“News heard,” red and blue

In early 2022, Richard Curtin, then director of the UMich confidence survey, wrote that partisan views are now, “unfortunately,”  completely dominating “rational assessments of ongoing economic trends,” which is encouraging “poor decisions by consumers and policy makers alike.”

Two years later, Joanne Hsu, who now directs the survey, took on how those views have changed during the inflationary period that followed the pandemic. She notes that Independents are toeing the line, their sentiment tracing the same line as overall sentiment, and although Democratic and Republican views are at very different levels, they move together too. All hit a trough in June 2022, and all have “surged” since November 2023, as we noted recently.

The gap increased “substantially” during the Trump administration, followed by a “slight narrowing” during Biden’s. Gaps by income have narrowed, which Hsu suggests reflects gains among lower-income workers in a tight labor market.

Overall, the “news heard” partisan gap tightened during the current administration, but widened considerably for news heard specifically on inflation. During both 2021 and 2022 everyone heard negative news, with news reaching Republicans, apparently, “notably worse,” than that reaching Democrats. Over the last year net favorable news improved “substantially” among Democrats, and only “gradually” for Republicans.

Concerning both short- and long-term inflation expectations, Independents’ run closer to those of the party not in power, an unusual divergence from the average. You can see from the graph above we snapped that short-run inflation expectations really bounced among Republicans, whereas those among Democrats were more stable or, as Hsu puts it, Republicans’ expectations for the year were “much less sensitive … to trends in realized inflation” than were those of Democrats.

As you might guess, impromptu mentions of the importance of the upcoming election on economic outcomes is growing, rising from 1.3% last January, to 17% this January.  Uncertainty gets a lot of ink but, as you can see in this graph, apparently those does nothing to outlooks: those who mention and those who don’t have never been so aligned. Hsu thinks this may change as the election gets closer—hang onto your hats.

Thanks to the team at UMich for permission to use graphs.

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Eagles, Eels, and Forever Chemicals

Wildlife ranges are forever changing. As is becoming more widely understood, species most now migrate to find appropriate new habitats in our changing world, not just to find food and shelter as the seasons change. These days, with the climate changing more quickly than species are able to migrate, they need our support through scientifically planned wildlife corridors, overpasses, and breeding refuges.

Citizen scientists have long assisted in tracking changes in migration patterns and ranges, a crucial role as field science is notoriously under-valued and underfunded. If you ever see a truly distinctive bird, like a swallow-tailed kite, out of its usual range, you need to discipline yourself to trust your eyes, even if your bird book suggests the bird is 1,000 miles too far to the north. In the old days you then had to search around for print reports confirming such sightings, but now we have eBird.org, a wonderful example of how citizen scientists can support conservationists. In recent years black vultures, glossy ibises, and Mississippi kites have all extended their breeding ranges far northward, and eBird has been tracking their progress. A vibrant roseate spoonbill showed up in New York last week—its official range extends from South American into the coastal waters along the Gulf of Mexico.

eBird also tracks dramatic cases that excite some birders eager to see a distant species, and trouble others because a vagrant of a vulnerable species is clearly lost. In August of 2020, a Steller’s Sea Eagle showed up near Alaska’s Denali Park. A bird presumed to be the same eagle was spotted in March of 2021 along Route 59 in Goliad, Texas, perhaps blown off course by a winter storm. In December the eagle again believed to be the same (we have to keep saying that because we don’t actually know) was seen around Taunton, Massachusetts, before passing through Nova Scotia, and landing in Maine in early 2022. Sightings a few weeks ago put it in Spaniard’s Bay in Eastern Newfoundland. The usual range of this vagrant runs from Korea up through the Kamchatka Peninsula, home to a large breeding population. Sometimes the raptors, with a wing span of 8 feet, show up in the Aleutian Islands and even Juneau, but this trip is clearly stunning.

The Texas sighting included a photograph—there is close to zero chance such a sighting would get past the eBird.org proctors without digital evidence—and to confirm the accuracy, a team from the Texas Bird Records Committee went out into the field and found the exact post where the eagle had perched. One birder reported that the unexpected appearance of hundreds of birders at a working wharf in Maine could have caused an ugly scene, but instead the mood was “bemused, pleasant, and happy.” Although these days science often drives a wedge between us, that’s an example of how it can bring us together.

Citizen scientists can also take a lead in the health of their own communities. Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory introduced such a project in one of their ongoing Science Cafés, informal open-floor events intended to advance ground-breaking biomedical research.

Jane Disney who, among other things, oversees the Community Environmental Health Laboratory at MDI labs, has been working with hundreds of citizen scientists testing for toxins like arsenic, a crew that has now turned their sights to PFAS as well. Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS, are manufactured chemicals used to make products water- and oil-repellent. But they also contain carbon-fluoride bonds that do not break down naturally, hence the moniker “forever chemicals,” and have been linked to many serious diseases generally associated with aging. In 2021 Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection released a list of priority towns where contamination is linked to the use of sludge, septic-tank sewage, and industrial waste as fertilizer, often on dairy farms.  To give you an idea of the complexity of the work, the DEP staff compiled lists of sites they suspected had received 10,000 cubic yards of sludge that was likely contaminated with PFAS, in small rural communities in both Aroostook and Waldo counties, and in cities like Lewiston. These all fall within a half-mile of people’s homes and include a dairy farm where PFAS levels in milk were 150 times the state standard, with some sites perhaps cross-contaminated.

Dr. Disney is working with local homeowners who do find PFAS in their wells to come up with a strategy. Here the divide between wealthy and poor communities is pretty stark. Filtration systems are beyond the reach of some households, and concerns about PFAS are coming up “a lot” in discussions with the residents. A poorly maintained filtration system can be worse than no system, and one participant made the point that since people who rely on municipal water supplies are guaranteed water free of dangerous pollutants, provisions should be made for those without access to such commodities who rely on their own resources. Some scientists are working on ways to break down those carbon-fluoride bonds, but citizens need protections now.

Fred Bever, the Chief Communications Officer at MDI, and he really is an excellent communicator, invited everyone to the upcoming Science Café, the Science of Beer, that will be held at Fogtown Brewing in Ellsworth. If you’re in the region, be there or be square.

Birds, bright and beautiful as they are, tend to get more attention than other species critical to our habitats, like small solitary pollinators, and grubby bugs. A species that really needs our help is the American eel, a critically endangered creature whose life cycle remains an ongoing mystery. Homer’s mentions “eels and fish” in the Iliad, which caused ancient Homeric scholars to question the passage, noting that Homer would surely have known eels are in fact fish. Aristotle was puzzled by their life cycle, and even young Sigmund Freud tried to figure out how they reproduce.

Their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea weren’t discovered until 1920, and even now no one has seen an eel breed. Damming of rivers, over-fishing, and pollution have devastated eel populations. In 2003, Bob Schmidt, a founding biologist Hudsonia, an ecological research firm in the Hudson Valley, set up nets at the mouth of the Sawkill on the Hudson River to track their population levels. (If you are in the area, please get in touch with Philippa if you want to join us on the water next spring. Your fingers and toes get cold, but on sunny days the elvers shimmer as they briefly pass through your hands.)

Newly born elvers are transparent, making it hard for fish finning beneath them to see them, and soon after birth drift up from the Sargasso on the currents, a voyage that takes a year. Upon reaching our tributaries, they begin the next stage of their lives, swimming up over waterfalls and human structures, getting further and further inland as, in the words of one researcher, they become larger and more experienced at negotiating the waters. After twenty or so years they swim back to the Sargasso, now they are dark above and white below, camouflaged against both predatory birds and fish, to breed and die.

Science communities are international, and it’s pretty certain that the many individuals contributing to these efforts do not vote along the same party lines. We’ve highlighted research in the past underscoring the importance of volunteer work and social interaction to ameliorate the isolation and depression so often in the headlines these days. Nature provides us with everything we need to stay alive for free. In the three instances outlined above, cooperation not only benefits those working together, it improves the chances that the natural world can continue to labor on our behalf.

Philippa Dunne & Doug Henwood

Photograph: Passamaquoddy Indian Township Reservation

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A political angle on state quit rates

When mulling through state quit rates we found a striking pattern: states with high quit rates tended to vote red, and those with low rates, blue. So we decided to take a closer look. And that closer look confirmed the intuition.

Here’s a graph to make the point. In 2020, Donald Trump’s share of the popular vote in states with an above-median quit rate was 57.0%; in states with below-median quit rates, it was 42.3%. That’s a gap of 14.7 points. In those at the median (3.0%, by the way), Trump’s share was 48.8%, only slightly above his national 46.9% popular vote share. The relationship holds if you look only at the top and bottom ten states as well. The correlation coefficient between the two measures is a not-unimpressive 0.52. The relationship is considerably weaker if you look at job openings (sorry, no graph of these): the gap between the above-median and below-median states shrinks to under 5 points (with openings higher in the Trump-voting states).

And here’s another curious correlation: quit rates are lower in states with above-average unionization rates, and higher in those with below-average union density—7.8% in the high-quit states, and 12.5% in the low-quit states, for a gap of 4.6 points (graph below). The relationship almost disappears if you look at openings rather than quits: the gap shrinks to 0.7 point, though still in favor of the low-quit states. Next on our agenda: figuring out what this all means. One possible explanation is that conservative, low-union-density states have more dynamic labor markets, but the small difference in openings counters that explanation

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Coal Country, Shadblow, and Spring

We’ve written about the sophistication and inclusion of coal-mining communities in their early days, of land theft, empty promises, and hopes that were revised away. In a new NBER working paper, Canary in the Coal Decline, Josh Blonz, Brigitte Roth Tran, and Erin E. Troland—the first and last of the Federal Reserve, the second of the San Francisco Fed—report on the broad effects of the decline in coal mining on household finances in Appalachia. Removing coal from our energy mix is a top priority if we want to clean up our energy act; everything about it is enormously filthy, from mining it to burning it. But what are the human costs of the transition away from it?

To answer those questions, the authors use data from the New York Fed/Equifax panel, which is the same source as the New York Fed uses in its consumer credit series. They look at important measures of household economic well-being between 2011 and 2018—a period when total employment in the industry fell by 43% as total employment rose 11%—in counties with a heavy concentration of coal mining. Here’s a long-term look at coal employment:

Coal-rich Appalachia has long been one of the poorest parts of the country, with relatively low educational attainment by national standards, a gap that has been widening. A good bit of the reason for this is that coal has been in decline for far longer than the last decade or two—it’s more like a century. Coal has become progressively less competitive economically compared to natural gas, as both plant construction and extraction costs have fallen (thanks to fracking, which won’t win any environmental awards either).

Even though coal accounted directly for only 2% of employment in what they define as active coal-mining counties, the economic impact of the decline was much broader and more severe than that small share would suggest. For example:

• Credit scores in coal-intensive regions were about 3 points lower than they would have been otherwise. That may not sound like much, but other researchers have found that even a 1-point decline can be economically meaningful. The effects went well beyond the 40,000 miners who lost jobs nationally over that seven-year period (three-quarter of them in this survey area). The effects were concentrated among those in the bottom half of the credit-score distribution. At the 40th percentile, roughly at the cutoff for subprime classification, the credit score hit was 7 points.

• Those credit score declines translated into a 50-basis point increase in mortgage interest rates.

• Declines in coal demand resulted in increases in the share of households ranked as subprime, more intensive use of credit cards, higher delinquencies and collection rates, and more entries into bankruptcy.

• Damage was felt most in the second-lowest quartile of credit scores—in other words, people were on the verge of falling into serious hardship. But even those in the top quartile take a hit—a small one, but evidently no one is safe from the contraction in coal country.

• None of these findings are driven by age.

As the authors note in their conclusion, these finding are a warning about what might happen in other fossil fuel producing communities as carbon-based energy sources recede in importance. They don’t note, but we will, that the political effects of this impoverishment can be harsh, underscoring the need to insulate affected regions against the harms coming from an essential energy transition.

Case study
A footnote to the above: a closer look at the state most closely identified with coal (both by outsiders and residents), West Virginia.

Having such a coal-centric economy has not been kind to the state. West Virginia has the second-lowest employment/population ratio (EPOP) in the country, 52.6%, just behind South Carolina and above dead-last Mississippi. That’s 7.6 points below the national average and 15.2 points below the leader, Nebraska. Even at the peak in the national EPOP, 64.7% in April 2000, it was turning in a miserable 52.8%.

West Virginia has the fifth-highest poverty rate, 15.0%, 3.8 points above the national average and nearly three times the state with the lowest rate, New Hampshire, 5.6%. Coal made a lot of people rich over the decades—just not ordinary West Virginians.

That’s why transformative work being done by outfits like the Ohio River Valley Institute is so important, as are targeted programs like the Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Scholarship, founded by musicians Senora May and her husband Tyler Childers, to provide scholarships to regional schools like Morehead State University. MSU is known for its STEM programs, and HHARS is giving priority to African-American students. Regional farmers’ markets too.

Philippa Dunne & Doug Henwood

Shadblow, one of many popular names for Amelanchier, was once one of the first trees to bloom in the Appalachian spring.

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Opening Gambits

There seems to be a consensus that the high level of job openings—September’s reading of 6.5% of employment is off from March’s all-time high of 7.3%, but it’s still at the 95th percentile of all months since December 2000—has contributed to inflationary pressures. We’ve long been skeptical about what the openings component of the JOLTS program measures, wondering whether it’s boosted by employers who say, “sure would like an app programmer for $10 an hour but I can’t find anyone!” And a lot of us wouldn’t mind being 35 again either.

We thought a look at recent state openings data might be clarifying. (We used three-month averages to smooth some of the volatility, which is greater at the state level than nationally.) It was clarifying all right: openings bear no relationship to wages.

That point is made by the maps below. The states are shaded so that high, medium, and low openings and high, medium, and low wage growth are represented by the same colors. If openings and wage growth were tightly correlated, the maps would look a lot more similar than they do.

Another way of making the same argument is with the scattergram below. Here too, there’s no relationship at all. The eye doesn’t want to add a trendline because there is none.

The lack-of-trendline point can also be made with a simple regression of average hourly earnings growth on openings. That yields an r2 of 0.02, meaning that the openings explain all of 2% of the variation in earnings growth. Worse, there’s a 15% chance that the relationship is entirely random. And the relationship is flattered by the two outliers (DC and Alaska, labeled in the scatter). Take them out and the r2 falls to 0.00 and the chance of randomness rises to 87%.

Aside from the fact that this has never looked like a wage-driven inflation, these opening stats explain nothing.

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