Robert Shiller (co-creator of the Case-Shiller Index, which tracks US real estate prices) says that suburban housing prices may not recover “in our lifetime.”

We don’t have to have an upturn in the market. [I]f you look at…home prices back to 1890, they go through decades of stagnation. It’s not like it’s always booming, it just hasn’t been that way.  And there’s no reason why it should boom.  Economists used to think that home prices fall in general.  Here’s the argument: we get better and better at making houses. Technological progress: prices go down.  That could still be true, let’s not forget it.  They’re going to build better houses now…people won’t want the old ones. So your price will decline. … If you’re young and you don’t really need to buy, just think what kind of nice new high-rise apartment buildings with all the modern exciting things built in you might get in the city…maybe some people are thinking that way

In the wake of the tsunami, Japan shut down its nuclear reactors—and as of January, 49 of the nation’s 54 nuclear power plants remained offline.  So to cut its energy vulnerability, Japan is boosting renewable energy projects, such as this 16 megawatt floating wind farm on off-shore barges. Do people trust science less than they used to?  A study in the April issue of the American Sociological Review says so…but the decline was only seen among political conservatives.  Oddly enough, political conservatives were the ones most likely to trust science in 1974; now they’re the least likely to do so.

Refreshing: an economist who admits that the economics profession is actually pretty bad at predicting the future.

Here’s something you don’t often hear an economist admit: We have very little idea where the economy will be next year…For a spectacular example, let’s go back to August 2008. The economy had been in recession for nine months, the investment bank Bear Stearns Cos. had already collapsed, and Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. was well on its way to bankruptcy. Yet leading economists responding to the Survey of Professional Forecasters predicted that unemployment would average 6 percent in 2009…This was a big miss. It’s also not unusual….Why? Data are imperfect. Theories are coarse. Models oversimplify. The economy is constantly evolving and can’t be subjected to controlled experiments. Economic cycles are infrequent, so our understanding of them necessarily proceeds very slowly.

Preach it, brother!


In a strange inversion of a town being owned by a coal company, artist Franz Jansen documents what happens when a coal company buys out the people living under its pollution. NPR covers the story. Sixteen Tons by Merle Travis makes a great soundtrack as you flip through the slideshow.


Contemporary health wisdom holds that fasting is bad for you – dangerous, even. But Steve Hendricks has a cover story in Harper’s Magazine arguing that fasting may actually be exceptionally good for us (Subscription req’d). It’s eloquently written and deftly weaves science, medicine, and history with personal experience. In many past generations, health thinkers considered fasting a potentially reasonable remedy to a variety of maladies. A surprisingly rich body of research suggests it does hold promise. It can radically extend lifespans in rodents, lower blood pressure by near-epic amounts, help substantially with diabetes, and stop certain types of seizures even when modern drugs fail. It even has some interesting potential for aiding cancer therapy. The evidence is inconclusive, yet it has drawn surprisingly little further research. And this collective unwillingness to entertain the notion of fasting as salubrious is the real point of the article. Perhaps our failure to study fasting is caused by pharmaceutical companies’ inability to make money on fasting. Or maybe it’s caused by the stigma fasting earned through association with decades of quackery and mystical self-flagellation. Or maybe we’re too easily confused between planned and monitored fasting and the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. Ultimately, the article is not an argument for fasting. It is an argument that our health establishment is not so scientific as we pretend. In particular, it seems irrationally convinced that not eating is a terrible idea – a dangerous idea, even. My habit is to read Harper’s while eating an enormous bowl of granola each morning in the pre-dawn hours. So my reaction to the article may have been accentuated by the paradox of reading about fasting while breaking my fast. Still, to me, the article’s message seemed to extend beyond comestibles to other consumer goods. Maybe, Hendricks suggests, we would be healthier if, instead of fixating on medicine and nutrition and omega-3 fatty acids and the latest cross-training regimens, we just stopped eating some of the time. Maybe our bodies adapted to the lean times of our evolutionary home epochs. And maybe we would be a whole lot happier, richer, and more sustainable, if we just stopped buying things some of the time, if we stopped consuming. To me at least, our unwillingness to consider either idea seems like more than a coincidence. It seems like a collective blind spot.