Friday, October 8, 2010

New and Noteworthy (Solar Wind Power, Rare Earth Mineral Politics, Ireland, Bad Science Journalism)

In today's edition:

* By way of, a piece in New Scientist discussing the prospect of harnessing the solar wind to meet the Earth's energy needs.

* An article in LiveScience discussing China's blocking a shipment of rare-earth minerals to Japan, which the author links to the dispute over Japan's arrest of a Chinese fishing crew. (Indeed, Leonard David at references the possibility in his discussion of the question of whether resource politics on Earth make moon mining a national security imperative for the U.S..)

* A report from National Public Radio on popular reaction to the country's economic troubles. Ireland's case is all the more noteworthy given that the "Celtic tiger" had not only appeared to perform so well in the years prior to the 2008 crisis, but had been widely held up as a success story of neoliberal globalization; and afterward, suffered particularly deeply (as noted in the report firm Ernst & May, the GDP decline rated the D-word--"depression")--arguably, because of how closely it hewed to the same fashionable prescriptions for which it was so highly praised.

* By way of Futurismic, a piece by "Lay Scientist" Martin Robbins in the Guardian satirizing bad science journalism, which is, of course, far and away the predominant kind. (Case in point: Time magazine's annual list of "50 Best Inventions," which I discussed on this blog a couple of years ago.) Since then, Robbins has offered a follow-up in which he offers his more straightforward critique of the field.

The Real Unemployment Rate

The Real Unemployment Rate

Last month the National Bureau of Economic Research declared the "Great Recession" officially over as of June 2009.

Still, you wouldn't know it to look at the unemployment data that came out today. "Labor underutilization"'s at 9.6 percent according to the U-3 measure, 17.1 percent according to the U-6--which not only represents a 0.4 percent rise over August, but is actually slightly higher than last September's figure (a flat 17 percent).

As Steve Schaefer of Forbes notes, the slight increase in the number of unemployed that resulted in this figure was due mainly to government layoffs, "split almost evenly between the end of temporary census jobs and cuts at the state and local levels." This overwhelmed the slight rise in private sector hiring, mostly in the service sector, health care and food services in particular (the two, adding some 24,000 and 34,000 jobs respectively, almost equal to the total increase of 64,000 by themselves). Construction and manufacturing are still shedding jobs (those sectors down by 21,000 and 6,000 respectively last month, the improvement in manufacturing earlier this year really just about restocking inventory after all).

The fact that government is still cutting so many jobs--with jobs in education "declining substantially due to budget woes" (as Joshua Shapiro of MFR Inc. has noted)--is a worrisome sign, and Jay Feldman of Credit Suisse would seem all too right when he notes that "The state and local fiscal crisis is clearly leaving a deeper imprint on aggregate economic activity." The decline in construction and manufacturing, those two crucial engines of employment and growth, is likewise telling, as is the predictable obverse of the fact, namely that the increase in private-sector employment has been mainly "in bar and restaurant jobs . . . not exactly known for the good pay and benefits," as Paul Ashworth of Capital Economics notes.

Taken together they all indicate the frailty of the job market, and reminders not only of the continued weakness of demand, but the likelihood that demand will remain weak for some time to come.

It's all getting awfully monotonous (which is one reason why this is no longer a monthly feature of this blog).

Meanwhile, in other (related) economic news:

* Banks have failed even faster in 2010 than they did in 2009 (bringing the total since Washington Mutual's collapse in September 2008 up to 279 this past month) and there is little sign of the rate falling off, as Randall Smith and Robin Sidel of the Wall Street Journal note in their "anniversary" piece from two weeks ago.

* The issue of income inequality inside the United States has got more than the usual amount of attention in the press in recent weeks, due primarily to two events. One is the U.S. Census Bureau's annual publication of its data on income distribution. (The country's Gini index, as it happens, is now 0.468, which would make the U.S. equal to Rwanda, according to the CIA World Factbook.) The other is the release in September (just two days before the Census report came out) of Paul Pierson and Jacob S. Hacker's book Winner-Take-All-Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class, described in a piece in the Atlantic Wire sampling response to it as "a synthesis of recent studies" of the subject. (Ezra Klein, blogging at the Washington Post, also takes a look at the book, presenting Pierson and Hacker's data regarding what the current picture would have looked like "if growth had been equal" in graph form.)

My Writings on the Recession (A Listing)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Review: The Organization Man, by William H. Whyte

New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956, pp. 429.

When I picked up William H. Whyte's The Organization Man I expected to find a musty curiosity. Back when Whyte was writing the country was undergoing sustained, rapid economic expansion such as America has not approached since (averaging 5 percent GDP growth a year for twenty years); the New Deal State was going strong and expected to go on doing so forever, the conservatives fulminating against it apparently hopeless yearners for a past that was never coming back; and a new hire expected to be able to stay not just in their field, but at the same company, for life.1 Indeed, Whyte worried that the great danger of the organization to the individual was that being an "organization man" was too comfortable, the company environment too "beneficent" (to use his favored term). By contrast the post-1973 period has been characterized by mediocre growth through decade after recession-filled decade; by a shift in the character of government's role in economic life that in Whyte's day had been widely thought an inconceivable regression; by the stagnant salaries and generalized insecurity that have left working people caught up in a revolution of falling expectations. The result of all this is that the pressures of the workplace would today seem to be something quite different.

Yet, while much has changed, much has also remained constant, and much of the analysis of this book, sophisticated yet accessible in a way that makes so much of our current pop social science seem embarrassingly dumbed down, could have been written today. Barbara Ehrenreich's writing in books like Bait and Switch (2005) and Bright-Sided (2009), its description of the pressure to be "optimistic" and agreeable while on the job, and the submergence of individuality beneath sociability in the workplace; the self-help tradition and its special place in the culture of salesmanship; the use, misuse and abuse of personality tests by employers; is a reminder that much of what was problematic about the economic world Whyte described remains with us. Similarly relevant is his description of how the middle class handled its finances in his day, the portrait he paints one of people with little knack for managing their own money generally living beyond their means to maintain their social status (a reminder that this hasn't solely been a feature of the slow economic growth we have taken for granted since the '70s). Likewise, there is the rightward political shift among those leaving the city for suburbia, the similarly motivated "ex-urbanites" today repeating the process.

An even bigger surprise for me was Whyte's characterization of education. Reading his comments on the conservatism and non-intellectualism or anti-intellectualism of college students; the decline of the humanities and liberal arts (and even the short shrift given the fundamental sciences) not only as majors but as components of the average student's education as training becomes more narrowly vocational; the weaknesses of teacher recruitment and teacher training, with its low stress on subject area knowledge; the hysteria that some challenge by another nation requires us to produce more engineers, to lament that more students don't study the necessary subjects, and to (disingenuously) blame "softer" majors for that lack; the concern that business's grant-giving is having undue influence on education, and that academics are only too inclined to cater to what they think businessmen want; it certainly seemed to me that there had been very little change on campus, for all the celebration and condemnation of the 1960s as some watershed. I think, too, of what Whyte said of business's bias against liberal-arts majors at hiring time, even as business leaders call for more broadly educated employees, the author observing that
At the rate things are going, it would seem liberal arts is well on its way toward being made into a specialty--a preprofessional training considered useful only for those who intend to lead the gentle life (105).
And of course, there is the issue at the bottom of it all, summed up in the words beneath the title on the cover: "The clash between the individualistic beliefs he is supposed to follow and the collective life he actually lives--and his search for a faith to bridge the gap." Of course, that clash was not a new issue in Whyte's time. Arguably, Frederick Jackson Turner writing a half century and more earlier wrestled with the same issue in the wake of the frontier's close, anticipating the replacement of earlier, more libertarian economic thinking by a world of big business and big labor and big government, the older resource profligacy by something like sustainable growth--and an America looking more like Europe. The failure to reconcile the contradiction between reality and ideology, which may be starker now than ever before, makes Whyte's take on the problem even more relevant now than when it was first written. A century after the great merger movement and the trusts, during which time the trends such writers saw have only advanced, our rhetoric on issues from space development to the welfare state still recalls frontier-style individualism. Simply put, we haven't really dealt with the contradiction, and I'm wondering if we ever will.

1. This is my own calculation using data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, adjusted for inflation.

Friday, October 1, 2010

An Updated Energy Security Bibliography

This week Rick Munroe updated the handy bibliography on security-oriented publication on energy issues he published at the Energy Bulletin last year. This includes a link to an (untranslated) online copy of the German peak oil report that got so much attention earlier this month (as well as Munroe's own analysis of the report).

There is one point I should clarify, however; as Munroe correctly notes, my article "The Impending Oil Shock" is behind a paywall, but I have made a copy of it freely available on this blog.

Also of interest at the Bulletin: the republication of George Monbiot's piece for the Guardian on "The short, happy life of climate change enlightenment," a much-needed reminder why this problem remains far from solved.

New and Noteworthy (Eamonn Fingleton, Lind on College, Frank for the WSJ, Peak Oil, Farmland Purchases)
New and Noteworthy: Items From the Hiatus #4 (Post Peak-Oil Flight, Wind Energy)

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