(What’s Left of) Our Economy: September Sees Bigger Hurricane Toll for U.S. Manufacturing but Fractional Overall Production Gain


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The Federal Reserve’s new industrial production figures show greater hurricane-related damage to real U.S. manufacturing output in September than in August, with the losses in chemical industries using oil and gas feedstocks great enough to plunge all of domestic industry into a technical recession. Inflation-adjusted manufacturing production is now 0.14 percent lower than in February. Yet on month, overall after-inflation manufacturing output eked out a 0.10 percent gain.

Most seriously affected by the devastation of the energy-rich Texas and Louisiana Gulf coasts were organic chemicals (where monthly production plunged by 14.71 percent), and plastics materials and resins (down 8.16 percent) — both post-recession worsts. The volatile artificial and synthetic fibers and filaments sector, whose after-inflation sequential output was reported to have sunk by 11.25 percent on month in August saw that figure upgraded to an 8.44 percent decline and boosted its monthly real output in September by 5.83 percent – its best since last September (9.67 percent). Price-adjusted oil refinery production for August was slightly downgraded to a 2.52 percent fall-off (its biggest since January, 2010’s 2.75 percent), but September monthly production dipped only fractionally.

The non-durable goods supersector containing these chemical industries saw its constant dollar output slump by the greatest rate (0.89 percent) since January, 2015 (1.20 percent). Revisions for real manufacturing output as a whole were negative, with August’s reading slightly upgraded but July’s downgraded from a slight increase to a significant drop.

Good news came from the automotive sector, however, especially its first back-to-back monthly real production increases since the May-October period last year, and a strongly upgraded August gain (3.56 percent) that was the sector’s best since June, 2016 (3.89 percent). As of September, however, in inflation-adjusted terms, American manufacturing is 4.26 percent smaller than when the last recession began at the end of 2007 – more than nine years ago.

Here are the manufacturing highlights of the Federal Reserve’s new release on September industrial production:

>Although September’s manufacturing production figures showed hurricane-related damage to American industry to be considerably worse than in August, and indeed bad enough to plunge the entire sector into a technical recession, industry managed an overall 0.10 percent real monthly production increase during the months.

>Due to major constant dollar output drops in chemicals and especially sectors heavily reliant on oil and gas feedstocks from the storm-struck Texas and Louisiana Gulf coasts, domestic manufacturing output after inflation was 0.14 percent lower in September than in February – a seven-month stretch that conforms with the standard definition of a recession (two consecutive quarters of economic contraction).

>The worst September sequential real output losses were suffered by organic chemicals (14.71 percent), and plastics materials and resins (8.16 percent). These decreases were the biggest experienced by these industries since recessionary September, 2008 (24.92 percent), and December, 2008 (11.72 percent), respectively.

>Interestingly, an artificial and synthetic filaments and fibers sector whose (volatile) real production fell sequentially by an initially reported 9.10 percent saw that result now judged as an 8.44 percent drop (still its biggest since recessionary November, 2008’s 11.25 percent). Moreover, its September production is now pegged as rising by 5.83 percent – the best such on month increase since last September’s 9.67 percent.

>Similarly, although inflation-adjusted petroleum refinery output in September dropped sequentially by 2.52 percent (the biggest such fall-off since January, 2010’s 2.75 percent), the monthly August decrease was revised up from 1.93 percent to a minimal 0.06 percent.

>All the same, these results were enough to depress monthly constant dollar output in the enormous chemicals industry by a downwardly revised 2.31 percent in August and another 2.62 percent in September. The latter result was the sector’s worst such result since recessionary December, 2008’s 4.85 percent shrinkage.

>And in the larger non-durable goods supersector, although August’s monthly production was upgraded modestly to a 0.63 percent decline in real terms, real output decreased by another 0.89 percent – its worst such figure since winter-affected January, 2014’s 1.20 percent.

>Despite the fractional inflation-adjusted September production uptick in manufacturing overall, , and August’s upward revision from a 0.26 percent sequential decline to 0.20 percent, July’s results were changed from a 0.04 percent rise to a 0.35 percent drop – big enough to turn overall revisions negative.

>Nonetheless, the automotive sector produced some good news.

>It’s true that July real output for this industry, which has led manufacturing’s bounceback during most of the current economic recovery, was revised down from a 4.16 percent drop to 4.85 percent – its worst since winter-affected January, 2014’s 5.87 percent. But August’s month-on-month improvement – revised all the way up from 2.16 percent to 3.56 percent – was its best since June, 2016’s (3.89 percent).

>Moreover, although September’s sequential output rise was a mere 0.07 percent, it produced the first two-month stretch of automotive output improvements since the May-October stretch of 2016.

>As of September, however, domestic manufacturing still had not yet completed its recovery from the historic Great Recession. Real production was 4.26 percent lower than when that slump began, more than nine years ago, in December, 2007.


Our So-Called Foreign Policy: More Childish Attacks on Trump


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I’m getting to think that in an important way it’s good that establishment journalists and foreign policy think tank hacks still dominate America’s debate on world affairs. It means that for the foreseeable future, we’ll never run out of evidence of how hidebound, juvenile, and astonishingly ignorant these worshipers of the status quo tend to be. Just consider the latest fad in their ranks: the narrative that the only theme conferring any coherence on President Trump’s foreign policy is his impulse to pull the United States out of alliances and international organizations, or at least rewrite them substantially.

This meme was apparently brewed up at the heart of the country’s foreign policy establishment – the Council on Foreign Relations. Its president, former aide to Republican presidents Richard N. Haass, tweeted on October 12, “Trump foreign policy has found its theme: The Withdrawal Doctrine. US has left/threatening to leave TPP, Paris accord, Unesco, NAFTA, JCPOA.” [He’s referring here to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that aimed to link the U.S. economy more tightly to East Asian and Western Hemisphere countries bordering the world’s largest ocean; the global deal to slow down climate change; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the official name of the agreement seeking to deny Iran nuclear weapons.]

In a classic instance of group-think, this one little 140-character sentence was all it took to spur the claim’s propagation by The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Marketwatch.com, Vice.com, The Los Angeles Times, and Britain’s Financial Times (which publishes a widely read U.S. edition).  For good measure, the idea showed up in The New Republic, too – albeit without mentioning Haass.

You’d have to read far into (only some of) these reports to see any mention that American presidents taking similar decisions is anything but unprecedented. Indeed, none of them reminded readers of one of the most striking examples of alliance disruption from the White House: former President Ronald Reagan’s decision to withdraw American defense guarantees to New Zealand because of a nuclear weapons policy dispute. Moreover, the administrations of Reagan and George H.W. Bush engaged in long, testy negotiations with long-time allies the Philippines and Greece on renewing basing agreements that involved major U.S. cash payments.

Just as important, you could spend hours on Google without finding any sense in these reports that President Trump has decided to remain in America’s major security alliances in Europe and Asia, as well as in the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (along with a series of multilateral regional development banks).

More important, you’d also fail to find on Google to find any indication that any of the arrangements opposed by Mr. Trump might have less than a roaring success. The apparent feeling in establishment ranks is that it’s not legitimate for American leaders to decide that some international arrangements serve U.S. interests well, some need to be recast, and some are such failures or are so unpromising that they need to be ditched or avoided in the first place.

And the reason that such discrimination is so doggedly opposed is that, the internationalist world affairs strategy pursued for decades by Presidents and Congresses across the political spectrum (until, possibly, now) is far from a pragmatic formula for dealing with a highly variegated, dynamic world. Instead, it’s the kind of rigid dogma that’s most often (and correctly) associated with know-it-all adolescents and equally callow academics. What else but an utterly utopian ideology could move a writer from a venerable pillar of opinion journalism (the aforementioned Atlantic) to traffick in such otherworldly drivel as

A foreign-policy doctrine of withdrawal also casts profound doubt on America’s commitment to the intricate international system that the United States helped create and nurture after World War II so that countries could collaborate on issues that transcend any one nation.”

Without putting too fine a point on it, does that sound like the planet you live on?

I have no idea whether whatever changes President Trump is mulling in foreign policy will prove effective or disastrous, or turn out to be much ado about very little. I do feel confident in believing that the mere fact of rethinking some foreign policy fundamentals makes his approach infinitely more promising than one that views international alliances and other arrangements in all-or-nothing terms; that evidently can’t distinguish the means chosen to advance U.S. objectives from the objectives themselves; and that seems oblivious to the reality that the international sphere lacks the characteristic that makes prioritizing institution’s creation and maintenance not only possible in the domestic sphere, but indispensable – a strong consensus on defining acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

One of the most widely (and deservedly) quoted adages about international relations is the observation, attributed to a 19th century British foreign minister, that his nation had “no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” Until America’s foreign policy establishment and its media mouthpieces recognize that this advice applies to international institutions, too, and start understanding the implications, they’ll keep losing influence among their compatriots. And rightly so.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: The Wage Stagnation Mystery Deepens


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If, like most of the policy and business establishments, you’re mystified by the continuing failure of American wages to rise healthily despite labor markets that seem unusually tight, you’ve stayed mystified this morning. The Labor Department has just reported that inflation-adjusted pay in September in the private sector and in manufacturing both fell sequentially for the second straight month. Moreover, the new data reveal that real manufacturing wages worsened year-on-year for the first time in three years.

The figures are still preliminary, but according to the Labor Department, after-inflation wages for the private sector dipped on month in September by 0.09 percent. That’s better than the 0.19 percent drop in August (which is still preliminary, and stayed unrevised), but it means that, as of now, U.S. workers on the whole have failed to keep up with the cost of living for two consecutive months. (The federal government doesn’t track wages in the public sector, because they’re set mainly by politicians’ decisions, not economic fundamentals.)

The annual numbers are every bit as discouraging. Real private sector pay was only 0.65 percent higher this September than last. The results between the previous Septembers? A 1.23 percent real wages rise.

As for the longer-term, price-adjusted private sector wages are up 4.56 percent since the current economic recovery officially began in mid-2009.

But as bad as these private sector statistics are, they nearly glow compared with manufacturing pay’s performance. Industry’s real wages fell 0.09 percent on month in September, too – but that decline followed an unrevised 0.91 percent monthly plunge in August that was the worst since November, 2011’s 0.95 percent nosedive.

Even worse, after-inflation manufacturing wages are now down 0.18 percent year-on-year. That’s their first annual deterioration since September, 2014 (0.29 percent). Moreover, between September, 2015 and September, 2016, real manufacturing pay improved by 1.40 percent.

And since the recovery officially began, more than eight years ago, manufacturing pay has stayed ahead of living costs by a grand total of 1.03 percent. Consequently, over the last year, as poorly as real private sector wages have fared, they’ve widened the performance gap with manufacturing wages. As of last September, the former had increased during the recovery by 3.88 percent, compared with 1.21 percent for the latter – or 3.21 times faster. As of this September, overall private sector wages have advanced 4.43 times faster than manufacturing wages.

This manufacturing wage stagnation should be of special concern to President Trump. It’s true that his months in office so far have seen an employment pickup in industry. But if the supposed mystery of wage lag isn’t solved pretty soon, when the next mid-year elections arrive, those “Blue Wall” voters in manufacturing-heavy states that helped put him in the White House last year could still be feeling pretty blue.

Im-Politic: Mainstream Media Again Foster NAFTA Myths and Think Tank Corruption


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Although Donald Trump’s presidency might still turn out to be a watershed for U.S. trade policy, it already seems clear that trade policy coverage from the Mainstream Media will remain uniformly terrible, and unmistakably slanted toward the conventional approach that candidate Trump promised to disrupt. As recent articles from Reuters and the Washington Post remind, the bias takes both subtle and non-subtle forms.

Both pieces deal with the talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which have resumed in Washington, D.C. this week. Despite its failings, Reuters correspondent Sharay Angulo’s article on the talks’ possible impact on multinational truck manufacturers contained some important information. For instance, she reported that 98 percent of the trucks exported from Mexico are sent to the United States and Canada – which oddly precedes a claim that most of these truck companies “have a similar strategy of building in Mexico to export to countries other than the United States.”

We also learn from her that more than half the “original parts” of U.S. firm Navistar’s Mexico-made trucks come from the United States and Canada (although this information comes from Navistar itself, and like other company-specific information re NAFTA, offshoring, and trade in general, so far can’t be independently verified). In addition, the article (again citing Navistar statistics) states that the firm exports fewer than half its Mexico-made vehicles to the United States – which seems to differentiate it sharply from its competitors.

Where the report veers sharply from the rational is in its unquestioning acceptance of the claim that “Higher tariffs on imports or reduced trade flows would raise the cost of production and of exporting to the United States. That would make trucks more expensive for all Navistar’s customers….”

What’s somehow missed by the author (and all the “experts” consulted by Reuters who allegedly agreed with this contention) is that this result would unfold only if Mexico retaliated against any Trump administration tariffs on its exports to the United States with new levies of its own that would hit manufacturers like Navistar. Given Mexico’s heavy dependence on parts imports to support its export-oriented truck and other industrial production, why on earth would its government take this step? Such retaliation would “raise [its] costs of production and of exporting to the United States” yet higher. Talk about cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Also missed by Angulo – how higher Mexico production costs could well achieve Mr. Trump’s revamp objectives by shifting truck manufacturing back to the United States. She’s correct in suggesting that low tariffs on Mexico exports to the United States may not suffice. But a logical (and seemingly obvious) implication is simply that higher tariffs will be needed.

The less subtle form of bias came in an October 6 Washington Post article previewing the latest NAFTA talks, and although it’s a more common variety, it was especially flagrant. One big problem is the authors’ (and their editors’) decision, with a single exception, to quote only critics of the Trump administration’s efforts.

Thus, readers are presented with the perspective of a Canadian trade lawyer, a former Mexican trade negotiator who now works for a D.C.-based consulting firm with many offshoring companies as clients, a Mexican business lobbyist who officially advises his country’s NAFTA negotiators, a former Canadian official, a former Obama administration economic aide, and four specialists from two Washington, D.C.-based think tanks.

A second big, and related problem – at a time when the intellectual integrity of such think tanks has come under a positively stygian cloud due to the uproar over New America’s firing of several researchers who ran afoul of big donor Google, the Post piece makes absolutely no mention that both of these organizations depend heavily on contributions from both companies and foreign government organizations with vital stakes in maintaining the NAFTA status quo.

For example, the latest info from the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center (itself a recipient of U.S. taxpayer funding), base for one of the specialists showcased in the piece, reveal that the organization receives contributions from no less than six big Mexican companies, plus Wal-Mart (a big importing business) and the main trade association of the American pharmaceutical industry – which manufactures in Mexico for export to the United States.

The Canada Institute, where the other quoted Wilson Center specialist is based, lists the Canadian government as a donor.

As for the other think tank relied on by the Post for (supposedly objective) expertise, the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), among its U.S. and foreign multinational funders that produce in Mexico for export to the United States are Toyota, GE, Caterpillar, IBM, Ford, GM, Samsung, John Deere, Procter & Gamble, and Mitsubishi.

PIIE also takes contributions from three foreign government entities that help their countries’ companies engage in export-oriented operations in Mexico: the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, the Korea Development Institute, and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.

In addition, in recent years, the Peterson Institute has also cashed big checks from Mexican building materials giant Cemex, and from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – the organizational spearhead of America’s corporate offshoring lobby.

As I’ve repeatedly emphasized, the point here is neither that these think tanks’ findings and opinions lack merit, or they or their donors have no right to weigh in on important trade and other policy debates. It’s that these ostensible research groups should make clear who’s paying their rent – and that if they continue with what I’ve called deceitful idea laundering on behalf of their sponsors, the press should call them out.

The Mainstream Media, however, keeps failing to fulfill this responsibility – which can only deepen already profound suspicions that it’s abandoning its watchdog role and turning into an establishment lapdog instead.

Making News: On CNBC at 1 PM EST Today!


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I’m pleased to announce that I am scheduled to appear on CNBC’s “Power Lunch” show today at 1 PM EST to discuss the negotiations to revamp the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) taking place in Washington, D.C. this week.  You can watch live on-line at cnbc.com or on most home cable/satellite systems.

Also, I’m still hoping to post a podcast of yesterday’s interview on Thom Hartmann’s nationally syndicated radio program, but I need to get the show’s permission first.  Stay tuned (figuratively)!

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.


Making News: On National Radio Early This Afternoon – & More!


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I’m pleased to announce that I’m scheduled to appear today on Thom Hartmann’s nationally syndicated radio show today at 1:20 PM EST.  The subject:  the state of the U.S. and world economies — and specifically, is either one as healthy as the conventional wisdom seems to believe?  All the info you need to listen live is at this link.  As usual, I’ll post a podcast of the interview as soon as one’s available.

In addition, on September 26, the Hong Kong-based ChinaUSFocus.com posted a column by the Cato Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter quoting my views on President Trump’s North Korea policies.  Truth in advertising:  Ted is a long-time and very close friend.  He’s also one of the sharpest foreign policy analysts I know.  In addition, this website’s sponsor calls itself a non-profit organization, but given that Hong Kong is under China’s thumb in most important ways, this claim should be viewed extremely skeptically.  Moreover, this “non-profit” admits that it gets “support” from a prominent Shanghai-based think tank that (like other Chinese think tanks) is an arm of the Chinese government.

In this vein, however, it’s intriguing that the point made by me and by Ted (who agrees) is manifestly not one that toes the Beijing line on the crisis.

On September 10, a blog post from the Center for Immigration Studies spotlighted my findings on the economics of repeal of the former Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

And on September 9, my post on the subject was reprinted on the popular ZeroHedge.com economics and finance website.

Finally, as previously discussed, in a September 15 New Republic article, prominent journalist and author John B. Judis quoted my views on the worsening corruption of many already corrupt, corporate-funded American think tanks.  Unfortunately, as I also specified, I don’t believe that John’s treatment of this point met basic standards of fairness.

Keep checking in at RealityChek for news of media appearances and other developments!

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: The Latest Bogus Case for TPP Revival


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The case for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal pushed by former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but killed by President Trump, was never serious. For example, America’s economy represented nearly two-thirds of the vaunted new free trade zone the Pacific rim deal would have represented. Many of its largest economies (notably Canada, Mexico, and Australia) were already connected with the United States by trade liberalization agreements. These and most other TPP members have depended heavily on amassing trade surpluses to generate growth, casting major doubt as to how widely they’d open their own domestic markets. And despite being widely touted as a counter to China’s growing economic and military influence in the region, the deal contained an immense back door for Chinese products in the form of sloppy rules of origin.

Now the Wall Street Journal editorial board has taken the bogus pro-TPP case another fact-free step further. It’s claiming to have unearthed evidence that Mr. Trump’s decision is already hurting American exporters. Except the only “evidence” presented is from a single Japanese study. And its findings consist not of developments that have already taken place, but of projections of what it thinks might take place.

Everyone is of course entitled to an opinion – or a projection. And maybe Tokyo’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies knows something about such forecasts that has completed eluded the U.S. Government – which has a terrible record predicting the results of trade deals. But everyone is also entitled to ask why the Wall Street Journal didn’t look at what is already known about export flows between the United States and its would be TPP partners since the Trump decision.

According to the U.S. International Trade Commission’s Trade Dataweb, year-to-date 2016-2017, America’s goods sales to these countries have grown by 5.36 percent. That’s somewhat less than the 6.38 percent increase in total, global American merchandise exports during that period. But not a lot less.

Moreover, this small discrepancy is anything but unheard of. Since the current U.S. economic recovery began (a period during which the TPP was being considered in Washington and all the other capitals that sought the agreement), America’s global goods exports have topped their TPP counterparts in two years, and the reverse has been seen in three years. In two other years, merchandise exports to both groups fell – both times by greater percentages for TPP exports. Moreover, the differences in none of the seven full years for which data exist is substantial.

In other words, the numbers so far support the observations that many of the biggest TPP member economies comprising the smallish non-U.S. TPP trade area (along with smaller economies like Singapore, Chile, and Peru) already have reached trade agreements with the United States – and that optimism regarding a needle-moving U.S. export boost has never been justified.

Moreover, neither the Journal editorialists or any other TPP revivalists has grappled seriously with any of the other reasons for exports skepticism. These range from the prevalence in the non-U.S. TPP economies of the kinds of non-tariff trade barriers that American trade diplomacy has never eliminated or even significantly reduced, to the related likelihood that most of the TPP provisions concerning these barriers are unenforceable.

Nor have pro-TPP voices explained why other agreement provisions – such as a yet another dispute-resolution system that would override American trade laws, plus that back door for China and other non-TPP countries – wouldn’t have supercharged U.S. imports and further swelled an already bloated, trade deficit.

The Journal‘s editorial ends with the hope that “If the 11 remaining members hold out for a U.S. return, it’s possible that rational American self-interest will prevail over protectionist bluster.” But its fact-free missive makes clear that it’s the remaining TPP supporters in the United States that urgently need to display a learning curve.

Ken Burns’ Ultimate Failure in Vietnam


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By all means, Watch the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick PBS documentary, The Vietnam War if you haven’t already. At the same time, don’t expect to learn anything important about the conflict as a whole, and especially about its historical or current policy significance, unless you know nothing or almost nothing about it. Moreover, as a result, consider the series an enormous missed opportunity, since disputes over the reasons for U.S. involvement and for the outcome keep shaping many of America’s biggest foreign policy controversies, and since television is how so many in the nation get so much of their information about these subjects.

In fairness, Burns and Novick have expressed discomfort with the notion that they tried, or should have tried, to provide definitive answers to the “Why” of Vietnam and the follow-on issue of lessons to be learned. Here’s how Burns described his view of his work’s distinctive contributions to the Vietnam canon – at least in its non-fiction film and video form:

What we wanted to do was benefit from the 40-plus years of new scholarship and the willingness of veterans from all sides to speak. To have access to the country and tell not just a top-down story of policy — or failed policy, depending on your point of view — but to do a bottom-up story of the human dimensions of the war. We also felt that the Vietnam War has been so politicized that it’s almost impossible to find out what actually happened during it. The story we’re telling is not devoid of the politics — it’s certainly an important component — but I think it takes its rightful place in relationship to battles that most Americans have never heard of and campaigns and decisions that they were probably not aware were made in their name.”

He added, in the same interview:

There are many, many lessons of Vietnam. It’s the most important event in American history since the Second World War. It is something that did not turn out very well for the United States, so a lot of people have ignored it and buried their heads in the sand. It’s a source of great anxiety and often anger and bitterness and people find themselves in their own corner, unable to budge. What we tried to do was create an environment with lots of different perspectives honored and coexisting.”

But in another interview, Novick suggested a more ambitious goal:

This was a very traumatic, difficult and painful moment in American history, and we as a country have never really dealt with it. Our hope was that we could delve into it, try to understand it, put the pieces together in an organized way and perhaps help our country talk about something it really needs to talk about.”

Even if you take a “Just the facts, Ma’am” view of the aim of “trying to understand” the war, or believe that Burns and Novick simply want to help Americans (and any others) make up their own minds, her answer begs too many crucial questions. For example, what substantive guidelines did they use in their effort to “put the pieces together in an organized way”? Even the ostensibly simplest, chronological narrative results from decisions to include or omit, especially on television or in films and videos. How do they explain what was put in and what was left out?

More important, what aspect or aspects of the war do the auteurs think is not understood? What do they themselves now understand that they was unknown to them before? If they keep declining to answer those questions, then it’s difficult to avoid concluding that they haven’t yet formulated any – and that either they have nothing to say on this paramount issue, and/or that they (astonishingly) haven’t seen the need to come to their own explanations, and/or they have, but they’re concealing them for some reason. None of these possibilities is flattering.

I lean toward the first two choices, and for a reason that in my view, anyway, is pretty unflattering itself: Burns and Novick have never actually seen their project as an exercise in either narrative or analytical history. Instead, they conceived it as an exercise in psychotherapy, certainly for everyone directly touched by the war, and perhaps for the nation as a whole.

Further, compelling evidence is provided by the opening and closing minutes of The Vietnam War itself. The first words spoken in Episode One are from former Marine Corps officer Karl Marlantes, who states (with dignity, to be sure), “Coming home from Vietnam was as close to traumatic as the war itself.” He continued “For years, nobody talked about Vietnam….the whole country was like that….It was so divisive. And it’s like living in a family with an alcoholic father: ‘Shhh. We don’t talk about that.’”

Marlantes is followed immediately by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a leading supporter of prosecuting the war, asking immediately following the fall of Saigon to communist forces in 1975, contending, “What we need now in this country is to heal the wounds, and to put Vietnam behind us.”

And soon after comes Max Cleland, a former U.S. Senator and Veterans Administration chief who was cripplingly wounded during the war:

Viktor Frankl, who survived the death camps in World War II, wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. You know, ‘To live is to suffer. To survive is to find meaning in suffering.’ And for those of us who suffered because of Vietnam, that’s been our quest ever since.”

This focus is made even more explicit at the end of the tenth and final episode. Narrator Peter Coyote somberly recites the denouement that surely presents the most important takeaway according to Burns and Novick (and script writer Geoffrey C. Ward, an eminent historian):

More than four decades after the war ended, the divisions it created between Americans have not yet wholly healed. Lessons were learned, and then forgotten. Divides were bridged, and then widened. Old secrets were revealed, and new secrets were locked away. The Vietnam War was a tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable. But meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through it – stories of courage and comradeship and perseverance, of understanding and forgiveness, and ultimately, reconciliation.”

I don’t mean to belittle the value of psychotherapy. Or healing. Or closure. Or any such disciplines or accomplishments. The veterans living, dead, and wounded (physically and psychologically), and their families and friends, deserve no less. The same applies of course for their Vietnamese counterparts. (And in this vein, one of the most stunning revelations in “The Vietnam War” is that at least some reconsideration of the conflict’s necessity and worth has been taking place on the victorious North Vietnamese/Viet Cong side, and that those with second thoughts are willing to express them on camera.) But when creating content for the public arena, should these be the highest priority objectives? Aren’t they more appropriately administered or achieved in private?

Unless Burns and Novick believe that the these personal subjects shed meaningful light on national life and behavior as well? I don’t rule that out, either, but the logically consequent idea – that, like individuals, countries mainly act as they do because collectively they are psychologically healthy or unhealthy, or virtuous and altruistic, or arrogant or selfish or complacent or conceited – seems reductionist, and frankly childish, to me. Just as bad: What’s the solution for these kinds of problems? A new nation-wide Great Awakening?

Again, if you know little or nothing about the Vietnam War, the Burns-Novick documentary is a fine introduction. It’s important also for viewers whose knowledge, whether extensive or meager, is limited to textbooks or even academic studies. For the visuals powerfully underscore Burns’ above description the war as American history’s most important post-World War II event – an assessment with which I strongly agree.

Unfortunately, the film offers no coherent explanation why. Forty years later after Vietnam, barely a decade after the end of another divisive war, in Iraq, as a conflict in Afghanistan approaches its second decade, and as America’s elites continue displaying no ability to think sensibly and pragmatically about the country’s vital foreign interests, it’s a failure that’s no longer excusable.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Hurricanes Muddy September Manufacturing Jobs Results – & Obscure Huge Automotive Revisions


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This year’s violent hurricane season contributed in September to American domestic manufacturing’s second sequential jobs in the last three months. Industries with extensive facilities on or near the Gulf coast and in the southeast took especially hard on-month hits, notably chemicals (-2,000), apparel (-1,900), and motor vehicles and parts (-3,200). Yet the heaviest single sector job decline came in printing and related activities (3,600).

September employment levels throughout manufacturing, however, also were greatly affected by enormous July automotive revisions, which prolonged a jobs recession in the sector that began in April, 2016. Initially credited with a 1,600 net job rise in July, automotive’s employment improvement was revised up to 5,300, and then dragged all the way down to a net job loss of 27,100. The overall July manufacturing job totals were downgraded from an initial 16,000 net increase to the 11,000 net loss revealed this morning.

Pre-inflation manufacturing wages in September matched the solid 0.45 percent sequential advance recorded for the private sector as a whole. But in manufacturing, this increase followed a 0.49 percent monthly wage drop in August – industry’s biggest since last November (which rounded down to 0.49 percent). Further, manufacturing’s annual current-dollar wage increase of 1.99 percent represents a striking slowdown from the previous year (2.95 percent). Manufacturing’s share of total nonfarm employment actually ticked up, though, in September and August – to just under 8.49 percent. In July, it matched its all-time low of 8.47 percent.

Here’s my analysis of the latest monthly (September) manufacturing figures contained in this morning’s employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

>U.S. domestic manufacturing lost jobs on net sequentially in September for the second time in three months, with much of the total 1,000 decline traceable to payroll drops in sectors with many facilities in or near the hurricane-affected Gulf coast and southeastern states.

>For example, significant monthly job hits were taken in the automotive sector (3,200), chemicals (2,000), and apparel (1,900).

>At the same time, the sector with the greatest on-month job losses in September was printing and related support activities (3,600). And the petroleum and coal products industry, another Gulf coast-heavy sector, only lost 100 net jobs from August to September.

>In addition, employment levels throughout manufacturing in September were strongly affected by immense revisions for monthly automotive job changes in July.

>The initial read on vehicle and parts payrolls that month reported a 1,600 monthly jobs gain. The next employment report revised this advance up to 5,300. But this morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics data tables showed a 27,100 month-to-month net automotive job loss for July.

>As a result, overall monthly manufacturing payroll shifts for July changed dramatically, too – from an initially reported 16,000 improvement to a 26,000 surge to an 11,000 net decrease.

>In fact, these automotive revisions revealed the sector to be mired in a jobs recession that began in April, 2016. Since then, payrolls in the sector have fallen by a cumulative 4,300.

>Manufacturing wages rose a seemingly impressive 0.45 percent sequentially in September on a pre-inflation basis, matching the gain of the overall private sector.

>Yet in manufacturing, this progress was preceded by a 0.49 percent monthly current dollar manufacturing wage drop in August, the biggest such decline since a comparable figure in November. In the private sector, pre-inflation wages rose sequentially in August by 0.15 percent.

>Worse, the September plummet meant that pre-inflation manufacturing wages had risen only 1.99 percent year-on-year – one of the lowest figures of 2017. And this wage gain was much bigger than the 2.95 percent current dollar raise manufacturing workers received between the previous Septembers.

>Moreover, the recovery-era gap between pre-inflation wage increases in manufacturing and in the private sector overall has widened considerably over the last year. In September, 2016, private sector wages had risen 21.55 percent faster than manufacturing pay since the recovery began in June, 2009. This September, the difference was 25.28 percent.

>In absolute terms, during the recovery, current-dollar manufacturing wages are up 15.90 percent in toto and overall private sector wages are up 19.92 percent.

>The latest inflation-adjusted wage data for manufacturing and overall private sector wages go through August, and further darken the pay picture in industry.

>That month, real manufacturing wages plunged by 0.91 percent sequentially – their worst such performance since November, 2011 (0.95 percent). Inflation-adjusted hourly pay for the overall private sector worsened, too – but by just 0.19 percent.

>And since the recovery began more than eight years ago, whereas overall private sector wages have risen by 4.66 percent on a price-adjusted basis, pay has improved by a mere 1.12 percent for manufacturing workers.

>Employment figures tell a similar story. Since hitting its last low point, in February and March of 2010, manufacturing has regained 994,000 (43.35 percent) of the 2.293 million net jobs it had shed since the last recession officially began, in December, 2007.

>Manufacturing employment is still down since that recessionary onset nearly ten years ago, too – by 1.299 million, or 9.45 percent.

>Since its latest employment nadir, in February, 2010, the overall private sector has boosted employment by 17.065 million. That’s nearly twice as many jobs as it lost (8.780 million) during the recession.

>Since the recession began, overall private sector is up by 8.285 million – a 7.14 percent gain over those nearly ten years.

>Somewhat more encouragingly, manufacturing jobs as a share of total non-farm jobs (the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American jobs universe), rose slightly in September and August (to just under 8.49 percent) from the record low it had matched in July (8.47 percent).

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: U.S. Trade Deficit Falls Slightly in August as Strong Exports Outweigh Record Manufacturing Shortfall


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In August, the combined U.S. goods and services trade deficit declined by 2.67 percent sequentially to hit $42.40 billion – its lowest monthly level since September, 2016’s $38.47 billion. The improvement came even though several typical major engines of trade deficit growth worsened.

A new record was set for the chronic and huge manufacturing trade deficit, with its $82.15 billion August total topping the previous high (last November’s $80.75 billion) by 1.73 percent. The manufacturing-heavy China goods gap, meanwhile, grew to its highest monthly level ($34.89 billion) since September, 2015 ($36.29 billion). And the pre-inflation oil trade deficit, which has decreased dramatically in recent years, staged its strongest monthly rebound (jumping by 60.59 percent) since June, 2016 (60.84 percent). Pointing to a hurricane effect: the biggest monthly drop in current dollar oil exports (11.53 percent) since August, 2015 (12.62 percent).

Boosting the August trade performance was the new all-time high hit for services exports ($66.11 billion), the best overall monthly exports figure ($195.32 billion) since December, 2014 ($197.18 billion), and the best monthly goods exports reading ($129.21 billion) since April, 2015 ($129.72 billion). America’s goods trade deficits with Mexico and South Korea, both of which have been criticized by President Trump, increased sequentially in August (by 25.49 percent and 15.20 percent). And the longstanding Japan merchandise deficit grew by 13.49 percent on month.

But merchandise trade shortfall with Trump trade target Canada plummeted by 61.43 percent month-to-month, and the goods gap with the European Union fell by 7.92 percent. The latest figures on the growth-slowing impact of the Made in Washington trade deficit show that it’s weakened slightly (from slowing the U.S. economic recovery by 17.40 percent as of the first quarter of this year to cutting inflation-adjusted growth by 17.30 percent in the second quarter). The new August trade figures indicate that it might decline modestly again once third quarter GDP and September trade data are released.

Here are selected highlights of the latest monthly (August) trade balance figures released this morning by the Census Bureau:

>America’s combined goods and services trade deficit declined by 2.67 percent on month in August to its lowest level ($42.40 billion) since September, 2016 ($38.47 billion), as a new monthly record manufacturing trade shortfall and poor China and hurricane-related oil results were more than offset by strong export performances, including a new all-time high for services exports.

>The August manufacturing trade deficit of $82.15 billion was 1.73 percent greater than the previous record total of $80.75 billion, set last November.

>August manufacturing exports grew by a solid 6.82 percent on month, to $93.51 billion. But the far larger amount of imports rose by 5.07 percent, to $175.67 billion.

>Year-to-date, the manufacturing trade deficit is running 5.56 percent ahead of last year’s record pace. Manufacturing exports for the January-August period are up 4.04 percent, and imports have increased nearly as fast – 4.72 percent.

>Fueling these manufacturing trade results in August was a 3.99 percent month-to-month widening of America’s manufacturing-heavy trade deficit with China. The $34.89 billion total was the largest monthly figure since September, 2015’s $36.29 billion.

>U.S. goods exports to China improved sequentially in August by an impressive 8.75 percent, but merchandise imports, which are much greater, increased by 5.08 percent.

>Year-to-date, the merchandise deficit with China is 6.24 percent higher than last year’s total – which was the second largest annual figure ever.

>The pre-inflation U.S. oil trade deficit, which has nosedived in recent years thanks to the energy production revolution, rose in August from $3.02 billion to $4.85 billion. That 60.59 percent monthly increase was the biggest such rise since the 60.84 percent surge registered in June, 2016.

>Pointing to the effects of this year’s violent hurricane season, oil exports in August recorded their biggest monthly decrease (11.53 percent) since August, 2015 (12.62 percent).

>On a year-to-date basis, however despite the longer-term improvement, this oil shortfall is outpacing last year’s by a stunning 36.01 percent.

>The hurricane impact on oil was also suggested by the excellent export data produced by other major sectors of the economy.

>Services set a new overseas sales record in August, and reached their second all-time monthly high in the last three months. August’s $66.11 billion bested June’s $65.90 billion by 0.33 percent.

>Total U.S. exports improved by 0.42 percent, to $195.32 billion, and thereby hit their highest level since December, 2014’s $197.18 billion.

>Goods exports rose even faster sequentially in August, by 0.44 percent to $129.21 billion. The result was their strongest month since April, 2015 ($129.72 billion).

>Having set reform of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a priority, President Trump no doubt noticed that the U.S. merchandise trade deficit with Mexico surged by 25.49 percent on month in August, to $6.18 billion. U.S. goods exports to Mexico were 5.73 percent higher in August than in July, but import growth was 9.68 percent.

>The year-to-date merchandise deficit with Mexico is so far 11.72 percent higher than in the first eight months of 2016.

>America’s merchandise trade deficit with South Korea, which has just this week agreed to substantive talks on modifying its bilateral trade deal with the United States, increased by 15.20 percent sequentially in August, to $2.22 billion.

>U.S. goods exports to South Korea actually sank by 8.21 percent on month – the biggest such decrease since January’s 21.51 percent. America’s merchandise imports from South Korea fell, too, and for the second straight month – but by only 0.70 percent.

>America’s merchandise trade deficit with South Korea is down so far this year by fully 28.07 percent on a year-to-date basis. But since the bilateral trade deal went into effect, in March, 2012, it’s nearly tripled.

>The U.S. merchandise trade deficit with Japan increased notably (13.49 percent) as well on month in August, to $6.55 billion.

>America’s goods exports to the world’s third biggest single national economy decreased by 5.52 percent month-to-month, while its goods imports rose by 4.02 percent.

>Year-to-date, this merchandise deficit with Japan is running 12.54 percent ahead of last year’s level.

>Better news came in merchandise trade with America’s other NAFTA partner, Canada. The U.S. deficit – which has been volatile recently – plummeted by 61.43 percent in August, to just $410 million.

>American goods exports to Canada improved by 12.50 percent. Imports climbed, too, but by only 9.06 percent.

>Year-to-date, though, the U.S. merchandise trade shortfall with Canada is running nearly three times ahead of last year’s rate.

>Improvement in August was also seen in American merchandise trade with the European Union (EU) – the world’s largest economic unit. On a monthly basis, the U.S. deficit narrowed in August by 7.92 percent, to $12.39 billion.

>U.S. goods exports to the EU advanced by 9.08 percent on month, while imports were up only 2.52 percent.

>Year-to-date, moreover, the American merchandise deficit with the EU is running 0.72 percent behind last year’s rate.

>The latest data for the growth drag on the still weak U.S. economic recovery of rising trade deficits are only from the second quarter. But by both major measures, they show that trade’s bite into the expansion is easing, but remains deep.

>Since the recovery began, in mid-2009, to the end of the second quarter of this year, the increase in the trade deficit has reduced cumulative after-inflation output during the expansion by 9.24 percent, or $247.30 billion. That’s down from the 10.04 percent, and $255.9 billion, as of the first quarter.

>The toll on the expansion attributable to U.S. trade policy is diminishing, too, but has been much higher. This Made in Washington deficit strips out of inflation-adjusted American trade flows energy and services – two sectors where trade policy and related decisions have had only marginal effects so far. The remainder of U.S. trade flows – of goods except oil – are heavily influenced by policy.

>Since the recovery’s onset, the rise of this Made in Washington deficit has cost the recovery $462.8 billion in lost growth in absolute terms – or 17.30 percent of the cumulative total. That’s down from a growth bite of 17.40 percent worth ($443.3 billion in absolute terms) for the first quarter.