July 3rd, 2009


Student Loan Solution

This sounds like a great solution for at least part of the problem caused by skyrocketing student debt:

New Student-Loan Repayment Plan Aims to Reduce Debt Burden
Tyler Lyon, The Daily Iowan: "Some students struggling with federal loans could soon lower their monthly payments or eliminate them altogether. Under the Income-Based Repayment plan, available starting today, college graduates can cut their monthly payments down to a rate tailored to their income and family size."

This means that if your gamble to get a good job doesn't pay off, you don't have to pay as much. If it does pay off, you pay more (but presumably the debt goes away faster). If you have a baby, you probably don't have to give the diaper money to the ranting loan shark.
hiss, lynx

Justice FAIL

Things like this contribute to my generally low opinion of American "justice."

Drug Court Sympathetic to Affluent Frat Boy
Christopher Duncan of Copiague, NY is thanking his lucky stars that he was born a white, rich, child. This week, his lucky accident of birth earned him a free pass in a federal drug court that fell all over itself to spare him the humiliation of going to prison for knowingly breaking the law.

Boo, hiss.
jellyfish, weird

Ant Super-Colonies

No, this isn't related to the recent "Earth-Hearts" ant people. This reminds me of a much older set of poems I wrote about Queen Choufa, who belongs to another insect race closer to honeybees but with some traits from ants -- I'd been inspired by tales of multi-queen hives of fire ants. And then I read this. Yikes.

Environmental News

These articles have an environmental theme...

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. | A President Breaks Hearts in Appalachia
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., The Washington Post: "Mountaintop removal coal mining is the worst environmental tragedy in American history. When will the Obama administration finally stop this Appalachian apocalypse?"

Mountaintop removal is a terrible strain on the environment. Generally when a project does damage that will far outlast its benefit, that's a very bad idea.

Polar Bear Apearances Grow on Oil Fields
Alex DeMarban, The Arctic Sounder: "Polar bear encounters on the North Slope oil fields have risen to record levels the last two years, a sign that increasing numbers of the white giants may be prowling on land because the sea ice they prefer is shrinking, scientists said."

The bears are there because human actions are diminishing their proper hunting grounds on the ice. Somehow, though, I expect the bears will be blamed for getting in the way of human activities; and it's the bears who will pay the price.

Olivier Truc | The Carbon Tax Has Proven Its Effectiveness in Sweden
Olivier Truc, Le Monde: "In 1991, the Swedes established a carbon tax that bears on energy consumption. To the skeptics who assert that this tax kills growth, they answer with their record: since the introduction of the tax, Swedish greenhouse gas waste has been reduced by 9 percent, while, during the same period, economic growth was 48 percent."

I like it when people produce solid numbers in support of their ideas. We need to reduce greenhouse gasses, but without wrecking the economy (further) in the process. I'm somewhat leery of a plain carbon tax because it's likely to hit consumers hard; I'd prefer to make companies buy permits, and then disperse the fees to citizens, which would help offset the price increases. But it's nice to know that Sweden is making good progress with their program.

Economic News

This set of articles deals with economic issues:

Dean Baker | Economy Loses 467,000 Jobs In June; Unemployment Edges Up to 9.5 Percent
Dean Baker, Truthout: "Unemployment among men is near its all-time high on record. The economy shed another 467,000 jobs in June, as the unemployment rate edged up to 9.5 percent. The rise in unemployment would have been higher except 155,000 people left the workforce, pushing down the employed percentage of the population (EPOP) by 0.2 percentage points to 59.5 percent."

It really bothers me that people are "cut out of the workforce" if they cannot find a replacement job for one they lost. They want to work, they desperately need to work, they are neither drifters nor retired; but they aren't counted anymore. This means that the official unemployment figure is much less useful in determining the size of the group that is going to cause big social problems: people who want to work but don't have a job. Not to mention the people who have a job, or several jobs, but can't get enough hours or pay to make a living anyhow. So then you always have to compensate for that, trying to estimate how far off the mark the official numbers really are, by adding in information from other sources. Flawed data makes effective solutions difficult or impossible.

Recession's Toll: Most Recent College Grads Working Low-Skill Jobs
Tony Pugh, McClatchy Newspapers: "The tough economy and tight labor market have tarnished the luster of a bachelor's degree for young college graduates seeking employment. New monthly survey data from the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston finds that during the first four months of 2009, less than half of the nation's 4 million college graduates age 25 and under were working in jobs that required a college degree. That's down from 54 percent for the same period last year."

This is particularly disturbing for two reasons. 1) More jobs than ever are requiring applicants to have a college degree, even if the work doesn't really need it. So if the number of graduates in non-degree-requiring jobs is STILL growing, that's very bad. 2) Many of those graduates have college loans, which they certainly won't be able to pay off earning the minimum wage or anything close to it.

Jeannette Wicks-Lim | How the Green Economy Can Promote Equal Opportunities for Women
Jeannette Wicks-Lim, Dollars & Sense: "Create jobs. End the recession. Save the environment. What else can transforming our fossil fuel economy to a clean energy economy do? How about create unprecedented employment opportunities for women? Readers of Linda Hirshman's recent New York Times editorial may think this is a dubious claim. She sparked a debate over the gender bias in Obama's stimulus plan by asking, 'Where are the new jobs for women?' She makes a good point. Transitioning to a clean-energy economy has the makings of a decent jobs program. Unfortunately, many of these jobs are in male-dominated industries such as construction."

This point has been raised before regarding the rise of the green economy -- that it's heavy in jobs requiring physical labor. I should add, that not only tends to discriminate against women but also against people with disabilities. Some of this is unavoidable; building infrastructure pretty much demands workers who are in good shape. But it would be prudent to acknowledge that slant and counterbalance it with some support positions, such as green information technology, that don't require physical labor. That would help prevent unbalancing the job market.

Some Dire Economic Graphs

This very detailed article does a splendid job of putting numbers and lines on some trends that I've been tracking through description and observation. It covers wage deflation, job market deflation, and their impact on the economy -- which is to say, if people don't have money to spend, the economy isn't going to get better no matter what you do to the poor thing.

Wage Deflation in Our Midst
The op-ed column by Bob Herbert in the Saturday New York Times really hit the nail on the head on this whole ‘green shoot’ issue — how can there be ‘green shoots’ when the labour market is deteriorating at such a rapid clip fully nine months after the Lehman collapse. The full brunt of the credit collapse may be behind us, but please, the other two shocks, namely deflating labour markets and deflating home prices, are very much still front and centre. For every job opening in the USA, there are more than five unemployed actively seeking work vying for those jobs. That is unprecedented and nearly double what we saw at the depths of the 2001 recession. The official ranks of the unemployed have doubled during this recession to 14 million and if you take into account all forms of labour market slack, the unofficial number is bordering on 30 million, another record. For those who still believe that we somehow managed to avoid an economic depression this cycle because of a 13% fiscal deficit/GDP and a pregnant Fed balance sheet, the Center for Labour Market Studies at Northeastern University estimates that the real unemployment now stands at 18.2%, which is actually higher than the posted rate at the end of the 1930s.

The part that got me was "For every job opening in the USA, there are more than five unemployed actively seeking work vying for those jobs." I have no idea how they came up with a number so low. Around here, job openings get dozens or hundreds of applicants. There are probably well over five fully qualified applicants per job, not counting the desperate who don't really fit the requirements and the average folks getting out-competed by the several perfect matches.

The last job I applied for entailed a rather obscure combination of skills and drew over a thousand applicants. My chances of getting that job were less than .1%. To put this in perspective, the major science fiction magazines buy about 2% of manuscripts submitted. So my chances of selling a story to Asimov's are twenty times my chances of getting that job. Even if there had only been a hundred applicants, my chances of selling a story would still be double, and there are a lot of jobs pulling in 100 applicants these days. I like freelance work, but I need regular gigs too.

People talk about how depressing it is to be a writer and deal with all that rejection. Well, I'm a writer; I can deal with it. But most people can't and when lots of our workers are putting out dozens or hundreds of applications and not getting a job -- or even an interview! -- that is doing tremendous damage to our workforce. People's sense of self-worth is so tied up in employment that when they are unemployed, they think they are worthless, and if it goes on too long they may get so wrecked they can't function anymore. In that case, society has wadded them up and thrown them away for no better reason than it didn't want them right then. That's a recipe for disaster. You think taxing the rich will "discourage people from working hard" ...? Howbout dumping them by the truckload.

Plus of course it's necessary to consider that the norm used to be one job per household. It now takes 2-5 jobs to support a household. Many people are working multiple jobs, because a single job often doesn't pay enough to live on. So not only does the economy contain fewer jobs, but the number of jobs is not the same as the number of employees.