(Bloomberg Opinion) — Democrats are facing a challenge they haven’t confronted since the 1988 presidential election. They are trying to persuade enough Americans to kick a Republican out of the White House even though the economy is doing well. They failed that year – and as their latest presidential debate showed, so far they haven’t figured out how to meet the challenge this time either.
Early in that debate, moderator Judy Woodruff of PBS noted that “the overall U.S. economy right now looks strong” and asked the candidates what they would say to voters “who may not like everything President Trump does but they really like this economy.” Each of the candidates who responded denied her premise. They said it wasn’t really a strong economy after all.
One of their tacks was to bring up specific shortcomings of the economy. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont said we have the highest child-poverty rate “of almost any major country on earth” and that wage growth over the past year, at 1.1% after inflation, has been “not great.” Former Vice President Joe Biden said that “most Americans” would “have to sell something or borrow the money” to pay an unexpected $400 bill. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang said that depression, financial insecurity and student loan debt are at record highs.
Many of these specific complaints are false or overstated. America’s child poverty rate looks bad in international comparisons only if you are looking at relative poverty: the fraction of children in households making less than half the median income. That’s actually a measure of inequality. Look instead at levels of material deprivation among children, and the U.S. is in line with other countries. Child poverty rates have also been declining.
Wage growth during the past year was better than it has been for most of the past two decades; and it is as good a conjunction of wage growth and high employment levels as we have seen in this period.
Biden’s statistic about a surprise $400 bill is wrong. He almost certainly misunderstood a Federal Reserve finding that 61 percent of Americans would pay a $400 bill out of cash. The other 39 percent, it is true, would sell something or borrow the money, for example by running a credit-card balance. That doesn’t mean a majority of the population would “have to” resort to such measures.
Americans’ self-reported financial security is also holding up well. The percentage of Americans who tell Gallup they are worried about maintaining their standard of living has generally been falling. For three years running, majorities have said that their financial situations are improving.
While Democrats are straining to find gloomy statistics, almost every economic indicator is moving in the right direction. Employment growth and wages are up. Poverty is down.
The other main tack the Democratic candidates took was to deny that Americans consider today’s economy good. Biden and Yang were joined by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg in claiming that although gross domestic product and the stock market have been rising, ordinary Americans aren’t feeling good economic times. “This economy is not working for most of us,” the mayor said.
Many of these specific complaints are false or overstated. America’s child poverty rate looks bad in international comparisons only if you are looking at relative poverty: the fraction of children in households making less than half the median income
But most Americans don’t feel the way these Democrats say they do. As noted already, most Americans say their financial situations are getting better. The percentage of Americans who say it’s “a good time to find a quality job,” as another Gallup question puts it, has been at or higher than 50% for all of Trump’s time in office. It was below 50% for almost all of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama years. During the past two years, a majority of Americans has also rated economic conditions as excellent or good. They didn’t do that during the past two presidencies.
It is certainly possible for Democrats to argue that we could be doing better, or to deny that Trump’s policies are responsible for the health of the economy. A lot of positive economic trends have continued, but not accelerated, during his time in office. But to say that “the middle class is getting killed,” as Biden did at the debate, is to fly in the face not just of the economic data but of what most Americans think about their own lives.
Perhaps the bottom will fall out of the economy before the election in a way that few people now anticipate. If it stays on the same path, though, President Trump will campaign next fall on a simple economic message: He has been good for the economy and the Democratic nominee would be bad. On current form, the Democratic candidate will counter him by trying to convince Americans that the economy isn’t as good as it looks and they’re not doing as well as they think they are. And then they’ll switch the subject to how Trump is dangerously disconnected from reality.
Disney shares are up 5% following Wednesday’s third-quarter earnings report that surpassed expectations, largely due to higher spending at the company’s domestic theme parks.
But might Disney’s success also say something about the current state of the U.S. economy? Experts often view Disney’s theme parks as bellwether economic indicators, as the Financial Times explained several years ago. Essentially, the theory goes that when budgets tighten, families cancel trips to Disney theme parks. That does not appear to be happening right now.
What a difference a year makes. This time last summer, most of Disney’s theme parks were running at reduced capacity due to the pandemic and Disney Cruise Line was not operating at all.
Flash forward to Wednesday’s earnings call, where company executives announced that revenue for Disney’s parks, experiences and products division rose by more than $3 billion and operating income increased by $1.8 billion compared to the same period in 2021. The increase was driven by jumps in theme park attendance, occupied room nights at Disney’s on-site hotels and cruise bookings.
“Demand at our domestic parks continues to exceed expectations with attendance on many days tracking ahead of 2019 levels.”
“All of our theme parks are now open,” said Disney CEO Bob Chapek on the earnings call, noting that the company has ramped up capacity on a phased basis and brought back many of the experiences that families love, such as character meet-and-greets, fireworks spectaculars and theatrical performances.
“Demand at our domestic parks continues to exceed expectations with attendance on many days tracking ahead of 2019 levels,” said Christine McCarthy, Disney’s chief financial officer. “We have not yet seen demand abate at all and we still have many days when people cannot get reservations.”
The second was the expansion of the Disney Cruise Line fleet with the brand new Disney Wish ship, which is powered by liquefied natural gas. The cruise business “has been the most severely impacted by Covid in terms of duration of disruption to the business,” noted McCarthy. “But we have a competitive position overall in the cruise business, especially the family cruise market, so we generate pricing that’s well above the industry average.
The third big milestone was the opening of the Marvel-themed Avengers Campus at Disneyland Paris. “Guests are responding in a big way to our enhanced offering at Disneyland Paris’ per capita spending in Q3 was up over 30% versus 2019, a great sign of the site’s potential for growth,” said Chapek.
The strong performance in the third quarter of Disney’s resort in France was partially offset by closure-related impacts at its Shanghai resort, where the theme park was closed for all but the last three days of the quarter.
Though the average daily attendance at domestic Disney parks was down slightly compared to 2019, per capita spending is up 10% compared to last year and is 40% higher than fiscal 2019.
Higher per-person spending was driven in part by the Genie+ and Lightning Lane features introduced last year to replace the old FastPass system. With the new system, parkgoers can pay extra to bypass lines for the most popular attractions. “Now about 50% of the people that come through the gate actually buy up to that Genie product, which I think you can see the result of in our yields,” said Chapek.
McCarthy acknowledged that international visitors, which historically have accounted for up to 20% of total guests, have been slow to return to the U.S. parks. “During the pandemic, international visitation to our domestic park — primarily Walt Disney World — was basically nonexistent,” she said. “But it’s made significant progress, and we expect the international visitation, when it is fully back, to actually be additive to margins because those guests tend to stay longer at the parks, and they spend more money when they’re there as well.”
Disney’s rebound is about more than pent-up demand following the darkest days of the pandemic, said Chapek. “What we’re seeing is far more resilient, far more long lasting in terms of increase in the affinity for our parks, both from the willingness to come to our parks and its attendance, but also in terms of what guests are willing to spend when they get there in order to personalize their experience.”
NEW DELHI (AP) — As India’s economy grew, the hum of factories turned the sleepy, dusty village of Manesar into a booming industrial hub, cranking out everything from cars and sinks to smartphones and tablets. But jobs have run scarce over the years, prompting more and more workers to line up along the road for work, desperate to earn money.
Every day, Sugna, a young woman in her early 20s who goes by her first name, comes with her husband and two children to the city’s labor chowk — a bazaar at the junction of four roads where hundreds of workers gather daily at daybreak to plead for work. It’s been days since she or her husband got work and she has only five rupees (six cents) in hand.
Scenes like this are an everyday reality for millions of Indians, the most visible signs of economic distress in a country where raging unemployment is worsening insecurity and inequality between the rich and poor. It’s perhaps Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s biggest challenge as the country marks 75 years of independence from British rule on Monday.
“We get work only once or twice a week,” said Sugna, who says she earned barely 2,000 rupees ($25) in the past five months. “What should I do with a life like this? If I live like this, how will my children live any better?”
Entire families leave their homes in India’s vast rural hinterlands to camp at such bazaars, found in nearly every city. Out of the many gathered in Manesar recently, only a lucky few got work for the day — digging roads, laying bricks and sweeping up trash for meager pay — about 80% of Indian workers toil in informal jobs including many who are self-employed.
India’s phenomenal transformation from an impoverished nation in 1947 into an emerging global power whose $3 trillion economy is Asia’s third largest has turned it into a major exporter of things like software and vaccines. Millions have escaped poverty into a growing, aspirational middle class as its high-skilled sectors have soared.
“It’s extraordinary — a poor country like India wasn’t expected to succeed in such sectors,” said Nimish Adhia, an economics professor at Manhattanville College.
This year, the economy is forecast to expand at a 7.4% annual pace, according to the International Monetary Fund, making it one of the world’s fastest growing.
But even as India’s economy swells, so has joblessness. The unemployment rate remains at 7% to 8% in recent months. Only 40% of working age Indians are employed, down from 46% five years ago, the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) says.
“If you look at a poor person in 1947 and a poor person now, they are far more privileged today. However if you look at it between the haves and the have nots, that chasm has grown,” said Gayathri Vasudevan, chairperson of LabourNet, a social enterprise.
“While India continues to grow well, that growth is not generating enough jobs – crucially, it is not creating enough good quality jobs,” said Mahesh Vyas, chief executive at CMIE. Only 20% of jobs in India are in the formal sector, with regular wages and security, while most others are precarious and low-quality with few to no benefits.
That’s partly because agriculture remains the mainstay, with about 40% of workers engaged in farming.
As workers lost jobs in cities during the pandemic, many flocked back to farms, pushing up the numbers. “This didn’t necessarily improve productivity – but you’re employed as a farmer. It’s disguised unemployment,” Vyas said.
With independence from Britain in 1947, the country’s leaders faced a formidable task: GDP was a mere 3% of the world’s total, literacy rates stood at 14% and the average life expectancy was 32 years, said Adhia.
By the most recent measures, literacy stands at 74% and life expectancy at 70 years. Dramatic progress came with historic reforms in the 1990s that swept away decades of socialist control over the economy and spurred remarkable growth.
The past few decades inspired comparisons to China as foreign investment poured in, exports thrived and new industries — like information technology – were born. But India, a latecomer to offshoring by Western multinationals, is struggling to create mass employment through manufacturing. And it faces new challenges in plotting a way forward.
Financing has tended to flow into profitable, capital intensive sectors like petrol, metal and chemicals. Industries employing large numbers of workers, like textiles and leather work, have faltered. This trend continued through the pandemic: despite Modi’s 2014 ‘Make in India’ pitch to turn the country into another factory floor for the world, manufacturing now employs around 30 million. In 2017, it employed 50 million, according to CMIE data.
As factory and private sector employment shrink, young jobseekers increasingly are targeting government jobs, coveted for their security, prestige and benefits.
Some, like 21-year-old Sahil Rajput, view such work as a way out of poverty. Rajput has been fervently preparing for a job in the army, working in a low-paid data-entry job to afford private coaching to become a soldier and support his unemployed parents.
But in June, the government overhauled military recruitment to cut costs and modernize, changing long-term postings into four-year contracts after which only 25% of recruits will be retained. That move triggered weeks of protests, with young people setting vehicles on fire.
Rajput knows he might not be able to get a permanent army job. “But I have no other options,” he said. “How can I dream of a future when my present is in tatters?”
The government is banking on technology, a rare bright spot, to create new jobs and opportunities. Two decades ago, India became an outsourcing powerhouse as companies and call centers boomed. An explosion of start-ups and digital innovation aims to recreate that success – “India is now home to 75,000 startups in the 75th year of independence and this is only the beginning,” Minister of Commerce, Piyush Goyal, tweeted recently. More than 740,000 jobs have been created via start-ups, a 110% jump over the last six years, his ministry said.
There’s still a long way to go, in educating and training a labor force qualified for such work. Another worry is the steady retreat of working women in India — from a high of nearly 27% in 2005 to just over 20% in 2021, according to World Bank data.
Meanwhile, the stopgap of farming appears increasingly precarious as climate change brings extreme temperatures, scorching crops.
Sajan Arora, a 28-year-old farmer in India’s breadbasket state of Punjab, can no longer depend on ancestral farmland his family has relied on to survive. He, his wife and seven-month old daughter, plan to join family in Britain and find work there after selling some land.
“Agriculture has no way forward,” said Arora, saying he will do whatever work he can get, driving a taxi, working in a store or on a construction site.
He’s sad to leave his parents and childhood home behind, but believes the uncertainty of change offers “better prospects” than his current reality.
“If everything was right and well, why would we go? If we want a better life, we will have to leave,” he said.
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