271 (29 June 2016)

Welcome to week 271!  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.

(17 June 2016): “Robert Paine, Ecologist Who Found ‘Keystone Species,’ Dies at 83” (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/18/science/robert-paine-ecologist-who-found-keystone-species-dies-at-83.html)

——–“Robert Paine, a groundbreaking, hands-on ecologist who found that removing what he called a ‘keystone species’ from an environment could profoundly affect the fortunes of neighboring species, died on Monday in Seattle.  He was 83. . . . A teacher and researcher at the University of Washington for 36 years, Dr. Paine propounded his keystone theory in 1966 after studying ochre starfish, or sea stars, as they preyed on the mussel population along the rocky shore of Makah Bay, on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.”  Subsequently he studied otters, and “identified the predator starfish and the otters as keystone species, taking the name from the wedge-shaped apex of an arch that keeps it from collapsing.”  Of Paine, Princeton ecologist Simon Levin notes that his “influence cannot be overestimated,” commenting that Paine recognized that “to understand systems one had to perturb them.”  According to Peter Kareiva of UCLA, Paine “insisted on experiments in ecology at a time when others were content with simply explaining patterns.  I think he turned ecology from quantitative natural history into a modern science.”

********It would be interesting to explore the relationships between the development of experimental ecology and experimental economics.  JSTOR Daily also has a post on the life and work of Robert Paine: http://daily.jstor.org/how-the-keystone-species-concept-transformed-ecology/.  Included is a link to Paine’s original 1966 study of the Pisaster starfish, which is 12-pages long.  James MacDonald notes: “The results of Paine’s experiment were counterintuitive.  Species diversity was much higher when Pisaster was present than when they were removed. . . . Pisaster maintained balance in the ecosystem by selectively eating barnacles and mussels, preventing their otherwise excessive spread.”  At present, “the keystone species concept influences almost all areas of ecology. . . . The concept transformed the field of ecology.  And it all started with a couple of rock pools.”  What, I wonder, would be the economic equivalent of a keystone species?  A particular industry or technology?

(22 June 2016): “New map shows clustering of hog, poultry operations” (http://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article85169762.html)

********This article provides access to four maps summarizing various animal operations in North Carolina, with an emphasis on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).  The maps are Overview, County, Watershed, and Census block groups.  The Overview map shows the location of these operations, as well as the relative concentration of hog farms in the eastern part of the state.  The County map from numerical information about the number of animals, buildings, and waste.  The Watershed map shows the various watersheds of the state and numerical information (such as for the County map) for each watershed.  Finally, the Census map allows the user to “drill down” to the lowest level of aggregation.  I didn’t find the words of the article all that useful but I did find the maps a source of insight.  The maps appear to have been created by the Environmental Working Group (http://www.ewg.org/) and the Waterkeeper Alliance (http://waterkeeper.org/).

********Related to poultry operations more generally, they are likely to undergo significant changes in the future, as noted in “This could be the start to a whole new world of chicken” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/06/28/this-could-be-the-start-to-a-whole-new-world-of-chicken/).  The third-largest chicken producer in the U.S. “announced Monday that it will begin killing chickens using carbon dioxide or argon gas, so they can avoid being hung upside down” on their way to slaughter, the usual practice.  New guidelines, published by Perdue, indicated that the company “will expose chickens to more natural light, boost their activity levels and reduce the expectations for how fast chickens must grow.”  Although there is little doubt that these practices will increase the cost of raising chickens, producers recognize that consumers are now more interested in how chickens live and die before making it to their plates.

********This last week I completed listening to 48 lectures on “The History of Ancient Egypt,” one of The Great Courses of The Teaching Company.  The lecturer, Bob Brier, really knew the subject and authentically conveyed his enthusiasm for ancient Egypt.  In lecture 45 he discussed “Animal Mummies.”  I was astonished to learned that there were (are) millions of mummified ibises near the tomb of Imhotep, who “was one of the chief officials of the Pharaoh Djoser” and is thought to have designed Djoser’s step pyramid in 2630-2611 BCE (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imhotep).  Evidently Egypt had farms that produced ibises that were mummified and sold to pilgrims seeking to be healed.  You can learn more about the ibises in chapter 8 of Egyptian Mummies: Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Art (https://www.amazon.com/Egyptian-Mummies-Unraveling-Secrets-Ancient/dp/0688146244/).  More general than the ibis trade, there is the book Choice Cuts: Meat Production in Ancient Egypt (https://www.amazon.com/Choice-Cuts-Production-Orientalia-Lovaniensia/dp/9068317458), by Salima Ikram.  All cultures, of course, must address issues related to the production, storage, transportation, and consumption of food.  Books like these help us to see our lives anew and demonstrate, I suspect, that the invisible forces are timeless (but vary over time and place).

(23 June 2016): “The ‘Anti-Business’ President Who’s Been Good for Business” (http://www.bloomberg.com/features/2016-obama-anti-business-president/)

********This is a somewhat-lengthy interview with President Obama conducted by three members of Bloomberg-related enterprises at the White House.  In it the President discusses some of the economic history that has coincided with his time in office and provides some broader perspective of what it is like to be President at this time.  It struck me that he has a good grasp of many of the reasons why citizens in the U.S. and Europe are angry, and shows that there are things that business leaders and others could do about them.  In part, his thinking shows that the U.S. and others have not dealt well enough with what should have been anticipated consequences of prior free-trade agreements.  Surely his presidency illustrates the constraints upon executive action that are imposed by the legislative and judicial branches of government.  The Founding Fathers, I suspect, would have said that was how it was supposed to work.

(24 June 2016): “South Carolina Will Get Boost From Expanded Panama Canal” ([SR]http://www.wsj.com/articles/south-carolina-will-get-boost-from-expanded-panama-canal-1466674203)

——–“When the Panama Canal opens up a new lane for bigger ships this month, much of the cargo they carry will be headed for this quiet corner of the Southeast, some 200 miles inland.”  Three cities in the “Upstate” part of South Carolina—Greenville, Spartanburg, and Greer—are being impacted by the opening.  More than 6 million square “of warehouse space is under construction in the Greenville-Spartanburg region, a scale typically seen in major cities like Philadelphia and St. Louis, according to CBRE Inc., a real-estate brokerage.”  From the Port of Charleston—which is dredging its harbor to be the deepest on the East Coast—container cargo makes the quick trip by rail to a freight hub in Greer, S.C., known as the Upstate’s ‘inland port.’”  There trucks pick up “containers of component parts and retail goods bound for nearby factories and distribution centers.  And from there, truckers can reach Atlanta or Charlotte, N.C., in two or three hours, and most of the rest of the Eastern U.S. with a day’s drive.”

********It is interesting to read that the opening of the expanded Panama Canal is expected to have significant implications for the Upstate region just down the road from Asheville.  Also noted in the article are some of the environmental and social consequences of the development.  Regarding the former, “Conservationists say the region’s natural landscape . . . is under threat as housing and industrial construction push further out froom the cities and transportation corridors.”  Regarding the latter, “In downtown Greenville, higher-end residential and retail development . . . is forcing out some longtime residents.”  In economics, as in ecology, you can never do just one thing.

(27 June 2016): “Fast-Fashion Castoffs Fuel Global Recycling Network” [SR](http://www.wsj.com/articles/fast-fashion-cast-offs-fuel-global-recycling-network-1466962488)

——–In Kandla, India “thousands of tons of used clothing . . . arrive each month.”  This western Indian port is “a hub in the vast global network that purchases secondhand clothes in rich countries and resells them throughout the developing world. . . . the glut springs from the rise of fast fashion, which has flooded the world with inexpensive clothing, often produced in some of the same low-wage countries where it later ends up sold in market stalls or reprocessed into goods like blankets or pillow stuffing.  To some, this is a virtuous circle, minimizing waste while providing jobs and a source of low-cost clothes for the poor. . . . But some clothing makers in emerging markets say the seemingly endless supply of used apparel stifles the growth of local textile industries.”

********Apropos of the last sentence above, “India allows the processing and re-export of used clothes, but bans their sale locally, as do many other countries worried about the impact of the surging clothing trade.”  Evidently, there is no used-clothing market for “Men’s pants with a waist exceeding 40 inches” or for women’s pants with waists exceeding 32 inches.  Such pants, along with those that are stained or ripped, “are sliced up.  Buttons, zippers and snaps are salvaged.  Then the fabric is cut into rags for factories and garages by women who run piles of clothes through standing circular saws.”  During the past year, the “cost of used clothing has fallen 30% to 50%” leading Alan Wheeler, director of the Textile Recycling Association of the UK to comment, “There is an obvious need for new markets for recycling growth.”  Clothing isn’t the only recycling group dealing with falling prices: http://www.wsj.com/articles/fast-fashion-cast-offs-fuel-global-recycling-network-1466962488.

(27 June 2016): “Why We Obsess Over Other People’s Mansions” (http://daily.jstor.org/why-we-obsess-over-other-peoples-mansions/)

——–“The New York Times recently reported that there are more $100 million-plus homes on the global market than ever before—and the majority of the very priciest ones are in the US. . . . Homes like these are less private refuges than showpieces designed for lavish parties.  We can trace the interest in ostentatious houses among the American super-elite to late-nineteenth-century New York City.”  A striking example of such display occurred in 1883 “when the Vanderbilt family celebrated the inauguration of a new mansion on Fifth Avenue by inviting 1200 people to a ‘great fancy dress ball.’”  Such mansions “were closely related to another kind of opulent housing that was available to a much larger part of the public: luxury hotels.  The most iconic of these was the Waldorf-Astoria.”  Such opulent buildings “made the social hierarchy clear” and “let the middle class enjoy a taste of a super-wealthy lifestyle.”

********Reading Livia Gershon’s post, I am reminded of The Theory of the Leisure Class (https://www.amazon.com/Theory-Leisure-Oxford-Worlds-Classics/dp/0199552584/), by Thorstein Veblen, which was first published in 1899.  Even in Chicago, I suspect, there were abundant opportunities to view extraordinary wealth on a regular basis.  As it turns out, the Ritz Hotel in Paris has just reopened after extensive renovation.  You can learn more about the Ritz—and view a slideshow of 24 photos, at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/can-the-newly-reopened-ritz-paris-succeed-1466710576.

May you have a good week!

Bruce

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