Economics

Just the Facts Ma’am: Economic Analysis from the Congressional Research Service

Just the Facts signage, Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock.com
Just the Facts signage, Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock.com

When we listen to political debates about which public policies will strengthen the economy, it is easy to get lost in a statistical maze. Each side presents economic data in a way that supports their own theory of the case.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) is a branch of the Library of Congress that can help us make our own assessments regarding public policy. According to the CRS website, its purpose is to provide “authoritative, confidential, objective and nonpartisan” analyses to members of Congress. 

The relationship between tax rates and the economy is an issue in the current campaign. Thinking about this issue, the CRS looks at empirical data that may or may not confirm theoretical models or ideological assumptions. Thus, like the early TV detective Joe Friday, they want “just the facts ma’am,” and then they try to reach conclusion from these facts.

How to Be Happy

THE DOCUMENTARY film The Economics of Happiness, produced by the International Society for Ecology and Culture, begins starkly, with full-screen titles that tell us we are facing an environmental crisis, an economic crisis, and a crisis of the human spirit. As the film goes along, it strongly suggests that those three crises are interrelated.

In the end, the filmmakers and their multicultural array of talking heads ask that we stop measuring human progress simply by economic growth and give priority to the quality of life, the health of communities and their cultures, and the sustainability of our economic practices. In short, they suggest replacing our mad rush toward globalization with a back-to-the-future move to “localization.”

Early in the film, writer-director-narrator Helena Norberg-Hodge tells us about the people of the remote Ladakh region of the Himalayas, one of the highest spots on earth to be inhabited by a settled human community. When Norberg-Hodge first visited the Ladakhis in the 1970s, she says, they were self-sufficient, healthy, and mostly at peace, with themselves and each other. Then came the great Western world with its bells and whistles and manufactured needs. Soon the people became dissatisfied with their traditional way of life and were  driven to compete in a cash economy. Before long, there was open hostility between Muslims and Buddhists, who had co-existed peacefully for centuries, a fraying of the social fabric, and an atmosphere of gloom and depression.

Norberg-Hodge reports that when she first came to Ladakh, she asked a young man to show her a “poor” house. The guide stopped, thought for a moment, and said, “There are no poor houses in Ladakh.” Ten years later, she heard the same guide plead for aid from a group of Western visitors because, he said, the Ladakhis were so terribly poor.

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An Olive Agenda: Our Path to Economic Opportunity and Environmental Sustainability

World photo, Denis Cristo / Shutterstock.com
World photo, Denis Cristo / Shutterstock.com

An examination of current public debate reveals a divide between the “brown agenda” of economic opportunity and the “green agenda” of environmental sustainability. 

On the one hand, a “brown agenda” concerns economic opportunity, or in other words, the alleviation of poverty. In light of ongoing distress surrounding malnutrition, infant mortality, and unemployment, the brown agenda is important, urgent, and worthy of support. On the other hand, a “green agenda” relates to environmental sustainability and care for the Earth. As scientific reports affirm the reality of climate change, and in recognition of decreased access to clean water and biodiversity around the world, the green agenda is also deeply important, urgent, and worthy of support.

With the above thoughts in mind, one recognizes that both brown and green agendas are essential for the promotion of life. However, the proponents of each agenda seem to be at odds with the adherents of the other. For example, far too many with a “brown agenda” believe that the best way to reduce poverty is to reduce environmental controls, and to the contrary, those engaged with the “green agenda” too often place the needs of the Earth before the livelihoods of the poor and marginalized. As a result of this persistent struggle between “brown” and “green," progress on both agendas is limited, and our path toward economic opportunity and environmental sustainability is severely off course. 

Millennials: A Generation Left Behind?

Writing for Newsweek Magazine, Joel Kotkin wonders if the Millennial generation will be remembered as the "screwed generation:"

"Today’s youth, both here and abroad, have been screwed by their parents’ fiscal profligacy and economic mismanagement. Neil Howe, a leading generational theorist, cites the “greed, shortsightedness, and blind partisanship” of the boomers, of whom he is one, for having “brought the global economy to its knees.”

How has this generation been screwed? Let’s count the ways, starting with the economy. No generation has suffered more from the Great Recession than the young. Median net worth of people under 35, according to the U.S. Census, fell 37 percent between 2005 and 2010; those over 65 took only a 13 percent hit.

The wealth gap today between younger and older Americans now stands as the widest on record. The median net worth of households headed by someone 65 or older is $170,494, 42 percent higher than in 1984, while the median net worth for younger-age households is $3,662, down 68 percent from a quarter century ago, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center."

Read more here

Driving Toward Cuba's Future

The cars in Cuba fascinate me. Where else in the world can one see a classic 1956 Oldsmobile, a shiny 1957 Chevy, and a 1970 VW bug alongside a new Audi and modern Chinese tour buses?

Our guide said there are four generations of cars in Cuba. First are those pre-revolutionary American cars—the vintage Chevys, Fords, Oldsmobiles, and Studebakers from the 1950s that somehow keep running. Then came the Russian-made Ladas, the small, ugly, square compacts that look like Fiats stripped of any Italian design.

By the ’70s and ’80s, Japanese and other Asian cars started trickling into Cuba, and they became the auto of choice after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then, in the last decade, the more expensive European cars began showing up. More recently, a fleet of fancy buses, mostly from China, has arrived to shuttle around the 2.5 million tourists now visiting the island each year (and improve public transportation in general).

The cars, of course, reflect the stages of Cuba’s economic relationship with the outside world: the embargo from the U.S., its initial reliance on all things Russian, then growing global trade, followed by the influx of European tourists, and the recent economic resurgence of China.

Cars can now be bought and sold by Cubans. This is one example of dramatic new economic policies, approved last April, being instituted in Cuba. Dr. Osvaldo Martinez, director of Cuba’s World Economy Research Center, called these changes “shock therapy,” like that being experienced by Greece, Spain, and many countries. Cubans should no longer “idolize” the Cuban economic model, Martinez said. Salaries have been increasing faster than productivity. Foods are being imported that could be produced domestically, but weren’t because of the inefficiencies of centralized, Soviet-style agriculture. There has been an “exaggerated number of state employees,” and massive layoffs have been occurring. At times Martinez nearly sounded like a Republican.

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Down and Outraged

FOR A PERSON from the educated middle class who is going to pieces spiritually from lack of employment, often the hardest thing is maintaining appearances. Practically every cent and reserve of dignity is diverted into the illusion of gentility. Your clothes, technology, home, and public habits cannot be shabby. If a professional acquaintance suggests an expensive lunch, there is no avoiding it. If he or she says, “I’ll just message you when I’m leaving for the restaurant,” you must possess the proper gadget for receiving messages while in transit, for you can’t await word on your home computer when the acquaintance expects to meet 10 minutes later.

Accompanying this financial shadow play is the anguish of what to call yourself. Diplomas, publications, and authenticity of intellect don’t define your status—credibility comes from your institutional base. Establishing this base is increasingly difficult. Look at the appellations people use when they publish little essays and commentaries: There are an astonishing number of fellows, advisers, experts, strategists, associates, analysts, and specialists, not to speak of freelancers and of course consultants, whose titles are not linked to any institution. Despite privileged backgrounds, this group’s privilege is now almost entirely theoretical. Lack of property, land, stock, and savings point to the decline of their class and status. Still, their most sickening fear comes from finding themselves marooned outside institutions, with little hope of climbing back in and no skills on which to rely when their ideas and insights are of no monetary value.

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Customer Service 101

Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Customer examines myriad soft drink choices in a NJ Wal-Mart. Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Imagine a Catholic Church that stopped catering to its tiny cadre of old male bishops and heard instead the cries of its people. Or a fundamentalist movement that stopped defending its franchise by nonsensical attacks on evolution and modernity, and instead took Scripture seriously.

Imagine a conservative Christian movement that dropped its relentless assault on women's rights and instead sought a fresh vision of family and values. Or a progressive movement that listened to people, rather than lecturing them.

Too many "providers" — in politics, business and religion — come across as having a low opinion of their constituents. People tend to be good judges of what matters to them. Voters know this recession better than their would-be leaders seem to know it. Believers seem to take their faith more seriously than those institutions that seek to enroll them as members.

Must Watch: Richard Wilkinson's TED Talk

Richard Wilkinson on TED.com: How economic inequality harms societies

We feel instinctively that societies with huge income gaps are somehow going wrong. Richard Wilkinson charts the hard data on economic inequality, and shows what gets worse when rich and poor are too far apart: real effects on health, lifespan, even such basic values as trust.

Watch Wilkinson's TED talk inside the blog...

The Price of "Betterness"

Umair Haque via Wylio http://bit.ly/AugRQB
Umair Haque speaking at the 2009 NEXT conference in Berlin. Via Wylio http://bit.ly/AugRQB

If you’re on Twitter, you may well have a few people that you follow with such enthusiasm that it occasionally feels a little like you’re stalking them. You re-tweet every article they post, nod along with every inspiring tweet they type and include them in your Follow Friday list every week.

Even if that’s not true for you, it’s certainly true for me of one person in particular — Umair Haque.

Haque is a self-titled “author, blogger, thinker, reformer.” But the more I read of his work, the more inclined I am to add the title “prophet” to that list of descriptors.

Haque is a prophet in the sense that he is preaching a message that is for a specific group of people (those who are disenfranchised but not quite cynical enough to give up yet) at a specific point in time (now, in a time of economic malaise). His words cut right to the heart of what has been going wrong in our world, and they are words that many, many people need to hear.

So it was with great relish that I purchased his new digital book, Betterness: Economics for Humans, excited to hear these words.

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