Tuesday, July 26, 2022

So When Do We Call a Recession?

 Financial FAQs

Conference-Board.org

Calling a recession at this time because we may have two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth is almost irrelevant, because it may be over as quickly as the artificially induced 2-month recession in April-May 2020 (see thin gray bar in above graph) when the pandemic was building a head of steam.

Record growth followed last year because of the $6 trillion in government largesse, and consumers are beginning to have a hangover from the record spending spree that has ignited this inflation spike.

So how do we determine when and if the next recession that everyone is predicting will happen? I like to follow consumer confidence surveys, because as the above graph indicates, consumer confidence closely tracks recessions.

The Conference Board’s monthly survey has been trending down since January, just as has GDP growth. It’s the simplest way for the lay person to see the larger picture, since consumer spending makes up approximately two-thirds of economic growth—and it continued to decline in July.

The Conference Board just announced its Consumer Confidence Index® decreased in July, following a larger decline in June. The Index now stands at 95.7 (1985=100), down 2.7 points from 98.4 in June. The Present Situation Index—based on consumers’ assessment of current business and labor market conditions—fell to 141.3 from 147.2 last month. The Expectations Index—based on consumers’ short-term outlook for income, business, and labor market conditions—ticked down to 65.3 from 65.8.

“Consumer confidence fell for a third consecutive month in July,” said Lynn Franco, Senior Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “The decrease was driven primarily by a decline in the Present Situation Index—a sign growth has slowed at the start of Q3. The Expectations Index held relatively steady, but remained well below a reading of 80, suggesting recession risks persist. Concerns about inflation—rising gas and food prices, in particular—continued to weigh on consumers.”

“As the Fed raises interest rates to rein in inflation, purchasing intentions for cars, homes, and major appliances all pulled back further in July” continued Franco. “Looking ahead, inflation and additional rate hikes are likely to continue posing strong headwinds for consumer spending and economic growth over the next six months.”

U.S. retail sales rebounded strongly in June as Americans spent more on gasoline and other goods amid soaring inflation, so their ‘headache’ hasn’t yet spread to most businesses, as they continue to create jobs and the unemployment rate is still at a record low. It’s difficult to call a recession with a fully employed economy, in other words.

So, I’m going to make a rash prediction. This recession has already begun for the simple reason that growth has stalled, and several indicators used by the National Bureau of Economic Research are already trending down. Consumer spending and personal incomes are beginning to decline and industrial production is also slowing.

What has caused the inflation surge since February, and sudden rise in gas and food prices that worry consumers? The Ukraine invasion, of course, followed by China’s inability to control its own COVID epidemic.

We will reach bottom in this growth trough and begin to uptrend again when the Ukraine, Russia and China resolve their various issues that are restricting supplies of almost everything that consumers depend upon.

And who knows when this might happen? The whole world wants it to happen, so maybe enough pressure will be applied to end the Ukraine conflict and encourage the Chinese to fix their COVID problem so that the world can return to what is the real problem, global warming that has far worse consequences than a temporary and artificially induced recession.

Harlan Green © 2022

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Thursday, July 21, 2022

Retail Sales Keep US Growing

Financial FAQs

FREDretailsales

U.S. retail sales rebounded strongly in June as Americans spent more on gasoline and other goods amid soaring inflation, which could allay fears of an imminent recession but not change the view that economic growth in the second quarter was tepid, if not slightly negative.

Is it good enough to stave off a recession next year? Consumer spending drives almost two-thirds of economic growth, with retail sales half of spending. The post-pandemic spending spike has slowly subsided from a 100-mph speed aided by government subsidies to its present 60-mph cruising speed, as I said last week; which is still above average per the FRED graph.

Maintaining that speed depends in part on the inflation picture, of course, which will slowly subside as the supply-shocks diminish. Gas prices, for instance, have dropped more than 40 cents over the past month, which is a large part of the recent inflation surge.

Reuters reports the nearly broad increase in retail sales last month was led by receipts at auto dealerships, which rebounded 0.8 percent after declining 3.0 percent in May amid shortages. Sales at service stations increased 3.6 percent.

“Gasoline prices surged in June, averaging above $5 per gallon,” said Reuters, “according to data from motorist advocacy group AAA. Prices at the pump have since declined from last month's record peaks and were averaging $4.577 per gallon on Friday.

Receipts at bars and restaurants, the only services category in the retail sales report, increased 1.0 percent, another sign of strength. There were strong gains in sales at furniture and electronics and appliance retailers. Receipts at sporting goods, hobby, musical instruments, and bookstores also rose. Online store sales rebounded 2.2 percent.

The annual CPI retail rate in the US accelerated to 9.1 percent in June of 2022, the highest since November of 1981, from 8.6 percent in May and above market forecasts of 8.8 percent.

It was mainly energy prices that rose 41.6 percent, the most since April 1980, boosted by gasoline (59.9 percent), fuel oil (98.5 percent), electricity (13.7 percent, the largest increase since April 2006), and natural gas (38.4 percent, the largest increase since October 2005).

Consumer spending is keeping up with inflation to date, with personal consumption expenditures (PCE) still up 7.2 percent overall, 5.2 percent YoY without more volatile food and energy prices, which is causing most of the current inflationary spike.

Concern about inflation eased in July alongside a sharp drop in gasoline prices over the past month, reports the University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey.

Thanks to Paul Krugman and the NY Times for this graph showing the gradual decrease in 3-year and 5-year inflation expectations, an important indicator of how consumers might behave if higher inflation isn’t prolonged.

Krugman/NYTimes

The University of Michigan's preliminary survey of consumers for July published on Friday showed consumers see inflation running at 2.8 percent over a five-year horizon, the lowest in a year and down from 3.1 percent in June. Their one-year outlook for price increases moderated to 5.2 percent from 5.3 percent a month earlier and was the lowest since February.

Inflation worries are still causing the whipsaw in financial market prices. So, how long can this surge in prices last, given the Ukraine war, China’s COVID problems, and the ongoing pandemic restrictions?

Even if growth continues to slow further, consumers at present are saying they are optimistic enough about the future to avoid a recession.

Harlan Green © 2022

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Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Failure of the Bully Mentality

 Answering Kennedy’s Call

UvaldeSchoolDistrict/AP

We need no more evidence than the Uvalde Elementary school massacre that the gun-toting male machismo of the NAR and extreme gun rights advocates doesn’t protect children or adults,

Adults with military weaponry and tactical gear waited more than 70 minutes before engaging the shooter while 19 fourth graders and two teachers were killed; and 15 children and a police officer were wounded by one AR-15 toting 18-year-old.

Why is it a surprise when studies have shown that such male machismo, or “toxic masculinity” to use the contemporary term, is a fa├žade that protects the gun bearer from his own fears of inadequacy but not those that need protection?

It’s a form of bullying behavior that is well-known to Psychologists and behavioral scientists that have studied bullying behavior. A state like Texas with its ruling political party that discriminates against women and immigrants exhibits such behavior is concealing just such an innate feeling of weakness and ineffectiveness.

What more evidence do we need than to witness 376 guardians of law and order, including more than 90 Texas Rangers, cowering in the halls of Robb Elementary School while those children were being slaughtered? What more evidence do we need than the NRA assertion that “good men with guns” are the solution to gun violence when not one of the 376 guardians was good enough to risk life and limb to save those children?

It turns out such “manliness” has been all show and posturing that has led to an ideology that espouses such Machismo with nothing behind it except their guns? It should be obvious that they carry those weapons to protect themselves, not those they have sworn to defend.

I have written in the past to describe such behavior as a bully mentality, a mental state that seems to govern those that prefer to prey on the weaker but avoid confronting those that exhibit strength, such as the leader of their party, ex-President Trump.

Psychology Today posted a list of bullying behaviors at the time, a list that fits a political party that opposes all gun regulations like a glove:

– Uncontrolled anger and unpredictable irritability, frequently directed at the weakest people (‘safe targets’) or those perceived as a future threat
– A sociopathic ability to control their own image – the selective ability to look like a different person to different audiences – for example, being aggressive to ‘subordinates’, while being charming and helpful to others
– Having little status outside of work, bullies wield the power that their job gives them with vicious zeal
– Running ‘witch-hunts’
– Gratuitous domineering behaviour – sometimes physical
– The ability to make the unreasonable seem reasonable, even to the victims
--Projecting their own inadequacies onto others
– Making irrational accusations
– Publicly putting people down
– Sadistic enjoyment in humiliating others

One commentator on toxic masculinity described exactly what happened in Uvalde: “Our country is saturated in guns, and yet the mythical “good guy with a gun” who is supposed to stop these mass shootings has yet to actually be produced. That is because the good guy with a gun is a myth, propped up to justify toxic masculinity’s obsession with guns, and nothing more.”

The foremost characteristic of bullies is that they prey on weakness. That also goes for a political party that preys on the less fortunate by denying them adequate medical care and restricting their voting rights. What is their excuse?

New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, perhaps said it best. “And what these severe conservatives hate, above all, is reliance on government programs. “Rick Santorum declares that President Obama is getting America hooked on “the narcotic of dependency.” Mr. Romney warns that government programs “foster passivity and sloth.” Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, requires that staffers read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” in which heroic capitalists struggle against the “moochers” trying to steal their totally deserved wealth, a struggle the heroes win by withdrawing their productive effort and giving interminable speeches.”

Heroic deeds are conspicuously absent from those who believe the Second Amendment allows 18-year-olds to own assault rifles.

Harlan Green © 2022

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Thursday, July 14, 2022

When Does Inflation Endanger Growth?

 Financial FAQs

Tradingeconomics.com

Some inflation is good for growth since it boosts profits, but the short answer is when inflation becomes so prolonged that most consumers can only afford basic nesessities like food and shelter. And that hasn’t happened yet, with consumer spending still at post-pandemic highs.

The annual inflation rate in the US accelerated to 9.1 percent in June of 2022, the highest since November of 1981, from 8.6 percent in May and above market forecasts of 8.8 percent.

It was mainly energy prices rising 41.6 percent, the most since April 1980, boosted by gasoline (59.9 percent), fuel oil (98.5 percent), electricity (13.7 percent, the largest increase since April 2006), and natural gas (38.4 percent, the largest increase since October 2005).

FREDpce

Consumer spending may have peaked but has yet to decline substantially in May. It is still up 7.2 percent overall, 5.2 percent YoY without more volatile food and energy prices per the FRED graph, which is causing most of the current inflationary spike.

So, how long can this surge in prices last, given the Ukraine war, China’s COVID problems, and the ongoing pandemic restrictions?

President Joe Biden on Wednesday said in a statement that while a "headline inflation reading is unacceptably high, it is also out-of-date," as he reacted to a report showing a year-over-year rise of 9.1% for the consumer price index in June. "Today's data does not reflect the full impact of nearly 30 days of decreases in gas prices, that have reduced the price at the pump by about 40 cents since mid-June,"

The fact that inflation may soften sometime in the future is a tough sell and hard for consumers to believe. What should we believe about the danger of longer-term inflation?

The analogy that I used last week that best describes current economic conditions (and inflation) is we are in a race to recover from COVID-19 while a European war is raging. The U.S. economy has slowed from a warp speed of 100 mph as it shot out of the pandemic to 60 mph, as it returns to a more normal growth mode.

Gas and oil prices are moderating because most of the oil-producing companies and countries have increased production for the simple reason that they are making record profits.

And consumers will slowly cut back on spending as prices continue to rise across the board. Friday’s retail sales figures for June will tell us how much consumers are cutting back. If spending is slowing, perhaps the Fed will also slow down the timing of their next rate boosts.

Harlan Green © 2022

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Friday, July 8, 2022

Job Market Too Hot?

 Popular Economics Weekly

MarketWatch

Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 372,000 in June, and the unemployment rate remained at 3.6 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Notable job gains occurred in professional and business services, leisure and hospitality, and health care.

I reported last week that weekly initial unemployment claims had been holding at the lowest level since 1970, which was a sign of an extremely tight labor market, and that has proved to be the case.

The unemployment rate held a 3.6 percent for the fourth month in a row. The labor force participation rate, at 62.2 percent, and the employment-population ratio, at 59.9 percent, were little changed over the month. Both measures remain below their February 2020 values (63.4 percent and 61.2 percent, respectively), which means not everyone has gone back to work (1.3 million, actually), and employment rolls still have room to grow.

All sectors showed growth and average hourly wages are still growing at 5.1 percent, a huge increase that will keep consumers spending and the economic growth continuing, despite inflation and rising interest rates.

The Federal Reserve will probably see this jobs number as too hot and continue to raise interest rates, so the debate will continue whether we can return to the Goldilocks era of an economy that is not too hot (inflationary), or too cold (deflationary).

MarketWatch

MarketWatch economist Rex Nutting is warning of one obstacle to continued jobs growth, a looming shortage of working-age adults. The baby boomer population bulge of the 1970s has reached retirement age, and the millennials cohort of the 1990s, their offspring, will be approaching retirement age as well, as is seen in his graph of population growth rates.

“But now the tide is going out,” said Nutting. “Next year, the working-age population is expected to grow by just 400,000. In 2024, it’s expected to grow by 300,000 and by just 200,000 in 2025. The pool of workers will begin to grow a bit faster later in the decade and throughout the 2030s, but current projections through 2060 don’t foresee the labor supply returning to the same growth rate we’ve gotten used to over the past 70 years.”

And that means slowing economic growth as well, unless we allow more working-age adults to immigrate and invest in more productive technologies, since more workers producing more goods and services powers economic growth.

How is this a sign of an impending recession? Companies are holding on to their workers for dear life, with one of the lowest unemployment rates in history. The rate was only lower in 1950, dipping to 2.5 percent during the record recovery from World War II.

So now we must worry about the Fed raising interest rates too high and choking off further growth.

Harlan Green © 2022

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Will U.S. Maintain Sustainable Growth?

 Financial FAQs

The analogy that best describes current economic conditions is that we are in a race to recover from COVID-19 while a European war is raging. The U.S. economy has slowed from a warp speed of 100 mph as it shot out of the pandemic to 60 mph, as it returns to a more normal growth mode.

The headlines are telling us growth could slow down even more, and the race come to a grinding halt, either later this year or sometime next year. Why? Because the Fed may continue to raise short term rates, and that may not be necessary since 60 mph is the speed we will need to maintain for more sustainable, long term growth.

The U.S. economy is cooling off, but the labor market is still red hot. Job openings in the latest JOLTS report fell slightly in May to a still extremely high 11.3 million (from 11.4 the past 2 months) and layoffs remained near a record low.

Job openings have slipped two months in a row after peaking in March at 11.9 million, but they have topped 11 million for six straight months. Layoffs are also extremely low, the Labor Department said Wednesday.

It’s most meaningful component, hires, and total separations, were little changed at 6.5 million and 6.0 million, respectively. This means there were 500,000 more new hires than separations (those leaving a job). It is a sign that Friday’s June unemployment report will probably be strong and in line with past months.

Both business sectors, the manufacturing and service industries, are returning to more normal growth levels. Their measure, surveys of Supply Managers, have shown incredible growth over the past two years.

Tradingeconomics.com

An Institute of Supply Management (ISM) barometer of business conditions at service-oriented companies (see above graph) such as restaurants, hotels and retailers dipped to a two-year low of 55.3 percent in June — yet any number over 50 percent indicates expanding activity.

The Trading Economics graph shows how it soared since July 2021 and reached a nose-bleeding altitude of 69 percent in November 2021.

A similar ISM survey of American manufacturers also showed business slowing to a two-year low to 53 percent in June. The ISM index dropped 3.1 points from 56.1 percent in May, yet that is still a good number.

BEA.gov

The decline in Q1 GDP was mainly due to a massive rise in imports overshadowing a slowdown in exports. But with the value of the U.S. Dollar at all-time highs the trend has reversed. Exports now exceed imports resulting in the lowest budget deficit this year. Import totals are subtracted from exports in the GDP tally.

Manufacturers and other businesses are restocking their shelves, which will probably boost second quarter economic growth back into the positive column, though economists are uncertain as to how much.

Tomorrow’s unemployment report will give us another indication whether we can maintain that 60 mph speed, or will the Fed keep their feet on the brakes and slow growth further?

Harlan Green © 2022

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Inflation Not the Real Danger

 The Mortgage Corner

FREDcpi

Why do polls say we are going in the wrong direction and the economy isn’t doing well? Fifty-two percent of American adults say they are worse off financially than they were a year ago, according to a survey conducted for The New York Times this month by the online research platform Momentive.

A large part of the discontent is sky-high inflation, the highest in 40 years. Yet it was much higher more than 40 years ago, per the FRED graph on the Consumer Price Index. It was over 14 percent in 1980 due to the 1970’s era of stagflation that manifested slow growth and lower employment with higher inflation, as per the FRED graph.

It’s difficult to reconcile the pessimism shown in the latest consumer confidence surveys with actual economic data. The University of Michigan’s gauge of consumer sentiment, for instance, fell again to a final June reading of 50 from an initial reading of 50.2 earlier in the month and well below May’s level of 58.4.

Yet U.S. factory orders jumped 1.6 percent in May in a show of strength among manufacturers in a report out today, and the unemployment rate has remained at 3.6 percent for two months.

Maybe it’s a general fear of what’s to come—perhaps a hangover from two years of the pandemic, and now a war that has exacerbated inflation.

The increase in factory orders exceeded the 0.6 percent forecast of economists polled by The Wall Street Journal. The rise in new orders in April was also raised to 0.7 percent from 0.3 percent.

A more recent poll of senior manufacturing executives signaled a slowdown in June. An index of manufacturers slipped to a two-year low in June as orders contracted for the first time since the start of the pandemic in spring 2020.

In fact, inflation is not the real danger to growth, but the fear of rising interest rates. Is that counter-intuitive? When the Fed or inflation hawks sound off on the dangers of inflation above the Fed’s 2 percent target rate, they really mean they don’t like the higher interest rates that tend to follow; which do slow economic growth.

Whereas higher inflation is usually a sign of robust growth; until it crimps consumers’ pocketbooks. For instance, the CPI inflation rate during the record 10-year Clinton era growth range of 2.5-3.5 percent. It only dipped below that during the recent pandemic years, a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Higher interest rates do most harm. That’s because most economic growth is powered by debt. We know the federal debt is upwards of $22Trillion, or 100 percent of GDP. Whereas consumer debt, either in the form of credit card or installment debt that includes mortgages, is up $38.1B or 10.1 percent annually, as consumers continue to spend with more borrowing.

Bloomberg

Inflation has mostly hovered around the 2 percent target rate historically, and should return to that range by next year, as the FRED graph makes clear, with spikes during extraordinary time, such as the 1970s era of stagflation, as I said.

But interest rates aren’t so flexible, and tend to become in installment loans with fixed monthly payments, in particular. So, we need to pay closer attention to interest rates, if we want to know what will happen next.

Harlan Green © 2022

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Friday, July 1, 2022

The Great Clean Air Debate--Part II

 Answering Kennedy’s Call

 Chapter Six

Environmental Protection Could be Hazardous

At the time, I remember thinking environmental protection should not mean crawling down the partially opened rear stairs of a Boeing 727 passenger jet into a muddy field at San Francisco International Airport.

I had boarded a regularly scheduled Sunday afternoon flight to Los Angeles where I was producing a one-half hour public service television show for the USEPA on the dangers of toxic substances in anything we might eat or drink.

        I sat next to a World War II pilot on that cloudy, rainy day in a United Airlines 727. Wisps of clouds raced by as we ascended. I hated the 727 with its three engines in the rear of the plane. It took off and landed like a wounded duck, as far as I was concerned, yet the airlines used it for the shorter flights. It always seemed to land with a deep thud that made me close my eyes on the approach, wondering if it had landed safely, and it seemed to lift off at the very last moment from the end of the runway.

 As we climbed, I noticed a vapor streaming from the wing tips. I pointed it out to the former pilot I had just met. He said not to worry too much: they were probably jettisoning some excess fuel.

“But why?” I asked. “Why would they be jettisoning fuel after the takeoff?” It wasn’t long before we knew the answer. The pilot’s voice came over the intercom: “We don’t want you to be alarmed, but we have to return to the airport.”

I looked at my seat partner who seemed calm. He had been regaling me with stories of his fighter pilot days in World War II in the Pacific. “I don’t know what it could be,” he said. “Probably some malfunction in the navigation system, or some of the dials aren’t giving accurate signals.”

That was when the airline pilot told us what was actually happening. “We are returning because a warning light is telling us something is overheating in the cargo bay,” he said over the intercom. “It may be nothing, a light malfunctioning, but we would like you to grab your ankles as we approach landing, just in case.”

That was possible when flying in the 1970s. Seats were farther apart. In fact, airlines competed to offer more leg room rather than less in those days.

        Though my heart beat a little faster, I didn’t think anything could really be wrong. But my partner and I grabbed our anklesas we approached, just in case. The plane had been circling while continuing to jettison fuel.

We heard the landing gear lock and the jet engines reverse thrust to slow down the plane as we landed, so I thought the flight was over. Suddenly there was a much louder THUNK, then the plane tilted crazily and began to slowly rotate. Those of us grabbing our ankles could see nothing, but I had the sickening feeling that I was going to die.

The THUNK was followed by a screeching of metal, but I had no idea how long that lasted before the silence. It was a silence that I honestly thought meant the end—I think we all felt that way—even though my mind was racing. Was it even possible this was what the afterlife must be? A limbo of sorts with nothing to see or hear? It was as if, at that moment, I had left my body, and whatever had become of me was hovering overhead.

But then I heard screaming, and a group of uniformed pilots suddenly appeared out of nowhere. It was only later that I realized they were off-duty pilots hitching rides home on the weekend. At this moment they happened to be in the right place at the right time. At least six of them rousted passengers out of their seats.

Most of us were in shock. They had to literally grab some of the passengers and throw them down the inflated chutes that had opened before it dawned on the rest of us that we needed to get the hell out of there.

Being near the tail of this 727, my partner and I had only one escape route. There was an exit staircase that opened under the tail, but it was only partially open. We crawled our way down those steps and found that the tail was sitting in the mud. When we stood up to look around in a slight drizzle, hands and knees covered in the mud, we saw we were in a wet field beside one of the runways. The nose of the plane was buried in a small, corrugated metal shack that must have stopped its slide.

My partner said immediately, “It has to be one of the landing gear.”

“What landing gear?” I asked. I looked up and down the runway we were beside and saw no landing gear. My partner had taken out a miniature Minolta camera and began clicking away in all directions as people continued to crawl or slide out of the plane. Some lay on the ground moaning, as sirens from approaching rescue vehicles screamed louder.

The pilots and crew members herded us away from the fuselage. I saw no smoke, and so thank God, maybe no fire. They were also shouting, “No pictures, please, no pictures, please,” which my partner, of course, ignored. When I looked down the runway that crossed ours, I saw a small object lying in the middle of it. It was our landing gear: four wheels still locked to the strut that anchored it to the wing.

     
        The right-side wing was buried in the ground, and we now could see what had happened. Its landing gear, with all four wheels, had broken off the wing and was laying with its strut assembly barely visible in the distance. We must have skidded for more than a mile before coming to a stop in this muddy field. 
 

The ex-fighter pilot told me that he had once crash landed on a beach and broken his back in the Philippines during World War II. It underscored how lucky we were this time. The United pilot must have landed too soon with too much fuel in the tanks. I had flown enough to know planes usually take off with more fuel than is safe to carry when landing, in case they were stuck in a holding pattern before descending to the tarmac. The extra weight may have caused the wounded duck to hit the runway harder than was safe. But the pilot’s skill probably saved us by keeping the plane’s nose up, said my seat mate, despite the impact that could have flipped us end-over-end.

So I cancelled the television show that weekend, even though United Airlines offered to put me on the next plane to Los Angeles—once the runways were cleared.

There was no map of what we should or could do in those early days. But making the public aware of what was happening to our air and water was a priority. Administrator DeFalco wanted the public to know why we were here and what needed to be done to protect the environment.

It was the dawning of an awareness of how human activity affected the environment, of the growing danger of toxic chemicals that Silent Spring author Rachel Carson had written about. We would educate and inform the public about our mission.

Harlan Green © 2022

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen