Friday, July 27, 2007

I Know Which "Times" I Prefer...

Dan Kennedy draws attention to the state of US cable news in the Guardian. UK television news is certainly much better than in the US, but when it comes to newspapers and magazines, in my view the best publications in the US are far better than their British counterparts.

These days UK newspapers - yes, even the "broadsheets" (for non-UK readers, these are the four "serious" newspapers, namely the Times, Telegraph, Guardian and Independent) - contain little more than re-worded press releases plugging some product or another ("10 best stir-fry pans" etc.), or paraphrased versions of the Reuters wire. There is nothing remotely equivalent to the serious journalism you see in the New York Times. By this I mean pieces where the journalist makes the effort (and has the background) to understand the issues for herself, and then puts the evidence together into a coherent story.

The opinion pages are even worse. In the UK papers, opinion pieces are droll enough, but very rarely have the depth of the best of the New York Times or Washington Post's op-ed pages. I really can't imagine a serious economist like Paul Krugman having a regular column in the Times of London. Instead we get the likes of Boris Johnson: a funny enough writer, but a literate generalist with absolutely no expert knowledge of anything.

Finally, where are Britain's magazines? America has the superb New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the more mainstream Newsweek and Time (light, but readable enough). Germany has Der Spiegel and Stern. Leaving aside the Economist, which is a much more specialist outlet than any of the above, we have nothing comparable.

Thank heaven for BBC news...

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Youth unemployment

I've written previously on how difficult it is to compare rates of joblessness between countries. One of the trickiest areas is the youth labour market. Suppose countries A and B each have 1 million 16-20 year olds. Out of this population, each country also has the same number - let's say 50,000 - of youths who are neither at work nor in education. Now, country A is less generous with funding for education, so 450,000 of the the 950,000 kids at school there work part-time. Country B offers more support for education, so only 50,000 of the kids at school there work. Now, the unemployment rate is, by definition

number unemployed / (number unemployed + number employed)

Thus, the formal youth unemployment rate in country A is just 10% but in country B a whopping 50%. Both countries have exactly the same number of kids who are not usefully occupied, but A's situation looks better simply because it has more of its students at work. (You could even argue that B's position is better, since the long-term pay-off of good education is high, and it may well be the case that it's preferable if students don't have to work.)

There's a good argument to be made that the US currently resembles country A, and France country B. As economists John Schmitt and David Howell report:

At 22 percent, the nominal youth unemployment rate in France is double the U.S. rate of 11 percent, and even further above the U.K. rate of 9.9 percent...


...for male youth the unemployment-to-population rate is 8.3 percent in the United States and 8.6 percent in France...

And there are of course differences in the rate at which young people work:

In the United States, 23.1 percent of 16- to 19-year-old students were also working, compared to only 1.8 percent of French teenagers. This disparity creates most of the higher statistical unemployment rate.

Be wary of unemployment rates: they really are the most heavily politicised of economic indicators...!

What's the rush?

I've posted previously about working hours, and at various times talked about the relationship between conventionally measured economic output (i.e. in terms of GDP) and well-being. This piece:

by David Rosnick from the Center for Economic and Policy Research does a really good job of bringing these strands together in one article. And given what a rush many of us are in - although thankfully not the Compulsive Theorist - it's nice and brief. Well worth a read.

The key point I would draw attention to is the fact that these issues are not ones we can decide upon in isolation. Choices of this kind pretty much have to be made collectively: this is an area where we really need politics and not just individual choice.

Starving the NIH

Very rarely do I find myself agreeing with anything in the Washington post, but this piece is spot-on:

NIH-funded research, and associated spin-offs, have been for many years arguably the most potent source of biomedical innovation in the US, if not the world. Yet the Bush administration - which when it comes to tax cuts seems swayed by far more tenuous arguments about innovation and technology - sees fit to reduce its support. The effects are substantive. From my own small circle, I can think of several top young scientists - all very smart and enormously hard-working - who have, largely as a consequence of these changes, now reluctantly left the academic sector.

Keeping our heads above water

A couple of observations about the UK floods:

- First, in my view, the UK response so far has been superb. The emergency services have been combing through flooded areas looking for kids and old people who may have been left behind, airlifting people when necessary and generally making sure that serious losses (as in deaths and serious injuries) are prevented. There's been a real community spirit and so far no reports of looting or anything of that kind that I can think of. The news media have been shrill, but they have been holding the government to very high standards. Last night the BBC news led with a piece on how drinking water dispensers in Gloucester haven't been filled often enough. The piece highlighted this failing and the reporter put the criticism directly to the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who really had to say it would be fixed. Here's the thing: if he doesn't get it right, tonight's news will be scathing. I couldn't help contrasting what's happened with Katrina: the looting, the sign outside someone's house (“I have a big gun and an ugly wife”), FEMA's complete mismanagement of the crisis and Bush's now-infamous response (“Brownie – you're doing a heckuva job”).

- Second, I doubt you can put these floods down to global warming, but what they do highlight is the kind of economic devastation climatic changes will wreak in the years ahead. The so-called “economic” case against action (“it'll cost too much”) is totally bogus. As the Stern report has argued at length, even very conservative estimates regarding the frequency of events like this make a compelling economic case for action.

Why should we care about sustainability, if China and the US don't?

I live in the UK, and a question some people here ask is this: why should we bother about emissions in our small country when any small change on our part will be as nothing next to the impact of China and the US? In my view, this argument is wrong-headed because it ignores the manner in which preferences shift over time.

Consider slavery. At some point, in some "liberal" enclave, some people would have started thinking that slavery was morally wrong. At that point, a nay-sayer could reasonably have pointed out that all the total amount of slave-owning in the room was tiny compared with the vast mass of slave-owning in the Deep South, say. Yet it should be clear in retrospect that the efforts of an initial minority to argue a morally correct case can pay off, as more and more people start to listen and see their own values change. (It seems to me that such changes can be seen as propagating through a network, and can be highly non-linear, such that after a slow start things can really gather pace.)

Moving back to the present, when we in Britain see some European countries recycling and controlling their output of rubbish more effectively than we do, and when we see Germany's sustainable energy use at 12% and rising, it affects our political debate. Equally, when policy experts elsewhere look at our rapid adoption of leading standards for sustainable fishery (MSC) and forestry (FSC), they can see that it is possible to make these issues important to consumers.

These effects are certainly going to be subtle at first, but nonetheless very real. It's just much more powerful to be able to point to a policy choice that is already in place elsewhere, rather than an abstract idea which has not been tried. In addition, technologies or standards which are already working elsewhere are relatively easy to import. We hear this argument all the time in the context of the diffusion of technology, but I think it's just as applicable to ideas.

It therefore makes sense for a small country (or individual) to "go green" on three counts. First, the reduction in impacts, however small, is a good in and of itself. Second, there is a political and moral “ripple effect” which can be a potent source of change, both within and between countries. Third, the push to develop new technologies, standards, accounting practices in one place give late movers elsewhere working tools which can then be rapidly adopted.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Tax and Spend

I'm back again after (another) long-ish absence. Here's a comment from one Robert Waldmann on the excellent Economist's View which caught my eye:

George Bush said

"No nation has ever taxed and spent its way to prosperity."

He is, of course, totally wrong. No country which is not sitting on oil or made of guano has ever achieved prosperity without taxing and spending the money on public education. It's not like the pure private sector approach to schooling has never been tried -- it was tried and failed for millennia. So far in history the rule is no tax and spend no industrialization.

Tax and spend is so under-rated...