Welcome to week 265! The articles below caught my attention this week. Please note that what are intended to be relatively objective “briefs” are preceded by dashes (——–), whereas additional material or relatively subjective comments are preceded by asterisks (********). The links to articles preceded by [SR] require a subscription to be read in their entirety, although complete articles may frequently be found by an Internet title search.
(4 May 2016): “Are We Entering A New Golden Age Of Guano?” (http://daily.jstor.org/golden-age-of-guano/)
——–“A history of civilization could be written in fertilizers. Since the advent of agriculture more than 10,000 years ago, the essential problem has been the same: How do we replace the nutrients extracted from soils by crops? . . . Although the list of traditional fertilizers is long and bizarre, none has so strange a history as guano, which was once the agricultural equivalent of gold.”
********The article points out that “Manures like guano make great fertilizer because they both add nutrients and help build soils. Synthetic fertilizers don’t do the latter.” In addition, synthetics are responsible for a host of byproducts with undesirable consequences. However, guano production will no likely play a large factor in displacing synthetic fertilizers, as “Guano production today is about 12,000 tons annually, at the peak of guano importation to the U.S., in 1854, 175,849 tons arrived.”
(12 May 2016): “Pew report details decline of income, middle class in NC metro areas” (http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article77287702.html)
——–“Median household income fell 8 percent nationwide between 1999 and 2014 when adjusted for inflation, but the decline was especially severe in some of North Carolina’s small metropolitan areas, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center. Winston-Salem, Burlington, Rocky Mount and Goldsboro all experienced declines in median income of 20 percent or more during that period and rank among the 10 worst-performing metro areas included in the study.”
********Pew’s overview of its report can be found at: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/05/11/americas-shrinking-middle-class-a-close-look-at-changes-within-metropolitan-areas/. At that link you can access the Complete Report, Detailed Tables, and other materials. On page 51 of the Complete Report (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2016/05/Middle-Class-Metro-Areas-FINAL.pdf), the reasoning behind “The choice of time periods” is explained. It notes that although is generally desirable “to avoid comparisons across different points of the business cycle.” In this study, “the income comparisons may not involve exactly comparable points in the business cycle.” Worth remembering.
(13 May 2016): “Federal Microbiome Project Aims to Solve Tiny Riddles of Science” (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/13/us/politics/federal-microbiome-project-aims-to-solve-tiny-riddles-of-science.html)
——–“The Obama administration on Friday will announce the latest in its scientific ‘moonshots,’ this one in the red-hot field of microbiomes—the trillions of micro-organisms in places like soil and the human gut. The new National Microbiome Initiative is intended to create scientific tools, discoveries and training techniques that could advance efforts to cure asthma and depression, clean up oil spills and even increase crop yields.” According to the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, John P. Holdren, “This initiative is about connecting a lot of the threads and looking for common insights across different domains.”
********You can learn more about the Initiative at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/05/12/fact-sheet-announcing-national-microbiome-initiative. A complete list of participating agencies and institutions, with brief descriptions, can be found at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/documents/OSTP%20National%20Microbiome%20Initiative%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf.
(13 May 2016): “Antitrust in the Age of Amazon” (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/13/business/office-depot-staples-merger-antitrust-amazon.html)
——–“In the age of Amazon, evaluating antitrust concerns is sometimes twisting government officials into knots. That was made clear this week, when the Federal Trade Commission blocked the merger of Office Depot and Staples, in part by drawing elaborate distinctions between who buys pens and printer ink cartridges, and how. The products are widely available online, of course, including from Amazon . . . But big companies, the F.T.C. argued, like to shop in bulk, and often don’t buy their ink from the same places as people shopping for themselves. For bulk purchases of Post-it Notes and pens, Office Depot and Staples are the primary options.” The arguments of the Commission underscore “just how complicated it has become to judge Amazon’s place in the retail industry. To put it simply: The agency does not think that the company benefits all customers equally.”
********Presumably, potential competition is a factor this is (or ought to be) considered in assessing the impact of a merger. In the age of the Internet one would think that the possibility for potential competition for incumbents would be meaningfully expanded. A new competitor might be developed—I am grossly overstating the case—simply by writing a few lines of code.
(13 May 2016): “The new book ‘The Other Slavery’ will make your rethink American history” (http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-native-american-slavery-20160505-snap-story.html)
——–“It is not often that a single work of history can change the course of an entire field and upset the received notions and received knowledge of the generations but that is exactly what” Andrés Reséndez does in The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. Reséndez “boldly argues that slavery, not necessarily disease and misfortune, was the one part of the colonial matrix that decimated the indigenous population of North America and the institution of this ‘other slavery’ was the model for all others.”
********So, it would seem, the African slave trade seems to have been influenced by the slavery of indigenous populations “that was in many ways more fundamental.” A book like this (http://www.amazon.com/Other-Slavery-Uncovered-Enslavement-America/dp/0547640986/) would probably provide an enriching context for reading Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds (http://www.amazon.com/Honest-Patriots-Country-Remember-Misdeeds/dp/0195378830). The economics of slavery has long been a controversial topic in the economics literature, with the 1974 book Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Slavery (http://www.amazon.com/Time-Cross-Economics-American-Slavery/dp/0393312186/), being one important element of it. Perhaps The Other Slavery will provide a new perspective for such work.
(15 May 2016): “China killed thousands of Maine jobs. Now it’s eating up the state’s lobsters.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/05/15/this-tiny-american-town-is-staking-its-future-on-chinese-foodies/)
——–Little Cranberry Island, off the coast of Maine, with 70 inhabitants and “China, a nation of 1.4 billion people, increasingly find themselves connected by the shifting currents of the world economy. The rise of China’s middle class has coincided with a boom in Maine’s lobster population, resulting in a voracious new market for the crustacean’s succulent, sweet meat. Exports of lobsters to China, nonexistent a decade ago, totaled $20 million last year. The bright red color of a lobster’s cooked shell is considered auspicious, making it a staple during Chinese festivals and at weddings. The lobster’s tale is a testament to the complexities of the global marketplace—and a reminder that the line between economic winners and losers is not always clear.” The increased catch of lobster, possibly due to the decline of the Cod fishery, has necessitated the development of new customers in order to prevent large price declines and China was the natural market to cultivate.
********The article points to the interesting structure of Maine’s lobster fishermen. “Each of Maine’s 5,785 lobstermen is an independent business: A license allows its holder to own one boat, and he must do the fishing himself. . . . State law prohibits dealers from owning boats and lobstermen from becoming dealers, ensuring this $500 million industry remains decentralized.” The desire to cultivate the Chinese market is especially easy to understand when we recall recent European concerns about the invasive character of American lobsters in European waters: http://www.wsj.com/articles/marauding-american-lobsters-find-themselves-in-hot-water-1462457114.
(16 May 2016): “Consultants” Recommending Consultations For 100+ Years” (http://daily.jstor.org/consultants-recommending-consultations-100-years/)
——–“In a 2001 paper, Christopher D. McKenna traces the history of the management consulting industry, offering clues into what real value the firms provide. . . . [T]he first consulting groups were partnerships of accountants, lawyers, and engineers formed in the 1920s. . . . Companies hired them to look at problems they were having in specific departments. A defining moment for the industry came in 1933, with the passage of the Glass-Steagall Act, separating commercial and investment banking. Commercial banks were no longer allowed to do consulting and reorganization works for clients.” As a result, “new firms rose up to take their place. Instead of narrow tweaks to specific processes, they began advising large corporations about broad, fundaments aspects of their business.”
********The article by McKenna, which is linked at the bottom of the post, was later followed up by a book: The World’s Newest Profession: Management Consulting in the Twentieth Century (http://www.amazon.com/Worlds-Newest-Profession-Management-Consulting/dp/0521757592/).
May you have a good week!