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Even More Microtrends With Mark Penn

By Motley Fool Staff – Aug 27, 2018 at 3:16PM

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When too much of a health focus becomes unhealthy, the impressionability of the elites, and a few more microtrends that shape the world.

You probably heard Microtrends Squared author Mark Penn on Rule Breaker Investing earlier this week, sharing his thoughts on some of the trends that shape our world. But wait, there's more! In this weekend bonus episode, host David Gardner has Mark back on to talk about a few extra trends.

There are more cancer survivors than ever, and society doesn't seem to know what to do with them. Technology is rapidly changing the world around us, but politicians are still stuck on the issues from 50 years ago. Did Facebook (META 0.89%) make the right call bringing on thousands of new employees to curate their news? Tune in and hear what Mark has to say about all that, and much more.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Aug. 16, 2018.

David Gardner: It's the weekend! Thank you for joining us for this Rule Breaker Investing weekend extra! My conversation with Mark Penn earlier this week on Microtrends Squared covered many bases. I do want to put in a plug again for the book. It's a fun book to read. You're going to love it, if you haven't already. We could only cover just a scanty few of the many microtrends that he introduces in Microtrends Squared. In the interest of time, I couldn't cover all of his broad categories. I decided to take the Health and Diet portion and the Politics portion -- politics, especially, a world that he's mixed in and knows so well -- and I thought, let's have those, but we're going to park those into this weekend extra.

So, without further ado, the continuation of my conversation with Mark Penn. Again, I'll apologize ahead of time for any garbled cellphone moments that you might experience. It's not our best sound quality, but the quality of thought is what we're after.


Thanks for joining me for this special weekend extra! Mark Penn, author of Microtrends Squared, I know you enjoyed him on our earlier conversation this week. The biggest fans of that conversation are back for this one, our weekend extra, where I'm going to get to go back over the two sections of the book I skipped and ask Mark about a few of the microtrends that are really fun in the sections of Health and Diets and then, a place that he's lived a fair amount of his life, the section on Politics. That's where we're headed with this weekend extra.

Mark, welcome back! Mark, in your section on Health and Diets, like the other sections of your book, you have eight to ten trends within Health and Diets, which is itself such a big category today. So many magazines and websites devoted, in a way that I don't think humanity has ever been devoted before, to our own health and our diets.

What I wanted to start with is your No. 14 in your book, Wellness Freaks. Now, this is one of those slightly pejorative phrases that you've brought into the title. I thought this was pretty fun and pretty great, since I'm kind of a lazy slugabed couch potato, myself. I try to stay in decent shape, but I don't really have a regimen. I see really impressive regimens from people around me. Sometimes I even wonder, is that too much?

Mark Penn: Well, hopefully the people around you don't have orthorexia, which is a growing disease about people's obsessions around what they eat. It's usually combined with being a data junkie, in effect, a self-data lover. You put that together with Wellness Freaks, and you can freak out about what you're eating so much that actually, this becomes something that could even be harmful. The move to be healthful, to go into gluten-free products, to have kale over typical lettuce, to have things with more amino acids and more minerals and nutrients, can in fact go overboard. You can become really easily an obsessed Wellness Freak.

This chapter kind of says, "Look, a lot of this stuff has been great. We've seen heart disease go down, and we've seen a lot of benefits. But, taken to excess, you really have to watch out for it."

Gardner: Yeah. I guess that's true of anything, isn't it? Anything taken to excess, probably. I want to double underline the importance of wellness. I think it's very impressive, where humanity is today. Even though there's so much obesity still in America, and obviously so many things still to be fixed, it does seem like there are more people paying more attention to this kind of thing than I remember 30 years ago, when I was a kid. I'm sure you and I are both very admiring of people who run Ironman triathlons and go out and save the world, or at least their bodies and their health, through these kinds of efforts. These are some of the most impressive people I know.

Mark, in the book, you say, "Most people could use a little more exercise at the gym or a walk around the neighborhood. But once they start organizing their lives around exercise, it can instead become a source of anxiety and inadequacy rather than a cure for the ills of modern life."

Penn: Well, that's right. Then if you accidentally eat the wrong thing, you don't enough take steps, or you don't do everything you can get obsessive. What's happened with gluten-free food is very interesting. The truth of the matter is, gluten-free food, unless you have a sensitivity to gluten or you have a celiac disease, it typically will have more sugar. This has taken off as a wellness craze. Whereas this disease probably affects one in 10,000, almost one in 100 eats gluten-free foods. That's an example about how myth can overtake reality quite quickly in the arena of Wellness Freaks.

Gardner: That's astonishing. For every one person who really does need to eat gluten-free, there are approximately 99 others who don't need to but are ordering it, and maybe think that they need to, or maybe, in some cases, just like the taste or think, "Hey, why do we need the gluten anyway?" That's where we go beyond microtrends and we see macroeconomics going on. The economics around gluten-free are large -- in fact, your book helped me realize, much larger than I was realizing.

Penn: Yep. If you can get people to order something that's premium, which gluten-free is, even when they don't need it, and even when it doesn't benefit them, that is actually way to make considerable money. Look, on the bright side, yoga practitioners have doubled between 2008 and 2016. There's a whole new profession that almost really didn't exist 20 years ago. It's mushrooming because Americans want more meditation and more time spent in activities like yoga.

Gardner: That's tremendous. Well the one other microtrend I wanted to talk about in health is also a positive story. It's kind of an inevitable one with the progression of more and better cancer treatments. Microtrend No. 15: cancer survivors. You write that today, there are nearly 16 million cancer survivors in the United States. That's up from 12 million in 2008.

Penn: Yes. I count myself among that. I went through this, it's a personal experience, the incredible treatment you do get from Big Medicine when you do have something serious. It's interesting -- afterwards, you're not really identified as a class. People tend to hush it up. They don't really talk about it. It's something that happened in the past. And yet, many of the drugs and treatments and chemotherapies cause lasting damage. Generally, you want to have some way to express yourself or be understood as a cancer survivor. Frankly, I found, while there's National Cancers Survivors Day, there really isn't much. No clubs. I don't even get any solicitations. Thank you, you don't have to solicit me after this podcast. I think it's quite interesting that people neither recognize the continued problems with the treatment, don't treat them as a class. And, of course, when you have a life-threatening experience, that can have long-lasting emotional impact that typically goes completely untreated.

Gardner: One of the interesting meta-narratives that runs through your book is, how many of these microtrends are domestic, for U.S. Americans, and then, how many of them are actually showing up other places globally, or, in fact, are some of these global microtrends? How do you view Americans' approach to cancer vs. other countries?

Penn: In the book generally, I tried to isolate trends that you could find generally applicable in a lot of different countries. I think you're going to see the very same thing in most developed and advanced countries, where there is a high level of cancer detection and treatment that is saving lives. I think, generally, in the book, we look for exceptions to these trends. But you'll see the world goes from the least developed countries to the most developed countries, and the trends tend to reverberate through about three quarters of the world.

The one thing I found, here, we have so many more single women than single men in their 60s. And yet, if I take a look at China, because of the one child policy, they'll have exactly the opposite. But outside of things like this, you'll find the book applies to most cultures reaching similar stages of economic and technological development.

Gardner: From there, let's go to the final section we'll be discussing from your books. Mark, this is the only one I haven't touched yet. It's the one this podcast tends to touch least, because I'm not really a particularly political person, even though I'm a Washington, D.C. native. I know that you helped Bill Clinton get elected. Some people listening right now are overjoyed by that, and some people are thinking, "Oh, I wish that hadn't happened." That said, though I don't watch TV, when I look at some of your recent television credits, you seem to be on Fox News more than anything else. It seems like, clearly you have a foot in both worlds. I like that approach, too. I try to have a foot in both worlds, and maybe a third foot in the world of being independent, as well.

Anyway, Mark, before we get into the two microtrends that I want to feature within your Politics section, I'm quoting you from when I heard you speak recently. You said, "Politicians are basically speaking to and living in a world 20 to 50 years ago," Now, I think I've quoted you right. If I did, could you explain a little bit more of your thinking there?

Penn: Well, look at the issues that you see politicians talking about. Typically, they're talking about factory jobs, they're talking about immigration, they're talking about income redistribution. They're not talking about the gig economy. They're not talking about technology advancing people. We had a little bit of discussion of privacy for a day when Mark Zuckerberg went up before Congress, but we could see that most of those people in Congress were not really capable of asking questions that they knew the substance of, so they couldn't really follow up on them. It's really surprising, the extent to which we live in a cutting-edge, technology-based society, particularly for young people now, going in and coming out of college. We really have, with our political class, a bunch of 60-70-year olds who knows very little about technology, very little about the new emerging issues, and so tend to talk about the same things that people talked about in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Gardner: It's true. I think, in part, it's true because technology does just keep progressing, and, arguably, speeding up. And yet, with an increasingly large federal government and lot of bureaucracy, as a fellow Washington D.C. guy, you and I see the big buildings everywhere. It's just fundamentally hard for the bureaucracy to keep up with what's happening, especially when what's happening is speeding up. Had I written a Microtrends book 10 years ago, I probably would have said something like this. As somebody who just loves technology, that's just part of my worldview. It's almost like you can't keep up with it, and it's only going to get faster, so clearly the world's going to need to change some more.

Penn: Well, I love technology, but in Microtrends Squared, I'm a little weary of unfettered technological development, without ethical codes, without a full understanding of the implications. As I always say, if I have a driverless car, and the driverless car is going to make a choice between killing me or killing the pedestrian, I at least want to know what the choice is going to be.

We don't understand, I think, the emerging power of technology and its ability to make for us important ethical decisions, to restructure the labor force, to deal with how things are sold and not sold fairly. I've found that most of these issues are unaddressed. They aren't addressed because they developed in the last five years, really. Technology was too small in its first 20 years, and the PC didn't raise as many issues as AI and Big Data are really raising. We're going to have to deal with these, I think, sooner than later.

Gardner: Alright, the two microtrends I want to feature on this podcast and hear more from you on, let's start with No. 35. You've already spoken to it a little bit. It's old economy voters.

Penn: For every [inaudible], and for the tremendous growth of voters who I call Silicon Valley voters, the voters who asserted themselves in the last election were the old economy voters. What happened was, when I left working for President Clinton, there were about 20 million manufacturing jobs. It stabilized during Clinton's presidency. During the next two presidencies, it declined to 11 million, leaving an enormous number of disenfranchised, unemployed households who had political power, but were losing and had lost their economic power. Well, through the Trump candidacy, they reasserted it. The old economy voters from Indiana through the Pennsylvania were the decisive factor, I think, in this election.

Gardner: You wrote, "Following NAFTA and the start of that new millennium, manufacturing jobs" as you just said, "plummeted. The numbers were not just true of the U.S.," where you mentioned they basically halved down to about 10 million. The same thing happening, of course, in other countries, as well, per our earlier point in this conversation. In the U.K., manufacturing jobs have gone from four million in 2000 to 2.6 million in 2010. That was just ten years later. I'm not sure what they are in 2018. This is an inevitable thing. In the chapter, you're speaking to how grey power has beaten out millennial power in the most recent election in this country, arguably; but it seems as if that wouldn't be a long-term bet to make.

Penn: Well, but, when we talk about having success with the [inaudible], it's because the number of people over 65 is growing and growing. And when John F. Kennedy was elected, people 18 to 29 overpowered and outnumbered people over 65 by two-to-one. Today, it's one-to-one, and this is going to continue to tilt in a direction where older voters are going to have more political power than younger voters. Unless there's significant immigration, the trend of there being more and more old people relative to people 18 to 29, that is the whole underpinning of the Social Security crisis. Immigrants are usually at a younger age, and that would change the age structure. Absent that, expect old people to be wielding a lot more political power in the future.

Gardner: I guess I'm talking out both sides of my mouth here. You're right, it is true, and it's happened. Later in the chapter, you do say, "The stabilization once again of manufacturing jobs will last decades as a pivotal vote. The numbers are diminishing in the long run, but they could again be powerful in the next round of elections. More important, they're not to be dismissed as deplorable." I really like this point. I want to quote you in the book here. "These Americans," those who, in this case, we'll say, I'm presuming you're talking about those who voted for Trump, you said, "These Americans are hardworking, family and religion-oriented people who have had their ears boxed by globalization and technology." What I like about your line there is, you do have a moderate view of things. I'm more of a centrist, myself. I think that you're really saying something that needs to be said.

Penn: I appreciate that. I've always been a centrist Democrat. I'm disappointed that these voters left the Democratic Party because they didn't think they had a voice for their values, or people who were listening to their economic condition. As Hillary said one day, I think inadvertently, she encapsulated the election, she said the half of the country that voted for her had two thirds of the GDP. They were living really well. They were the innovation sector, she said. Well, the half that voted for him was living on only one third of the GDP. And that made for an angry brew of voters who said, "Hey, we have been neglected." And they spoke up.

Gardner: At the end of that chapter, I'm going to quote you here, because you're talking about the importance of, in this case, getting out of our holes, getting out of the cities and suburbs where so many of us live today. You write, "We need to encourage every rising cloistered college student to take a trip one summer, not to Israel or France, but across America for six weeks. We have become so siloed that Americans simply don't know America."

Penn: Yes. There's a program called Birthright that takes American Jews to Israel. I think we need American Birthright. I think every American should take a bus tour or train tour for three or four weeks and see the rest of the country. Only by understanding the parts of America that we don't experience, that we don't live in, will we really understand what it is like to be in the United States of America. I think it could be very powerful.

Gardner: Thank you for that! The last microtrend we'll talk about on this special weekend extra is No. 38. I think you make a really interesting point about what you call elites. It's not a word I use that often. People do use that word a lot around Washington. I guess it means people who are well-to-do, people who are the thought leaders or the business leaders of our time. This microtrend, No. 38, impressionable elites revisited. I think you're revisiting it, because I think in your first book, which I've not read, from ten years ago, you were talking about them then. The irony to me that you inject here into this chapter and into your work is that the so-called elites, as it turns out, in many ways, seem to be more gullible or impressionable than people who are not as elite. You'd think they'd be far more discriminating. But Mark, that's not your view.

Penn: Well, this started when I was working with Hillary, and people would come up to me and say, "If only you'd make Hillary more likeable, I'd vote for her." That was typically a well-educated PhD. If somebody came up to me and said, "Oh, Mark, if you would just make her healthcare plan more about cost instead of coverage, I'd be inclined to vote for her," that would be a middle-class voter. Then I realized this pattern. Middle-class voters actually did have healthcare, paid it sometimes, understood the plans. The elites had gotten so far removed from the problems that they would be talking about likability, things that no one who really had deep issues would care about. Our whole model has been flipped around. The most educated, who are supposed to be the most logical, the most fact-based, actually turn out to be the most impressionable. I mean, I [inaudible] agency geared toward supplying talking points to elites.

Our society is being turned upside down with the fact that elites can be so impressionable. I see this phenomenon of impressionable elites playing itself out in the Trump-Russia investigations. I'll sit down sometimes with someone who's got a medical and a health degree, and they'll explain to me elaborately how Donald Trump does money laundering along with his son, [inaudible]. I'll say, "What's the evidence for that?" And they'll say, "Well, it's just absolutely true. They'll find it eventually."

It's very interesting, because normally, I expect those people who believe something to have evidence, and for those who believe to be a subset of the people who see evidence. Lately, I see a lot of people trusting in their beliefs, they'll have a belief even though there's no evidence. And that is really surprising.

Gardner: In the chapter, you write, "Rather than thinking more independently, impressionable elites instead trust even more a chorus conducted by the media and think tanks. Middle and working-class American voters, in contrast, are connected very closely in their everyday lives to the issues, so they base their judgments not on talking points, but on the facts on the ground."

Penn: And you see this playing itself out in politics, and the battles that we have over culture, and in the issues that people consider important. I wish I had an antidote to it. Right now, [inaudible] I think a very important observation that more people have to be aware of. What you see, particularly in the last election, is a split, perhaps, less between Republicans and Democrats in many ways, and more between the elites and non-elites. The non-elites reasserted and took back their political power, saying, "You elites, you've been running things for quite some time now, and the cities are no better, we've had pointless wars, we've had bank crashes. Maybe we're going to take some power back." I think that's what happened.

Gardner: We're going to leave it right there. We went through the six sections of your book. Mark, you were very gracious in sharing two from each of those sections. We've been through 12 microtrends together. That means there are 38 others we didn't really get to speak to. If anybody has not yet read your book, I hope they're deeply interested in doing so. Every one of the microtrends, especially for investors and entrepreneurs, is so worthy of consideration. A lot of them are just fun.

I wanted to close, Mark, with maybe a thought or two from you about Facebook. When I heard you speak recently, you were talking some about how Facebook made an interesting strategic choice that's changed our society in some ways. It's changed, maybe, the last election -- sticking with politics as we close. Facebook deciding to become a news source. It started as a social media platform. But with the introduction of news becoming a significant thing for Facebook. I feel like I'm speaking to one of the experts in the world that I could be asking this question of. Mark, do you think that Facebook should have gone into news? And going forward, what should Facebook be doing?

Penn: Well, I think Facebook should have said, "We are a platform. We are specifically exempt from the content that we carry. We will get rid of fake accounts. We will make sure that there's proper disclosure on political ads. But we're not going to get into censorship and regulating content, except for that content which the Supreme Court would rule unconstitutional." I think, if they had said that, and imposed some community standards on any content that suggests imminent violence, and stayed at that point, they would not have lost users or had their stock decline. We are a First Amendment society and they would have backed the First Amendment. Instead, every time they would say something like that -- and I think Mark Zuckerberg is on the record as saying, "We're not going to knock off Holocaust deniers." He retreated from that position quite quickly when someone said, "You mean you're not going to knock off Holocaust deniers?! You're going to let that on your platform?" And he should have said, "Yes, because you know what? We're a First Amendment country, and there are a lot of people on my platform who believe in the Holocaust, and that's the way it plays out. That's the choice we've made." Instead, they're hiring 10,000-20,000 people to censor. That is a huge mistake. It's cutting into the value of what they're doing. Rather than becoming a news distributor themselves, they should have maintained themselves as an open platform, standing behind the First Amendment.

Gardner: Well, I know we have some Facebook employees listening. I'm sure they've heard this from you before. They didn't need to hear it through this podcast. But, Mark, thank you for saying that! And thank you for all your insights.!It's been a true pleasure, spending time with you.

Penn: Thank you very much!

Gardner: While don't talk a lot of politics on this show, I don't think I ever will, one of the things I've said in the past on this show is that I'm not a big fan of the big block political parties. They tend to pit people against each other. You're either with the blues -- tapping back into my Charles Dickens, reading The Pickwick Papers, which I've done before on this podcast -- you're with the blues or you're with the buffs. You have to be one or the other. If you're with the one, you don't like the other. I don't like that. I was really pleased to hear, in our time together with Mark, that he's a fellow centrist. I'm sure he does party affiliate more than I do, but I really appreciate that, because I think that the center is what needs to strengthen so much in our society -- not just the United States today, but the world. Not as big a fan of the fringes, especially ones that are very, very strong and not particularly interested in working with anybody beyond their strong, diverse viewpoints. I appreciated that moderate voice that Mark brought to the show.

Alright, just a reminder, we've got a Rule Breaker Investing mailbag coming up next week. You still have time before Monday. That's usually when we comb through what's in the mailbag. If you want to drop us a note, [email protected] is the email address, or tweet at us @RBIPodcast. You might be included in this coming week's mailbag. Remember, we're particularly focusing on submissions that were about any of the books or authors we featured on this special month, Authors in August in Rule Breaker Investing. Have a great weekend! Fool on!

David Gardner owns shares of Facebook. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Facebook. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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