Payday Can’t Come Fast Enough

The woman ahead of us in line at the convenience store had a bit more than the impatient, bored look we all shared. She held her head high and spoke to the cashier in a friendly tone, paying for the gasoline she was going to pump. Like many people at this store, in this part of St Paul, she paid with cash – but hers came in crisp twenties slid neatly out of a bank envelope. After we paid our own way out of the line I asked my daughter if she noticed. “My guess is she just cashed her paycheck because she doesn’t have a bank account,” I told her. It was a good guess, because it turns out that more than 17% of that particular neighborhood’s households have no bank account – and many rely on the UnBank check cashing up the street.

There are many reasons people don’t have bank accounts, up to and including the fact that check cashing stores can actually be cheaper than fees on everything. But some people wind up using these places for a “Payday Loan”, or a one-month advance on the next paycheck. A recent study shows that people who do this have to take out another loan the next month to pay off the first, and so on – with 62% eventually hitting 7 or more months in a row, the point where the interest payment exceeds the loan amount.

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Fed Raising Rates …. When?

It’s been nearly a year since Janet Yellen, in her first testimony press conference after a Fed Open Market Committee (FOMC)  meeting, told the world just what she was looking for before raising the Fed Funds Rate (and everything that rises along with it). The openness was remarkable for a Fed Chair and a sign of a new era as a woman took control of what is arguably the most power job in the world.

Since that time, we have followed “Yellen’s Dashboard” with periodic updates to just just how we’re doin’. Nearly everyone agrees that interest rates will rise sometime this year, probably around June, as she has told us.  But how does that stack up against her very public criteria? It’s worth checking in with some math to see where we are with rates and what we can expect.

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Redefining Work

Is technology a net creator or destroyer of jobs? The question is as old as the Industrial Revolution, when workers in mills found themselves put out of work by large industrial looms. In France, they threw their shoes (sabots) into the weaving machines to destroy them – the origin of the term “sabotage”. The protests didn’t stop the machines, however, and the workers had to find something else to do in an ever-changing economy where machines did more and more work.

Today, the pace of technological change is faster than ever, with new gadgets coming into our lives constantly. Automation is also transforming our lives, with new robots and artificial intelligence replacing workers constantly. Are today’s productivity gains tomorrow’s unemployment? Increasingly those who study technology in our lives and the popular media are coming to the conclusion that yes, workers are net losers in the race against tech. And this is not a partisan issue.

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Greece Stands Up

Greece and Europe managed to find a way to kick the can down the road a bit, giving them four months to come up with a larger agreement. It’s exactly the kind of solution that we cynically expected here in many ways. But is there more to it than that?

The letter sent by Greek Finance Minister Varoufakis to the EU outlines exactly where Greece is coming from, and it tells us a lot more about the problem at hand. What he asked for was nothing more than the kind of consideration any other nation would want in this situation. That it was received so badly at first, then ultimately accepted in at least some form, speaks volumes about either the dysfunction of the EU or how bankrupt Greece is.

I believe it is the former, and the EU is nowhere near developing a stable process for dealing with issues like Greece or even calling themselves a real political or financial arrangement for the long haul.

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Contracted Change

A generation or two ago, workers were able to count on companies large and small to take care of them. More than just their pay, the working people of America got something critical from their job – security, a promise that the material things in their life were something they could depend on. In return, there was loyalty – and after decades of work, a pension.

There is little doubt that the nature of work is changing. The exact nature of these changes and the magnitude is hard to pin down, but it’s clear that people don’t work the same way they used to. As we contemplate the next version of the economy forming around us as this Depression slowly comes to an end it is more and more clear that the nature of work – and the corresponding social arrangements that come from it – will continue to change.

This is why reform in policy, taxation, and many other fixed arrangements is essential.

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Europe Muddles Through

Twenty years ago I was working in Germany, staying in the small town of Burghausen on the Austrian border. The cycle of holidays that mark the progress of the daily life of the town festooned red, white and blue as they turned towards “French Week” early in the Bavarian Spring. Buses of people from their sister city of Fumel, France came in and the menus in all the restaurants were replaced with copies in French. Burghausen celebrated the arrival of their guests as a family reunion of sorts.

I asked Herr Miterer, owner of the Hotel Post where I was staying, if this “European Union” was going to be successful. His piercing Teutonic glance betrayed the seriousness before he said a word. “It has to,” he said quietly, “We’ve seen the alternative.” Without moving his eyes he pointed to a picture of on the wall of this beautiful little inn that he and his family ran, taken in 1945. The top floor had been blown off and rubble littered what had become the biergarten.

The earnestness of Miterer comes back to me as the latest round of Greek crisis bubbled through the news this week. We’ve seen the alternative. Yet, somehow, it is never quite enough for Europe, this strange forced marriage that stays together for the kids, for the ideals, and for the sheer obligation of it all.

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Putin, Khameni, Netanyahu – and March

A game of chess has been waged for decades over a part of the world that has seen more than its share of similar games over the last 2,000 years. Turkey, as the crossroads between continents, has always been at the heart of many games of geopolitical intrigue that have sometimes flared into war. Lately, however, the flares have been gasflares ignited along its periphery – valuable fuel often burned as a by-product with nowhere to go.

The game this time is all about putting a pipeline across Turkey to bring that natural gas into Europe. And for a variety of odd reasons, March is a critical month for how it will be played out. The key players are all sources of natural gas – Russia, Iran, and Israel. We will likely know in a month just who wins and who loses.

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