Gustavo the Disappointing Winston-Salem Painter

From a long New York Times piece on photographer Robert Frank:

Frank retains the spontaneous enthusiasm of a much younger man. In his tenth decade, he is still a free-form outsider seeking untried situations, fresh leaps — and nothing pleases him more than picking up on the scent of something exceptional. Last year, after receiving intriguing letters postmarked North Carolina from an itinerant laborer named Gustavo, Frank set off to find him. He discovered Gustavo in Winston-Salem painting a house, he says, but ‘‘I was disappointed in him. He was ordinary. He seemed not to be possessed by anything. He just drifts.’’

That’s truly unfortunate. There are soooo many people here in Camel City that I’m sure Frank would have found extraordinary.

The Race from Race and Guns

Speaking, or writing, about race in America is almost always an exercise fraught with risk and anxiety. Because we each bring our own racial identity to the table, our own experiences and perspectives, our own preconceptions and expectations of other races, we almost always struggle with overcoming our own obstacles to express our views. Maybe we’re afraid of offending so we salt our statements with ample disclaimers. Maybe we’re enraged so we salt our statements with hyperbolic adjectives. Maybe we’re confused and salt our statements with conflicting viewpoints. Maybe we’re so wrapped up in our own experience that we close our ears to the stories of those we’re trying to talk to. Likely we’re a combination of some or all of these things and as a result our attempts at talking about anything race-related are uncomfortable at best. The result? We do as much as we can to not talk about race in anything but the most generic terms.

Then we have something happen like the Charleston shootings of this week, or the events in Ferguson and Baltimore in the last few months, and race catapults to the top of our minds and the tip of our tongues. We can’t avoid addressing it and that’s when a great divide appears between us. That’s when we most need for people who can articulate the issues in a way that helps us better understand them. but unfortunately that’s when opportunists, the self-appointed leaders of their constituencies, appear on camera claiming they represent the whole of their race and instantly closing the ears of just about everyone. (How long do you think it will be before Al Sharpton shows up in Charleston?) That’s also when those who would like anything but reconciliation, the haters, step up with a megaphone and barf their venomous propaganda all over the rest of us.

Then there’s the matter of talking about guns in our country. The reaction to mass shootings like those in Charleston (and Connecticut, Virginia, Colorado, etc.) is depressingly predictable and divisive. It is near impossible to have a conversation about guns without it spiraling into a heated, virulent argument in which no one seems to think there’s some point between absolute freedom to own ANY weapon or a total ban on weapons.

In its own way gun control as a topic is as divisive as race and when you combine the two topics, as you most definitely are when you start to address the shootings in Charleston, you have the recipe for a witches brew of misunderstanding and divisive rhetoric.That’s why it’s so important that we DO have people who can say what’s needed in a way that we can all hear and understand. Once again the comedian shows us the way:

And then there’s this from David Remnick on President Obama’s reaction to the events in Charleston:

Obama is a flawed President, but his sense of historical perspective is well developed. He gives every sign of believing that his most important role in the American history of race was his election in November, 2008, and, nearly as important, his reëlection, four years later. For millions of Americans, that election was an inspiration. But, for some untold number of others, it remains a source of tremendous resentment, a kind of threat that is capable, in some, of arousing the basest prejudices.

Obama hates to talk about this. He allows himself so little latitude. Maybe that will change when he is an ex-President focussed on his memoirs. As a very young man he wrote a book about becoming, about identity, about finding community in a black church, about finding a sense of home—in his case, on the South Side of Chicago, with a young lawyer named Michelle Robinson. It will be beyond interesting to see what he’s willing to tell us—tell us with real freedom—about being the focus of so much hope, but also the subject of so much ambient and organized racial anger: the birther movement, the death threats, the voter-suppression attempts, the articles, books, and films that portray him as everything from an unreconstructed, drug-addled campus radical to a Kenyan post-colonial socialist. This has been the Age of Obama, but we have learned over and over that this has hardly meant the end of racism in America. Not remotely. Dylann Roof, tragically, seems to be yet another terrible reminder of that.

Nearly all of South Carolina was in mourning Thursday. Flags were at half-mast. Except the Confederate flag, of course, which flew high outside the building where Tillman still stands and the laws of the state are written.

I’m with Jon Stewart in feeling confident that nothing will change as a result of Charleston, or the dozens of similar events that have preceded it, or the dozens of similar events that are sure to follow. Why? Because change comes only when enough of us want it, and right now there just aren’t enough people who want it. Too many people benefit from the racial divide, from scaring the crap out of people – “They’ll take your guns, rape your women, steal your jobs… – and playing both sides to the middle for any real change to happen. The odds of that changing in my lifetime are minuscule and shrinking by the day, but my hope is that my children and their children can fix what the rest of us have so royally screwed up.

Kid Plus License Equals Sixty Percent Increase in Auto Insurance in NC

Our three kids – currently 22, 21 and 19 respectively – have been on our family auto policy for years so we’re accustomed to the added cost, but for those whose kids are just entering the world of driving the added insurance expense can come as a shock. The bad news is that in North Carolina the average increase is 60 percent, but the good news is that it’s not that bad when compared to other states:

North Carolina has the fourth lowest increase rate, following Hawaii at 17 percent, New York at 53 percent and Michigan at 57 percent.

By comparison, the national average is 80 percent, compared with 85 percent in 2013. The most expensive is New Hampshire at 115 percent.

Other bad news for parents of 16 year olds is that the average increase that first year of driving is 96 percent and it’s only at age 19 that it drops to 60 percent.

Get Used to the Low Home Ownership Rates

This is a cross-post of something I wrote for the work blog:

From the 6/8/15 Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. homeownership rate is below where it stood 20 years ago when President Bill Clinton launched a national campaign to encourage Americans to buy homes. Conventional wisdom says the rate, at 63.7%, is leveling off to where it was for decades before the housing-market peak.

But this is probably wrong, according to research from the Urban Institute, which predicts homeownership will continue to slip for at least 15 years.

Demographics tell the story.

Urban Institute researchers predict that more than 3 in 4 new households this decade, and 7 of 8 in the next, will be formed by minorities. These new households—nearly half of which will be Hispanic—have lower incomes, less wealth and lower homeownership rates than the U.S. average.

The upshot is that fewer than half of new households formed this decade and the next will own homes. By contrast, almost three-quarters of new households in the 1990s became homeowners.

The downtrend would push homeownership below 62% in 2020, and it would hold the rate near 61% in 2030, below the lowest level since records began in 1965.

You really should read the whole article. A couple of people who disagree with this assessment are quoted, but even they see the rate of home ownership stabilizing and staying lower than it was before the recession. There’s also some discussion about the impact on housing affordability, and interestingly it’s led by Ron Terwilliger who was the keynote speaker at this year’s Apartment Association of North Carolina (AANC) education conference. He has some interesting ideas about reducing the mortgage deduction and moving some of those dollars over to help with rental housing. That would be a political hot potato, but it’s a sign of how different times are these days.
All in all, those signs bode will for the apartment industry from years, maybe even decades to come.

34 of 100 Don’t Work for the Man

It’s no secret that today many more people in our economy are freelancers than in the past, but would you believe that the number is about 53 million people?

I was on the phone last night with Stephen DeWitt, the CEO of our portfolio company Work Market. He was talking about a specific community of people and I asked him how many of them were likely to be freelancers. He said “well the statistics say that 3 to 4 out of every ten people these days are freelancers.”

I thought that sounded high but after reading Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report, in which she says that “34 percent of the work force in the United States, 53 million people, now consider themselves independent contractors, short-term hires or other kinds of freelancers”, I think Stephen has it exactly right.

Look around you on the subway, the baseball park, the movie theater, 3 to 4 out of every ten people are freelancers. That’s a big number. And its growing pretty rapidly. Younger people are more inclined to be freelancers. Older people turn to freelancing for flexibility or economic necessity. And employers are more inclined to hire freelancers as technology makes the management and compliance requirements around freelancers easier to handle.

This has me wondering about the implications for things like benefits. I’m not sure about this, but I don’t think that freelancers qualify for unemployment benefits since they are typically tied to the company you worked for. If you don’t work for anyone how would you qualify for benefits? It also feels like we’ve already seen the impact on health insurance – it’s a safe bet that a good chunk of the uninsured are freelancers who don’t have companies to provide insurance. Even if the ACA is pushing many of them to buy their own insurance, they were an available market precisely because they didn’t have company-provided health insurance.

The excerpt above came from Fred Wilson’s blog and I agree with his last paragraph from that post:

It’s a new era we are living in and the nature of work is changing and changing fast. There are tons of opportunities in and around this trend and we are invested in some of them. It’s one of the big megatrends of this century.

Caveat Lector

The next time you read, see or hear a news story related to dietary or health study claims you might want to keep remember story titled “I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here’s How” 

“Slim by Chocolate!” the headlines blared. A team of German researchers had found that people on a low-carb diet lost weight 10 percent faster if they ate a chocolate bar every day. It made the front page of Bild, Europe’s largest daily newspaper, just beneath their update about the Germanwings crash. From there, it ricocheted around the internet and beyond, making news in more than 20 countries and half a dozen languages. It was discussed on television news shows. It appeared in glossy print, most recently in the June issue of Shape magazine (“Why You Must Eat Chocolate Daily,” page 128). Not only does chocolate accelerate weight loss, the study found, but it leads to healthier cholesterol levels and overall increased well-being. The Bild story quotes the study’s lead author, Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D., research director of the Institute of Diet and Health: “The best part is you can buy chocolate everywhere.”

I am Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D. Well, actually my name is John, and I’m a journalist. I do have a Ph.D., but it’s in the molecular biology of bacteria, not humans. The Institute of Diet and Health? That’s nothing more than a website.

Other than those fibs, the study was 100 percent authentic. My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany. We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes. And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data. It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research. Which is to say: It was terrible science. The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.

Here’s how we did it.

You really should read the whole thing to see exactly how easy it is to game the science journalism field. And if you want to be happy you should also embrace the strategy of believing the studies that purport to show the health benefits of eating/drinking whatever you want and ignoring those that claim those same habits are unhealthy.

Works for me.