As I write this, I note the date is exactly one year to the day since I became editor of the Illinois Business Journal.
If you think a lot has happened during that time, you would be right, for me personally and the world at large.
In September 2013, for instance, none of us had ever heard of ISIS. We also felt comfortable using our debit card at Home Depot. We weren’t too concerned about disease in the Homeland. And anything called the “Mystery of Flight 370” had to be Hollywood fiction, right?
And yet, a year later, here we are, pondering the imponderables: The world is at war against terror; the citizenry is falling victim to data breaches; the country is concerned about Ebola entering our shores, and the public continues to be enrapt over a jet missing for months in the Indian Ocean.
Call it craziness with consequence. This is as turbulent a time as I can remember in journalism, and my news days date all the way back to 1979 when we had another Democratic president with a Mideast crisis of his own. And a brother named Billy.
It’s hard not to reflect upon the world at large while I’m thinking about my own, tiny part of it. Yet, despite all the unprecedented weirdness of the past 365 days and all the things that people could be asking me about, there is one question I’ve been asked repeatedly in my year at the paper. It tops all others, and I hear it at lunches, at gatherings, at parties and during interviews. Simply, it’s:
“Do you think the economy is getting better?”
I’ve gotten the question so often, it no longer surprises me. With so much of the world in chaos and so many things that could be worrying people, everybody everywhere still wants to know about the bottom line.
To think they’d be asking me for an opinion is as much gratifying as it is discomforting. I’m proud that people think I would know the answer but worried that I might get it wrong. People wouldn’t ask me if they weren’t genuinely concerned.
Truth is, most of what I know I get from the news, just like most people. And I worry like everybody else. History shows economies as cyclical in nature, but none of us is expert enough to say with any certainty when that cycle is going to start going up and when it is going to start coming down.
But all of us knows what’s in our wallet, and for us, that’s what counts.
If you’re a positive sort, there are good signs at present. Since I became editor of this paper the market has hit record territory 39 times, during a genuinely chaotic year. Joblessness is down. Bank profits are up. Household debt is decreasing.
Sadly, there is a down side. Housing starts are down. Durable goods consumption is off. Business investment is weak.
Any avid follower of the news knows most of this, but there is plenty of analysis available if you’re unsure. Depending on your political leanings, you can hear pretty much what you want to hear, if you flip TV channels long enough.
I put great stock in numbers, but even that disciplined denizen of data, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, sent out a mixed message in its most recent economic recap. Nearly half of businesses contacted in our region said they expected local economic conditions to improve over the second half of 2014, the Fed said.
Of course, that means somewhere around 50 percent felt just the opposite.
With that kind of uncertainty there’s only one thing I’m sure about: Is it any wonder that this has been such a crazy year?
Dennis Grubaugh is editor and partner of the Illinois Business Journal.