Economist Chris Kuehl of Armada Corporate Intelligence served up equal portions of caution, hope and humor on Friday at the quarterly Independence Economic Development luncheon last week.

Economist Chris Kuehl of Armada Corporate Intelligence served up equal portions of caution, hope and humor on Friday at the quarterly Independence Economic Development luncheon last week.

You know all that talk about the “new normal” in the economy? Well, look around. This is pretty much it, he said. He rejects the idea of a quick return to recession but also says we’re probably looking at a couple more years of  “this long, grinding, slow” recovery.

After all of the bubbles and busts – tech, dot.com, housing – of the last decade, key economic levels are basically back to where they were a decade ago, he said.

“There was not job growth throughout the boom period of that decade,” he pointed out.

What’s that about? In a word, innovation. Let’s start with cell phones or, more accurately, those amazingly smart devices with thousands of apps to order your entire world and, oh yeah, can function as a phone, too. One effect is business people can do their own scheduling, etc., and that’s why demand for administrative assistants is down 75 percent in recent years. It used to be that every partner and probably every associate at a law firm would have an administrative assistant. Now that ratio is more like one to seven. Elsewhere, manufacturers have significantly improved the automation of materials handling, eliminating a lot of low-wage, high-turnover jobs.

In other words, a good number of jobs that have disappeared in recent years are gone forever, and they went away because technology changed, not because the economy dipped.

“This is not economic unemployment. It’s structural,” Kuehl said.

Kuehl, who also serves as an economist for several groups in the Kansas City area, said economists can talk all day about gross domestic product, purchasing managers indices or any other economic measure of choice but the only facts and figures people focus on are jobs, “the be-all and end-all in economics” as many see it, he said. That isn’t made any easier by the fact that measuring employment is incredibly tricky. Who’s settling for part-time work when they really need a full-time job? Who’s actively looking for work – and therefore measured by the government – and who has given up? Who’s officially unemployed but getting paid under the table?

“There’s an awful lot of people working off the books,” he said.

So let’s find something hopeful in all of this.

“No. 1, we’re not going to double dip,” he said.

In economistspeak, “double dip” refers to the on-again, off-again talk on Wall Street and elsewhere about whether we’ll slide back into a second recession.

Kuehl rejects that, pointing to the second quarter’s GDP growth of 2.4 percent if you stretched it out over a year. Is that great? No. Healthy? No. Sustainable? No.

“But it’s not recessionary either,” he said.

He also underlined what others have noted, that the Kansas City area and the Midwest generally have ridden this out with less pain and less dislocation than other parts of the country. Think of the housing bubbles in Florida and California, just to take two prominent examples. Throw in Illinois and you’ve got a good start on what Kuehl called the states struggling with “how not to become the Greece of the United States.”

This part of the country didn’t go in for the excess and therefore has less of a mess to clean up. Friday’s luncheon, for example, included a major announcement of plans for a business park in Independence – the kind of conversation Kuehl assured the audience wasn’t occurring in Las Vegas these days.

“The Midwest of kind of coming into its own in a sense. ... Kansas City wasn’t as badly hurt as everyone else,” he said, and he added that Kansas City is “one of the most entrepreneurial cities in the country.”

So if you don’t want to move to the state with the lowest jobless rate – North Dakota, 3.2 percent – where rumor has it that it gets cold in the winter, then Kansas City just might do.

And the humor from Kuehl? This one isn’t bad, given the state of things. How many economists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Wait for it.

It takes none. It’s getting brighter, really.



Bed and breakfast to reopen

The Woodstock Inn is reopening this fall after being closed for about a year.

Kim Morgan bought the Independence bed and breakfast out of foreclosure, closing on the deal last month. Morgan lives and works in Naples, Italy, as a teacher but has close local ties. “It’s where my soul and my spirit are,” she says.

She and others have been working at renovating the bed and breakfast and getting ready to reopen.

“But we’re going to start very slow,” she said.

For example, drawing on the building’s history, she plans a “doll and quilt weekend” and other themed weekends, starting possibly in October.

“We’re deep in remodeling right now,” she said.

Morgan is busy with all kinds of things, including self-publishing a series of novels centered on the Frankincense Trail of biblical times in the Middle East and Africa. The most recent is “Angels and Enemies.” Read more at www.kcmorgan.net.