Jasper Smith

Commentary on politics, economics, culture and sports.

Archive for January 2009

Are we weather wimps?

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A couple of weeks ago — about the time we got our first big snow storm — The Globe ran a story asking if the people of Greater Boston had become weather wimps given to over-the-top reactions and whining whenever we get a bit of tough weather:

We’re supposed to be known for our hardiness, for the way we embrace the elements with stoicism and even a touch of pride.

So what happened?

This season’s first snow – big, fluffy flakes totaling 10 inches or less – paralyzed an entire region. Workers fled their offices early, clogging highways and side streets. Drivers fishtailed trying to get to supermarkets, only to find parking lots jammed with customers buying last-minute items like bread and batteries. Yet the rush for supplies proved unnecessary. Much of the snow melted yesterday, a sunny, 40-degree day, exactly as the weather reporters said it would.

Nathaniel Philbrick, author of “Mayflower” and “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” said he sees signs that New Englanders’ storied moxie is on the wane.

In fact, he used the word crybabies to describe peoples’ reaction to Thursday’s storm, one that set no records, came as no surprise, and delivered the kind of snow, dry and light, that is a DPW commissioner’s dream.

“The fact is, once you get used to these modern conveniences and luxuries, even the mildest inconveniences become an epic tale of deprivation,” Philbrick said. “Perhaps our threshold will be so diminished [that] our version of the Essex disaster and the Mayflower will be the drive home from the mall in 2 inches of snow.”

To be sure, parents needed to get children from the many schools that were dismissed early. The snow, at its peak, was falling at an uncharacteristically rapid clip. City, state, and private industry offices were closing in virtual unison.

Still, Philbrick echoed the thoughts of many residents yesterday who were befuddled by the way the city reacted to the storm – more like, perhaps, the way Washington or Memphis shuts down over an inch of snow.

“People who live here should know how to handle this by now,” said Yvonne Thompson, a 49-year-old construction worker and lifelong Boston resident who pointed out that meteorologists had been predicting the storm for days.

Quite so, Yvonne. And I have to agree, we have in fact become weather wimps.  There are lots of reasons for this, but I suspect much of it is transportation: Many people have to drive longer distances on average, and fly more often for their jobs — than was the case thirty or forty years ago. Also, it seems to me many young kids participate in FAR more activities and clubs that require parental chauffeuring than once was the case. Also, the internet makes it easier for employers to “pull the trigger” on sending people home, so that’s one cause as well — there’s more pressure on employers to be “reasonable” and let people work from home.

Over the years we’ve simply became a much more mobile society that is more dependent on smooth-functioning transportation systems than ever before. It’s interesting to note, however, that when we do occasionally get a very snowy winter when blizzards roll in week after week through December, January and February, it seems like the metro Boston area deals with the weather much more efficiently and nonchalantly (and people are much more relaxed) toward the end of the season than is the case at the beginning. People simply get used to dealing with winter weather after many weeks of it. So I expect climate change also has at least something to do with the phenomenon: folks ’round these parts simply don’t have to deal with as many snow events and harsh weather conditions as they used to, so they forget how to deal with it. Also, greater population density means more traffic congestion, which in turn leads to bad driving manners, which makes people shittier drivers, and this makes driving in wintery conditions worse still.

Ahhh, the pleasures of winter in urban New England.

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Written by Jasper

January 4, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Posted in Miscellania

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Apocalypto

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Mel Gibson has perhaps rightly acquired a reputation as something of a crazy person, but if he’s a bit mad, it’s perhaps justifiable to call him a mad “genius.” For the fact is, Apocalypto is an astonishing film. No time for a particulary long review at the moment, but I will say that if, like me, one of the best parts of watching movies is that you get to be transported to another world, you’ll simply love this film. Gibson has meticulously recreated an exotic, now-lost to history otherworld: that of the early 15th century Mayan civilization. And he’s done so with an incredible degree of verisimilitude. The film is utterly harrowing to watch at times, and yet I found I couldn’t move my eyes from the screen. The last half hour or so of Apocalypto is a tad more predicable and formulaic than the first hundred or so minutes (it almost reminds one of something out of the Rambo series), but the overall effort from Mr. Gibson is so well done, so riveting, so suspensful, and so, well, elegant, you’ll barely notice this shortcoming.

Apocalypto is not for the faint-of-heart, nor is it suitable for children (due to scenes of extreme — albeit non-gratuitous — violence). All in all, a very entertaining work. Very dark at times, but not wholly bleak in its vision. It even manages to impart a relevant message — an apocalypic warning, if you will — to our modern age.

Written by Jasper

January 2, 2009 at 9:11 pm

Posted in Movies

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Hitlerian stimulus

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Yglesias takes Tyler Cowen to task for invoking the specre of Hitler and the Nazis to make an argument against Keynesian stimulus:

When a country produces more HDTVs, more people have HDTVs and living standards go up. When a country produces more tanks and military explosives, none of the tanks or military explosives go into private hands (we hope!) so living standards are unchanged. But producing HDTVs doesn’t increase your ability to conquer France, whereas tanks and explosives are useful for conquering France. Hitler’s policy objective was to prepare for conquering France. And his policies worked quite well (though Ernest May reminds us not to neglect the importance of French intelligence failures), they just served Nazi objectives. But I don’t see why Hitler couldn’t have spent the money on something else. If we use fiscal policy to raise measured GDP primarily through building tanks, we’ll have higher GDP and more tanks. But if we use fiscal policy to raise measured GDP primarily through repairing existing roads and building new mass transit and high-speed rail lines, then we’ll have higher GDP, better roads, and more mass transit and HSR systems. It seems to me that living standards would therefore be higher.

Right. I doubt living standards increased for most Americans during the war years, but nonetheless GDP was rapidly expanding. The economic growth was sufficiently robust (explosive, really) to finally jolt the country out of depression. Once the war was over, living standards could resume their ascent, as money for guns was channeled into money for butter.

We don’t have the luxury at the present time to agonize over slumping living standards. The task is to save the economy, and avoid deflation. Once things have returned to normal — a non-deflationary economy characterized by growth — we can hopefully get back to increasing living standards. Personally I expect that, for a while at least, such increases will be modest, given the need to increase savings over the long term, pay back debt (ie higher taxes) and put the economy on a long-term, sustainable path. Still, “modest” need not mean “none.” Ideally, we can increase savings and (modestly) increase consumption over the long term by limiting growth in consumption to a number slightly lower than GDP growth.

Of course, we can (and should!) also try and extract some gains in this regard for the vast majority of the population by tackling the income inequality issue.

Written by Jasper

January 2, 2009 at 8:56 pm