Monday, January 15, 2018

A Missile Alert and Civil Angst

The missiles were coming. The broadcast text and television message was clear enough. “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” I saw the message echoed on Twitter and decided the missiles didn’t exist. It was all a mistake, though that was easy for me to say. I was nowhere near Hawaii.

But then, despite the distance, I grew worried when half an hour went by and no definitive correction or clarification came in. Finally, confirmation came in that the alert was the mistake that it appeared to be. Ironically, this news came to me by way of CBC News in Canada. Their contacts in Ottawa may have had reliable information sooner than the American news media trying to get in touch with officials in Washington.

If this was an unsettling episode for me, I learned it was far worse for people in Hawaii. Take shelter — what does that mean if the hazard is a ballistic missile? I heard stories of people sitting on the floor in the garage or getting in the car and heading for the hills. Some fraction of a million people were convinced they were going to die. The roughly 38 minutes they waited must have seemed like a month. Some reported a feeling of isolation and helplessness. It was hard to know what was happening or where anyone else was. There probably wasn’t enough time to respond anyway.

With this as a backdrop, the official response, when it did arrive, was anything but reassuring. The indifference and inaction were striking. The Pentagon never issued a statement. The President learned of the crisis but did not want to interrupt his golf game. The civil defense authorities in Hawaii realized they had issued a false alert within four minutes but took an additional 34 minutes to figure out how to issue a correction. Later the White House issued a statement that appeared to say that missile defense was “a state issue,” a stark contradiction to long-held U.S. policies on national defense. I saw bot accounts reflexively criticize people who asked on Twitter for accurate information on what had happened; “stay out of politics,” the bots suggested, hardly something a human could say to someone who had just experienced the life-or-death question of a missile strike.

There wasn’t much news coverage because of the holiday weekend, but I think this episode will have a lasting impact on the American psyche. The number of people affected was not just the nearly 1 percent of the U.S. population who received and responded to the alert. Their friends and family members and anyone who ever visited Hawaii would be affected, reaching in varying degrees around one fourth of the national population. The collective impact on us is bigger than just the irritation of a fire drill. There is concern at what was revealed by the official response. Everyone is left with the unavoidable question, if this had been a real missile attack, would the national response have been equally indifferent and inept? Did the President know the missiles were not real when he decided to continue to the next hole in his golf game, or did he shrug off what could just as well have been a real attack, perhaps as some detractors suggested because the target was just Hawaii? Is the Pentagon this unable to respond to a crisis on every holiday weekend? In the event of a real attack, would the White House take hours to react, then use the incident as an excuse to blame local authorities? In short, is this a functioning country, or are we all on our own as soon as something goes wrong?

The unsettling answer, if we look at the question honestly, is that we do not know. The angst that goes with that uncertainty will linger in the national conversation for some time.

This did not need to be. In the aftermath of the mistaken missile alert, officials in Washington had an opportunity for moral leadership. It would have been a good moment to reassure Americans that we live in a real country, a country that is able to respond in the event of a crisis. They very pointedly did not take up that opportunity.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Department Stores Closing

A retail store can close on any day, but there is a season for retailers to throw in the towel, and that season is right now, days after the after-Christmas sales end. The relatively profitable holiday season is over and a nine-month drought follows for retail, so any store that won’t last long enough to get to next Christmas is probably better off closing as soon as it can. My watch list includes the Toys ‘R’ Us, in bankruptcy and variously rumored to be closing 100 or 200 stores or going into liquidation after a disastrous season. I am casting a worried glance at Barnes & Noble, which reported its worst holiday season in years. The mall apparel shakeout is far from over. The early news, though, is that department stores are faring especially poorly.

This may come as a surprise after reports in December saying that department store traffic was up during the holiday season and that discounts were lower than in previous years. It is not always easy to get accurate information so quickly, and one hint comes from Britain, where Debenhams described mistakes in low-end merchandising and startlingly poor attendance at its after-Christmas sale. Its plans are not known beyond its already announced cost-cutting measures, but there are analysts speculating about much more drastic changes.

In the United States, the biggest store closings announced so far are at department store chains Kmart, Sears, and Macy’s. Sears Holdings has announced 64 Kmart and 39 Sears stores (full list [PDF]) to close in March. A few stores will remain open into April. Most Sears stores have auto service centers that will close sooner.

Macy’s is closing 11 stores, part of a plan that has already closed 120 stores in the last two years. These Macy’s stores are prepared to close in early 2018:

  • Laguna Hills Mall – Laguna Hills, California
  • Westside Pavilion – Los Angeles, California
  • Novato (Furniture) – Novato, California
  • Stonestown Galleria – San Francisco, California
  • The Oaks – Gainesville, Florida
  • Miami (Downtown) – Miami, Florida
  • Magic Valley Mall – Twin Falls, Idaho
  • Honey Creek Mall – Terre Haute, Indiana
  • Birchwood Mall – Fort Gratiot Township, Michigan
  • Fountain Place (Downtown) – Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Burlington Town Center – Burlington, Vermont

Store closings at JCPenney are also widely reported, though I could confirm only one location with a store-closing sale. JCPenney had healthy sales growth this holiday season, but it was not enough to say it has bounced back after four years of turmoil.

Where I live, it is unusually cold this weekend, 3°F as I got up this morning. We have seen bad weather five weekends in a row, and this is from large weather systems that have affected the whole East Coast or most of North America. To have the bad weather fall on weekends again and again is bad luck for retail and could squeeze even well-managed retailers.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Milk Is the New Cream

This January, as the last two, I am participating in Vegan January. It’s a simple challenge of not eating animal-based food for one month. One part of the appeal of Vegan January is that by avoiding food made from animal products, you automatically skip most junk food.

Yes, I used “appeal” and “skip most junk food” in the same sentence. The American consumer, it seems, is sick of junk food and avoiding it less out of hardened self-discipline than as a matter of honest preference and intuition. I’ve been tracking this trend since the late 1990s, and the changes are hard to miss. People are looking for better-quality junk food, or simply eating less of it. Total U.S. beer consumption has been falling for 25 years, but over the last 10 years, sales from independent brewers are holding steady, picking up a bigger share of the market. Less beer, higher quality. Beef, which was a staple food for many people in the 1990s, is now a specialty food, though stiff price increases and mad cow disease had something to do with that change. For those still eating beef, organic beef has become more common. Milk chocolate is down, while dark chocolate has become nearly as popular. Dark chocolate, obviously, has a better nutritional profile than milk chocolate while costing about the same. Various forms of improved fast food have been popular for five years at a time, but usually this is only a transition period before consumers move on to healthier options.

This pattern can be seen again now with organic milk. Organic milk is in the news this week because market prices have fallen abruptly. As Grace Donnelly highlights this price decline in the Fortune article “Dairy Farmers Experiencing An Organic Milk Surplus As Sales of Almond, Soy Milk Rise”, prices “fell from nearly $40 at the start of 2016 to about $27 late last year,” largely the result of a five-year increase in the number of organic dairy cows.

Organic milk sales started to rise in 2011 and went up for five years before peaking in 2016 and declining through 2017. The dairy sector has barely begun to adjust to the decline.

The way I think of it, Vegan January is the 2018 equivalent of what organic milk represented in 2010. People looking for healthier options chose organic milk as an upgrade, and the obvious next upgrade is to reduce milk consumption or eliminate it altogether, as Vegan January participants are doing this month.

Organic milk was only a brief bright spot in a dairy sector that has seen a 20-year decline. The decline in milk was hard for me to pick up at first, but this far along, it looks a lot like the decline in beer, and it is easy to see that it is part of the same trend. It is not just milk, but all dairy products that are declining. Looking back, the Greek yogurt trend was little more than a blip, no bigger than that of organic milk a year or two later.

In the supermarket, it might look like consumers are switching from milk to coconut milk and almond milk. The real story is simpler: consumption is declining. Coconut milk has been around for ages, but the dairy sector no longer has the market muscle to keep coconut milk out of the diary case. Another way of saying the same thing is that milk sales are no longer large enough to pay for an entire display case in the supermarket. Coconut milk sales are still very small and don’t come close to accounting for the decline in dairy milk.

Those who are over 50 years old may remember the place that cream once held in the supermarket. It was a well-known specialty item, something everyone knew about, but probably not something you would buy every week. This is what milk is turning into. Milk is the new cream. It is almost as expensive in real terms as cream was half a century ago and its nutritional reputation just about matches what people thought of cream around 1970. If trends continue, milk could eventually be occupying the same shelf space that cream had in the supermarkets of the 1970s. Everyone knows what milk is, but most shoppers will buy it only when they need it for a recipe, which is not very often.

Then, of course, an increasing number of shoppers aren’t buying milk at all. The popularity of Vegan January can’t be helping — after you experience a month without buying milk, it’s easy to see that you could do the same thing in any given month. Milk is one of the most expensive junk foods and at the same time, its carbon profile is horrific, so it’s often the first junk food people give up when money gets tight.

My own story of giving up milk was a reaction to the run-up in prices a decade back. Prices never went back down, so for me milk went from being a guilty pleasure to a luxury I couldn’t afford. I stopped paying attention to the dairy case at that point, but when I glance in that direction I can see it has only continued to shrink. In some stores, the gallon jugs are gone altogether. I eventually landed on coconut milk as my go-to substitute for milk, but it would hardly be accurate to say that I switched from one to the other. At the same time that I made the substitution, the quantity of product went down by a factor of 10.

Ice cream has held up better than most dairy products, but it has done so by emphasizing smaller specialty products that can be sold at higher prices. When you’re selling a product by the pint, it is a little easier to mark up the price. Since 2000, consumers have mostly moved from half-gallons to pints when it comes to ice cream, and this means we are eating a lot less.

This year, though, may be the year that non-dairy ice cream breaks out. The So Delicious brand has dominated this category over the last decade, but an experiment by Ben & Jerry’s in 2017 went well, so that other brands are now trying the same approach. Given a direct choice, there is no doubt that many consumers will prefer a non-dairy version of ice cream.

The greenhouse effect of dairy products deserves special mention. Cattle are among the largest sources of methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, if for a shorter time. Dairy production also generates prodigious amounts of carbon dioxide, mainly because of the huge amounts of food that cattle eat. The net greenhouse effect of dairy products in the United States rivals that of ground transportation — yet given the choice, most people would agree it would be easier to give up dairy products than transportation. In the end, we can’t avoid a climate catastrophe while continuing to eat dairy products in the quantities we do now. For some participants, the climate impact of animal-based food is the main reason for participating in Vegan January.

Let’s not forget, though, that the biggest new year’s resolution in the United States is to lose weight, and that trend too works against milk and dairy products. What other simple lifestyle change lets you lose 1 pound of body fat while saving $14 in grocery spending? Americans are as overweight as ever, so this long-term trend too is likely to lead to a continuing decline in milk along with the junk food category in general.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Adding Up the Christmas Shopping Season

The first post-Christmas numbers point to a record high season at U.S. retail. It is not that shoppers were buying more — rather, we bought quite a bit less than last year — but the scarcity of deep discounts in stores meant that we spent more than in any previous year. The smaller discounts and limited stock should also mean that the season was highly profitable for stores. To be sure, some segments did better than others. Toys, automobiles, and clothing were down, while department stores, online retailers, and payment cards did especially well.

Yesterday at after-Christmas sales, I saw plenty of shoppers but not a lot of discounts. At one store, the heavily promoted after-Christmas clearance sale had items marked down by 1/3 or 1/2, but only 1 percent of items in the store were included in the sale. At another store, customers who bought multiple items could save 25 percent — hardly the deep discounts we saw before and after Christmas in many stores over the last few years.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Survivalism in an Era of a Thousand Little Cuts

It is easy to make fun of survivalism and its emphasis on durable goods that can provide the essentials of life, things like bottled water, crackers, blankets, matches. This are things that are set aside for later and, like the fire extinguisher that sits under my kitchen sink, always seem to go unused. As survivalists see it, those things are there for those rare situations when the familiar civil and economic order breaks down and you have to survive on your own for an extended period of time.

Survivalism seems an extravagance only until the survival supplies are actually needed. The situations that would require survival supplies always seem far-fetched until they actually occur. Imagine, for example, that the worst hurricane in U.S. history struck at the same time that the most repressive administration in U.S. history, determined to destroy the country by a thousand little cuts, occupies the White House. The weather disaster could result in simultaneous failures of electric power, water, and roads. A near-complete lack of government response could make the outages last for a year. With running water that is not safe to drink, no electricity, highways that can’t be driven or walked, and no effective law enforcement, suddenly you hope you have a hundred boxes of crackers and a hundred gallon bottles of water.

You don’t have to imagine this post-apocalyptic scenario, because this is the current situation in Puerto Rico this Christmas morning. Most of the island territory has now gone the entire fall without drinking water and electricity, and those services will not realistically be restored before the next hurricane season arrives. As for the roads and the commercial infrastructure of the island, that will certainly take longer. Life will not be back to normal in Puerto Rico or the dozen nearby islands most affected by this summer’s hurricanes — there is no need to add “until,” it just won’t happen.

Hurricane Maria will not be the last such disaster. If the fires in California were to grow to five times their recent size and destroy large parts of Los Angeles, there is no reason to imagine a proportionate government response — never mind the scale of damage that a major urban earthquake might someday cause. One day rising ocean levels will take away half of the Miami metro area. The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency says people should no longer count on the government coming to their rescue in this kind of large-scale event.

We make disasters worse by not preparing. Instead of pretending that the next disaster won’t strike, we probably should build buildings with non-burnable frames and roofs, strip out the wallboard and carpet from lower levels of vulnerable buildings so that they are easy to clean after a flood, replace utility poles with underground electric service, take down the abandoned railroad bridges that will crumble in the next moderate earthquake, retire the most disaster-prone nuclear power stations — but all that will cost a fortune. In comparison, setting aside some dried fruit, batteries, candles, and waterproof containers costs almost nothing. In an era when our government tells us directly we’re on our own, not just for three days after a hurricane but potentially for months, we would do well to expand on our survivalist instincts.