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The Avoidable and Inevitable Stock Market Swoon

Monday was another down day on Wall Street, and so far as we can tell there are several reasons for the recent stock market swoons. Part of it just the usual economics, but so far as we can tell the worst of it is some unusually stupid politics.
The seemingly biggest reason is that the Chinese have predictably imposed steep tariffs on many American products in retaliation for President Donald Trump’s unilaterally imposed tariffs on many Chinese products, and it seems a trade war has begun. At the same time, though, Trump is also waging war on some major American businesses, another heavy hitter has come under congressional scrutiny, and the usual economic disruptions are at play.
Trump has “tweeted” that “trade wars are good and easily won,” but the smart money on Wall Street and most sane observers elsewhere strenuously disagree. Trump has also retreated from some of his “tweeted” threats, which has always prompted stock markets rallies, but then he “tweets” another threat, such global economic powers as the European and Union and our neighbors to the north and sound issue retaliatory threats and the stock markets once again swoon. If the cycle continues until the rest of the world meekly accedes to Trump’s demand for American dominance of the global marketplace, we expect it will take a while.
In the meantime, one of the most dynamic sectors of the American economy is facing political problems, which are the worst kind of problems these days. Some of the biggest players in the high-tech industry that keeps coming up with all sorts of world-changing gizmos and gadgets and thingamajigs are now being “tweeted” about and summoned to congressional committees, which is not good for business, and the tech-heavy NASDAQ stock exchange has taken the worst hit lately in the recent downturn.
The on-line retailer Amazon.com has recently surpassed Wal-Mart as the world’s biggest store, and Trump has recently been “tweeting” that it’s a tax cheat which drives Main Street stores out of business and is bankrupting the United States Postal System. Much of that is entirely untrue and the rest quite debatable, but it’s been an undeniable drag on the drag on the company’s stock price, and given its enormous size there’s a big drag on the overall averages. For now there’s not much Trump can do about Amazon or its owner’s other notable property, The Washington Post, other “tweet” about it, what with those pesky constitutional prohibitions against bills of attainder and infringements of freedom of the press, but at least Trump is inflicting quantifiable financial pain on his even-richer nemesis.
The on-line social media giant Facebook has its own similar political problems, but for very different reasons. A web site that became extraordinarily profitable and powerful by allowing people to share videos of their cats and cell phone pictures of the taco they were about to eat and whatever else they had on their minds also wound up disseminating political propaganda from Russian-based “troll farms” through a firm tied to the Trump campaign during the last presidential election, and the resulting headlines have not been good for the company’s once red-hot stock price. All the propaganda was apparently pro-Trump, so Trump hasn’t “tweeted” anything about it, but the Democrats on those pesky congressional investigative committees have at least managed to inflict some quantifiable financial pain of their own. Facebook ended Monday down 16 percent from its recent high, and given its outsized influence that also accounted for much of that broader decline.
The computer chip-making giant Intel also took a huge on news that Apple Computers, another outsized company tech-sector and one of Intel’s biggest customers, is considering making its own computer chips. That’s the sort of business page news you’d expect on any day in the fast-moving and nerve-wrackingly dynamic high tech sector, though, and we’re the sort of red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists and old-fashioned Republicans who are content to let the marketplace sort that out. As much as we love that old corner store that Mom and Pop once built out of brick and mortar, we equally hate bills of attainder and infringements on a free press, and we’ll let Amazon do whatever the state legislatures and the marketplace allows it do, and we’ll stay on Facebook just to keep apprised about which of our friends have recently divorced, so as to avoid any awkward comments.
Although we’re rapidly growing too old for such economic disruptions, we’ve long since learned to accept them as part of the ebb and flow toward something like progress. As rock-ribbed Republicans and red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists we’ve long believed that all those sorry-assed consumers at the pay line could choose more wisely than the politicians, and we still resent those darned Democrats for presuming to make better picks of the winners and losers.
Nowadays, though, that seems to make us “Republicans in Name Only” or “cuckservatives” or “globalists,” as both parties have chosen their winners and losers. Steel and aluminum companies seem a good stock bet at the moment, but car makers and beer brewers and any other industries that use steel or aluminum look risky. If you have a stake in any of the several industries China is now slapping tariffs on, you might want to talk to your financial advisor about that. The Democrats can try to deprive all the social media-addled youth of Facebook, but we’d advise them that most of the political content from our friends is annoyingly liberal.
Oddly enough, yet another reason for the current nervousness on Wall Street is that the unemployment rate is currently low by historical standards and the overall economy seems to be doing well, so there’s the ever-present danger that the Federal Reserve Board will raise interest on loans past the virtually free-money rates that have sustained the whole enterprise since that last big crash. Such adjustments are another one of those disquieting disruptions we’ve learned to accept, but otherwise we’d prefer politics just stay out of it.

— Bud Norman

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Swimming Against the Mighty Amazon

The anti-capitalists on the left have always railed against the biggest retail sales giant of the moment. Back in the prairie populist days they warned that the Sears & Roebuck catalogue would destroy all local commerce, and by the early 20th Century it was the A&P grocery store chain that threatened to rule us all with a monopolistic fist. Until recently the scary corporate villain was the Wal-Mart discount store chain, but they’ve lately been usurped in both sales totals and political notoriety by the on-line retail giant called Amazon.
This time around, though, it’s putatively Republican and unabashedly capitalist President Donald Trump who’s leading the boos and hisses. Trump has frequently criticized Amazon, and he did so again on Thursday with yet another “tweet.”
“I have stated my concerns with Amazon long before the Election,” Trump wrote. “Unlike others, they pay little or no taxes to state or local governments, use our Postal System as their Delivery Boy (causing tremendous cost to the U.S.), and are putting many thousands of retailers out of business!”
Putting aside our usual complaints with the usual arbitrary capitalizations and use of parenthesis and that always annoying exclamation point, pretty much every word of it is embarrassing economic illiteracy and pure balderdash. Even worse, we’d say than what the left has always peddled.
In actual fact, rather than alternative fact, Amazon does indeed collect and then pass along sales taxes on items sent to the 45 states and many localities that have decided to require it by law. The other five states apparently have their own reasons for not requiring it, probably either purely ideological or brazenly corrupt, but we figure that’s their business, and Trump is in no moral position to criticize Amazon for not paying a penny more in taxes than is most strictly required.
Amazon does indeed use America’s postal system as one of its “Delivery Boys,” but so do all the rest of us who have sent a letter or utility bill payment or greeting card or Christmas package through the postal system. This is what the postal system does, after all, and it will take one hell of a “tweet” to explain how having the country’s biggest retailer as a client is bad for business. We can well believe that Amazon has negotiated a favorable deal with its delivery boy’s biggest client, but every analysis we’ve read suggests the delivery boy should be glad for the business in these days of on-line communications, and once again Trump is in no moral position to criticize their artful dealings.
There’s no doubt that Amazon will drive at least a few thousand Main Street brick-and-mortar retailers out of business, just as Sears & Roebuck and the A&P and Wal-Mart undoubtedly did, but the Republicans and the right in general used to chalk that up to the “creative destruction” of capitalism. The much-railed-against railroads delivered delivered Sears & Roebuck catalog’s low-priced items to people across the rural areas, including all the guitars used on all the great country and blues recordings of the time, and it worked out pretty well. The A&P chain did well because it used its market share to negotiate good deals with the wholesalers and then passed the discount along to its consumers, and more recently Wal-Mart has found itself in a position to negotiate profitable deals the likes of China and pass along the everyday savings to their grateful and often obese customers.
In every case, it all proved relatively momentary and nobody wound up ruling the world. These days nobody’s afraid of the big, bad Sears & Roebuck catalogue, the last of the far-flung rural A&P grocery stores went under three years ago, and Amazon has now passed Wal-Mart both in sales and as the leading target of the traditional left and the newfangled right.
Amazon is already using drones as an occasional delivery boy, which can’t be good for the postal system’s negotiating position, and there’s no telling what they’ll come up with next. Whatever Buck Rogers gizmo they come up with, though, we’re sure that some kid in some garage somewhere on the fruited plains is on the verge of something that will overtake Amazon in sales and villainy and low, low prices to the consumer. Perhaps it’ll be one of those “Star Trek” gizmos that immediately transmits whatever your desire and whatever your credit card will allow.
It’s not that we’ll regard it as a grand and glorious day. We’re the old-fashioned sort of Main Street Republicans who still nostalgically long for that ol’ corner store — if you’ve got a few moments to spare, our friend Jonathan Richman put it especially well — and we still resent almost everything from the Sears & Roebuck catalogue to the A&P to Wal-Mart to that newfangled Amazon thingamajig. There’s something tactile and human about brick-and-mortar and face-to-face commercial interactions, and we’d hate to see it go, but we don’t worry that any kid in any garage will soon match that.
Still, we’ll be rooting for Amazon over Trump in their momentary battle for rule over the world. Amazon has ever done us any wrong, as we’ve had nothing to do with them except for their publication of our e-novel “This Town Is Nowhere,” and at this point we have more complaints with Trump. We can’t help suspecting that part of Trump’s crusade against Amazon is because it’s owner, Jeff Bezos, is provably far richer than Trump claims to be, because Trump really is that petty. Bezos is also the owner of The Washington Post, a nationaly-read newspaper that daily publishes news stories Trump would rather not hear, and that seems to have something more to do with this feud.
We don’t care much about Sears & Roebuck or the late A&P or Wal-Mart or the currently almighty Amazon, or whatever comes next, as we do little business with any of them, but the freedom of the press is dear to our heart. So is the constitutional prohibition of bills of attainder, which has long prevented the government from acting against any specific person or specific group of persons, and we don’t worry that Trump will wind up ruling the world.

— Bud Norman

Christmas in the Information Age

Today is Black Friday, when the annual Christmas shopping season begins with bargain-hunters duking it out over some Chinese-made gewgaw or another in the store aisles, and as usual we’ll pass on the ritual. This is expected to be the first Christmas when on-line sales surpass those in the old-fashioned brick-and-mortar stores that you have to drive to and walk into and then interact with other people, but we’ll also take a pass on that.
As much as we resent all the current stores on the east and west sides of town for driving away Gateway Sporting Goods and Reader’s Bookstore and all the other locally-owned retailers who used to transform downtown Wichita, Kansas, into a winter wonderland during our youth, we don’t want to see them driven away by the computer or other newfangled device you’re using to read this. That would leave a lot of empty buildings, and a lot of unemployed shop clerks, and what with the drones Amazon is already using and the driverless trucks that Google is threatening to unleash it’s hard to see what space-filling businesses and jobs the new economy might offer them.
Such potentially dire economic consequences aside, the technological tectonic shift that’s expected to occur this Christmas season has a cultural effect we also don’t care for. Although today’s stores lack the personal touch of the mom-and-pop operations we so fondly recall, there’s still something to be said for driving to a store and walking into it and interacting with other people. The drive takes you past places that evoke fond memories and gives you a chance to hear the local radio, and if you don’t get hit by a car the walk across the parking lot is healthful, and maybe it’s just a Wichita thing but we find that most of our interactions with other people are generally quite pleasant and often have a very salutary effect on our mood.
Somehow, despite the crass commercialism and creeping secularism of this modern age, people always seem to become more pleasant to interact with the closer it gets to Christmas. Lay off the Black Friday sales or the Cyber Monday bargains, hunt down some fascinating shop some local oddball opened, and it might just instill some Christmas spirit. We also suggest you call your far-away family rather than texting them, and meet face-to-face if at all possible, and gratefully accept any invitations you might receive to a holiday party, and except for your daily visits here spend less time looking at some sort of screen.
There’s no fending off progress, even when it goes too far, but we’ll be damned before we go along with it.

— Bud Norman

“This Town Is Nowhere,” On Sale Now

There’s probably bigger news out there somewhere, but around here the big story of the day is that “This Town Is Nowhere” is at long last on sale.
“This Town Is Nowhere” is a novel of our own creation, and we rather like it, so we feel entitled to a certain pride of authorship and another day off from our usual snide analysis of the news. It’s only an e-publication, available through Amazon and Kindle, and we remain steadfast Luddites who have never resorted to such newfangled gimmickry for literature, but there’s still a certain satisfaction in having put such an old-fashioned yarn somewhere out there on the new frontiers of technology.
It’s an odd piece of work, we will concede. After a compelling Old West prologue that has little to do with the subsequent plot, the novel opens on on the first day of the 1972-’73 school year at a second rate junior high in the middle of the country, where a fellow who had briefly been a popular rock ‘n’ roll guitar player in the ’50s is now grouchily teaching math, one of his typically stupid students is daydreaming significantly, and the guitar-playing math teacher’s brother, who had briefly been the singing star of the band, is still rockin’ and rollin’ out on the lost highway of American music. The typically stupid student awkwardly becomes a protege to the former brother, falls under the even more dubious influence of the latter, and between the two he gets wised up a bit as the brothers plod along toward their own disparate fates. Such a scant plot fills a couple hundred typewritten pages, and who knows how many electronic tablet pages, by meandering off on topics ranging from the jargon of public educators and the corresponding breakdown of the public education system to the frustrations of adolescence and the frustrations of middle to the unique combination of the Devil’s music and God’s music that has made American music such a troublesome and essential part of our national character, with some thoughts about our national character in general thrown in.
The structure is peculiar, too. An otherwise straightforward chronology and omniscient narration is occasionally interrupted by long monologues recalling preceding events, and some events are re-told from the perspectives of different characters. There are segments that seem short stories apart from the rest of the plot, others that are historical essays full of allusions to largely forgotten blues or country musicians and geo-political events, and others that sound like those chords tossed into a medley to get from one song to the next.
Our first novel, “The Things That Are Caesar’s,” which is still available on good paper, as God intended, also through Amazon, that all-important entity, was about similarly sleazy characters but focused on religion and politics and the occasional collisions of the two. It didn’t sell a lot but was well reviewed and earned us some invitations from local book clubs that had thought it was quite thoughtful and amusing, and we rather liked that one as well. Several enthusiastic readers described it as very “cinematic,” and it does sometimes remind of us those great cynical Preston Sturges movies from the ’30s and ’40s.. This one is more about the broader culture, with occasional digressions on how the decline of the culture has preceded a decline in politics, although of course God figures in it again. It’s a bit more literary, to the extent that any movie adaptation would be harder to come up with, but at our age and with the movies they’re making these days we don’t think that’s such a bad thing..
Lest “This Town Is Nowhere” sound a bit too highly literary, be assured there’s also plenty of violence and foul language and sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The title and a basic premise for the story came to us many decades ago, when we were immersed in rockabilly records and chain-reading the works of Jim Thompson, the great Okie dime novelist and literary darling of all the fancy French critics, and we like to think that some of the bawdier scenes might recall his brilliance. There’s a certain P.G. Wodehouse affectation in some of the narration, and we owe much to the onomatopoeia and other descriptive language of the great Tom Wolfe for the musical interludes, and the basic idea of the old man and the boy is probably due to too much Robertson Davies, and there’s no way any real American can avoid the Mark Twain thing, but the story is set in the ’70s and the middle of the country so there’s no escaping a certain roughness in the story. Most of it comes from stories we’ve been told by white kids and black kids, including one ghetto-smooth fellow we met in D.C. one summer who smoked his first marijuana cigarette at the invitation of Cab Calloway, one of the all-time greats and the original “Reefer Man,” and a long-haired psychedelic guitar-player of our acquaintance who started playing bluegrass gospel to get off drugs and was quite accomplished in both styles of music, and wizened old folks in the country and our idiot peers in the suburbs, or what we’ve read of the epic battles between Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Phil and Don Eberly and all the feuding siblings of musical history, or the incredibly cool Louis Prima’s even cooler brother staying home in New Orleans and never getting famous, or the great rockabilly bass-thumper Ray Campi teaching at a southern California junior high, or remarkable fellow who we once witnessed cleaning up a teenaged companion’s vomit off the floor of a bar just to avoid a fight, or ¬†our own embarrassing encounters with real life along the lost highway. All in all, we think it’s a story about American music that could be true.
Though often bleak, we think a certain humor and hopefulness comes through the tale. In inflation-adjusted terms the story is for sale at about the same affordable price that Jim Thompson used to ask, and we’re not embarrassed to ask the same. There’s bigger news out there somewhere, but we’ll spend today on “This Town Is Nowhere.”

— Bud Norman