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Column: Voters are finally noticing that Bidenomics is working

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Column: Voters are finally noticing that Bidenomics is working

The turning point in Americans’ perception of the economy — that despite months of doom-colored predictions of a looming recession — may have occurred on Jan. 25.

That was the day that Fox Business economic commentator Larry Kudlow, a former official in the Trump White House and consistent dispenser of grim economic predictions during President Biden’s term, went on Fox’s “America Reports” telecast and acknowledged that the Biden economy was, you know, good.

That day, government figures had been released showing a 3.3% annual increase in the gross domestic product for the fourth quarter of 2023, on top of a 4.9% growth rate for the third quarter.

Instead of contracting, the economy has continued to grow….Inflation has come down significantly. …The labor market is healthy.

— Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen

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Candidly, if a bit glumly, Kudlow stated, “It was a good quarter, don’t get me wrong, and the last quarter was a good quarter, 4.9.” Biden, he said, “gets his due. If I were he, I’d be out slinging that hash too, no problem.” Asked by the host if this meant that the economy was not as bad as he had been saying, he answered, “I would say, probably, I would agree.”

Fox being Fox, Kudlow couldn’t resist sticking the shiv in: “Wages are rising more slowly than prices,” he said, which doesn’t happen to be true: Wages and benefits for rank-and-file workers have grown faster than prices throughout the post-pandemic period.

The bottom line, however, is that if the bad-economy camp has lost even Larry Kudlow, they’re on the wrong side of the argument.

The truth is that the Biden economy (“Bidenomics,” if you prefer) has been chugging along for some time. The fundamental question that has circulated about his record is not about the economy’s strength, but about why he hasn’t gotten credit for it.

Sentiment may now finally be shifting. In January, the University of Michigan saw the largest two-month jump in its consumer sentiment index since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. News coverage, which throughout 2023 relentlessly forecast a recession, now touts the prospect of a “soft landing” — that is, a successful battle against inflation without an increase in the unemployment rate or a general economic slowdown.

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As it happens, some news outlets seem reluctant to give up on the old theme. “A soft landing, for now,” was Politico’s headline on a mid-December roundup of economic statistics including unemployment below 4% and inflation having been brought down to 3%.

But even White House aides, who last year were reported to be uneasy at trumpeting the term “Bidenomics” in the president’s reelection campaign, are now reported to be hoping that “a strong economy will sell itself to Americans,” according to NBC News.

Administration officials have been trying to spread the word. “Instead of contracting, the economy has continued to grow,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told the Economic Club of Chicago on Jan. 25. “It now produces far more goods and services than it did before the pandemic. … Inflation has come down significantly. … The labor market is healthy.” The unemployment rate, she noted, “has been below 4% for 23 months now, a stretch that has not been seen during the last 50 years.”

Moreover, Yellen said, the current recovery has been “the fairest recovery on record,” with wage and employment gains for the middle class and demographic groups such as Black and Hispanic workers. And the U.S. recovery from the pandemic has outstripped those of other developed countries: “The increase in real wages is unique to our country’s recovery: in other economies, real wages have declined since 2019.”

Hourly earnings growth for rank-and-file workers (blue line) has exceeded inflation (red line) since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. Gray stripe signifies a recession.

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(Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Unionized workers have been among the leading beneficiaries of economic growth, achieving strong improvements in wages and working conditions at unionized auto plants and United Parcel Service.

Some economic commentators have been perplexed at Americans’ failure to recognize the good news about the Biden economy. “Something weird is happening in America,” John Burn-Murdoch of the Financial Times observed on Dec. 1.

Even though GDP growth for the third quarter had just been pegged at higher than 4.9% and job growth remained strong, Burn-Murdoch wrote, “the public is up in arms about economic conditions, with consumer confidence dropping to a six-month low. There really is no pleasing some people.”

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The disconnect should not have been so mysterious, however. As I’ve noted in the past, changes in economic conditions, especially improvements, often take time — even many months — to filter into public awareness. People will typically think that a recession is still in full cry long after a recovery is underway.

This happens partly because the news media keep projecting gloom, because bad news always sells better than good news and no reporters want to get caught out as Pollyannas if conditions worsen again.

Marketers of economic nostrums such as cryptocurrency and gold investments flood the airwaves with come-ons, and they don’t win customers by proclaiming that sunny days lie ahead. Opposition politicians don’t win votes by praising incumbents for implementing effective economic policies.

Nor are opinion polls the best way to gauge people’s feelings about the economy; polls consistently show Americans to be discontented with economic policies, but their spending shows them to be profoundly optimistic. That said, the public’s feelings about the economy are often tempered by the fear that things could turn down again in the blink of an eye.

One source of confusion about economic affairs is that public perceptions of the economy are generally snapshots of longer-term trends, and are therefore inevitably distorting. Professionals aren’t immune from the same error.

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Federal Reserve and Treasury officials have been consistently pilloried for wrongly predicting that the inflation that emerged in late 2020 would be “transitory.” Indeed, the Fed, smarting from this criticism, arguably has kept interest rates high for longer than has been warranted.

Yet, viewing things in a rearview mirror, team transitory was right. As Kevin Drum has observed, the painful inflationary era of the 1970s and 1980s — which peaked at an annualized 12% in 1974 — actually began in the late 1960s, when the annual rate first exceeded 5%, and persisted into the 1990s, when the rate fell below 3%. That’s more than two decades. (The measure at issue is personal consumption expenditures excluding food and energy, the Fed’s preferred metric of overall inflation.)

By contrast, the recent bout of inflation that supposedly is a black mark against the Biden administration began in mid-2020 (under Trump), peaked at an annualized 6% at the beginning of 2022, and has now fallen to 2%. The period of high inflation lasted less than three years, and never came close to the 1970s peak. In other words, it was the definition of “transitory.” Yet people remember it as a long stretch of relentless price increases.

People also imagine inflation today to be as high as it was in 2022, yielding persistently high prices. But they may not yet have fully recognized the extent to which overall inflation has moderated or that some prices are coming down.

The average gasoline price nationwide is $3.15 per gallon of regular, down from the peak of $4.54 reached in mid-June 2022, according to the AAA; across the Midwest, average prices have fallen below $3 per gallon. Prices of staple foods, many proteins and vegetables are falling.

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In political terms, the economy is a moving target. There is always something for naysayers and pessimists to point at to make the case that all is not well. The generally good news in job growth, with the blowout report of 353,000 new jobs in January and months of gains in manufacturing, is confounded by employment bloodbaths among tech and media firms.

But there’s certainly a case to be made that Biden has been an effective steward of the U.S. economy — and one who has succeeded in pushing to favor ordinary Americans through initiatives such as infrastructure spending. That’s a big change from Trump, whose most significant economic achievement was an enormous tax cut for corporations and the wealthy.

Despite all that, opinion polls show that Biden still gets low marks for his management of the economy. But recognition of the truth may soon come his way.

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LADWP and Edison rates are rising. What you can do to lower your bill

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LADWP and Edison rates are rising. What you can do to lower your bill

If you are a Los Angeles County resident who gets electricity through the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power or Southern California Edison, you have probably been shocked by a recent increase in your monthly bill.

Even more frustrating, your bill probably went up even if you haven’t changed how much power you use.

The reason: The LADWP approved a budget in June that included a rate increase to help fund the maintenance of the utility‘s infrastructure, including replacing poles, cross arms, transformers and transmission lines, said Ann Santilli, chief financial officer for the LADWP.

“It’s really to ensure that we have reliable service throughout the city,” Santilli said.

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That’s reflected on bills by an increase that can go as high as 1.1% in your total consumption charge. But the increase isn’t consistently applied, as the LADWP only hikes the rate when it spends to fund maintenance or repairs on existing infrastructure projects.

For Edison customers, an increase approved by the California Public Utilities Commission in 2022 hiked rates by 17%, with further increases going into effect Jan. 1.

The average monthly residential electric bill was set to jump from $174.70 to $178.34, a 2% increase, after Jan. 1, Edison said.

The utility says the rate increases are needed to cover the rising cost of purchased power and ongoing grid maintenance and repair.

There are changes you can make to your lifestyle to reduce your electricity use — and your bill. There are also programs to help with payment plans.

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How can you reduce your electricity use?

If you are an LADWP customer, you can take a closer look at your energy consumption with the online Energy Advisor Tool. After answering a series of questions, you’ll be given tips to reduce your energy consumption.

The tool offers a home energy calculator, bill analysis, energy forecasting, rebate recommendations and savings tips.

There are also several steps you can take to reduce energy use around your house, such as changing the way you use wall outlets.

Edison suggests that, rather than directly into a wall outlet, you plug your your appliances, TVs and device chargers into power strips that you can turn off when the equipment isn’t in use, reducing your power consumption.

The California Public Utilities Commission suggests you charge your laptop, cellphone or tablets before 3 p.m. or after 9 p.m. when electricity rates are lower.

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Instead of running your clothes dryer, line dry your clothes if you have the space in your home.

Older appliances that are plugged in all day might be using a lot more energy than you realize, Santilli said.

For example, some customers have multiple refrigerators, including an older, energy-gobbling refrigerator in the garage. It might be time to consider whether the second appliance is necessary.

Another update you can do is to replace incandescent light bulbs with LED bulbs. It helps cut power costs and is an inevitable switch due to the Energy Department’s efficiency rules that went into effect in 2022 taking most incandescent bulbs off the market.

That tip applies to outdoor lighting as well, Santilli said, suggesting customers look for outdoor lighting that is low voltage and uses less power.

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Need assistance paying your electricity bill?

Learning what repayment programs or discounts you qualify for is a phone call away for LADWP customers.

You can talk to an expert who will help you determine what you can afford to pay each month as well as whether you qualify for any discounts, said Ellen Cheng, media relations manager for the LADWP.

“If [the customer] needs help spreading out those payments, we’re here to help and we’re actually very accommodating and eager to work with our customers,” Cheng said.

Cheng points to two programs for customers having trouble paying their bills, though they don’t provide discounts:

  • Level Pay assesses your annual energy usage and then calculates a monthly average so you pay roughly the same amount every month. That lowers your bill in months when you use the most electricity (typically the summer) and raises it in months when you use the least (typically the winter).
  • Extended payment arrangements give EZ-SAVE and Lifeline customers up to 48 months to pay their overdue balances with no interest charges or fees.

To enroll in either program, call (800) 342-5397 or, for TDD service, (800) 432-7397.

Edison’s Lifeline Rate Program offers seniors and disabled customers a discount on their electric and other utility bills.

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Eligible customers can also sign up for a payment program where charges are divided into equal installments and billed separately each month apart from your current bill. See eligibility rules online.

Edison also has two programs to help qualifying families lower their monthly bills:

Call (800) 798-5723 for more information or to apply. Applications can also be submitted by mail or online.

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Column: They say San Francisco is coming back as a tech hub, but it never really left

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Column: They say San Francisco is coming back as a tech hub, but it never really left

Michael Suswal’s first eye-opening encounter with the vibrancy of San Francisco came in 2017.

That’s when he and his fellow co-founders of Standard AI, an artificial intelligence startup funded by the incubator Y Combinator, moved from New York to San Francisco for the summer.

“Initially we planned on going back to New York,” says Suswal, 44. “But after living in the Bay Area for two or three months, between us we had way more network contacts than we had had in our combined 50 years living in New York.”

Where else would you go that would have more support, more connections, the right type of environment and the right investors?

— Michael Suswal, Generation Lab

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When COVID hit, Suswal told me, he moved to Seattle and worked from home. Last year, when he and a partner opted to co-found a new company, they pondered the best place to start.

“We thought, where else would you go that would have more support, more connections, the right type of environment and the right investors? Building a company is hard. It takes everything you’ve got, and even then there’s an 80% chance of failure. So why would you stack the deck against yourself? It was a no-brainer to come back here.”

Generation Lab, which Suswal co-founded with longevity expert Alina Su and UC Berkeley bioengineering professor Irina Conboy, aims to market a technology that can help customers identify and manage long-term medical conditions.

Suswal’s take is different from what you might have heard from the news media and red-state politicians over the last few years. They spin a narrative of a region — indeed, the entire state of California — in secular decline. Of a Silicon Valley whose best days are behind it. Of wholesale flight of money and talent to new, welcoming places such as Miami and Austin.

But there has never been much truth to that narrative generally, and it’s more dubious than ever today, when the Bay Area has emerged as a center of artificial intelligence investing.

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There is no shortage of newsy nuggets to illustrate the “doom loop” narrative about San Francisco.

On Tuesday, for instance, Macy’s announced that it would close its gigantic store overlooking Union Square sometime in the next three years. But the closure is part of a major corporate retrenchment involving the closings of 150 stores nationwide, 30% of the total.

Nor is there anything historically new about San Francisco-bashing. The practice dates back to the Gold Rush, when the city’s powerful attraction as a jumping-off place for Forty-Niners seeking their fortunes in the nearby hills generated an equally potent counter-narrative.

Hinton R. Helper, a visitor from North Carolina who would eventually gain notoriety as a white supremacist, reported in 1855 on the city’s “rottenness and its corruption, its squalor and its misery, its crime and its shame, its gold and its dross…. Degradation, profligacy and vice confront us at every step.”

It’s a short distance from Helper’s screed to the map that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis displayed during a televised debate with Gov. Gavin Newsom in November, purportedly showing deposits of human waste around San Francisco. (That didn’t help DeSantis’ presidential campaign avert an early demise, any more than Helper’s critique stemmed the flow of fortune-seekers into California.)

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It’s true that the frenzy in artificial intelligence investing has brought a jolt of capital to the entrepreneurial economy of the Bay Area, but that’s merely the latest iteration of a story that dates back to the emergence of Silicon Valley in the late 1960s — or even to the founding of Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto in 1939.

The region has undergone a long sequence of technology booms and busts over the decades, but each bust has set the stage for the next boom. In the 1980s, the valley’s chipmakers lost their dominance in semiconductor memory to Japanese competitors.

But within a few years, as UC Berkeley economist and political scientist AnnaLee Saxenian observed in her definitive study of the region, “Regional Advantage,” in 1994, new semiconductor and computer startups such as Sun Microsystems had emerged and Silicon Valley had “regained its former vitality.” By 1990, Silicon Valley was home to “one-third of the 100 largest technology companies created in the United States since 1965,” Saxenian wrote.

The key to its enduring stature atop the innovation economy has been the Bay Area’s infrastructure of institutions (Stanford and UC Berkeley) and legal, technical and financial professionals, and its population of technology workers — all having created “dense social networks and open labor markets.”

By contrast, the Silicon wannabes tend to put all their eggs in one basket, and when that basket’s contents spill out, there’s little to fill it up again.

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Miami is a telling example. Its mayor, Francis X. Suarez, tried to establish the city as the center of cryptocurrency financing and innovation. The FTX crypto exchange bought naming rights to the arena where the NBA’s Miami Heat play. International conferences for bitcoin and crypto adherents filled the conference center in 2022.

Miami associated itself with the first “city coin,” a crypto token that Suarez claimed would help boost the municipal budget.

The effort hasn’t panned out. FTX collapsed as its founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, was indicted and subsequently convicted of fraud; the Heat’s arena now carries the name of Kaseya, a Miami software firm.

Attendance at crypto conferences has dwindled. MiamiCoin, which was valued at 5 cents when it came on the market in August 2021, now trades for about 16-thousandths of a cent, if anyone cares — there doesn’t seem to have been a trade in eight months. The city is searching for relevance in the modern technology landscape.

The same sources that talked up the flight of entrepreneurs from the Bay Area to Miami, Austin and other Silicon wannabes are now running articles about startup founders moving back; often the return is accompanied by complaints about the lack of a true innovation culture in their new homes, as well as traffic congestion and housing prices soaring out of reach — much the same as one would find in any large city.

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As my colleague Hannah Wiley reported recently, San Francisco’s adherents are trying to seize the narrative reins by reminding people that the city and region offer unique advantages to entrepreneurs, especially in technology-related fields.

One is Angela Hoover, 25, who launched her consumer-oriented AI search firm, Andi, in Miami with backing from Y Combinator. At first, Miami seemed inviting because it seemed to be host to a healthy startup community.

Attending AI events in San Francisco, however, made it “abundantly clear that the AI community was in San Francisco. It almost feels like you have a front-row seat to a play, and at the same time you’re in the play,” Hoover said.

“Despite what all the doom-and-gloom critics say, [the Bay Area] is still a hotbed of innovation,” Ali Diab, chief executive of Collective Health, told me. That’s what prompted the firm, which manages employer health plans, to return its headquarters to downtown San Francisco after allowing its workforce to disperse to a work-from-home system during the pandemic.

“Obviously, you have the AI revolution being driven from here,” Diab says, “but you also have powerhouse enterprise software companies like Salesforce and Slack.”

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Collective Health also discovered that the cost of office space in San Francisco was lower than elsewhere in the Bay Area, including Silicon Valley proper. About 120 of Collective Health’s 783 employees work in San Francisco, with the others distributed among offices in Chicago, Texas and Utah, or working remotely.

Diab was an early critic of the “doom loop” argument against San Francisco, observing in a mid-October op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle that “as a Bay Area native, I’ve had to listen to people predict the demise of my city for my entire life.” In truth, he wrote, “the oft-cited challenges San Francisco faces are no different from those experienced by any other major city in the United States.”

Housing is “prohibitively expensive in almost every major American city,” he added. “New York, Chicago and Los Angeles haven’t solved their homelessness problems and neither have many other large cities.”

The story of a Bay Area exodus always was overstated. The image of Texas’ attraction for entrepreneurs has never moved much beyond three major tech companies that moved their headquarters there from California — Hewlett Packard Enterprise in Houston and Oracle and Tesla in Austin.

And the significance of these moves may be more imagined than real. In 2020, when Oracle announced its move to Austin from Redwood City, south of San Francisco, it said it was building a campus for 10,000 employees; the company has 164,000 workers worldwide.

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When Elon Musk sought a location for Tesla’s “global engineering headquarters,” the seat of the company’s innovative brainpower, he found it in Hewlett Packard’s former corporate headquarters — not in Austin, but Palo Alto. He announced his decision to move into that space in February 2023 at a joint event with Gov. Newsom.

Other states have never come close to California in the volume of their venture investments. In 2022, according to the National Venture Capital Assn., California firms raised $78.3 billion in venture funding, more than 40% higher than second-ranked New York. Florida ranked fifth with only $2.6 billion, followed by Texas with $2.4 billion (and Texas’ total fell by about half from the previous year).

San Francisco companies attracted nearly $31 billion in venture funding in 2022, according to CBRE. The Bay Area all told attracted $61 billion, accounting for 35% of all venture funding in the U.S.

Venture investing fell appreciably in 2023, and venture-backed companies experienced a spike in “down rounds” — in which their valuations are lower than they were in the previous round of venture infusions — starting in late 2022. But those trends appeared across the entire venture funding universe, and were more likely related to the run-up in interest rates and fears of a recession than to any California-centric phenomena.

In any case, AI was a distinct bright spot, accounting for about 1 in 5 of all venture deals in 2023 and one-third of all venture dollars invested, according to the accounting firm EisnerAmper.

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No one doubts that San Francisco and the Bay Area present challenges. Suswal says he was concerned that recruiting staffers to come to the area would be difficult. When he himself was considering moving back to San Francisco from Seattle last October, he “bought into a lot of the negative aspects of the city that were being published at the time,” he says. “But the city is in better shape than it gets credit for. … All the best people come here, because it’s well worth it.”

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Northrop Grumman could eliminate as many as 1,000 jobs in Southern California

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Northrop Grumman could eliminate as many as 1,000 jobs in Southern California

Defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. has told its employees that it could cut as many as 1,000 jobs in Southern California.

The affected employees are part of the company’s space sector and work at facilities in Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and Azusa. The company said it is working to match those employees with other, existing jobs within the company.

Although Northrop Grumman did not specify a reason for the cuts, the U.S. Space Force recently canceled a multibillion-dollar program to develop a classified military communications satellite with the company after cost overruns, a schedule delay and development difficulties, according to Bloomberg.

Recently, space has been a difficult place to do business. Earlier this month, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory laid off 530 employees, or 8% of its workforce, in anticipation of massive federal budget cuts.

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Northrop Grumman said it has notified the state’s Employment Development Department and filed a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act notice about the job cuts, as required by law.

“This is ongoing, and a higher number of employees will receive WARN notices than may ultimately be impacted,” the company said in a statement.

Although Northrop Grumman is based in Falls Church, Va., California is a major hub for the company. The defense contractor’s historic 110-acre Space Park facility in Redondo Beach was built at the height of the Cold War and is the birthplace of the intercontinental ballistic missile, as well as the rocket engines that lowered the first crew onto the moon and, more recently, the building of the James Webb Space Telescope.

The company also has a major aircraft facility in Palmdale, where it is building the new B-21 stealth bomber, the center fuselage for the F-35 fighter jet, the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone and the MQ-4C Triton drone.

Northrop Grumman also has facilities in San Diego, Sunnyvale, Northridge, Woodland Hills and Ventura County. In all, the company employs about 30,000 people across the state.

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