Monday, February 20, 2012

The Real Numbers

The recent unemployment numbers have been promoted to the public as good news for America and good news for the president's reelection prospects, but this Investors' Business Daily editorial indicates that the good news is superficial and misleading. The jobless rate remains stuck above 8% where it's been ever since the month following the president's inauguration.

It's the longest stretch of high unemployment since the Great Depression, and, according to the Congressional Budget Office, it's expected to stay pretty much where it is through 2014:
Even worse for an administration straining to make the case that it deserves to be around for another four years is the real unemployment rate. It's not 8.3%, but closer to 15%, a figure that reflects those who "would like to work but have not searched for a job in the past four weeks as well as those who are working part time but would prefer full-time work," says the CBO.

Another White House problem comes from the CBO report: "The share of unemployed people looking for work for more than six months — referred to as the long-term unemployed — topped 40% in December 2009 for the first time since 1948, when such data began to be collected; it has remained above that level ever since."

The CBO data aren't isolated. Gallup reports that its unemployment rate based on weekly surveys stands at 9%, while underemployment is at a hefty 19%.

Also threatening Obama's re-election offensive is the nation's shrinking labor force. Many laid-off workers, frustrated by grim prospects, have stopped looking for jobs and are no longer in the labor pool.

That makes the jobless rate look better, as that number is a percentage of the labor force, not the overall national population. But those jobless Americans are real people who will cast real votes in November.

The trouble is fixing these facts in voters' minds. They need to know the full truth, not the half-truth the media and the White House feed them.
The pool of unemployed people who are seeking work is getting smaller as many of them simply give up. That makes it appear as if the number of unemployed is shrinking because the unemployment rate is a measure of those still looking for work.

I don't suppose we're likely to hear very often over the next eight months that real unemployment is much worse than the government reports it to be, but we should. To ignore these numbers when presenting the unemployment situation to the public is at best disingenuous and at worst dishonest.

Tone Deaf

Let's try to understand this. According to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, it's wrong for a religious employer to deny insurance coverage of contraceptives and abortifacients to their employees because that's imposing the employers' values on their employees. On the other hand, Ms Wasserman Schultz sees nothing wrong with the president imposing his values on the religious employers by requiring them to provide the coverage:
How people can be so tone deaf to the irony inherent in their words is sometimes astonishing.

At any rate, here's a question I wish someone would have asked Ms Schultz: Why is it wrong, exactly, for anyone who has the power to do so, to "impose" his or her beliefs on someone else?

Someone might say that the question is silly. It's just obvious, it might be asserted, that imposing one's beliefs is unfair, but that reply doesn't help much. It simply leads to the question why it's wrong to be unfair. Fairness is a moral virtue only if it's grounded in a transcendent moral authority, but transcendent grounds of right and wrong have no purchase in a secular society.

So what is it that makes it wrong for one group to use its power in a lawful way (the question might be expanded to include unlawful ways, but we need not go there now) to impose its version of moral right on everyone else? The answer is that, in a secular society, nothing makes it wrong other than that some people, in this case Ms Schultz, don't like the particular moral beliefs that they fear are being imposed.

The Shale Boom

It may be hard to believe with gas prices set to rise above $4.25 a gallon by late April, but this article suggests we're poised on the cusp of the millenial kingdom of energy. Of course the article is an oil industry publication, but still.

It appears that domestic energy production will soon solve our employment problems, our energy dependence problems, and possibly our balance of payments and debt problems. It sounds too good to be true so take it with a grain of salt, but the claims in the article would seem to be easy to refute were they false and easy to confirm if they're true:
A funny thing is happening on the way to the clean energy future–reality is setting in. There is ‘incontrovertible evidence’ about the economic growth and job creating effects of America’s unconventional oil and gas production boom – more than 600,000 jobs directly attributable to shale gas development. Even President Obama is praising the job creating benefits of ‘America’s resource boom’. America is getting its energy mojo back and that is good news but not the entire story.

Total US recoverable natural gas resources (includes conventional, unconventional in lower 48, Alaska and offshore) totals 4.244 quadrillion cubic feet according to the Institute for Energy Research:
  • Enough natural gas to meet US electricity demand for 575 years at current fuel demand for generation levels.
  • Enough natural gas to fuel homes heated by natural gas in the United States for 857 years.
  • More natural gas than Russia, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkmenistan combined.
Global oil shale resources exceed 10 trillion barrels. More than 1.8 trillion barrels of oil are trapped in shale in Federal lands in the western United States in the states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, of which 800 billion is considered recoverable–three times the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia.

A report from Price/Waterhouse/Coopers for the National Association of Manufacturers says low cost domestic natural gas will save $11 billion per year in US manufacturing costs over the next ten years and create more than a million new jobs. This new low cost energy reality is expected to increase disposable income by $2,000 per year per household in the United States.
Moreover, natural gas is the likely replacement for coal which is great for air quality as well as the economy:
After pursuing a virtual war on fossil fuels imposing one new regulation after another to undermine the economics and weaken the support for low cost energy production in order to reduce demand and thus emissions, opponents of fossil fuels are also faced with a stark new reality.

New regulations may force the premature closure of coal generation plants, but that capacity is likely to be replaced with high efficiency natural gas fired generation not renewable energy. Low gas prices are a much more virulent threat to coal than anything the US EPA can dream up in regulations and more ruthlessly efficient. So older coal plants will be replaced with newer, cleaner, cheaper natural gas plants not a bad market outcome. Not a bad environmental outcome either.
There's much more good news of this sort at the link. I suggest you digest it slowly since too much optimism taken too quickly can be hard on the heart after a decade of consistently gloomy prognostications about American decline and rising fuel costs.