Living in Trump’s America: A West Virginia town looks for a fresh start

No matter what time of day it is, Phil Remke, the ebullient vice mayor of this West Virginia river town of 8,700, salutes every constituent the same way: “Top of the morning to ya.”

It is still early enough in Trump’s America for supporters like Mr. Remke to hope that the president can carry more of the fantasies he spun into triumph, and late enough to get a sense of what is actually happening.

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For Mr. Remke, a burly 64-year-old lifelong resident of Moundsville, W.Va., father of three, husband, churchgoer, businessman and politician, Mr. Trump remains a godsend. “He’s a businessman, like me,” he says. “I just wish the media would leave him alone, because what he’s doing is working.”

Photo: John W. Miller
For Phil Remke, the vice mayor of Moundsville, Trump remains a godsend: “He’s a businessman, like me.” (Photo: John W. Miller)

Moundsville’s mythology of a mighty economic past rings so true that it is obvious why Donald J. Trump, and his special brand of nostalgia, crushed Hillary Clinton on election night in Marshall County, 73 percent to 22 percent. And President Trump, says Mr. Remke, is validating his vote. “Look at the stock market since the election,” he says. “He’s all about business.”

The question for Mr. Remke, Moundsville and thousands of other small American towns dreaming of a better life under Mr. Trump, is what kind of business. Moundsville, while in decline, has never matched the picture of the opioid-riddled rusting hell Mr. Trump painted in his inauguration tirade about “American carnage.” There is life here. Things work. Unemployment in the county is a palatable 5.7 percent.

Moundsville, while in decline, has never been nearly as bad as the picture of rusting hell Mr. Trump painted in his inauguration address.

But a year into the Trump era, town leaders are facing the truth that, even with Mr. Trump’s pro-business policies, they will never be able to turn back the clock to a community built on stable, lucrative factory jobs. Instead, their fight is making sense of the economy they have and how it is upending people’s social, cultural and spiritual lives.

That reality is a less stable and smaller economy based on the three pillars of energy, services and tourism. The Moundsville area has a coal mine, gas wells, a Walmart, a prison, a hospital and two tourist attractions—an former state penitentiary and the Native-American burial mound for which the town is named.

Job offerings at those places are a tough sell to many young people with skill and ambition. “At some point, they started leaving, or going into the military,” says Stan Stewart, a former school administrator and teacher.

With fewer skills in the workforce, companies hesitate to invest in manufacturing plants and instead create service jobs that require minimal job training and skills. Many workers are transient, which makes it harder to maintain social clubs and church communities. Newspaper readership in the United States is in decline; there is less shared knowledge, creating openings for divisive politicians.

A City of Commerce

The roots of commerce run deep here. Moundsville, nestled along the Ohio River between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, is named for a 60-foot high burial mound built by the Adena, a prehistoric people that roamed the Ohio Valley 2,500 years ago. Archeological digs suggest they imported marine shells from the Gulf Coast, copper from the Upper Midwest and flint to make spears from all around Appalachia.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, ease of access to lumber, coal, limestone, clay and other raw materials boosted new businesses catering to the rich markets of a booming young country. The list of things once made here is eye-popping: steel, aluminum, shoes, brooms, whips for buggies, bricks, cookware, glass, pottery, guns, clothes, fencing. Even airplanes. After the Fokker Aircraft plant closed, Louis Marx and Company in the 1930s turned it into the world’s largest toy factory. There were so many jobs here that old-timers like to say you could get laid off at the steel mill on a Monday and get hired at the toy factory on a Tuesday.

Then, starting in the late 1970s, it all came crashing down. Families got tired of running their shops and factories, or they could not compete against the chains moving in. Markets dried up or became saturated. Foreign competitors made goods more cheaply and gained access to U.S. markets by new trade deals. Since 1980, Moundsville has lost an estimated 7,720 jobs, according to the local Chamber of Commerce.

Photo: John W. Miller
Catherine Frame, a retired middle school teacher, has watched her three children leave Moundsville.

Catherine Frame, a retired middle school teacher, watched her three children leave. One is an artist in Kansas City, one an F.B.I. agent in eastern West Virginia, and one works in technology in California. “If you go to Kansas City for art, or California for high-tech, you might be the same person, but you’re going to lose your community roots,” she says.

As in other small towns, it was hard in Moundsville not to feel betrayed by company managers in Pittsburgh, bankers in New York and politicians in Washington.

Then came Donald J. Trump, pitching a message of economic restoration.

Local jobs are a tough sell to young people with skill and ambition.

His vows to bring back factory jobs to places like Moundsville were mostly unrealistic, say economists and business leaders. “Places like that just don’t have a comparative advantage in making stuff anymore,” says Ken Troske, a professor of economics at the University of Kentucky. “Often, the right economic thing to do is for young people with skills to leave and find the jobs they want in bigger cities.”

Ironically, that often leaves behind a labor shortage. There is one manufacturing plant left in the Moundsville area, a plant that makes caps for jars of cosmetics, pickles and other consumer goods. Even though pay starts at $20 an hour, “it’s a challenge to find labor right now because of the pipelines going in and people wanting to work in the gas business,” says Bob Macosko, local director of sales for Tecnocap, the Italian company that owns the plant. The cap factory has 140 jobs. The pipeline jobs are farther out of town but are pursued by locals, Mr. Macosko says.

Coal Country

The area where Mr. Trump’s pledges are most rooted in reality is the state’s legendary tradition of mining coal, where looser regulations allow companies to cut costs and boost output. The Marshall County Mine near Moundsville is the area’s biggest employer, with 832 workers, many of whom make annual salaries of around $80,000, says Gary Broadbent, a spokesman for Murray Energy, which owns the facility. The mine is now running at almost full production, he says.

West Virginia produced around 90 million tons of coal last year, up from 80 million in 2016, an uptick most analysts and coal leaders credit to the Trump administration. But that is down from a peak of 156 million tons in 2008, and it is not expected to increase much.

To be sure, coal is not the employment bonanza it used to be. The implementation of automatic machinery, like so-called longwall machines, led to cuts in employment, from 100,000 jobs in 1950 to 25,000 in 2008 and around 14,000 today. Mines have become much more capital intensive and high-tech, says John Deskins, an economist at West Virginia University. “Miners became people who operated big pieces of equipment and machinery,” he says.

Coal is not the employment bonanza it used to be.

Coal mining in West Virginia in this decade has been challenged partly by the Obama administration’s enforcement of environmental laws, and also by the development of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of natural gas in the late 2000s, which ushered in an era of abundant gas production, undercutting coal by price and forcing coal-fired power plants out of business.

Photo: John W. Miller
Moundsville is ringed by clusters of camper vans housing “pipeliners”—workers who travel around the country for jobs in the gas industry.

Drive up into the hills and hollows surrounding Moundsville and you see the glint of pipes snaking gas from wells to processing plants. Town leaders say they dream of new foreign investment and hope to build an industry that makes subsidiary products. In November President Trump signed a preliminary deal with China to invest $83.7 billion in gas, power and chemical projects in West Virginia over 20 years, but few specifics have been released, so nobody knows if Moundsville could benefit.

There is one manufacturing plant left in the Moundsville area, a plant that makes caps for jars of cosmetics, pickles and other consumer goods.

There is also excited talk of a new plant that the Thailand-based company PTT has discussed building on a bluff across the river in Belmont County, Ohio. This would inject billions of dollars into the local economy and create thousands of jobs, say town leaders. PTT says it is interested in building a so-called cracker plant, which “cracks” molecules of ethane into plastic.

Despite all the hype, the cracker plant could also be just another fantasy. In an email, Dan Williamson, spokesman for PTT, writes that he must “emphasize that it is only a potential ​project at this stage,” although “the company is working diligently.” The “numbers that have been shared to date,” he adds, “are that it would employ thousands of people in the construction phase and hundreds of people on a permanent basis after the plant is operational.” A “final investment decision” is due by the end of 2018, after a feasibility study, the company says.

A Priest’s Ministry

Already, Moundsville is ringed by clusters of sleek camper vans housing “pipeliners”—engineers, maintenance men and drivers who travel around the country working in the gas industry.

Two pipeliners, Richard and Jamie Boudreaux, from Chacahoula, La., moved to Moundsville a couple of years ago. Traveling around the country, it is difficult to find community, says Jamie Boudreaux. “You don’t always get groups and churches welcoming you.” They found a community home at Moundsville’s St. Francis Church, and a friend in its leader. That is because Moundsville does have this going for it as it copes with a changing economy and community: a good priest.

Attendance at the church is down to a few hundred a week, mostly older people. They come to listen to Father That Son Ngoc Nguyen. The priest suggests turning the greying population of decaying American towns into a strength. “Young people could admire and follow how spiritual their older generation is,” he says.

Photo: John W. Miller
Father That Son Ngoc Nguyen says people in Appalachia “feel betrayed” and that it is “up to churches to offer community.”

The bouncy 56-year-year diocesan priest grew up in Vietnam during the war and, when he emigrated to the United States, was sponsored by a family in West Virginia. It was seeing human suffering up close during the Vietnam War that fostered his vocation, he says. Father Nguyen compares West Virginia to Vietnam. People in Appalachia “feel betrayed,” he says. “Companies moved out, and there was no infrastructure.” It was “up to churches to offer community,” he says.

Parishioners “are constantly telling me that the media should leave Trump alone so he can do his job,” says Father Nguyen. “I don’t really talk politics, I’m Vietnamese, and in a communist country we’re not used to talking about politics.”

The priest names the erosion of genuine human connection caused by technology as the main culprit in declining church attendance and subsequent decisions, like the parish closing its last Catholic school this past summer. “Jesus didn’t say you’re going to have Steve Jobs to deal with,” he says. “People are becoming impersonal.”

Ministry in places like Appalachia poses particular challenges, says William Portier, a professor of theology at the University of Dayton in Ohio. “People in those regions have a massive and growing distrust in all institutions, except for the military,” he says. “Without community, belonging to a church and taking the sacraments becomes a series of isolated, individual choices, and that makes the church more vulnerable.”

The decline in community bonds is felt most painfully by socially active residents like Andrea Keller, the cultural program coordinator at the museum next to the Adena burial mound, the town’s grandest tourist draw. The conical hill draws over 12,000 visitors a year. The museum, located in a low-slung concrete building, houses West Virginia’s state archaeological collection, including tips of 10,000-year-old spears made out of rock, and the bones of mammoths, mastodons and giant ground sloths that roamed West Virginia 10,000 years ago.

Photo: John W. Miller
The Adena burial mound, one of two tourist attractions in Moundsville

Ms. Keller says she has noticed the disintegration of community in Moundsville in the three social organizations she belongs to, including a gardening club. “It’s becoming hard to get enough people to organize anything,” she says. “And there are barely any young people left at all.”

Across the street from the mound is the hulking fortress-like prison, built in 1866 and closed in 1995. Buses full of school groups and tourists parade through its cramped cell blocks and gawk at Old Sparky, its old electric chair.

Townspeople welcome the dollars that tourism draws in, but they worry about its volatility. “It’s not like a big factory, where you have jobs all year round,” says Susan Board, manager of the local airport. The transient nature of the new economy is jarring to a place like Moundsville, “where people lived on the land for generations, and want to really know who you are before they trust you,” she says.

Some in Moundsville say the burial mound could draw even more tourists by playing off tales of paranormal and alien influences, but Ms. Keller emphasizes the sacredness of the area. “We have to maintain our integrity,” she says. “It is a grave site.”

Walmart Comes to Town

Moundsville faced another ethical commercial dilemma in the 1990s, when Walmart sought to build a store. The winning argument was that it would bring in shoppers from Ohio and Pennsylvania. On a recent Tuesday night, the parking lot was packed with people streaming in to chase bargains like boxes of spaghetti for a dollar, tomato sauce for $1.17, and Christmas sweaters made in China for $7.49—all lower prices, when adjusted for inflation, than they could have dreamed of a generation ago. The Walmart offers jobs for a couple of hundred people, who make $9 an hour to start, say employees. They describe it as an easy job to get when you first get to town. Walmart did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Remke, the recently elected vice mayor intent on attracting new business, incarnates many of the trends affecting Moundsville. A lifelong resident, his dad was a retail businessman and ran a furniture and appliance store that Mr. Remke took over in 1982, and closed in 2008, partly because of the arrival of Walmart.

“At first we didn’t support them moving in, but then we realized it was coming no matter what,” he says. “It really is great you can buy anything there.”

Mr. Remke helped turn the prison into a tourist attraction after it closed in 1995. In 2008 he started a medical supplies companies he closed in 2014 because, he says, of the rising costs of Obamacare. And his son is a coal miner at the Marshall County Mine. “He’d be out of a job if it weren’t for Trump,” he says. Economists and coal companies say the assertion is partly founded. Mr. Broadbent of Murray Energy says the Trump administration “has taken several vitally important actions to protect” American coal jobs.

Even Phil Remke, the vice mayor, does not think bringing back factory jobs is a realistic goal. 

Mr. Remke, who wears a hat that says “FBI Jesus,” an acronym for Firm Believer in Jesus, has drifted away from the Catholicism of his youth. He now goes to church twice on Sundays, once at St. Francis and a second time at the Vineyard, an evangelical church in Wheeling. He likes the video screens and the “updated” music. The Catholic Church, he says, “just isn’t moving with the times; it’s an older generation and they don’t want the rock and roll types.”

As for Moundsville, even Mr. Remke does not think bringing back factory jobs is a realistic goal. “Everything is too automated these days; they don’t hire enough people,” he says. Mr. Remke says a more realistic proposition is bringing in hotels that will pay well enough to force Walmart to raise wages, more gas-related projects, small businesses and high-tech firms.

His political idol, he says, is Richard Caliguiri, a mayor of Pittsburgh who in the 1980s saw the erosion of the steel industry and presided over conversations about transforming that city into something else.

“Caliguiri started the process of turning a steel town into a high-tech town,” says Mr. Remke. “I don’t see why we can’t do the same thing.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Randal Agostini
8 months 2 weeks ago

Why is it that every liberal thought associated with "Trump" automatically has to be pessimistic. The beauty in God's creation is that while we are all different, we are meant to be complimentary. Liberals always seem to portray themselves as superior, holding the high ground, which leaves conservatives like myself feeling inferior, illegitimate, inadequate, uneducated and unworthy.
Making America Great Again is not some non inclusive dogma - it is a dream for all Americans who seek opportunity. The first gift that God gave us was liberty - the very essence of the American Dream. Subsidiarity is a Catholic principle completely alien to the Fascist ideology of control over every industry and service.
We are better off with our differences, working together instead of trying to highlight the faults of everyone else. That is unchristian and should not be the basis of these hypocritical articles.

Jay Zamberlin
8 months 2 weeks ago

Randal, please don't allow the America drivel peddlers "make you feel" anything. They write, as you correctly point out, with the pessimism that would make Nietzsche seem positively sunny. We are now in "the dark days" of America, according to them. Sheessh, it really is too bad that a Donald Trump comes around and actually sings a tune they can hum along with.....terrible...Really so sad that he seems to think the 'game is not over' for American manufacturing and people working with their hands, as opposed to staring at computer screens all day. Wouldn't it be positively awful if he could actually deliver on some of these jobs he's promised, without which we see the continuous migration to the big cities, which apparently have no limit to the numbers of hayseeds they can absorb. Of course the underlying message here is that these people are so miserable and sorry that they will literally sell their souls in a Trumpian bargain to retain even a glimmer of hope of a life that used to be much richer and fuller, with absolutely more optimism, which then just becomes another 'myth" this "journalist" gets to mock and poke full of holes...Lovely souls at America, just lovely.

Chuck Kotlarz
8 months 2 weeks ago

The people of Moundsville no doubt have been left behind. I admire their tenacity in seeking a fresh start.

Two sentences perhaps sum up the article. “Moundsville has lost an estimated 7,720 jobs.” “It really is great you can buy anything there (Walmart).” Lots to buy, but 7,720 fewer paychecks to buy anything. Classic lack of vision, signature aristocracy.

Trump’s beautiful coal made a nice gesture for Moundsville. Trump’s a smart guy winning the election. Unfortunately, Trump’s tax cut, at taxpayer expense, rewards clueless investors with stock buybacks in companies paying low wages.

J Cosgrove
8 months 2 weeks ago

All those Democrats getting rich off of the Republicans tax cuts. You are right to illustrate the "Alice in Wonderland" world some live in.

Steve Bowers
8 months 2 weeks ago

Not only are there 7,720 fewer paychecks, there's actually 7,720 fewer citizens. When I was growing up in Moundsville it was a town of about 15,000 people in its heyday with the Fostoria Glass Factory, US Stamping, Marx Toy Plant, Ireland Mine, Olin Chemical, LCP Chemical, Benwood Steele, etc.

Unfortunately, when I was coming of working age in the early 80's is when all of these industries went away in just a few short years. Too many people have moved away in order to prosper and for too many years the political environment was so afraid of losing the stranglehold it had over the region that it ran off perspective industrial investors. In the early 80's Tupperware looked at Moundsville for a huge manufacturing plant but the City government just wouldn't be cooperative. As stated in the article, the City government bucked the Walmart coming in and some of it was entirely self-serving, because it did wind up causing some businesses owned by politicians and/or their wealthy constituents to close.

I no longer live in Moundsville the same as thousands of my generation. It's sad to go back there and see so much of what we all knew is dried up and blown away with the wind and it seems NOBODY is doing anything to try to rebuild it. They welcome new businesses as long as it's a Dollar Store or some other SMALL retail outlet. I was in Moundsville about six months ago and had mechanical problems with my vehicle. Layman's garage is the only place to get repair work done other than a dealership and neither could take my vehicle in on an emergency basis. Remember the personal service of Goddard's Exxon (my great-uncle's business), Gary's Amoco, Quaker State and Boron (BP) where you could pull in with an emergent problem and get expedited, personal service?

You read the local papers and the local government is still so techno-phobic, living in a constant daydream about the way it was in the old days, that they are unwilling to discuss and move upon any ideas that are not pointed in that old direction. If they are willing to talk about something it's only with the view of, "How can we tax the crap out of this and benefit the City government?".

Another example of the unnecessary small town politics is the city is once again wrangling with an issue over the Moundsville City Fire Dept (MFD) and the Moundsville Volunteer Fire Department (VFD). The city council wants to relocate the MFD to new quarters, out of the City Building. One proposal is to house them in the VFD building, which has the room, and then there were I guess a coupla other options. Everybody's all up in arms saying that they're gonna try to get rid of the MFD. People are spreading propaganda making much ado about nothing.

I read a lengthy Facebook entry and comment series last week. One lady posted, "What's gonna happen to our insurance rates if we only have the volunteers?" The answer is two-fold: #1 -Nothing! Your rates are as low as they are because of the massive manpower that the VFD brings to the City's fire protection capabilities and, the $1.5 million dollars worth of equipment and apparatus they bring to the picture. Furthermore, everyone should know that it is the VFD who has been protecting the jobs of the MFD for over 30 years now. City Council has repeatedly tried to eliminate the MFD and it has only been at the insistence of the VFD that it remains a viable, working, paid department today. Were it not for the VFD, no resident of Moundsville under the age of 35 would know that a paid department ever existed.

The the MFD Chief commented that they (MFD) have different training standards. Not true! Firefighter training standards are proscribed by the WV State Fire Marshal's Office, the National Fire Protection Agency, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency for ALL firefighters, paid or volunteer. It is true that the volunteers don't have the opportunity to train 5 days a week, but the MFD Chief's inference that the VFD members were somehow inadequately trained is not true and does not advance the cause of pulling Moundsville out of its rut. I used to be one of those volunteers and I'd put my thousands of hours of training and experience up against any MFD firefighter.

That's just ONE example of the distractions in which Moundsville's small town politics keeps the residents misinformed and prevents them from doing the job of the people, to entice large retailers, manufacturers and technical corporations to make a home in Moundsville, WV.

If you live in Moundsville, you should share this article and all of its comments with your councilmen. The article is great, and I think all of the comments have a hard truth to tell to all of those concerned.

J Cosgrove
8 months 2 weeks ago

Why the headline?

Living in Trump’s America: A West Virginia town looks for a fresh start

Trump did not create the America described in the article and there is a high probability he cannot change it very much. It is really our America and one that is mainly hidden when considering national policy. The headline should be

The America Trump inherited: What caused it? Can he change it? A West Virginia town looks for a fresh start

To Trump's credit, he is the first president who wants to change it. He wants to change a lot of things that past presidents have ignored or gave up on. Will he be successful? Who knows with a whole political party fighting him at every turn.

This article discusses a small town in West Virginia. There are hundreds of small towns just like it in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and several other states.

Get off the interstate and one will see the remnants of small town life of the 1900-1980's. Farm centers, mill towns, mining, lumber, and small manufacturing. Mostly gone to more productive economic methods and cheap labor elsewhere. Some are not too far from larger cities and have made it as bedroom communities or recreation areas for city dwellers or as college towns. There is a lot of cheap land for someone to develop but there may not be the pool of competent people ready to move to do the work. Not when there is an easier life near the big city.

There is a basic economic equation that is necessary for stability. The money coming into an area must be equal or more than the money flowing out of the area. In 19th century America the farm solved this problem as most of the necessities for life were produced and consumed on the farm. For most of the 20th century the small towns produced something the rest of the country wanted and so could afford to buy the things they didn't produce. Now these small town don't produce something the rest of the country wants so they cannot afford to buy the things they need.

It is that simple. No place can survive if it doesn't export from its small area what other places want.

Stanley Kopacz
8 months 2 weeks ago

What does New York City export?

J Cosgrove
8 months 2 weeks ago

New York exports corporate management services, financial services, communication, entertainment, advertising, trade, tourism, housing, legal services, computer service and Godiva chocolates. Mainly services.

Every community no matter the size must have a source of income that originates from outside of itself. For example, a bedroom community is providing housing to people who want to live there but work elsewhere. The community generates no other economic activity desired by other places but survives on the income the bedroom residents bring in. This finances all the other services a town provides. This has been suburbia USA since after WWII.. Highways and railroads make this happen.

Another good example is my son who lives in a small town about an hour from Boston. He has a circle of friends who work somewhere else but enjoy their local community. He works online and travels about 6 weeks a year. All he needs is an internet connection and an airport not to far away. This is becoming more common as a large number of people work only online.

This applies to us as we are about to move our very small business which we conduct entirely in our house to another state, to a small town. All we need is Fedex and the Post Office to ship and receive supplies. My wife loves the parish in the small town where we plan to move.

Whether such a model can work for West Virginia, upstate New York or central Pennsylvania or rural Wisconsin is unknown. In places such as these, college towns have often supplied the source of money but there is only so many of these that can survive.

One thought is to move government offices out of the large urban areas. Suppose the Agriculture Department was moved to Nebraska, this would act like a college and provide money for a large area. Right now they are concentrated in Washington or the state capitals. Trump has attracted a lot of foreign investment that will go to rural areas. A partial solution.

That is what is different about Trump. He is addressing the problem. Whether it is token or he can do anything is another question. But you can be assured whatever he does, he will be attacked.

Edwin HEss
8 months 1 week ago

Let me start with a news excerpt from Jan 11th 2018: “Walmart is raising its minimum wage and handing out tax cut bonuses because of the new Republican tax law. The retail company said the wage hike to $11 an hour would roll out in February. Employees are also getting a one-time bonus of up to $1,000.” This America article is dated Feb. 6th.

Now let me go back a little further. I started following National Catholic Reporter when I found them after joining VOTF because of the abuse scandal. Then I subscribed to the paper because, even though the website gave me plenty to read, I wanted to support it. But for about a year now, it has been publishing a lot of political articles and I don’t remember even one that had anything positive about Trump. I did not renew.

Last week, I was coaxed into signing up for America Media and when I went to the America website one of the first things I saw was this article about a small town with problems but which was twisted into an anti-Trump message. I hope this does not turn into another NCR scenario for me. It was encouraging to find the Comments with many intelligent responses, so I will not give up hope. Note: I went to a Jesuit college where I learned to consider both sides with reasoned discussions.

J Cosgrove
8 months 1 week ago

This is as fair Trump has gotten treated in any article on America, the magazine. Given that there are many of us taught by Jesuits who provide some alternative opinions.

Chuck Kotlarz
8 months ago

The Brookings Institution notes, “that counties that voted for Trump account for only 36 percent of U.S. gross domestic product and described the electoral divide as “high-output America” versus “low-output America.”

The aristocracy running the country has no vision beyond its own self-interest and has jeopardized the future of low output America.

Trillions of dollars in recent stock buybacks indicate public firms appear to lack ambition and proper incentive to invest.

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