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A Tale of Forests and Trees

August 22, 2019
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1. Forests

A half-remembered parable: About 20 years ago, Malcolm Gladwell (I think?) wrote a piece that made its way into one of his books (maybe Blink?) which contained one of those little nuggets that has always stuck with me: He looked at a set of test questions having to do with some mundane fact about America—it was either naming state capitals or ranking the five biggest American cities by population—and found that some student population in another country (maybe Japan?) scored much higher than Americans.

I know, I know: Clearly this nugget didn’t stick with me enough. I wish I could find the exact story for you, but Google let me down this morning.

Anyway, the point of the anecdote was that the Americans and the foreigners were asked something like, “Which city is bigger, San Francisco or San Antonio?”

The foreign students knew very little about San Francisco or San Antonio, all they knew was the base fact that San Antonio was higher on the list of population. So they got the answer to the question correct at a pretty high rate.

Americans, on the other hand, knew quite a lot about the two cities. They knew that San Francisco is the heart of Silicon Valley and the birthplace of the technology economy. San Francisco is where Apple and Google and Facebook are based. They knew that it had Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge and five professional sports teams. San Antonio, on the other hand, is a Texan city with the Alamo and pretty good weather and a nice downtown with a famous River Walk.

And because they knew so many details about the two cities, the Americans came up with the wrong answer at a higher rate than the foreigners.

In other words: The old saw about forests and trees is based on something real. Sometimes, knowing too many details means that you weight the details you know more heavily that the bigger underlying facts.

Which is more or less how I think about the 2020 election. The more you know, the more you can talk yourself into exotic theories about how, if the Dems do this, and Trump does that, and the economy is just right, and one cohort of voters in Michigan hangs tough, and New Hampshire flips, and the split electoral vote in Maine comes home, then Trump gets reelected.

And that’s all true! You can absolutely see how Donald Trump pulls off reelection. He has a path.

On the other hand, if you came down from Mars today and spent 10 minutes getting your arms around the 2020 election, the facts which would jump out at you are:

  • In 2016 Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million votes.
  • His approval rate has never been over 50 percent.
  • For almost the entirety of his tenure his approval rate has moved between 39 percent and 46 percent.
  • He trails all four of the potential Democratic nominees in match-up polling.
  • He trails his most-likely opponent by double-digits.

And looking at these base facts without knowing all of the intricacies you’d think: “Trump is widely unpopular now and has been widely unpopular for the whole of his tenure and voters are already saying that they prefer other alternatives.”

What’s remarkable about the base facts of this campaign is that they’ve been largely unchanged for three years. More people voted against Trump than for him. The majority of people do not like him and do not approve of the job he has done as president. The majority of people polled prefer the top Democratic candidates to Trump.

None of this has changed for three years. Maybe it will suddenly change in November 2020. But to believe that such a change is likely?

Don’t bet the milk money on it.

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2. Trees

On the other hand, if you’re really into trees, you can find examples to support whatever thesis you like. If you want to argue that Trump is likely to be reelected, you could point out that the unemployment rate is currently 3.7 percent. That’s the second lowest number since 1969.

Fifty years. That’s half a century.

As Wallace Shawn might say, it is inconceivable that a president with the lowest unemployment numbers in half a century would be defeated for reelection.

The problem is, there’s always another tree pointing in the other direction. Like this piece yesterday in Business Insider about what’s going on in the trucking industry:

A Verdant Labs analysis of Federal Elections Commission data found that nearly three-quarters of truck drivers are Republican — one of the most conservative jobs in America, along with surgeons and farmers.And truck drivers supported Trump in droves, according to an Overdrive magazine survey from 2016. About 75% said they planned to vote for Trump, up from 66% who supported Sen. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012.

But a sharp downturn in the trucking industry and a slew of tax changes have hampered their ability to make a living. And many connect those two trends to Trump’s economic policies.

“He has not affected our business in a positive way,” said one truck driver who asked to be quoted anonymously for fear their small business might suffer. “He’s killing our business. If consumers aren’t buying, then there is no demand. This really isn’t about my political leanings — it’s pure business.”

Trump’s tax reworking in 2017 led to many truck drivers having to pay hundreds in taxes this year, thanks to a change in per-diem laws. Dennis Bridges, an accountant who specializes in doing taxes for truckers, told Mother Jones in April that 75% of his clients saw an unusually large tax payment, and about 20% had to fork over more than $5,000.

That might’ve been bearable in 2018, when trucking capacity was tight, the industry was raking in cash, and truckers saw their pay jump. But now the trucking “bloodbath,” as Coffman and other truckers describe current transportation conditions, has meant low rates and low pay for truckers. Trucking has been in a recession since late 2018.

Transport research groups reported that the volume of trucks purchased in July fell to its lowest level in nearly 10 years. The number of loads needing to be moved in the spot market tumbled by 37% this July compared to one year ago, and rates have fallen by as much as 18%.

“I have witnessed many ups and downs in the industry but nothing like this,” Coffman told Business Insider. “Many, many owner-operators and drivers have either lost equipment or lost a job in the last year.”

The Cass Freight Index says year-over-year trucking volumes have slipped for eight consecutive months. In June, factory-activity growth was its slowest since October 2016, according to the Institute for Supply Management. That means manufacturers didn’t receive as many orders and there were fewer things to move.

This is . . . not good? I mean, there’s literally no way to spin this data point as anything but bad for the economy and bad for Trump. It’s inconceivable that a guy who’s never been above 46 percent job approval could win reelection when one of his core groups is feeling this much pain as a result of his policies. (Score one for Inigo Montoya.)

Which is why I say that if you’re looking to pick out individual signs, there’s pretty much always going to be one for the view you like and one for the view you don’t like.