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Listening Tour

Irwin M. Stelzer

The itinerant sing-for-your-supper bunch who travel the country sharing wisdom for a fee have a dirty little secret. As a member of the fraternity, I have found that I learn as much as I teach, maybe more, during speaking engagements. But don’t tell those who hand over rather large sums of money to hear what we have to say, lest the groups that host us reverse current practice and charge us a fee.

I recently gave a talk on the economic outlook to a luncheon group of women CEOs, most of whom started and now run small-to-medium-sized companies. Hardworking risk-takers, many hanging on by their fingernails in recent years, they have yet to feel the effects of the economic recovery that has been creeping along for many months. But they are optimistic about their prospects, if only … If only the government doesn’t do them in before they can get on firmer financial ground. When I explained that a rise in the minimum wage just might create added purchasing power, I almost lost my chance to eat a rather nice dessert. To a woman, they laid out financial data showing the adverse effects a higher minimum wage would have on their puny profit margins. It reminded me that macroeconomic policy can have unwanted microeconomic consequences. These women kindly did not charge me for the reminder, or for the more important lesson that there is an emerging group of entrepreneurs who want the government to help them—by leaving them alone.

Then I gave a dinner talk on immigration in Arizona, a conservative state where people know a thing or two about the subject from personal experience. No one in my audience believed that there are only 11 million illegals in America—the word “undocumented” was never used—and almost all complained about that, except one businessman who said that without illegals we wouldn’t have food on our plates. Almost everyone, meanwhile, expressed fondness for “their illegal”—hardworking, family-loving, deserving of an opportunity to make a better life, and therefore not to be burdened with producing a green card when cleaning their pool or watering their garden. Americans might grumble, but in the end we are generous, eager to offer a hand up.

On to Pebble Beach and a talk to a group of hoteliers that includes 600 individual owners in more than 85 countries, clustered under the banner of the Preferred Hotel Group. It seems that it is not necessary to have a huge chain of hotels in order to reap economies of scale in advertising. The Ueberroth family—Pete, you remember, chaired an Olympic committee that had no need for government funding, then was commissioner of baseball—lured these feisty hotel-owning entrepreneurs into the Preferred tent by enabling them to obtain supplies on better terms, develop more effective advertising, establish an international frequent-guest program, and learn from each other new tricks of the trade.

These hoteliers know something we don’t: The idea of family is not dying in America. Data gathered for Preferred Hotels by travel-industry researchers suggest there is life left in the old institution. More than three out of four grandparents surveyed reported that their travel is now multi-generational—it includes their children and grandchildren. And it sure is a kid-dominated world: Seventy-seven percent of grandparents say their grandchildren influenced the choice of daily activities, and 62 percent that the kids influenced the destination, which may be why Orlando (yawn) tops the list of domestic destinations, while Las Vegas ranks second.

Final lesson: The world is supposed to be a fraught place for millennials, the roughly 80 million people between the ages of 18 and 34. Their student debt is so burdensome that taxpayers must take it over lest gloom descend on these young adults, the largest age cohort in America. The hoteliers’ research tells a different story. A larger portion of millennials (80 percent) than any other age group is optimistic about their jobs, the future of the country and the world, and their children’s futures. My first guess was that this is because these young adults have yet to confront teenage children of their own. But then I did a bit of digging and found that, “compared with young adults in 1989, young [employed] adults in 2013 [had lower net worth but] were more likely to own homes, stocks… and less likely to have high debt payments than older adults [or] young adults in 1989 and … 2001.”

We speakers can learn a lot by listening—by staying around to mingle instead of dashing for a plane. And the lessons are a bonus, free for the taking. Not a bad deal.

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