The economy is not as bad as we are being led to believe, according to Donald Broughton, a St. Louis-based analyst with the Avondale Partners research firm, and the reason is because, despite the chaos of Wall Street, real people are still making stuff and buying stuff.
Broughton bases his opinion on an economic indicator known as truck tonnage. Every month, the American Trucking Associations surveys its members to determine the amount of goods they are shipping on the nation’s roadways. Truck tonnage has proven to be an accurate predictor of economic expansions and contractions. When it’s rising, the economy is improving. And it’s rising.
More accurately, it’s rising on a year-over-year basis. This July saw more tonnage than last July; thus June saw more tonnage than last June, and so on for 20 straight months starting with December 2009.
The past few months have been a little choppy, however. March and June were great, April and May not so much. Bob Costello, the ATA’s chief economist, said that July is typically a soft month, but this July was particularly so.
As for the nation’s 9.1 percent unemployment rate, Broughton said that the best predictor for an improving jobs picture is rising truck driver pay. That’s because for many workers, driving a truck is the job of last resort, and if companies have to pay more to attract drivers, that means they have choices. Driver pay is rising.
Learn more in this week’s column for the Arkansas News Bureau.
When only a small percentage of voters goes to the polls and those that do vote tend to be the most partisan parts of the electorate, guess what happens? Partisan elected officials get elected.
Here’s what turnout has looked like in the past few Arkansas elections:
2010 midterms – 48 percent
2010 primaries – 29 percent
2008 presidential – 65 percent
2008 presidential primary – 35 percent
2008 general primary – 18 percent
That means lots of people are voting in the general election for candidates that were chosen by the most partisan voters on the left and the right in the primaries. The result is a partisan Congress – and the mess we saw on the debt ceiling deal.
Voters can’t complain about their choices if they sit out the primaries. A more diverse Congress would be less partisan. And for that to happen, more people must vote in primaries and midterm elections.
The writer Rita Mae Brown once shared a piece of wisdom that has been used so many times that it’s become a cliche: “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.”
If that’s so, then if Americans keep electing officials like they have been, then the country truly has gone nuts.
In 2012, there will be a new way. Americans Elect is creating an online nominating process where voters can register as delegates at the effort’s website and then eventually select a nominee. The group is collecting signatures – including 1.6 million already collected in California – to get on the ballot in all 50 states.
Americans Elect is a nominating process, not a political party. Delegates who register at the website are asked a series of questions to determine their political views and will be connected to like-minded voters. Six candidates will emerge from that process to compete for the group’s nomination in June. Each must name a vice presidential running mate who is a member of a different party or is an independent. At that point, Americans Elect’s job is finished and the nominee will run his or her own campaign.
The effort has strong backing so far. It says it has raised $20 million, including $1.55 million from investment executive Peter Ackerman, who’s son, Elliott, is the chief operating officer. Its chief executive officer, Khalil Byrd, is a Republican strategist. Its board of advisors includes former CIA chief William Webster. Its chief technology officer, Joshua Levine, did that same job at E-Trade.
More in my column this week for the Arkansas News Bureau.
Here’s a very informative story in the Los Angeles Times.
And, once more, here is the Americans Elect website, www.americanselect.org.
Dewitt’s Toby Allen Lane is 31 years old. He is married. He works at Dean Robinson Seeds, and his boss considers him management material. He is a responsible, upstanding citizen. And as of last November, he couldn’t read.
As of today, he can thanks to a decision he made to seek help from the Literacy Council of Arkansas County. His tutor, Terri Cooper, says he is a motivated, goal-oriented student, which explains why he now is reading at a high middle school level.
Lane is not alone. No one knows how many adult Arkansans can’t read, but the Arkansas Literacy Councils, the state’s umbrella organization, is working to reduce the number. For two years, I was president of the board of directors, so I know a lot about its work.
It would be hard to find a more efficient organization offering more bang for the buck. Thanks to an army of 6,000 volunteer tutors, last year it helped 12,063 adults improve their reading, writing, and/or English language skills at a cost of $675,000 in state funds, plus other sources of funding. That’s $56 per student.
But it could do more. That $675,000 hasn’t been increased for decades. According to Executive Director Jennifer Holman, there are 628 adults on waiting lists. There would be more if local councils had the money to better market their services.
Arkansas has made tremendous investments in K-12 and higher education – in other words, services for people under 25. Couldn’t it do more – either publicly or privately – for the Toby Lanes of the world?
That’s the subject of my column this week for the Arkansas News Bureau.
The debt ceiling debacle received most of the attention this past few months, but Congress and the president have failed to do their jobs in two other critical areas: highways and education.
Washington is two years late reauthorizing the surface transportation law and four years late reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which created No Child Left Behind.
With highways, Congress and the president have just been tacking another year on the previous law each year. That’s bad because it makes it impossible to plan for the future.
No Child Left Behind has been a problem because the law holds schools to rising standards of accountability until 2014, when every student in every school in America will be expected to be proficient in math and science. Few schools will meet that impossible 100 percent standard then. More than 400 schools in Arkansas don’t meet it now, with students and taxpayers paying the consequences of the law’s excesses.
On Monday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that states can apply for waivers from some of the law’s sanctions, as long as those states are enacting reforms the department considers worthy. It’s better than nothing, I guess, but a complete rewrite would be better.
Above is Dr. Tom Kimbrell, Arkansas education commissioner, discussing how the state has responded to the ESEA not being reauthorized.
More in my Arkansas News Bureau column this week.
Rep. Tim Griffin is supposed to be embarking on a “Jumpstarting Jobs” tour, but at Philander Smith College Thursday evening, the talk was about the budget deficit.
Two days after President Obama signed the debt ceiling extension, Arkansas’ Republican Second District congressman defended his own vote for the deal. He said that while he wasn’t happy with it and wouldn’t have voted for it had Republicans controlled the White House and Senate, he “wasn’t willing to roll the dice” on the economy had it not passed.
Describing the deal, he said, “It’s like canceling your cable bill when you can’t afford the mortgage.”
Griffin broke with some in his party by saying that he believed the government should increase revenues by reducing the amount of tax deductions. Some Republican leaders have said that rates should be lowered in that case so that there is no net increase.
But he reiterated his opposition to increasing taxes. He said that tax revenues did not decrease as a percentage of the gross domestic product because of the Bush tax cuts. He repeated a favorite GOP line that Washington doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem, punctuating it with a Powerpoint slide showing that while revenues have remained consistent since the 1940s, spending is rising dramatically as a percentage of GDP. Even if revenues were to increase somewhat, he said, there’s no way they can keep up with that rate of growth.
Ultimately, he said, the spending explosion will be addressed – if not by the government, then by its creditors.
Griffin said economic growth was the key to reducing the deficit. He called for a flatter tax, regulatory reform, patent reform, free trade, and pro-growth energy policy.
The debt ceiling deal includes automatic spending cuts if a committee of Republicans and Democrats – dubbed the “Super-Congress” by some – and the Congress as a whole cannot agree on reductions. Griffin said he expects Congress to make those cuts without the automatic trigger.
It was a lively discussion. Griffin opened the evening by asking who in the audience was the angriest and then handed the microphone to a man named Patrick, who read a lengthy statement in support of health care reform and against the Bush tax cuts. Despite it being his fifth event of the day, Griffin energetically engaged his audience. He didn’t shy away from any questions and even gave out his cell phone number.
He also didn’t sugarcoat the realities of the country’s budget deficit problem. Saying Medicare needs substantial reforms, for example, he said, “If you love Medicare, then you’d better reform it because it’s going away.”
The audience of about 60 was fully engaged and highly informed on the debt ceiling debate. And it seemed aware of the nation’s fiscal problems. “Everybody’s going to have to take a big bite of this doo-doo sandwich,” said a constituent named “Edmond” who described himself as an independent.
The State Department of Education released scores from its end-of-course exams in literacy, geometry, Algebra I and biology. These are the tests given to high school students – the equivalent, in other words, of the benchmark exams given in grades 3 through 8.
The press release is pretty straightforward. Here it is.
LITTLE ROCK —The results of the Spring 2011 End-of-Course exams revealed increases in the percentage of students scoring proficient in Literacy, Geometry, Algebra I, and Biology.
The Arkansas Department of Education released the scores Thursday.
Algebra I proficient/advanced scores increased from 76 percent in 2010 to 78 percent in 2011. Geometry proficient/advanced scores increased from 69 percent to 73 percent. Biology proficient/advanced scores increased from 36 percent to 41 percent.
In Literacy, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced increased from 60 percent in 2010 to 65 percent in 2011. Notably, the percentage scoring in the advanced range increased from 2 percent to 16 percent.
“We’re pleased with the improvement Arkansas students have shown on these exams,” said Commissioner Tom Kimbrell. “The challenge will be sustaining that improvement over the long haul.”
Mid-year End of Course scores in Geometry, Algebra I, and Biology were lower in comparison to those of 2010.
Algebra I proficient/advanced scores dropped from 73 percent in 2010 to 57 percent in 2011. Geometry decreased from 76 percent to 60 percent. Biology dropped from 40 percent to 36 percent.
“The transition to the Common Core State Standards will allow teachers the time needed to teach core concepts well and students opportunity for mastery,” said Kimbrell.
Complete scores can be viewed at http://www.arkansased.org/testing/test_scores.html
What Congress should have done is agreed that ending the debt is nonnegotiable. The it should have compromised on the details.
What it did was decide that the details were nonnegotiable. But it compromised on the principle that we should stop passing on the debt to our children.
That’s a subject I tackle in this week’s column for the Arkansas News Bureau.
A recent report by the pro-trucking American Transportation Research Institute featured a lot of good news, including this: The number of fatal crashes involving large trucks dropped from 5,684 in 1979 to 2,987 crashes resulting in 3,380 fatalities in 2009.
Here’s another way of looking at it: They dropped from 2.2 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) to fewer than 1.3 from 2000 to 2009.
Big rigs also are causing far less injuries as well as property damage now than they were in the past.
The report, “Predicting Truck Crash Involvement: a 2011 Update,” was prepared by Micah Lueck, ATRI research associate, and Daniel Murray, ATRI vice president of research.
The purpose of the report was to analyze which driver violations and convictions in 2008 were most closely associated with a crash in 2009 and to compare that with a similar report done in 2005.
The most predictive behavior, surprisingly, was a conviction for either failing to use a turn signal or using one improperly, which increased the likelihood of a cash by 96 percent.
Why would such a seemingly minor conviction lead to so many more crashes? Murray said the industry has greatly reduced the number of truly hazardous drivers in recent years. A driver who doesn’t obey such a basic rule as using a turn signal properly, on the other hand, is an accident waiting to happen.
The Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration recently adopted a new enforcement mechanism, CSA, that better keeps track of company and driver violations. It will make it very difficult for unsafe drivers to job hop from company to company, as they sometimes do now. It’s a headache for companies, but it seems likely to make our highways safer.
Looking for good news in a bad economy? Medical malpractice rates have not only stabilized but are decreasing.
According to the latest available information, rates in Arkansas are down 1.3 percent since 2006 as a result of malpractice insurance companies paying out less in claims, and they appear likely to remain at low rates.
According to Lars Powell, Ph.D., Whitbeck-Beyer chair of insurance and financial services at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock College of Business, “Every new piece of information we get about claims and loss experience has been less than what we’ve seen before. So it’s possible the rates could go back up. But you would expect to see that precipitated by large losses or an increased frequency of claims, and to my knowledge, we haven’t see either one in Arkansas yet.”
The decrease follows a big run-up in rates during the first part of the 2000s, when the state Insurance Department allowed companies to have double-digit increases several straight years and turned down increase requests of as much as 100 percent.
So why are the rates going down? Primarily it’s the economy. Nationally, the Physician Insurers Association of America says claims frequency is down 25-30 percent from four or five years ago. That’s because plaintiffs’ attorneys don’t want to pay the high costs of filing suit unless they have a very good case. According to the PIAA, only 30 percent of all claims filed against doctors end up in a payment to the plaintiffs.
There are also more competitors in the marketplace. In 2004, when the dominant St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company abruptly left the market, no one was offering coverage. Now there are a couple of dozen companies either renewing business or seeking new policyholders.
Other reasons: Arkansas has not had any huge verdicts in several years. Also, physicians appear to be doing a better job of applying risk management practices that reduce the potential of a lawsuit.
One factor not really affecting the rates: tort reform. Arkansas’ 2003 law has been eviscerated by the courts. Health care reform also should have little effect, good or bad, on rates.
We’re due for a comprehensive Insurance Department report that will shed more light on the subject. I will keep you posted.