- Last Updated on Wednesday, 25 March 2009 19:06
- Published on Wednesday, 25 March 2009 19:06
- Hits: 614
Even though I live in the suburbs I am always surprised by just how many wild creatures manage to make their lives in the scant bits of habitat that still remain. Somehow they manage to forge an existence in between the tract housing, the asphalt driveways, and the manicured lawns of modern day suburbia.
Some people may consider them a nuisance, but my reaction is entirely different. I enjoy them immensely, whether it’s their occasional, at least in our eyes, quirky behavior, or whether it’s just watching them be themselves.
It was just before Christmas when I had my first ever interaction, up close that is, with an opossum. Opossums, as a rule, aren’t that sociable and I can’t deny that I find them a little scary looking. With their long snout and skinny tail they have a have something of a primeval appearance to them. At the very least they look like they would be more at home in Australia than they are in the Northern Neck.
But this was an experience that changed my view of possums. I came home from a Christmas party one evening and found an opossum sitting in the rocking chair on my front porch. I assumed he would run off as soon as I approached, but he didn’t. He just wouldn’t move. This wasn’t normal animal behavior and I wondered if he might have rabies. I called the police, who along with a remarkably cheerful animal control warden became the core of a late night possum watch.
It was an unusual sight – three grown men, debating at length, what this possum, sitting in a rocking chair on my front porch, was up to. The animal control warden doubted it was rabies since opossums have a body temperature which makes it hard for the virus to take hold. He figured the opossum had been frightened, perhaps by a car, or maybe by a dog and was just scared.
We all seemed to empathize with him and we agreed that the best thing to do was to let him spend the night in the rocking chair. He apparently left sometime during the night.
Then there is the rabbit. Rabbits, as a rule, like to go out during the day. They want to be able to easily spot predators and get away from them as quickly as possible. At night they prefer to be tucked up safe and sound in their hutches.
But, not Clyde.
Yes, we’ve named this particular suburban critter and he is our local brown rabbit. Clyde, unlike most rabbits prefers to roam during the night. I guess he likes to live dangerously. I have seen him several times around midnight and on occasion, when I have had to leave for work especially early, just before sunrise. He is the first night owl bunny I have ever met.
Some of the other animals in the neighborhood aren’t all that unusual. We have a fox who like most foxes prefers as little human contact as possible. To his human neighbors he is a passing reddish brown blur.
However, not all foxes are quite so standoffish. A friend of mine was a part of the elite detail that guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He recalled that during his tour there was a fox that took up residence in the ground just beyond the tomb. The fox usually showed up around three in the morning and with rapt attention would sit and watch the men do their slow and solemn back and forth march. The fox, which the soldiers in their straight ahead gaze could only catch out of the corner of their eyes, became a special nighttime visitor.
Unfortunately, some of the animals that used to visit my house don’t anymore. New development, the clear cutting of some nearby forested land, and the resulting loss of habitat have taken their toll. Many, I think simply weren’t intended to be suburban critters. The owl that used to drop by from time to time is a good example. I have always heard that an owl “hoots,” but not mine. This owl reminded me of the way my grandfather used to cough. But, for whatever reason, he has moved on and no other owl has come to take his place. He may have had an annoying hoot, but I still miss him.
Animals and the suburbs don’t always mix and from time to time, whether it’s a flower bed that was there one night and gone the next morning or a tree that gets gnawed on by a beaver, they can be trying. But I also get a lot of enjoyment out of them, whether it’s the rabbit that doesn’t know when to go to bed or the slightly demented opossum. It’s a feeling that as homogenized as life can be in the suburbs that there is still some room for the animals that make their homes alongside ours.
- Last Updated on Wednesday, 18 March 2009 17:14
- Published on Wednesday, 18 March 2009 17:14
- Hits: 553
In the after work get togethers on Capitol Hill, or in the serious Washington briefings on the economy, there is a term that is occasionally alluded to but almost never said out loud. Sometimes it’s simply referred to as the “d word.” It sounds better that way. That’s because no one wants to say or even hint at the prospect that America may be headed for an economic depression. And who can blame them.
However, there is one problem with this discussion. When it comes to economics and studying the American economy, no one is quite sure where a recession ends and a depression begins.
Before World War II we didn’t even use the word recession. Instead, any economic downturn, no matter how modest, was called a depression. With that definition, we had lots of depressions well in advance of the big one in 1929.
There was a serious economic downturn in the 1890’s, another in 1909, and another just after World War I. Economic data in those periods wasn’t as closely tracked as it is today. Unemployment data, for example, was a best guess estimate and there was no such thing as a consumer confidence index. However, most of these downturns, using modern day definitions would probably be called recessions.
The accepted definition of a recession is two quarters, back to back, when the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contracts. In the U.S. we have been in one for a year now with the most recent GDP downturn reaching 6.2%. However, economists don’t necessarily like this definition because it covers too much time. Our economy can be in a severe downturn long before it’s officially labeled a recession.
Secondly, it’s a definition that’s too dependent on just one indicator. Many think that unemployment and consumer confidence should factor in as well. Right now, both indicators, with unemployment at 7.6% and growing, and consumer confidence at its lowest since the survey began, are strong indicators of just what kind of downturn we’re facing.
But, what about a depression? When does a recession become a depression?
One definition, and though not universally accepted is nonetheless a good rule of thumb, is that if the GDP dips by more than 10% we’re in a depression. Under that definition, thank goodness, we have a ways to go.
The United States hasn’t seen this kind of decline since the 1930’s, but other countries, in modern times, have. Japan, one of the world’s largest economies, saw its fourth quarter 2008 GDP decline at an annualized rate of 12.7%. That’s a staggering drop and if it keeps up Japan will soon be in a full fledged economic depression.
Russia, in the 1990’s easily met this definition. Just after the fall of communism Russian GDP fell by over 50%. By 1993 unemployment was at nearly a third of the workforce and government receipts in taxes were so low that the new federal government couldn’t pay its bills. To deal with the situation they printed currency which forced the value of the ruble so low that a barter economy rose to take its place. That’s a real economic collapse.
However, perhaps the best benchmark is our own Great Depression. But even then this example isn’t as straightforward as some people recall. The Depression was actually two big declines. Not just one. In 1929, with the stock market crash representing the opening act of an economic meltdown, the GDP began a decline that lasted almost four years.
By 1932 output was slightly more than half of what it had been in 1929. Unemployment is estimated to have been 25%, but was probably more. However, the economy, mostly thanks to the New Deal began a recovery in 1933. That helped get FDR reelected in a landslide in 1936.
But in 1937 Roosevelt backed away from the heavy pump priming of his first term and this started another economic downturn. This represented what some have labeled a “second” depression that lasted from 1937 to 1938.
Unemployment surged and the GDP fell by more than 10%. It was only spending for armament purchases by the Allies, Lend-Lease and our eventual entry into World War II that truly ended the depression.
Any definition of a depression, particularly in a highly complex economy like ours, needs to be qualified. It also needs to include an analysis of the fundamental strength of key institutions. This is where comparisons between the 1930’s and today start to become uncomfortable.
During the Great Depression there was more than a decline in demand. There was also, and it can be argued that we’re teetering on the brink of this today, a collapse in the credit markets. Banks failed on a massive scale. Lines of credit, loans, and what limited mortgage market there was in those days, completely dried up.
Another factor in deciding whether we’re in a depression is just how long it lasts. A downturn can be sharp, but if it’s short, it will probably avoid the moniker of being labeled a depression.
That’s some of the thinking behind the stimulus bill. Historically government spending has been useful in stemming economic downturns. But this is a big economy, much bigger and more complex than it was in 1933, and whether or not the spending contained in the $780 billion stimulus bill is large enough and contains the right components to revive a $14 trillion economy is still a big question.
However, hopefully, the economy will revive, or at least not dip too low and the term depression will be one that doesn’t become the official label for the current economic crises.
- Last Updated on Wednesday, 11 March 2009 19:53
- Published on Wednesday, 11 March 2009 19:53
- Hits: 517
When times are good almost no one pays attention to economic indicators. But when times are bad, it’s an entirely different story.
All at once, people who could have cared less about Gross Domestic Product, the Consumer Confidence Index, or such arcane statistics as new orders for durable goods, start hanging on every economic announcement. They’re looking for signs that things are improving, but more often than not in the current environment, are bracing for more bad news.
However, perhaps the most watched indicator, and the one that can spawn optimism or by itself bring even greater anxiety, is unemployment. This is the statistic that hits home and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in February, reached 8.1%. Looking at it historically that’s not as bad as it sounds. In the early 1980’s unemployment was hovering around 9% and the economy managed a very rapid turnaround. But, if you’ve lost your job and can’t find another, that comment isn’t very helpful.
Many people would be surprised to know just how much trouble the government goes to in order to calculate the unemployment rate. While the unemployment statistic is derived by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a part of the Department of Labor, the survey data itself is collected by the Census Bureau. They’re under the Department of Commerce. What can I say? It’s a surprisingly collaborative undertaking.
Each month the government surveys some 60,000 households to develop what’s called the “current population survey.” This data is collected by mail, by phone, and even in one-on-one interviews. The Census Bureau, and we know they’re a nosey bunch to begin with, ask a lot of questions in this survey and among them are questions about who has a job and who doesn’t.
There are also follow on questions about how recently a member of the household was laid off from work; was their decision to leave work voluntary; are they actively looking for work; are they receiving unemployment insurance; and on the less optimistic side, are they discouraged and not actively seeking employment.
This gives the Bureau of Labor Statistics a lot to work with in calculating their monthly summaries. The basic unemployment statistic we’re used to hearing is a simple calculation. It’s the number of unemployed, defined by what’s called the U3 statistic, which represents those who are unemployed but willing to work, divided by the total labor force. Easy enough, but nothing is ever quite that simple in economics. The details get a bit more complicated. For instance, out of the roughly 200 million who make up our prospective workforce, the number includes the military. It also includes people in prison. Before the 1980’s neither one of these groups was used in the calculation. It’s been said that the only reason these two groups are included is to make the unemployment rate seem lower.
However, the number that probably warrants more attention is simply in the definition of who is unemployed and who isn’t. The Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies several levels of unemployed. From those who are voluntarily out of work, to those actively looking for work, those who are part-timers, and those who have become discouraged and don’t bother anymore. However, only those actively looking for work are included in the monthly statistic.
It’s also been argued, and the data from this era isn’t as thorough as it is today, that the great depression’s 25% unemployment rate is well short of what it actually was. Some economists think that if itinerant workers (there were roughly 1 million Americans in this category during the depths of the depression), part-timers, and discouraged workers are factored in, the number reached almost a third of the workforce. For many people who lived through this era that doesn’t sound unreasonable, but it’s unlikely that anyone will ever have a firm grip on the data or the actual statistic.
The current calculation, while more precise than those available 80 years ago, still doesn’t represent a resolution of that debate. While this month’s number is 8.1% (high when you consider that it was 4.4% a year ago), when other types of unemployment data collected in the government’s survey are factored in, the number increases considerably. This data, given the ominous references of U4, U5, and U6 – the unemployment statistic we hear on the news is called U3 – includes part time workers, discouraged workers, and the rather sad sounding reference, marginally attached workers. When these numbers are included, the number gets closer to 13%.
However, data, and what it means, can be debated by economists for hours on end. In fact, this discussion on how to calculate the national unemployment rate has been raging for years. But what make the unemployment rate so unique is that unlike all the other economic indicators it’s=2 0personal.
Everyone, even those who have never been unemployed, feels a touch of anxiety every time they wait for the announcement of the monthly unemployment report. Hopefully though, it won’t be long, before the rate, instead of increasing, levels off, and begins what we all hope will be a steady decline.
- Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 March 2009 18:02
- Published on Wednesday, 04 March 2009 18:02
- Hits: 558
Every Governor wants a legacy. But in Virginia, with only one term in which to leave their mark, it’s a tough thing to do.
Mills Godwin in his first term created the Community College system.
Linwood Holton presided over the enactment of a new state constitution that for the first time in a century had no reference to segregation or discrimination.
John Dalton focused on efficiency and a lean government.
Chuck Robb and Jerry Baliles put their emphasis on building the state’s education system and George Allen did away with parole and created the standards of learning.
More recently, Mark Warner succeeded in bringing both sides of an increasingly hostile legislature together to put Virginia’s financial house in order.
However, Tim Kaine, a decent man, well liked and generally thought to be a good governor, has had a tough time creating a legacy. Certainly not one that fits into the mold of his predecessors. As the last legislative term of his administration comes to a close, the Governor can’t point to any landmark legislation that be considered the Kaine legacy.
This isn’t necessarily his fault.
The Governor has tried hard to propose new ideas and new initiatives, but none managed to make it into law. Unfortunately, Kaine just wasn’t able to navigate the shoals of politics in Richmond. He faced a doggedly partisan and conservative House of Delegates. The State Senate was often an ally, but he was never able to do what Mark Warner did and find much common ground with the House.
His transportation bill was a good example. This was his signature issue in 2005, but the legislature, and in particular the House, never gave him an inch. He proposed a long term capital fund to support state transportation improvements. Under this notion, funding for transportation improvements would be separate from the operating budget and would have its own source of funds.
For the thousands of Virginians routinely stuck in traffic on I-81, I-66, I-64, and I-95, it made a lot of sense, but the legislature wouldn’t budge. They nixed the idea in 2006.
Later in 2007 the Governor, unfortunately, put his signature to an embarrassing bill, crafted by the House and Senate that raised transportation money from regional authorities and created a special abusers fee for driving infractions. The former was declared unconstitutional and the latter unleashed such a firestorm from drivers that it was quickly repealed.
Alas, that was just about it when it came to the Governor’s legacy on transportation.
Pre-kindergarten was another idea the governor put at the top of his list. It too was an excellent idea. Unfortunately, it didn’t get far. It needed funding and the legislature, once again, just wasn’t behind it. The Governor couldn’t craft a compromise with House Republicans and the idea continues to languish.
The one success, and this is to his credit, is the smoking ban. Thanks to the unlikely, but welcomed cooperation of Speaker Bill Howell, Virginia, the home of the tobacco industry has a ban on smoking in restaurants. Restaurant workers and non-smokers who have breathed in unwelcomed second hand smoke for years are grateful.
However, it’s important to note that Governor Kaine hasn’t been like most Virginia governors. Usually, even those with higher ambitions aren’t all that partisan. It’s sort of a Virginia thing.
But, Kaine never shied away from his Democratic Party identity. This might have been part of his problem in dealing with a GOP legislature, but it also had its returns. During his administration Virginia moved steadily towards the Democratic column. During his tenure, and thanks to his hard work, the State Senate is now dominated by the Democrats while the House of Delegates has added eleven new Democratic members.
At the same time, during his administration, the state elected two Democratic U.S. Senators and watched as a majority of its Congressional delegation went to the Democrats. Most substantially, for the first time in forty four years, Virginia voted for a Democrat for President. And Kaine, an early Obama, supporter was rewarded with the Chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee.
Kaine’s legacy, while not so remarkable when it comes to legislation is likely to be strong for other reasons. He will be the Governor who helped guide Virginia away from its long Republican tradition. He organized, planned, and worked tirelessly to shift the politics of the state and he succeeded. Thanks to Tim Kaine nothing from this point is going to be the same.
- Last Updated on Wednesday, 18 February 2009 05:00
- Published on Wednesday, 18 February 2009 05:00
- Hits: 563
It wasn’t much of a news item. I guess it was a slow news day, because it got picked up by news services all over the country. But the White House, shortly after President Obama took office, announced that it had lost its e-mail service.
The outage didn’t last long, but the Obama White House, perhaps one of the most technology savvy administrations we’ve ever had, was at a loss as to how to handle the situation.
How do you live without e-mail?
Fortunately, some of the older staff, thinking back to their younger days, managed to keep things rolling. Instead of the constant clicking of keyboards and blackberries, the staff used the phone, and in several cases talked with their cohorts directly.
In many modern offices these are all but forgotten skills. The White House staff even found a stash of “while you out” phone message pads, no doubt left over from the Nixon Administration, so that bewildered White House staff could return phone calls.
Fortunately, before they reached the end of their patience, the e-mail servers, the gadgets which make modern office e-mail work, came back on line. Once again, the first President ever to have a Blackberry of his own, could, like the rest of us, go back to the constant e-mailing that defines modern work life.
I am, I have to admit it, as hooked on e-mailing and instant messaging as anyone can be. I have been through several blackberries, and yes, have had the infamous blackberry thumb.
For those of you not up on these terms, blackberry thumb is what you get when you hold your blackberry in one hand and use your thumb to send messages. It’s a form of muscle strain. The only cure is to stop trying to send messages using one hand, or even to stop using the blackberry to send messages altogether.
Though it’s estimated that 73% of Americans, and nearly 1.5 billion people worldwide, have some kind of access to e-mail, there is a move in some companies to have e-mail free days. This may or may not be a good idea, but the goal is to encourage more interpersonal contact. Rather than e-mailing customers, these companies want their sales agents, to talk to them directly.
The same is true for their fellow employees.
Instead of e-mailing the person in the next cubicle, which is more common than you think, they are encouraging face-to-face contact. It’s been noted that the social skills for some employees decline because they become so dependent on e-mail. The hope is that an e-mail free Friday might reverse this trend.
There also one thing many email users forget. E-mail, once it’s sent takes on a life of its own. An e-mail, admitting to some indiscretion, voicing a particular prejudice, or sent went you’re angry, can, depending on who you send it to, be forwarded to possibly hundreds, if not thousands of people.
In Virginia e-mail sent to or by public officials is bound by the requirements of the Federal Freedom of Information Act. In other words, if you send an e-mail to your county supervisor that you would prefer not be shared with the rest of world, be careful. There have been several instances, all relatively recent, where citizens and various groups have requested copies of the e-mail traffic for county supervisors or local school boards.
While not that exciting I doubt that the citizens writing their public officials realized that their messages, once they hit that send button, had become public property.
E-mail has another serious drawback.
It makes it a lot easier to send a message when you’re angry or when you don’t know all the facts. I know, because I have sent a couple like that. Perhaps one of the best teachers in this regard was Winston Churchill. Winston didn’t have e-mail, but he did write a lot of letters, and some of them, depending upon his mood could be caustic. So, Churchill, having learned his lesson over time directed his staff to hold his outgoing letters until the next day.
His files include dozens of letters that he wrote and never sent. You can do that with e-mail too, and a lot of people would be wise to learn that feature. I have.
The number of e-mails that get sent each day probably numbers in the billions. That means that e-mail free Fridays could just be a passing fad. But from time to time, it might be nice, if instead of an e-mail, we actually spoke to our office mates, or that fellow down the hall. You know, the one you’ve e-mailed, but never met. He might turn out to be a lot more interesting in person.
- Last Updated on Wednesday, 11 February 2009 20:15
- Published on Wednesday, 11 February 2009 20:15
- Hits: 529
Virginia, in the 21st century, has a diverse economy. There is manufacturing, mining, all sorts of agricultural products, a strong financial services industry, research and high tech engineering.
However, there was a time, not that long ago, when tobacco dominated our economy. Just 25 years ago the tobacco industry was responsible for 54,000 jobs in the Commonwealth. Today it’s substantially smaller. Until recently, save for some crusading anti-smokers who didn’t mind tilting at windmills, no one would ever think of uttering a word about regulating the industry or for that matter the consumption of its products.
Indeed, tobacco occupies an almost mystical part of Virginia’s history. If it hadn’t been for John Rolfe’s introduction of tobacco to the Virginia Colony back in 1612, it’s doubtful that the struggling settlement would have survived. The colonists had tried to make money in gold, silk, soap ash, and timber, but none of these were successful. It looked like the Colony in Virginia was headed for failure. But, tobacco changed all that.
Almost over night, the Virginia Colony turned into a financial success. Virginia tobacco, whose original breed was based on a plant grown in Trinidad, was in demand all over Europe. Fortunes were made and dynasties secured. Tobacco, as the lynchpin of the state’s economy was secure.
However, those days are past. Tobacco farming and cigarette production is still an important segment of our economy, but other concerns, about health and second hand smoke are finally being heard. Earlier in the year, the legislature considered an increase in the tobacco tax. It didn’t make it. But one change, that’s on the verge of becoming law, and frankly I never thought would see the light of day, is a restriction on the consumption of tobacco in restaurants.
There is strong statistical evidence that smoking isn’t just harmful to the smoker, it’s also bad for those around them. According to the Virginia Department of Health some 1,700 people die because of the effects of second hand smoke. Restaurant workers in particular are considered uniquely vulnerable since they have to put up with the smoke for their entire shift. The Governor has been a supporter of restricting tobacco use in restaurants for several years, but his proposals haven’t gotten very far in the past. However, this year it’s a different story. In a move that surprised both sides, Speaker of the House Bill Howell (R-Stafford) put aside partisan politics on this issue and has worked with Senate leaders and the Governor to craft a compromise bill. It’s one that is for the most part acceptable to all sides. It’s not an outright ban, but it represents the first statewide attempt to restrict smoking in a public place and it’s a major step forward in promoting public health.
Under the proposal smoking will be banned in restaurants. However, the owners, if they want to continue to allow their patrons to smoke, will be obliged to construct a separate and sealed smoking area. Some facilities are likely to do this while others might find it easier just to go along with the ban. Interestingly enough many restaurant owners don’t mind the idea of a ban, just as long as it applies equally to their competitors.
The hard core no-smoking advocates, and some of them aren’t happy with this deal, wanted a complete ban. No smoking in a restaurant, at all, no matter what. This has worked just fine in some states, but this is Virginia. Given the politics of the state, and its love affair with tobacco they should realize that this is a policy change of historical proportions and welcome it.
On the other side of the spectrum there are the folks who note, rightly, that tobacco is a legal product and further say that interfering with its consumption violates individual rights. They aren’t too interested in the second hand smoke argument. They consider the statistics dubious and want to smoke wherever they please.
At the moment, Phillip Morris, the state’s biggest tobacco producer, hasn’t taken a position on the ban, while the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association is opposing it. However, with a majority of the State Senate, the strong and possibly firm handed support of Speaker Howell, Virginia, in an amazing step is likely going to regulate public the consumption of tobacco. From a public health standpoint this is a change that can’t come any too soon. It’s been said that the Virginia General Assembly, given its deep divisions and partisan hostility, has trouble agreeing on whether it’s day or night. Let alone passing needed legislation. However, if this bill passes, then all I can say is - nicely done.