September 23, 2011

FTL neutrinos

Ok, in addition to my longstanding scientific prediction that the god particle (Higgs boson) does not exist and will therefor never be found: the neutrino speed measurement will turn out to be an experimental error or will disappear with higher-order terms in the theoretical calculations underpinning the interpretation of the result.

Reason for this prediction? Massive photons cannot play a role in QED, and QED is the most accurate theoretical framework we have. The maximum speed could be assumed to be different for particles that interact electrically (photons, neutrons, protons, electrons, ...) and those that only interact through the weak force (like neutrinos). However, some particles interact both ways. It seems messy and ad hoc.

So, at my most cynical, and with excuses to my former colleagues, I call this just PR BS, a way to keep the non-scientific public interested now that the god particle seems to be off the table. It's a good attempt, though, and it might easily drag out for a couple of years. But something better needs to be found.

September 06, 2011

How serious is the US federal debt

Based on data from

Forget all the graphs you've seen. This is the one that matters: it charts the ratio of the federal debt to the federal income. It is easy to see that the debt level only went over 700% in 1932 and in 1940. WWII allowed the US government to double in size (income-wise), which is why the fiscal picture improved.

Note also that the data past 2010 is projected. The 2011 debt number is probably not far off, but the recovery in 2012 is speculative.

A more optimistic view is given by looking at the total government debt - which is dominated by the federal debt - and the total government income - which is dominated by state and local government income. To wit, the total US government debt is 18 trillion, the total US government income is 5.5 trillion (2011 estimates), so the debt is only about 320% of income. Regrettably, local authorities provide only the bare essential services, and are already cutting them to the bone. It's not likely that they can help service the federal debt - in fact the money flows the other way.

An interesting sidenote is that US government income is already 35% of US GDP - twice what it was in 1930. Considering that much of the GDP is not really taxable income (like the 10% of GDP that comes from counting the "rent" that people "pay" to themselves to live in their own houses), it's clear that the US government can't expand all that easily. Certainly it cannot double in size the way it did during WWII - not without nationalizing almost everything.

August 23, 2011

Ummm, yeah...

August 22, 2011

The difficulty of translation

A catchy tune, created by a Belgian composer, has been translated in 100 languages (at least). Yet many translations miss the most important lines of the original:

L'égalité veut d'autres lois
Pas de droits sans devoirs dit-elle
Egaux, pas de devoirs sans droits.

Freely translated "Equality demands different laws: no rights without duties, no duties without rights". But in translations, the duties seem to go missing. Strange...

March 10, 2011

Job creation and the deep gap

In February 2011, 192,000 jobs were added in the US. Most reports say that it's "encouraging" while cautioning that it's going to take several years at this pace to recover the ground lost in the recession.

How long?

Well, in February 2011, 138 million people were employed, whereas three years before there were 144.5 million employed (BLS data, monthly employment level, table A, no seasonal adjustment). The difference is actually 6.457 million.

In the same period (2/2008 to 2/2011), the number of multiple job holders dropped from 7.6 million to 6.9 million. To be exact, 728,000 jobs were lost. Most of these jobs were part-time, though, and counting them as full jobs lost seems excessive. Let's count part-time jobs as half jobs, so 364,000 full job equivalents were lost.

Again over the same period, the number of people working part-time went up from 25 million to 27.4 million. This amounts to 2.4 million people going part-time from full-time. Counting part time jobs for 50%, this amounts to another 1.2 million jobs lost. There is little overlap between these numbers and the numbers of the multiple job holders, I think, as the latter end up being fully employed.

So, my estimate of the number of full-time equivalent jobs lost in the last three years is 8 million.

Moreover, in the same period, the civilian non-institutional population also increased by 6.042 million or 2.6%. Normally a rise in the population should lead to an increase in the labor force. In fact, we should expect the rise in the labor force to be the same, i.e. 2.6%. However, this didn't happen: the labor force rose only by a bit over 100K. The reason for this is that, although there are more people of working age, relatively fewer are actually interested in work at all. If we are to get back to the same employment situation as before the crisis, people will have to be brought back into the labor force. Suppose we should get back to the pre-crisis employment level, the labor force should expand by 2.6% over the 2008 numbers, which amounts to 3.957 million new workers. If we're to keep the same participation rate as in February 2008 (65.5%), this will require the creation of 2.952 million jobs.

So the job gap - the amount of jobs needed to get back to where the work force was in February 2008 - is almost exactly 11 million. This disregards the quality of these jobs, of course, but that is a very different topic.

Now, how long does it take to get 11 million jobs back? Over the past 3 years, keeping up with the growth in the civilian population would have required the creation of 2.952 million jobs. As population growth is slowing, this hurdle will lower, but for the next couple of years an annual addition of 900,000 jobs should probably do. That amounts to monthly job creation of 75,000.

So, only when job creation exceeds 75K we start working on reducing the job gap. That means that a monthly job creation rate of 200K will close the job gap in 88 months - a bit more than 7 years. An average job creation rate of 400K per month can get the gap closed in less than 3 years. The fastest sustained job growth we had in recent history (from 1992 to 2000) saw on average a 200K jobs created per month (all of this is still BLS data).

So there you go: if job creation rivals that of the nineties (200K/month), the job gap will be closed by 2018. It is worth remembering that the growth in the nineties was partly due to the internet bubble, so it's debatable whether this really is a sustainable rate.

In reality, then, it's more likely that some of the changes in the employment situation are permanent: more people will remain part-time employed, more people will stay completely out of the labor force and the participation rate will drop. If we just try to recover the 8 million jobs lost (and keep up with population growth), a 200K/month rate will accomplish this in something like 3 to 5 years. Call it a recovery to a new normal by 2015. Whether this new normal is stable remains to be seen.

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February 22, 2009

Extremely disheartening

The Great American Hope looks like it was a fleeting dream. Closing Guantanamo but keeping Baghram's prison (10 time larger, same lack of basic rights, same suspicion of torture) open. What the hell does he take us for? 

It is increasingly obvious that McCain would have been a better choice for the US. Boy, that hurt.

February 17, 2009

Making a stimulus a snoozer

It's not going to do much, this new stimulus bill. It's tiny, compared to the problem. It's slow, compared to the speed at which economic realities change and take hold in the public psyche. It has too many tax breaks, which are not efficient as stimuli, and are obviously temporary, as we all know that this money isn't a gift, it's a loan. Well, I hope we all still believe that the money will be paid back at some point. If that isn't the case, the foundation of the cheap credit that keeps the US running would be destroyed. 

Which brings us to California. It's not inconceivable that it actually goes bust - it really is in dire straits and it has very few options. What if it goes under, and people extrapolate? Same scenario - vastly increased borrowing costs for the government. That would be bad, with consequences going from simple government paralysis to loss of essential services. 

Pffft. The immediate danger of sudden systemic collapse has passed - probably was over several months ago - but the danger of a slow slide, deflation or permanent stagnation hasn't receded. It has barely diminished. 


I'm not a big MM fan, but Sicko was pretty interesting. It's on heavy rotation now on the movie channels here, and I can see why. In general it seems Europeans don't know or perhaps don't believe how the US system actually works - and vice versa. While it certainly is a biased movie, it doesn't seem to actually misrepresent the situation much. The only thing that is just silly is the Cuban stunt at the end. Fine, it hammers down the point, but I don't think it was necessary and its sensationalism damages the movie as a whole. 

So was the french doctor right, is it impossible for the US to get a similar system? Well, I had a brief optimistic spell, thinking that the US was perhaps ripe for real progress. I still think that enough Americans are willing to change, even in very drastic ways. But I think it is clear that Obama is not the man to push them along. Is there ever going to be a better time to push for universal health care than now, as part of the rescue package? Hopefully not. So why isn't it in there? It could have been sold as a way to level the playing field for the auto industry, a way to make unemployment checks go longer and a way to improve worker mobility. Surely it can be sold as a way to streamline healthcare, an industry that is dragging down the country by being preposterously inefficient. 

The sad truth is that universal healthcare seems to come about only in the wake of a devastating national tragedy (think WWII), during the formation of a new country or as part of a communist revolution. Since neither the dissolution of the USA, nor its reformation as a communist country are very likely in the near future, it seems reasonable to assume that UH can only make it in the US if the economy starts to go really downhill - depression style - or if it just refuses to improve in any fashion for a few years. Maybe Obama will be able to push it through in his second term. I guess that will have to pass for optimism for now.