Connecting the Dots, September 2019

To Fix the Economy, Fix Healthcare

September 17, 2019

If you are American and you have health insurance, you probably get it from either your employer or some kind of government program. Or possibly both, if the government is your employer.

War Gaming the Trade War

September 10, 2019

People respond to incentives. So do national governments. This is foundational to both economics and geopolitics.

Globalization Hits a Brick Wall Named Trump

August 27, 2019

Until about 50 years ago, people paid attention to the area where they lived. They read local papers, shopped at local merchants, and socialized at local events.

Tariff Carnival Ride

August 20, 2019

“Donald Trump Saves Christmas,” said the Gizmodo headline last week.

Trump’s Trade War Is Over and Nobody Won

August 13, 2019

“You break it, you own it.”

Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell cited this Pottery Barn rule back in 2002. He was advising President George W. Bush of the consequences should an Iraq invasion go badly.

Trump’s Trade War Is Paralyzing Business

August 6, 2019

The way you feel about yourself affects your behavior... and the economy.

Financial Success Formula Failure

July 30, 2019

The US economy grew at a 2.1% annualized pace in the second quarter, according to data released last week. That was better than economists expected but hardly impressive.

RIP Economic Cooperation, 1944–2019

July 23, 2019

Last month, world leaders observed the 75th anniversary of D-Day, when Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, France. It was a critical day in world history.

Free-Trade Republicans Will Surrender to Trump

July 16, 2019

Imagine an alternate history in which Donald Trump lost the 2016 election.

The Left-Behind Economy

July 9, 2019

Remember “No Child Left Behind,” George W. Bush’s education reform plan? Congress passed it in 2001.

Trump, ZIRP, and the Fed

July 2, 2019

Investors are in a buying mood despite many economic warning signs. Why?
For some, it’s because they expect the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates and otherwise “stimulate” the economy. They believe (correctly) it would drive stock and real estate prices higher. 

Freight Slowdown Is a Terrible Sign for the Economy

June 25, 2019

Just as an army moves on its stomach, an economy moves on ships, trucks, and planes. They carry the goods whose purchase adds up to growth.

Trump’s Trade War Is Paralyzing Business

June 18, 2019

The way you feel about yourself affects your behavior... and the economy.

Trade War Will Trigger Inflation, Then Recession

June 4, 2019

The logic of Donald Trump’s multi-front trade war, if there is any, is increasingly obscure. The tangled mix of policies isn’t accomplishing its stated goals and seems unlikely to ever do so. Meanwhile, it hurts the Americans it should supposedly help.

Trade War and Real War

May 28, 2019

To wrap up Memorial Day weekend, here’s a column I wrote last December. Recent trade war developments make it still highly relevant.

Men’s Room Job Automation

May 21, 2019

People are worried robots will take their jobs. That’s a legitimate fear sometimes, but it’s not new. It is just another step in a process that started long ago.

Corporate Scandals and Economic Lubricants

May 7, 2019

The yield curve isn’t the only sign recession is coming. Rising corporate hubris says the same thing.

Trade War Widening, Not Ending

April 30, 2019

Almost every day brings comforting news on the trade front. They’re talking! Someone went to Beijing! Someone else is optimistic!

The Economy’s Blood Pressure Is Falling

April 16, 2019

It’s not a good sign for your health if your blood pressure drops too low. It can cause dizziness and fainting and, in severe cases, can even be life-threatening.

Trump May Regret His Fed Takeover Attempt

April 9, 2019

Some things are too important to leave to politicians. One such thing: the money supply. That’s why the Federal Reserve Board is (at least in theory) an independent agency.

Trump’s Trade War Is Nowhere Near Over

April 2, 2019

If you follow daily market action—something I don’t usually recommend—it’s pretty clear investors don’t like tariffs or other trade restrictions.

Your Economy May Be Fine, But It’s Not Just You

March 26, 2019

Looking at the official unemployment rate, American workers should be pretty happy. Almost everyone who wants a job has one.

Reality That’s More Than Virtual

March 19, 2019

Technology and the economy are like an ouroboros, one of those snake-eating-its-tail symbols. You don’t know where one ends and the other begins.

The Worst Parts of MMT Are Already Here

March 5, 2019

Many Americans are worried about “modern monetary theory.” They fear a future Congress will use it to justify sharply higher spending and enlarge the national debt to unsustainable levels.

Hedging the Ultimate Tail Risk: Breakup USA

February 26, 2019

Some things are so horrible, you don’t want to think about them.

Fake Capitalism Is a Bigger Threat Than Socialism

February 19, 2019

Many people are worried socialism will take over the US. They’re sure it will be awful.

Trade Power Goes with Military Power

February 12, 2019

Five years ago this month, Ukraine’s “Euromaidan” Revolution led to Russian forces occupying the Crimean peninsula and parts of Eastern Ukraine. The US and Europe imposed economic sanctions in response. Pundits like me proclaimed a new Cold War.

Finally, a China Strategy That Might Work

February 5, 2019

The US and China are racing to craft some kind of trade agreement before March 2, or else President Trump says he will impose stiff new tariffs.

Science Says Protectionism Won’t Work

January 29, 2019

The simmering trade war is still... well, simmering. Markets rise and fall with each new rumor.

Business Confidence Is Starting to Crack

January 22, 2019

Actions speak louder than words. That’s why surveys asking people what they think about the economy aren’t always useful. Their actions might not match what they tell pollsters.

The Wealthy Should Prepare to Be Soaked

January 15, 2019

Much of the US government remains in shutdown as I write this, including the IRS.

Wages Are Still the Key

January 8, 2019

Here we are in 2019, our last chance to make the Twenty-Teens a decade that worked. Whether you think it worked depends partly on whether you worked… and how well you were paid for it.

Lonely Boomers Are an Economic Opportunity

December 18, 2018

Baby Boomers get blamed for all kinds of problems. Much of the blame is unfair, but there is no doubt the first postwar generation brought a lot of changes—culturally, economically, and otherwise.

Trade War and Real War

December 11, 2018

We have a temporary truce in the trade war. No one is quite sure if it will last, especially financial markets, which after a short-lived rally saw little to celebrate in the latest Trump-Xi meeting. 

How to Kill American Jobs

December 4, 2018

Here’s a question whose answer is rarely pleasant: “What could go wrong?”

Economic Sugar High Will End with a Crash

November 27, 2018

By most measures, the US economy is performing okay. New data tomorrow will likely show real GDP growth still near 3.5%. Unemployment is below 4%. Inflation is up a bit but still historically low.

Technology, Tariffs, and Peak Globalization

November 13, 2018

The US-China trade war dominates the economic news, but in the long run, tariffs may be a minor detail.

Trade War Enters “Chips Ahoy” Phase

November 6, 2018

Today’s election, divisive though it is, can’t change one thing: We Americans love our sweets. This is bipartisan.

China Trade Solution Is Hiding in Plain Sight

October 30, 2018

If the news media’s White House sources are correct, President Trump’s trade war with China may soon intensify.

How Free Trade Can Fix Healthcare

October 23, 2018

I wrote last week about the huge amount of money Americans spend on healthcare. Many people simply can’t afford to get the care they need.

Healthcare Is Eating the Economy

October 16, 2018

Being sick is no fun, whether you’re a patient or the economy. Illness disrupts people’s lives and, economically speaking, diverts scarce resources from more productive uses.

NAFTA Isn’t Gone Yet

October 9, 2018

To hear some people talk, the North American Free Trade Agreement is practically dead. Soon a newly negotiated revision will take its place.

Trump’s China Tariffs Not Playing in Peoria

October 2, 2018

Free trade is amazingly popular for something that doesn’t actually exist. Even Americans who can’t define free trade tell pollsters they love it.

Machines Will Do Half Our Work by 2025

September 25, 2018

Whether you see it or not, a machine is coming for your job right now. Yes, yours.

Wage Growth Surging? Not Really

September 18, 2018

The US economy is at “full employment,” says the official 3.9% unemployment rate. Every educated person who wants to work has at least one job. Some of us have several.

Reality Gets Too Virtual at SXSW

September 11, 2018

Patrick Watson is working on a special project this week. The following is one of his most popular columns, originally published March 21, 2017.

Do We Really Know What Causes Events?

September 4, 2018

Suppose we asked 100,000 random people to flip a coin until it landed on tails. 50,000 would get tails on the first flip.  On the next flip, 25,000 would get tails, then 12,500, and so on.

How Trump Could Light a Federal Reserve Time Bomb

August 28, 2018

Those worried about the Fed’s so-called “independence” from politics are a little late. The US presidents, who nominate its board members, long ago put political loyalty high on the qualification list.

Productivity Riddle May Be Simple

August 21, 2018

Finding more and better-trained workers is the top challenge for many US business owners. They say current workers can’t produce enough to meet growth objectives.

Gasoline and Free Money

August 14, 2018

Gasoline prices have been strong this summer, though they’re still below last May’s peak, when the national average was near $3 a gallon.

No Shoes, No Shirt, More Money

August 7, 2018

A penny saved is a penny earned, goes the old saying… but that’s not true. In today’s world, a penny saved is better than a penny earned.

How to Solve Information Inundation

July 31, 2018

“Information overload” used to describe the amount of news available to us. Now the term is woefully inadequate. We are not just overloaded, but inundated.

“National Security” Auto Tariffs Are the Real Witch Hunt

July 24, 2018

President Trump likes to call the Russia investigation a “witch hunt.” Yet he also thinks your car endangers US national security. Yes, your car, the one in your garage right now. It is the enemy.

If Robots Learn Surgery, Is Any Job Safe?

July 17, 2018

Economists disagree about job automation: Some see imminent doom, others think we can adjust. There’s not a lot in-between.

Pet Care Is a Recession-Proof Industry

July 10, 2018

Americans may be bitterly divided on everything else, but we all agree on one thing: We love our dogs. Our cats, too, plus a few other companion species. We’ve made them part of the family.

Face It: Social Security Is Welfare

July 3, 2018

According to the dictionary, “welfare” is a word that describes our health, happiness, and fortunes. But in the US, it usually refers to government support, which many consider shameful. No one wants to be “on” welfare.

Trade War Is Coming, But We Don’t Know How

June 26, 2018

We’re in a trade war. No, we’re not. Yes, we are, but it won’t be so bad.

The Dismal Science Depends on Bad Data

June 19, 2018

Those who call economics “the dismal science” are half right. It is indeed dismal (“dingy and unwelcoming”) to think about, except for dweebs like me.

How to Save Social Security

June 12, 2018

Some things you just don’t question. For American workers, Social Security is one of them. You pay into it your whole career, and you expect to get paid when you retire. No politician dares say you won’t.

To Save the Economy, Don’t Retire

June 5, 2018

The US economy is growing but corporate profits are not, according to data released last week. That’s disappointing for stockholders.

If You Want to Be Rich, Want Less

May 29, 2018

Our endless drive for more money, more stuff, and just generally “more” has turned into a vicious cycle of materialism.

Fear, Starbucks, and FDR

May 22, 2018

Financial markets move when humans (or machines programmed by them) decide to buy or sell. In theory, these decisions are rational, but in reality, they’re often driven by emotions.

Overheated Highways

May 15, 2018

This month, my wife and I drove from Austin to Memphis. Going across Arkansas on I-30 and I-40, the number of trucks seemed quite high.

Moving Millionaires

May 8, 2018

You’ve heard the old line about three kinds of falsehoods: lies, damned lies, and statistics. All three are easy to find on the Internet.

Capitalism Can’t Work Without Losers

May 1, 2018

Those who support free-market economics say it is the best, most efficient path to maximum prosperity for everyone.

Privacy Is Dying, Like It or Not

April 24, 2018

The funny thing about breakthrough technologies is that we rarely see the break. They tend to sneak up on us. Every now and then, something revolutionary comes out of nowhere, like the iPhone in 2007, but it still took a few more years to take off.

A Productivity Paradox

April 17, 2018

Economics is the study of people’s rational choices when they’re faced with scarcity and uncertainty.

Tariff Tough Talk

April 10, 2018

International trade policy shouldn’t be headline news. We just need stability, so everyone can conduct business—but that’s not where we are.

Three Cracks Threatening Stocks

April 3, 2018

You may have noticed stocks have stopped going straight up. By itself, that’s not scary. Bull markets and high volatility can coexist, and often did until the last few years.

Twisted Reality and Fake CEOs

March 27, 2018

“Fake news” has become a buzzword, especially connected to social media. Which becomes even more worrisome in light of the recent scandal about Facebook’s shady data-sharing and advertising practices.

Idea Meritocracy, Expert Blindness, and the Fed

March 20, 2018

When you have a major problem, you consult an expert—at least, that’s the idea. But in recent years, we’ve learned the hard way that so-called “experts” don’t always know what they’re talking about.

TMI and Paying Productive Workers

March 13, 2018

This week, I have a TMI problem. That stands for “Too Much Information,” and typically means someone shared personal info you’d rather not know.

The Full Employment Mirage

March 6, 2018

Judging by the official 4.1% unemployment rate, US workers appear to be doing pretty well. Unlike a few years ago, almost everyone who wants a job has one. That’s an improvement.

Steel Yourself for Metallic Trade War

February 27, 2018

Some people, including me, have been predicting trade war ever since the 2016 election—and for a good reason. President Trump promised all sorts of harsh trade actions. He killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement within days of taking office, which was a big deal.

Blame IQ Tests for the Student Debt Problem

February 20, 2018

Everyone is worried about debt. Government debt, household debt, personal debt, corporate debt. We are in it up to our eyeballs and often beyond.

The Stock Market Isn’t America

February 13, 2018

Did the recent 10% drop in the stock market bother you? Let me take a wild guess: it’s because you have money in stocks. No one likes seeing their net worth decline.

The Problem with Healthcare Is Profit

February 6, 2018

Never fear, the billionaires are here. They will save us from medical bankruptcy.

Teach Your Brain to Beat the Robots

January 30, 2018

Robots and AI are coming for your job. And if you’re already retired, they’re still coming for your kids.

How Inflation Might Hit Bitcoin

January 23, 2018

You know that awful feeling when you think you lost your wallet? Now imagine you had $75 million in it. What would that feel like?

Why Shady Banksters May Be a Great Investment

January 16, 2018

Bankers divide the population into two categories: “banked” and “unbanked.” They seek to bank all humanity, because these days, to be unbanked is considered the financial equivalent of homelessness.

Wages Are the Key to 2018

January 9, 2018

Nine days into 2018, I’ve read 793 economic and market forecasts. Okay, that’s an exaggeration… but it certainly feels like it. In any case, I’ve read enough to know opinions are all over the place. Whatever your desired scenario, some expert says it’s a sure thing.

The Prospectus Will Tell You Nothing—and Everything

January 2, 2018

Welcome to 2018. Now is the time for New Year’s resolutions, so you might have important financial decisions to make.

How Bitcoin Could Crash the Markets

December 19, 2017

Bitcoin mania is starting to look like a religion.

Why Bitcoin Can’t Be Money

December 12, 2017

Everyone is talking about bitcoin, even people who otherwise know little about investing. That’s probably a bad sign for bitcoin.

How Tax Cuts Will Trigger Recession

December 5, 2017

According to the more cynical pundits, government programs usually achieve the opposite of their intended goal. And sometimes they do.

Tax Talks Lead Nowhere Good

November 28, 2017

The US Senate may vote on its tax “reform” plan this week. If it passes, they’ll have to reconcile it with the somewhat different House plan.

Two Bad Choices in Tax Debate

November 21, 2017

Remember when everyone wanted to cut the federal deficit? Fiscal policy was much simpler back then: balanced budget good, deficits bad.

The Tax Trade Is Getting Crowded

November 14, 2017

Congress is deciding your portfolio’s future right now—so you might want to pay attention.

Tariffs on Your Roof

November 7, 2017

The US is about to fire another salvo in the international trade war, and this one may actually make sense.

This Energy Revolution Could Shrink Your Electric Bill to Zero

October 31, 2017

Happy Halloween. Whether you’ll get a trick or a treat is hard to know in this zombified economy.

Free Trade Is Awesome, But It Has a Dark Side

October 24, 2017

If you think economics is boring, bring up “free trade” and see what happens. I guarantee sparks will fly.

Unemployment Is a Geography Lesson

October 17, 2017

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the US economy is at full employment, or close to it. Yet it doesn’t feel that way for many Americans. Even if you have a secure job, you probably know people who don’t.

How to Work in Retirement and Love It

October 10, 2017

Wall Street endlessly gushes about retirement. Its TV commercials show how wonderful life will be in our golden years—when we are old, yet still healthy and wealthy enough to go hang-gliding every day.

Taxing Puerto Rico to Save US Shippers

October 3, 2017

In theory, capitalism is all about healthy competition, which makes producers deliver quality goods and services at lower prices.

What Could Go Wrong? For Public Pensions, More Than You Know

September 26, 2017

Here’s a loaded question for you: “What could go wrong?”

How to Beat Banks at Their Own Game

September 19, 2017

When it comes to public sentiment, banks and Congress have a lot in common.

Cold War II Expands to Asia

September 12, 2017

September is not unfolding as expected. Then again, as Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Harvey’s Animals and Robot Seals

September 5, 2017

Hurricane Harvey hit Texas hard. Much of Houston, our largest city, will be uninhabitable for months, maybe years.

Why Super-Efficient School Bus Routes Could Wreck the US Economy

August 29, 2017

Everyone is worried about robots. Elon Musk fears they will kill us all if we give them both deadly weapons and autonomy.

How American Blood Can Fill the Trade Deficit

August 22, 2017

In June, the US ran a $32.6 billion “trade in goods” deficit with China. That’s the difference between our imports from China ($42.3 billion) and our exports to China ($9.7 billion), according to the US Census Bureau.