Wednesday, August 13, 2008

power, the individual and the community

People often feel powerless in the face of changes in the economy and decisions by state and federal governments. However, when ordinary citizens come together on common issues, and especially when they work through their local government representatives (majors and town councils) they can have considerable influence on the course of broader events.

Chris McClure at Common Sense Agriculture, Conservation and Energy has an interesting post about a film Texas Coal Wars (see widget in side bar for link to film), that shows how Texas communities large and small came together in a coalition with other groups to oppose construction of new coal-fired electric plants.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

political advertising and values

Campaign advertising is an interesting art form. In just 30 to 60 seconds an advertisement wants to use images, sound, and a small amount of text to strike a chord in potential voters. Positive ads aim to provide images and words that will make viewers identify with a candidate, often by appeals to values (family, patriotism, smaller government, environmental protection, education, and so on). Negative ads aim to conjure adverse reactions to one's opposition with unpleasant images and phrases (like "higher taxes" or "soft on crime" or "liar").

Over the last week or so, I've found McCain's ad campaign curious and confusing. Never before have I seen the ads of one candidate (the ads actually "approved by" the candidate) feature positive and attractive images of his opponent so prominently, for such a large percentage of the ad time. Yet that is exactly what the McCain ads do. Yes, the big evil word "TAXES" is display prominently next to Obama's picture in one part of the ad, but for the most part the images of Obama are attractive, show him smiling, show people smiling at him. This is unprecedented in national campaign advertising, especially negative advertising where the few pictures of the candidate being slammed are generally chosen to be unflattering and appear only briefly. Which left me puzzled -- why would McCain promote these positive images of Obama?

This afternoon, while watching the Olympics my husband and I were talking about how Americans view athletes who immigrate from other countries to the U.S. and compete on our teams. My husband, a serious competitive runner, who spends a lot of time on-line on running discussion boards and blogs, has told me that many of the people on the boards have expressed negative feelings about Bernard Legat and Lopez Lomong, as "foreigners" who should have stayed where they belonged. We were watching women's gymnastics at the time, and the performance of Nastia Liukin a member of the U.S. women's team. Liukin is the daughter of a former USSR Olympic medalist in men's gymnastics; in other words she is an immigrant like Legat and Lomong. We were speculating whether attitudes about immigrants similar to those expressed in the running world were expressed in gymnastic circles about Liukin. We wondered if age made a difference. Then we wondered if race and ethnicity made a difference; do you get a pass if you are blonde and blue-eyed?

Suddenly I had a flash of an idea. What if the unspoken subliminal message of the McCain ads is "Look at this extraordinarily popular BLACK man -- he just might get to be president! Be afraid, be very afraid." What if, the McCain ads are aimed at the unspoken reservoir of racism that they know runs deeply under the surface of American life? What if the ads are just simply to visually underline the one thing that they are not allowed to actually say -- "oh, my God, this is a BLACK man."

I'd like to think it isn't true, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder. Let me be clear, I am most definitely not saying that McCain is a racist. Nor am I saying that the individuals who plan and produce McCain's ads are racists (I don't know who those people are and would not presume to attach that label to someone I didn't know well). What I am suggesting is that the people responsible for the content of the ads may be hoping to strike a chord with the racist values of some Americans, values that they know exist out there in America, and that if they can mobilize some voters around that particular value, McCain is likely to benefit. What do other people think?

Friday, August 08, 2008

restructuring the economy

Current U.S. Department of Labor figures show that in July 2008, the number of involuntary part-time workers (in jobs formerly full-time but cut to part time due to "Slack work or business conditions") was 4,174,000 compared to only 2,693,000 one year ago (July 2007). While the change from 2007 to 2008 was unusually large, it is part of a longer historical trend to a greater reliance on part-time and temporary workers across the economy.

The trend to greater reliance on part-time workers is one for which high education has unfortunately been in the forefront. Universities, colleges and community colleges have shifted more and more of their teaching responsibilities to adjunct faculty, who teach part-time, have few if any benefits, who frequently are given no office space and who have little contact with students other than in the classroom. Community College's in particular have grown more and more dependent on part-time adjunct faculty. Research by Grace Banachowski shows the trend:
According to Lombardi (1992), part-time faculty constituted 38.5% of the instructors in 698 junior colleges in 1962. This number increased moderately to 40% in 1971, and three years later grew to nearly 50%. By 1980, nearly 60% of the faculty in two-year colleges were employed part-time, and 65% in 1993 (National Center for Education Statistics in American Association of Community Colleges, 1995).
As community colleges deal more and more often with under prepared students needed extensive developmental (or as they used to be called remedial) course work to be ready for college work, the trend towards relying on adjunct faculty is troubling.

Yesterday (August 7) was the annual first meeting of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) Faculty Senate. Representatives from the 13 college districts around Kentucky gathered at the KCTCS offices in Versailles, Kentucky. At the end of the morning general sessions there was an unscheduled appearance by the KCTCS president Michael McCall. McCall offered general remarks of encouragement and optimism for the upcoming academic year, then opened the floor for questions.

The first question from the assembled faculty and academic deans dealt with the rising percentage of instruction being done at KCTCS college's by part-time adjunct instructors. The speaker raised concerns about the impact this was having on the quality of instruction. McCall's response was vague and general, full of platitudes about serving students and maintaining quality. McCall ended his response with a suggestion that individual colleges within the system would need to "examine" the balance between full-time and part-time instruction. [Notice this says nothing about changing the balance, or reversing the trends, only "examining" the balance.]

The next question Dr. McCall fielded was about on-line instruction and the new KCTCS Virtual Learning Initiative (VLI). The VLI is working to translate several KCTCS degree programs into a format in which all courses are offered in self-guided modules. Each course would be divided into smaller units, that could be taken in a week or two. Entry into modules would be 7 days a week, 365 days of the year, on demand from students. Because courses in the VLI program are detached from the traditional semester structure, and offered for fractional credit, all instruction for the program will be done by part-time instructors. Even full-time faculty who decide to participate as instructors will do so as overloads to their normal loads, but the plan is that most of the staffing will be done by new, part-time instructors, who will be paid on a per student per credit basis.

McCall's response to the question made it clear that he believes that this new model of on-demand education should replace all other forms of education in the KCTCS system. While he noted that we would have to wait to see how successful it the Virtual Learning Initiative was, he expressed the belief that it would be successful and that this model was preferable to the traditional model based on semesters.

Given McCall's response to this second question on the Virtual Learning Initiative, it is likely that when he said that KCTCS college's should "examine" the balance of full-time to part-time instruction, he really meant that they should be thinking in terms of moving entirely to part-time instruction!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Musing about the Future, Part II

Rising fuel prices are bringing some reversals to globalization trends, and bringing some traditional forms of manufacturing back to the United States.

I would like to say "I told you so," but apparently I didn't. After careful perusal of my archives it appears that many of the thoughts I've had about the future of energy and global markets never made it to the electronic page. So far, only my husband, and my colleagues on the Technology Committee have had to listen to those ideas, which were prompted last summer by reading Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat

Today, the New York Times has a piece "Shipping Costs Start to Crimp Globalization" which documents that changes I was predicting for the future have already begun. Globalization, the dispersion of economic activities across the world is driven by the search for cheaper and cheaper labor, and considerations of monetary exchange rates, tax policies, and environmental restrictions. Globalization has been made possible by cheap transportation and the global spread of instantaneous digital communications. Friedman and others have viewed the globalization process as moving in one direction only, to greater and greater integration of all localities into one world-wide economic web.

Thomas Friedman's description of what happened to the world up through 2006 is excellent. However, as I read The World is Flat last summer, it occurred to me that Friedman's predictions for the future did not take into consideration what would happen when the cost of fuel made transportation a more important cost than labor. That was in July 2007, when the cost of oil was approximately $70 a barrel. The cost of oil yesterday, August 1, 2008, was $125 a barrel an increase of seventy-nine percent - and this is nearly $10 less than the all time weekly high of $134 a barrel last month (July 2008).

Since cutting costs is the driving force behind globalization, it seemed to me logical and reasonable, that as the cost of moving goods across oceans become more expensive this would offset other costs (such as labor, taxes, and environmental controls) and make production of goods closer to end consumers more appealing. Moreover, a rise in transportation costs seems inevitable given the finite nature of the primary transportation fuel - petroleum.

As much as oil prices have risen (and with expanding economies in Asia to blunt any declines in consumption from the U.S. and other advanced industrialized countries) traditional economic theory would predict rises in world oil production. Albeit that many oil producing nations (especially within OPEC) are not market economies, even state owned industries are not completely immune to the pull higher prices can have on production levels. However, the Energy Information Agency of the U.S. Department of Energy gives oil production figures that show only small increases in world production in recent years, and even small declines in early 2008.

Oil production from Saudi Arabia where oil is state owned rose from August 2007 to January 2008, and then declined slightly in the first quarter of 2008. In Russia, where major efforts have been made to privatize and modernize oil production, saw small but steady production declines from August 2007 through April 2008. The overall pattern of world oil production in this time of rising prices suggests that oil is becoming more difficult and more expensive to find and produce. The easing of oil prices (and the price of gasoline at the pump) in the last three weeks, does not signal a long term return to cheap fuel, but a short term adjustment to the downturn in demand in the U.S. The long term outlook is for fuel prices to continue to rise.

The NYTimes article provides some specific examples of industries that have already bucked to the globalization trend due to increased costs. One of particular interest to people in central Appalachia were I'm located is a return of furniture manufacturing to the region.

Until recently, standard practice in the furniture industry was to ship American timber from ports like Norfolk, Baltimore and Charleston to China, where oak and cherry would be milled into sofas, beds, tables, cabinets and chairs, which were then shipped back to the United States.
But with transport costs rising, more wood is now going to traditional domestic furniture-making centers in North Carolina and Virginia, where the industry had all but been wiped out. While the opening of the American Ikea plant, in Danville, Va., a traditional furniture-producing center hit hard by the outsourcing of production to Asia, is perhaps most emblematic of such changes, other manufacturers are also shifting some production back to the United States.
Among them is Craftmaster Furniture, a company founded in North Carolina but now Chinese-owned. And at an industry fair in April, La-Z-Boy announced a new line that will begin production in North Carolina this month.

The U.S. steel industry is another that has seen resurgence due to rising transportation costs, while steel imports from China have been steadily declining in recent years.

The assumption by Friedman (and others) that all industries would eventually move into "just-in --time" supply lines that span the globe, is likely to run afoul of rising transportation costs and greater uncertainty of fuel supplies. The NYTimes article gives a few specific examples of industries opting for local suppliers for components in their products, which hints at a future in which more localized neighborhood based integration of groups of producers and suppliers may reappear in the American landscape.

This does not mean that there will ever be a complete retreat from global trade. As Brian Fagan discusses in The Great Warming even during the unpredictable precipitation in the Sahara Desert during the "medieval warm period" camel caravans carrying a variety of goods continued to be regular feature of northern Africa's economy. However, it does mean that the future global economic landscape may not be as "flat" as it is today.