is polite and knowledgeable about adult living communities urban or suburban, but how to differentiate — and ultimately make choices among — the often bewildering assortment of housing communities and choices targeting everyone over 50 (and increasingly even below.)

I gave a talk at Rossmoor earlier today, a serene and bucolic adult living/retirement community about 25 miles and 40 degrees from San Francisco. This is no lie; it was 58 in the fog when I left home, 98 in the sun when I arrived. Rossmoor is full of recreational amenities: golf and tennis, choirs and bridge clubs and book groups. You cannot live there unless you are (or are formally attached to someone who is) 55 or older, and if you’re 18 or under you can’t hang around for more than 3 weeks. Rossmoor has its own mildly bewildering housing choices: congregate living, condos, co-ops and big houses on lush lots. It is ranked among the top such senior adult communities in the country and they are everywhere.

Add to these the growing varieties of aging-in-place groups (think Beacon Hill Village in Boston) and the truly bewildering assortment of assisted living facilities. The latter include simple rentals, detached cottages and elegant high rises; you can pay fixed or varying fees, or you can turn over your total estate (if it’s a large one) in return for a promise that you’ll be cared for in style throughout whatever infirmity or affliction arises and unto the grave.

Our friend Berta, widowed not many years ago, made the (possible) mistake of mentioning to her children that the responsibilities of maintaining her tidy, comfortable home were becoming onerous at times. This set off a frenzy of activity among her very active progeny, 3/4 of whom live in far-flung states. In addition to tackling the task of clearing out (“I had to grab a few things I wanted that were about to get thrown away…”) they came up with an assortment of possibilities for the mother whose comfort and well being they value above all else: condos and co-ops and a variety of retirement homes near their own homes, most at price tags more than daunting to someone who grew up in the Depression. Berta hopes to stay put. Most of us do, many of us can’t, and there’s the rub.