Seeking Solutions in an Age of Division, Despair and Donald Trump

  
Take a look at this slide. It’s all about hope and building a better future.

The 7 P’s were for podcasters who gathered recently at Podcast Movement, an annual industry conference held in Texas. As I’ve written before, the event was a rally: a celebration of what we do in podcasting. The message was overwhelmingly positive.

But have you ever wondered why the language used to discuss business and politics are so different?

When company profits or sales are down, ideas are shared about how to change course.  At the best institutions and firms, innovation and fresh thinking are encouraged, especially when times are tough.

Not politics.  Outage and disgust are Donald Trump’s currency.  

Instead of offering a detailed, well-thought out vision for the future, what we get are furious outbursts and personal put-downs. Much of the news media only make it worse by feasting on controversy and highlighting the day’s most outrageous comments.

That’s why my friend, Jim Meigs and I decided to do “How Do We Fix It”. Both of us spent decades as mainstream media journalists, and we thought there was room for a show about solutions. So far we’ve done 14 weekly podcasts on matters that matter: From parenting and personal debt to politics and identity theft.   

The latest show came this week in response to the turmoil on Wall Street, when words like “fear”, “pandemonium”, and “panic” were being used to describe the stock market.

We were lucky when Redfin Senior Economist Nela Richardson promptly said “yes”, to our invitation to be the guest on our latest show. With rich experience in the private sector, academia, think tanks, and as a regulator, Nela is an economist who knows her stuff and can talk about it in an engaging way.

  
While she told us that the stock market turmoil was “shocking”, Nela also said “it’s important to remember that the stock market is not the economy.”

“The economy hasn’t changed. It’s still slowly humming along, and a lot of the fear and panic came from overseas markets. It wasn’t home-bred like the financial crisis eight years ago. There’s a big difference between now and back then.”

One takeaway from our interview was “keep calm”. Compared to most overseas economies, the U.S is doing reasonably well. This week’s volatility was largely caused by fears of a sharp slowdown in China.

Nela’s special focus is real estate and young home buyers. The outlook for 2015 “looks really good,” she says. “The housing market is going to out-perform last year’s level.”

But what concerns her is that incomes are flat and that many college graduates have much big student loans to pay off. “Wages are really stagnant and yet we see every month that house prices keep grow a little a bit higher.”

On the other hand, interest rates are very low and inflation shows no sign of being a threat soon. Most millennials are patient, says Nela, and don’t appear to be in a hurry to buy their first home.

But there are signs that more young adults are responding to the housing crunch in the most expensive markets on the coasts by moving to cheaper areas.

“There are some places where we still see a lot of affordability… Places like Oklahoma, Texas and South Carolina, where you can still get a good job make a good living, provide for your family, and buy a home.”

As for solutions, Nela says: “I think we need to get smart about home ownership policy.”

Because of rising income inequality, “the next generation of homeowners are going to be less wealthy, more ethnically diverse and without the same resources as previous generations. We need to figure out how to extend credit without tanking the financial system.”

“I think there are ways to acknowledge the new forms of households that we’re seeing growing up all around us.” Nela suggests that banks should be more creative about lending money to baby boomers and millennials who buy property with friends.

“There is really no banking product that takes account of three or more household incomes.” Multi-generational households with more than two wage earners are quite common among Hispanics and some Asian communities.

 “Why not create products that make sense for the new types of families and households that we are seeing pop up.”

 Another way for homebuyers and banks to respond to the changes in the economy is view rental income from spare rooms in a positive light.

But many people may never be able to afford a mortgage. “We are going to see more renters in the next ten years that homeowners. We have to make sure people have a place to live.”

As urban areas expand, says Nela, local and federal home building policies should reflect the these changes. And better data collection will be needed to show where the needs and demand for housing will be greatest.

Next week, we’ll be looking at another part of our rapidly changing economy: the jobs market. We’ll focus on fixes and real-world ideas for change.  Want to find out more about “How Do We Fix It?” Head to our web page and sign up for “The Fixer”, our newsletter.  

Coca Cola vs. Science?  The Sour Fight Over Sugary Sodas, And What You Can Do About It.

   

When I was a kid I thought Coke was the best thing ever. From about the age to 10 to 15, my day wasn’t complete unless it included a seven ounce bottle of the sweet stuff.
Even better was Coke with four cubes of ice and a slice of lemon plus maybe even a shot of grenadine in a grownup highball glass. To me aged 13 that was sophistication itself.

Even now decades later I still like an occasional Coke.  It’s way better that Pepsi.  And yes, if you put a blindfold on me, I could still tell the difference.

But the fuss raised rhis week by The New York Times over Coca Cola’s funding of scientists to influence the debate over what causes weight gain leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Coca Cola has spent millions of dollars to back researchers who claim that lack of exercise is a far greater cause of the obesity epidemic than poor diets.  According to The Times, a non-profit group called the Global Energy Balance Network said the company gave it $1.5 million last year to start the organization, and nearly $4 million in funding for other projects.

“Most of the focus in the popular media and the scientific press has been ‘Oh they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ – blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on,” says Steven Blair, an exercise scientist in a video made by the group. “There’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”

Most prominent obesity and diabetes researchers disagree.  The news about Coke’s activities provoked uproar in the public health community. 

For this week’s How Do We Fix It? podcast, we invited Dr. Kelly Brownell, Dean of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy to be our guest.  As our show is about solutions, we asked him to look at fixes for America’s worst health crisis. 

“There’s very good science showing that consumption of sugary sodas is strongly related to risks for obesity, diabetes and some other major health problems,” Kelly told us.  

After decades of rising obesity and diabetes, the trend appears to have peaked.  A Gallup poll says 60% of Americans are trying to avoid drinking soda.  So Coke may have good reason to try and influence the debate and stop its sales slide. 

While there is nothing new about corporations paying money to fund scientific research, Coca Cola is playing a political role in the shifting debate over health and diet, as well as fighting back against soda taxes and efforts to stop the sale of high-sugar drinks in schools.  

Parents have a right to know the facts.

More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. “Obesity around the world is now a more significant problem than hunger,” Kelly Brownell told us.

As for dealing with the causes, here are his takeaways:

 1. Parents should know that weight problems usually start very early in life. “Early obesity tracks into the adult years,” he says.  

 2. Government can help with “policies that only allow healthy foods in schools. There could be restrictions on what foods are marketed to children.” Dr. Brownell also supports a soda tax.

 3. His best advice for individuals? “Try to eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and keep meat consumption under control and watch your calories.”

I’ve got a fourth one. Portion control.  Eat and drink less. 

When I was a kid, Coke came in 7 ounce bottles.  Then 12 ounce cans were introduced. Now the stuff comes in 20 ounce single-serve containers.  

Is it all the beverage industry’s fault? No.  As my pal and podcast show co-host Jim Meigs says: “Never under-estimate the ability of captalism to give us what we want.” Marketers and makers will keep on finding new ways to tempt us. 

But ina free-market society built around choice, stupidity comes with a cost.  We all have a role to play in making reasonable choices.