Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Weekly Links, April 25, 2008

I haven’t written a real post in some time, but I’ve been collecting and scouring, reading and reflecting. Numerous articles have passed my way meriting reflection and the protective “sauvegarde” of citing repetition. It’s likely that I’m reaching a point of too much information, le fait d’être surinformé. Disconnecting isn’t easy when there is so much to reflect upon. There is no end point to the internet nor to internet research. I do my best to limit myself, but I have a hard time stopping myself as days pass and I read on, note further, and collect increasing amounts of connective news and information among my interest ranges. General news I follow through AlZazeeraEnglish, the Week in Review at the New York Times, and tidbits that cross my way here and there. Scientific discoveries and happenings I keep up to date on through a few feeds like the New York Times Science Section. Things get more complicated as intercrossing interests lead to continuous lists, set-aside “to-read” articles, and the outflow of networked ideas and questions. The information never ends. I should be more humble. Less ambitious. More realistic. I should learn to turn the tap off, because I’m starting to drown. Happy Reading!

1.) The End of the Factory Worker Middle Class. In “The Wage That Mean Middle Class,” Louis Uchitelle looks beyond the question of simply getting and staying employed, of layoffs, outsourcing and questions of globalization and investigates the labor history behind the lost of the $20 an hour wage. He writes:

Leaving aside for a moment those who have lost their jobs, what of those who still have them? Once upon a time, a large number earned at least $20 an hour, or its inflation-adjusted equivalent, and now so many of them don’t. The $20 hourly wage, introduced on a huge scale in the middle of the last century, allowed masses of Americans with no more than a high school education to rise to the middle class. It was a marker, of sorts. And it is on its way to extinction.

Add to this:

roughly 15 percent of college-educated workers find themselves in jobs for which they are overqualified, the Economic Policy Institute reports, and many of these jobs pay less than $20 an hour.

“People are mainly worried about having a job and only secondly what it pays and whether they are gaining ground,” said Frank Levy, a labor economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This is an issue all of the presidential candidates are ignoring or failing to notice. Historically-speaking:

That basic wage blossomed first in the auto industry in 1948 and served, in effect, as a banner in the ideological struggle with the Soviet Union. As the news media frequently noted, salt-of-the-earth American workers were earning enough to pay for comforts that their counterparts behind the Iron Curtain could not afford.

As the years passed, unions succeeded in negotiating this basic wage not as an ultimate goal but as an early rung in their wage ladders. That was the union standard, particularly in heavy industries, and in the early postwar decades nonunion employers fell into line, spreading middle-class incomes broadly through the service sector.

This equated to a historical moment when there existed “the middle class for blue-collar workers” with the high point coming in the 1970s. But,

Since then the percentage of people earning at least $20 an hour has eroded in every sector of the economy, falling last year to 18 percent of all hourly workers from 23 percent in 1979 — a gradual unwinding of the post-World War II gains.

The numbers are striking:

Take only the peak years in each business cycle, starting in 1979. The proportion earning at least $20 an hour declined from 23 percent that year, to 20 percent in 1980, to 18 percent in 1989, and to 16 percent in 2000.

There are numerous reasons for why this happened. But clearly this represents a trend worth thinking about, particularly in a country without the social security “safety nets” in place like in a certain socialist countries.

2.) The Neurobiology of Recognizing and Participating in Social Hierarchy. An article at the ScienceNOW brought to my attention neurological data of a fact you see throughout human and animal society: humans and animals live in hierarchical community, which demands and requires participants to be able to recognize authority and social position. It seems that:

Hierarchical awareness seems to be deeply embedded in the human brain, so much so that there are distinct circuits activated by concerns over social rank.

In the study, a team led by neuroscientist Caroline Zink of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, first set up a “stable hierarchy.” Twenty-four adult subjects were asked to press a button quickly whenever a blue circle changed to green. Ostensibly based on their skill at the task, the subjects were assigned a place in a hierarchy containing two other players (who in reality didn’t exist). In this part of the study, that rank stayed the same regardless of the subjects’ performance, hence the stable hierarchy. Even though subjects were not in competition with other players, they were repeatedly reminded of the hierarchy by photographs of their fictional co-players accompanied by stars indicating their rank.

These results also held for “unstable hierarchy,” where social position could change through improved performance.

Regardless of the type of hierarchy, subjects’ brains were influenced by their place in it. Just viewing a picture of a “superior” player activated an area in the frontal lobe that is associated with making judgments about people. The effect was more pronounced in the unstable hierarchy, with brain regions implicated in emotional processing and social anxiety chiming in.

The study “confirms that our brains are exquisitely sensitive to position in the hierarchy,” says epidemiologist Michael Marmot of University College London. “If the hierarchy is stable, we seem to ignore those below us but focus on those higher up. If unstable, and we are in danger of losing status, areas of the brain linked to emotions are aroused.”

3.) Demand, Demand and Demand for Oil. In NYTIMES article The Big Thirst, Jad Mouawad looks at how increasing demand has lead to increasing oil prices:

Producers are struggling to pump as much as they can to quench the thirst not only of the developed world, but fast-growing developing nations like China and India, the two most populous countries. To many experts, the steadily rising price underscored longer-term fears about the future of a system that has supplied cheap oil for more than a century.

The numbers on increasing oil demand:

The planet’s population is expected to grow by 50 percent to nine billion by sometime in the middle of the century. The number of cars and trucks is projected to double in 30 years— to more than two billion — as developing nations rapidly modernize. And twice as many passenger jetliners, more than 36,000, will in all likelihood be crisscrossing the skies in 20 years.

All of that will require a lot more oil — enough that global oil consumption will jump by some 35 percent by the year 2030, according to the International Energy Agency, a leading global energy forecaster for the United States and other developed nations. For producers it will mean somehow finding and pumping an additional 11 billion barrels of oil every year.

Energy demand isn’t going down either:

The world’s total energy demand — including oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear power, as well as renewable energy sources like wind, solar and hydro power — is set to rise by 65 percent over the next two decades, according to the I.E.A.

Historically-speaking:

Over the past century, the world burned through a trillion barrels of oil. Another 1.2 trillion barrels of known conventional oil reserves wait to tapped, according to BP, one of the world’s biggest oil companies. It sounds like a lot. But given the current rate of growth in demand, a trillion of those barrels will be used up in less than 30 years.

In celebration of all this, check out my oil price reader in the sidebar!

4.) Is the U.S. a prison-state? Numbers speak. According to Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations’, :

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

The numbers:

The United States has, for instance, 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation, according to data maintained by the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College London.

China, which is four times more populous than the United States, is a distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison. (That number excludes hundreds of thousands of people held in administrative detention, most of them in China’s extrajudicial system of re-education through labor, which often singles out political activists who have not committed crimes.)

Prison stays are also longer in the U.S.:

The United States comes in first, too, on a more meaningful list from the prison studies center, the one ranked in order of the incarceration rates. It has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.)

The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. England’s rate is 151; Germany’s is 88; and Japan’s is 63.

The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the American rate.

The reasons?

Criminologists and legal experts here and abroad point to a tangle of factors to explain America’s extraordinary incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net. Even democracy plays a role, as judges — many of whom are elected, another American anomaly — yield to populist demands for tough justice.


Quote of the Week:

“There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.”

– Pablo Picasso