Friday, December 28, 2012

Tax Rates in 2002 and 2012

With but three days to go until the Bush tax cuts sunset, it might be well to look at the change in taxes that would occur. For this purpose I am comparing marginal tax rates, and the incomes to which they apply, for 2002 and for 2012. Here they are:

Tax Rates in 2002
At least
But no more than
Tax Rate
Sky's the limit

Tax Rates in  2012
At least
But no more than
Tax Rate
Sky's the limit

These rates are for a married couple filing jointly. Please note that these structures are not comparable—even if we ignore the tax rates. The rates apply to differently sized increments of income. To illustrate this, let’s calculate the taxes due on an income of $69,677, which just happens to be the average household income in 2011.

Income of $69,677 Taxed at 2002 and 2012 Rates
2002 Rates Applied
2012 Rates Applied
Tax due
Tax due

Notice that in 2002, a portion of the total income was taxed at 27 percent, not so in 2012. In 2012 the maximum of the 15 percent increment was higher than  the $69,677. If 2002 tax rates come into effect next year, the tax bite on this income, a national average, increases by 31.5 percent, by $3,027 a year, and $252 per month.

Let me now look at a range of incomes. For this purpose I’ve selected the top or maximum earnings of the first four quintiles (fifth) of households, the lowest income of the fifth or top quintile, and then, for good measure, an income of $250,000 and one of $1 million. First the tabular results:

2002 Tax
2012 Tax
Top of lowest quintile
Top of Second quintile
Top of Third quintile
Top of Fourth quintile
Bottom of Fifth quintile
Earning $250,000
Earning $1 million

These results, graphed, bring home why it is that the political battles rage about the top layers—which are the last three groupings in the table and the chart. To be sure, $270 is a huge amount of money for a household earning a shade over $20,000. And a shade over $9,000 could not possibly bother a millionaire very much. But you get the picture:

Both in terminology and in likely effect, that phrase, Fiscal Cliff, is fear mongering. There is pain here, to be sure, but it is much more like slipping and falling on an icy sidewalk than a drop off a cliff. And, let us not forget, most millionaires do not get their income in earnings, taxable at these rates, but in capital gains, taxed at a much lower percent.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Taxes Through a GDP Lens: Revisited

I’m showing today an updated version of a graphic I showed on  December 21 of last year. Results for 2011 have been added to it, thus it is more up to date. Also shown on this graphic is the top marginal tax rate over the 1960-2011 period. A key point of the last posting (link) was that the tax rate appears to influence tax revenues and Social Security contributions not at all, but tax rates are certainly influenced by other events in the economy. I said:

Recessions, booms, and busts, however, do show an influence. Booms and busts? Well, the biggest rise in tax collections as percent of GDP came during the dot-com boom, the biggest drop in the dot-com bust. And the next up-then-down is the housing bubble.

The interesting things to note here is the up-turn of tax revenues from 2010 to 2011, signaling recovery—if not massive growth—and the down-turn in contributions to social security in the last year. That dip was caused by a law passed in 2010 but effective in 2011—lowering payroll taxes.

What with top tax rates having no visible effects on taxes, the hullabaloo about rates today are entirely off the mark. They represent political realities, not economic. The notion that raising rates will cause the economy to dive are belied by this chart. Taxes rose sharply from the 1988 to 1992 level. So that happened? Tax revenues went for the sky—for an entirely unrelated reason.

The data I am using comes from the BEA using the facility located here. Following links from there, I used Table 2.1 for Personal Income and Its Disposition and Table 1.1.5 for Gross Domestic Product.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

BNSF Railway

You will find, on this site, many caustic remarks about advertising. But this is a season of reflection and of good cheer, hence I will bring you today my favorite television ad. It is shown almost every night on Public Television as the lead-in to the PBS Newshour. Herewith the ad:

Now I grew up with railways. When World War II broke out, I was on a train in Hungary, three years old. But because I was suffering from a stomach ache, I have actual memories of that event. News came at one of our stops and caused great excitement. The adults were swarming about in the passage-ways talking. And rails remained central to our life there. Our great migration, eventually ending in the United States, began by train in 1944, continued in 1951, featured an ocean voyage from Bremerhaven to New Orleans, and continued from New Orleans north to Kansas City by rail, the Southern Pacific; yes, it reached to New Orleans. Since then it has been absorbed by the Union Pacific.

Much later—as in after growing up, returning again to Europe, back from there after marriage and Army service—we’ve had a special relationship to BNSF. Brigitte and our two children (then), travelled the last of her leg of a train-voyage from Newark to Chicago to Kansas City on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. I remained behind another week to effect my discharge and then followed in a little VW we’d purchased in Europe. And later yet, our relationship to BNSF continued while we lived many years in Hopkins, Minnesota. This railway, which is the merger of the Burlington Northern and the Santa Fe, passed just north of a suburban enclave where we lived, in Bellgrove. It ran within hearing distance, but its sound had a kind of reassuring reminder that the world was vast. It was bound from Chicago, by way of Minneapolis, to Billings, Spokane, and eventually Seattle—or back the other way. The line was close enough so that I walked along it virtually daily with the most famed dog in our lives, Winston, a gigantic golden lab. Deer, rabbits, the occasional fox.

Rails are a perennial for us. May they survive the coming energy collapse. Meanwhile the BNSF spot (our last fond linkage) remains. The company’s ad is the only one we ever gladly watch. And as the brief image of the dispatcher in his high roost waves his greetings to an approaching train—so we, at least mentally, wave back to him. May your ways continue to earn ample and profitable traffic!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Tracking Mass Shootings

Almost two years ago, on January 9, 2011, I showed a chart on mass shootings in the United States for a century, by decades (link). My method for making that chart is explained there and incorporated by reference here; to say the least, it is a little rough. But having done it, I find that updating it now has become easier. The media have caught up and now list such things in easily countable ways. A good example is this article in the Washington Post counting shootings for 2012 (link). Using that source and others, I have now updated my chart and show it again.

The last time around the count of mass shootings for the second decade of the twenty-first century, which has a ways to go yet, was just two events. In the following two years, the first three years of this decade have already managed to exceed all the shootings that took place in the previous decade. As things now trend, the current decade will turn in another record.

Posts like this one can only show the cultural weather. What to do about it is the job of the individual. My own sense is that this phenomenon is, ultimately, the consequence of very broad social/cultural trends, the advance of decadence. In effect it is vastly greater than individuals, even when they organize. Therefore the outlawing of firearms—and a coinciding forcible collection and destruction of them—would probably only have a lessening effect—if such moves were even in the cards. If we look across the world, we see that there are many other ways to kill the innocent, already in active use by individuals, groups, and governments. One man’s semi-automatic is another’s IUD and yet another’s drone.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Population by Age Groups

The Wall Street Journal carries a story on its front page today titled “Consumer Spending Is Losing Its Vigor.” That got me thinking—because, what with the years piling up, well, so am I: losing my vigor. Which then, logically—because the active mind does not lose its vigor—I got to wondering about a subject usually labeled “the aging population.” I found some useful data on that subject in the 2012 Statistical Abstract (link, select Table 6). Using those data I am here showing some graphics about that “aging.”

This is a quite revealing chart, isn’t it? It shows the shares of total population by age groups in some detail by decades, drawn from the ten-year census of the population. Notice particularly those “humps,” let’s call them, of which the first was quite high—the biggest age group in each year. In 1980 it was formed by those aged 15 through 29, in 1990 25 through 39, in 2000 30 through 44, in 2010 40 through 54. Meanwhile, the 65 through 74 age group, which forms a peak of its own, has essentially remained unchanged. It was 7 percent of the population in 2010, peaked in 1990 at 7.3 percent, and was 6.9 percent in 1980. Peak is the appropriate word, although in this period, it remains a secondary peak. After that comes a steep drop down the, ah, Aging Cliff. No shortage of cliffs these days.

Consumer spending is losing its vigor? Well, it might be due to the population losing its vigor. As we approach that second peak and the cliff, the less incline are we to do the boys-toys or the girls-wardrobe thing. And the more of us are in that group…

In this second graphic, I’ve compressed the age groups more in order to show the pattern more clearly. In the aggregate, the 15-44 group, the darling of all advertisers, remains the largest—but notice that it is decreasing. Meanwhile the less vigorous age groups are all growing apace—not least the 85 and older.

Around our place we’ve long had a saying—the consequence of much trend-contemplation—that “Demography Rules!” Oh, if only Congress could make us younger by the 2013 Age Reversal and Rejuvenation Act. President Obama would surely sign it into law. But there are limits to everything—not least the power of Congress. If it had the moxy, we’d all be aged between 15 and 44.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Employment Update: November 2012

The November job numbers (Bureau of Labor Statistics, link) were disappointing. The net gain, officially, was 146,000 jobs. But the actual gain, since my last published report here, for October, was really only 81,000. That is because September and October numbers were revised—and this time downward—by 65,000. Sometimes we gain, sometimes we lose by these revisions. The graphic I show follows, with revised months shaded a light red, November’s number in red. But that last number may also be revised next month as we close out the year.

What appears to ail the economy just at the moment is nothing economic in the narrow sense: uncertainty. All breaths are being held—hard to do when you are shouting yourself hoarse about Black Friday. Sure enough, retail numbers are up around 53,000, but both construction and manufacturing lost jobs. What retail is all about at present is to get rid of its inventory, quickly, before we fall over the Fiscal Cliff or wake up, January 1st, breathing a little easier.

Yesterday’s discussion centered on the drop in the unemployment rate to 7.7 percent with that mixture of gladness and despond—because the drop of the rate was due in large measure to some 300,000 people giving up and thus removing themselves from the official labor force. I have commented on the dubious nature of that measure earlier (link).

Friday, December 7, 2012

Medicare Trust Fund Finances

Yesterday I showed data on Social Security income and expenditures. Today I am showing similar data for the Medicare Trust Funds. That is a plural because three programs are found within Medicare. Of these one is Hospital Insurance (HI), one is Supplemental Medical Insurance (SMI) which comes in two parts, B and D. Part B pays for doctors visits and outpatient care, Part D pays for pharmaceuticals.  In the following graphic, I show income and expenditure data for all three combined for 1990, 1995, and for 2000-2012. Data to 2010 are from  the Statistical Abstract (link); data for 2011 and 2012 are from Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the federal agency (link).

Notable here—in contrast to the data for Social Security—is that the income stream matches the outflow in benefits much more closely. In the thirteen-year 2000-2012 period, income exceeded or matched expenditures in ten years, fell below expenditures in three. The other significant difference is that Social Security income consists entirely of earmarked tax revenues from the public and interest earnings, while the Medicare Trust Funds rely much more heavily on general revenues and other sources of income. The following tabulation makes that clear:

Medicare Trust Funds Income in 2011
$ bil.
General Revenues
State Contributions
All other

The reason why Medicare is of such interest to would-be budget-cutters is the large role that general revenues represent in Medicare. It is 42.7 percent but would have to be more like 46 percent for these trust funds to have broken even in 2011. If the GOP had wished to insist on making Medicare altogether self-supporting, it would have loaded the aging population with $257.5 billion in out-of-pocket expenditures. Not taking care of our elderly—unless they’re rich. Is that what Free Market dictates at the moment?

Now as for Medicaid, which is designed for the poor, that’s entirely funded from general revenues. If that is chopped away from the budget as well, we’ll be well on our way to recreating the glorious days of Dickensian England.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Social Security Income and Expenditures

Herewith a picture of the Social Security Trust Fund’s performance from 1987 through 2012, obtained from the Social Security Administration (link). I have aggregated quarterly results into annual in order to show a smoother curve.

This is the program that the GOP is absolutely intent on cutting. What the chart shows is that during the last quarter century (and before that as well), this program has paid for itself, indeed producing a surplus. The accumulated surplus alone, in this period, would pay for three years of SSA operations. Targeting this account, along with Medicare and Medicaid—while insisting on keeping the tax rates of the wealthy untouched, is a case of robbing little peter to pay Big Paul. And little peter has not even needed any public money—ever! Who pays that Income stream? The people—in their payroll taxes.

What more needs to be said? Nothing. But spitting on the ground in contempt is, clearly, indicated.

GOP Stance In Sum

Putting the current fiscal clash into the fewest possible words reveals the Republican Party’s selective stance toward Americans. It is a stiff-armed contempt to for the elderly and the weak—and a mighty fortress protecting wealth. Therefore the big clash is over raising the marginal tax rate for the rich—and determination to cut  the income and health benefit of the aged and the poor. Yes we should. We should let them secede.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Where is the __________!

What people often say is “rage.” Where is the rage! The context here, of course, is that something quite outlandish has happened, some shocking news has surfaced. But there is no visible reaction to it. The public is grooving instead on Christine Beatty, again, she who, like years ago, exchanged sexy e-mails on (Horror!) city-owned communications devices with the deposed, disgraced ex-Mayor of Detroit Kwame Kilpatrick. Or they groove on “Sports Sightings.” Or they groove on the “K-Pop Star among us.” Don’t ask. I haven’t figured it out yet either (link).

A more refined form of that question would be “Where is the Informed Voter?” Quite astonishingly shocking information appears almost daily, but it doesn’t even make it into the papers, never mind produce a rash of letters, never mind a march on Washington. And to that over-simplification—which is what “informed voter” really is—might be added, how wide-spread among informed voters is a sufficiently sensitive cultural and moral understanding necessary to weigh the mountains of facts out there. Herewith a couple of shocking charts from a source I cited two posts back, a Congressional Research Service report (link).

The first of these shows us what the top tax rates were back in now sighed-after decades when things were good—alongside the rather shockingly low tax rates on capital gains, the form of income the very rich use to amass their wealth. The second graphic shows the rather phenomenal rise in the share of total income of the super-rich 0.1 percent and of the stratospheric 0.01 percent of the population.

Did we see these graphics in our papers? No. They were crowded out by pop stars, sports, and Netanyahu.

The really meaningful questions? “What’s the point of a universal franchise?”— if the average voter, looking at such images, can’t even make them out, never mind discerning what they really mean. And “Why bother with democracy?” is another. When things get really bad enough, there are still pitchforks. We have one in the garage, but I wonder how many other people do.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Other Cliff

We had occasion to listen to David J. Rothkopf in an interview he gave on C-SPAN yesterday. Rothkopf is an astute political and economic observer. He was on because a new book of his has just issued. It is entitled: Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government — and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead. In a nutshell, he pictures different kinds of capitalism competing in the world today, differentiated by the degree to which they internalize the need to produce public well being (“happiness”). The various competing capitalisms use government as an agency more or less—and the likeliest to win the big race are those, according to Rothkopf, that seem to be aiming for the right balance. Government is essential in the mix; GDP growth is not a good or exclusive measure. An article he wrote for the New York Times (link) gives the flavor of his thought.

It was the sort of expansive, big picture, and comprehensive view of things one rarely hears. Brigitte and I were nodding in approval. Rothkopf reached way out in time, tracing his theme. Looking way forward is, of course, also part of any comprehensive view. The narrow view came up in a phoned-in question. Alas, C-SPAN is always giving voice to the public—to my irritation. The question was about the Fiscal Cliff. Rothkopf put it nicely into perspective as a short-term phenomenon and went on looking way ahead.

After it was over I noted that, ranging well out into this century and possibly beyond it, our author saw a relatively optimistic picture. The epic rivalry would be resolved—if not necessarily in our favor unless we, too, reformed our ways and found a way to strive for wide equity for the population—rather than vast profits for a tiny elite. And I sighed. Rothkopf had dealt with the Fiscal Cliff quite well, but at least in this interview, he didn’t mention the Other Cliff. It is the fact that—by about the end of this century—we will have used up our fossil fuels. And that will be a genuine game-changer. I have a very difficult time imagining world population remaining at 8, 9 billion after that happens—even during the run-up to that day. Capitalistic economies competing? In the short term, perhaps, yes. But what about the elephant in the room that we seem unable to see? Not to take anything away from Rothkopf’s excellent presentation, but his next book, I suggest, should be titled: Power, Inc. — Not.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Solomon Lynched!

The Fiscal Cliff the subject, Brigitte said to me. “I have a solution. Call it Solomonic. They want to cut Social Security. Right? Well, here is what I’d propose. I’d be willing for them to cut our Social Security income by 10 percent. We’d manage somehow. But only if the top earners would also agree to pay another 10 percent of all their earnings—not just salaries—to the government. So there you have it.”

My reaction? Well, if Solomon actually lived in our time and held that top job he held once in Israel, we could expect soon to see a headline such as the one I’m using as my title for this post.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Taxation with Representation

Instead of “taxation with representation” we have gradually made a transition to “taxation with titular representation.” Representatives are elected in Congressional districts and in States and, in a formal, titular way, they represent the public residing in those geographical regions.

The problem is that getting elected requires an enormous amount of money. I know that’s true because a member of our family ran for Congress a few years back and I have personal experience to back up what is commonly repeated in the media and backed by published statistics. After a person is elected, especially to the House, where the term is a mere two years, the need to raise new funds, for the next election, begins almost at once. Under such circumstances, the tendency is very strong for the legislator to “represent” the biggest sources of his or her funding rather than the masses who contribute very little. Who pays the piper calls the tune.

Okay. This is rocket science. It’s difficult because we cannot see, touch, feel, and taste motivation. We have to infer it. We don’t have time to shadow the legislator’s every move and record his/her every statement, read every piece of paper he/she sees. But if money matters a whole lot, those who have the most should be harvesting the biggest benefits from legislation.

I show a chart taken from a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report that issued this September (link).† Understanding that graphic is not rocket science, however.

Nothing on LaMarotte should be read as advocacy. I’m personally sure that the state of a society always mirrors the state of the individuals in it. No mechanical fixes, reforms, stratagems, or devices (like public funding of elections) change things. Societies are too vast and complex to be ruled by anything other than inspiration—meaning the deepest convictions that move the most people. When things have come to this state, very serious troubles loom ahead. They will eventually produce vast public trauma. And that trauma will, in turn, erase our democratic institutions except (that word again) in titular form. Will oligarchies rule us forever? No. This sort of thing eventually produces a kind of dictatorship but under exalted names—and the ruler will be the enemy of the oligarchy. That’s the way we’re going. Advocacy, no. But I like to know what lies ahead.
† Thomas L. Hungerford, Congressional Research Service, Taxes and the Economy: An Economic Analysis of the top Tax Rates Since 1945, September 14, 2012.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The City Proper

That phrase means an urban political unit without its suburbs. Wikipedia has a list of the world’s top 65 of these (link). So why am I here today? Has yesterday’s list-making of world GDPs addicted me? Not really. We saw an old Spielberg film (1987) titled Empire of the Sun. It begins in Shanghai with a British family living in great splendor in a British neighborhood there—while Daddy worked downtown in a setting that, if you only had photographs of buildings, you’d take to be somewhere in Europe. That got me thinking about Shanghai—which so happens to be the world’s larges “city proper” with a population of 17.8 million people.

Shanghai is where Asia’s longest and the world’s third longest river, the Yangtze, enters the East China Sea. The British presence there in the late 1930s during the Japanese invasion of China—which the film was about—began with a similar invasion by the British during the Opium War (1839-1842). That incursion, and the weakness of the Chinese state, led to at least coastal exploitations of China for trade by European and American companies. All that ended when the rightly-named People’s Liberation Army took Shanghai in 1949. That, in turn, led to the wholesale migration of Europeans to Hong Kong (7.1 million), a city that ranks 26th on Wikipedia’s list.

The countries with the largest number of major cities? China ranks first. It has 11. Six of them are larger than our own New York (8.2 million), which ranks 19th, and the remaining five are all larger than our second and last city on the list, Los Angeles (3.8 million). India has 10, three larger than New York, eight larger than Los Angeles. The biggest is Mumbai (Bombay), with 12.5 million and ranked 4th over all. South Africa has three; of those Johannesburg (3.9 million) is larger than Los Angeles.

In addition to the United States, eight other countries are represented by two cities each: Brazil, Egypt, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Vietnam.

All told, the list of the top 65 represent 34 countries. Yesterday I spoke of 175 total that reported GDP for 2011—but the full list was 214.

Now as for the film, it is very long (two hours and 32 minutes). It is a little too much like real life and therefore cannot be classed as “entertainment.” But well worth seeing. The world as it is…
The image is the Great Seal of Shanghai courtesy of University of Florida. The image is copyrighted; I reproduce it with purchase and permission.

Friday, November 23, 2012

World GDP Performance in 2011

According to a World Bank tabulation (link), of 175 countries for which 2011 results were available, 14 (8%) had negative GDP growth, 33 (18.9%) had anemic growth under 2 percent, and 128 (73.1%) had growth greater than 2 percent and up to a maximum  of 20.7 percent.

So where does the United States fall—and who is the winner? Well, the United States had an annual GDP growth of 1.7 percent in 2011; therefore we fell into the anemic category. The best performer in that category was Belgium (1.92%), the worst was the United Kingdom (0.65%). This category also held such eminent names as Australia, Denmark, France, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, and Spain.

The biggest loser in the negative growth category was Yemen (-10.48%), the best performing was Croatia (-0.04%), and the category included Greece, Ireland, and Japan.

And the winner among the strongly growing categories was—Macau SAR: 20.7 percent. So where and what is that realm? It is a part of China. The SAR stands for Special Administrative Region. Macao is one of two, the other is Hong Kong (growth in 2011 of 5.16%). Macau consists of three parts, a peninsula and two islands, all connected by big bridges; Macau is, in effect, invisible when you look at a map of China. It juts into the South China Sea, a close south-eastern neighbor of Hong Kong.

So who was second in the race? Qatar (18.8%). And third? Mongolia (17.3%). Do you feel “left behind?” And does the great British Empire, of which we once were a part, seem to be sinking as the water table rises with the spread of global, ah, warming? Or did I just pick a bad year?
Map credit: Wikipeadia (link).

Thursday, November 22, 2012

BF In Red

The plastic bag in which, this morning, the Detroit News reached my door. Amusingly Black Friday is rendered in red. And the sale begins at midnight this day at Kohl’s. It was a very thick bundle because every merchant wants a little sliver of this bonanza of a day. I separated the readable from the rest, which, in our household, is transferred straight into a Kroger paper shopping bag unseen. For recycling. What remained was 1-1/2 inches, the advertising material was 5 inches thick. Kohl’s, I am told, has pretty good prices, by the way, had such even before launching Operation: Black Friday. But rendering that name in red may be, for this merchant, courting disaster. What if you stay? In the red.

In a way this reminds me of the Greek who said, “All Greeks are liars.”

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What Makes Black Friday Black?

As soon as I knew, I wondered why I’d been so stupid. That color comes from accounting. While your enterprise is loosing money, you’re in the red. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, you catch up, you’re in the black.

Black Friday ranks among the top ten shopping days of the year. Most of these fall into December, and traditionally the Saturday preceding Christmas ranks first. In the 1992-2002 period, Black Friday ranked low. In 2003 it was first, again in 2005. Thereafter we have no published numbers. Historical data come from International Council of Shopping Centers.

The Bureau of the Census reports retail data on a monthly basis but lags reality by several months. Last year I noted Black Friday by showing monthly retail sales, particularly for General Merchandise Stores—those most affected by the season; here two links (one, two). Today I update one of those charts, and it follows:

What this shows us is that retail sales in this category in 2011 were higher than the year before—but not by much. Indeed, the percentage increase October to November, which had been 19 percent in 1992, 17 percent in 2002, and 13 percent in 2010 has dropped to 12 percent in 2011. On this graphic I also show sales for the category in 2012—but we only have three months of data, showing how far back reporting lags. Those values indicate that 2012 should be a better year all around.

Now back to Black Friday. What we know about that day is that—if memory serves—it became generally known, by name, no more than five or six years ago. Until then the term was insider talk indicating that profitability is near or here. Since then it has become “an Event.” The media that reach me—and my e-mail—nearly bristle with news of salvation by Mega Savings. And then there is Cyber Monday, and on and on. I feel for these fellows.

In discovering all of the above, I also chanced across another name for Black Friday. It is called Buy Nothing Day (BND) and originated in Mexico in 1992. In 1997 it was then firmly linked to the Friday after Thanksgiving and is observed across the world as a protest against consumerism.

Guess what. I know exactly what to do on BND. I’ll stay at home and make some order in these endlessly growing towers of books.
The data here are from the Bureau of the Census. Use this link to reach the page from which various reports may be obtained.

Monday, November 19, 2012

SC 24

When in some very distant future the sun goes into nova, it will expand in size. Quite what will happen no one knows. One version of events is that the sun’s expansion will “push” the inner planets “out.” Another is that the sun will “engulf” all of the inner planets, out to the Earth’s orbit, so that we will be inside the sun. We have about 5 billion years to make our plans for escape.

All this, of course, is interesting, but what I would underline here is that we already have our being in the solar environment. As the third planet from the surface, we are quite close to this blazing giant with a mass a million times that of our little sphere of rock.

Back in 1963, at the time of President Kennedy’s assassination—and we do remember, if we’re old enough, what we were doing then—I was reading an article in a magazine suggesting that we were (believe it or not) on the edge of a new period of major global cooling. Yes. And that, in turn, got me interested in ice ages. And in turn then—in the solar cycle. It seemed to me that if the earth either heats or cools, the sun must be causing that change.

The sun has cycles of activity, the recurring solar cycle. It is measured by the appearance of sunspots. Their average number per month has been charted carefully since 1749 and they form peaks (lots of spots) and troughs (few or none). Each cycle is measured from trough to trough; cycles average about 11 years. Astronomers began to number them in the eighteenth century. The first sun cycle (SC 1) was the one extending from 1755 to 1766. We are now in SC 24. It began on January 4, 2008, when astronomers noted the appearance of a sunspot, high on the sun, with reversed polarity. Both are necessary to signal the change from cycle to cycle—appearance of a sunspot at high latitudes as well as magnetic reversal. Sunspots are magnetic fields and, like all magnets, have a N-S polarity. The spots of a cycle always have the same alignment. When a spot appears high on the sun with reversed polarity, S-N, that signals the start of a new cycle.

SC 24 is now beginning to peak. Above I show an image from NASA (link) of SC 23 and SC 24, the latter as far as it has gone. In an article that appeared in March 29 (link), NASA predicted that SC 24 will be “weak,” producing about 90 sunspots at its peak, the lowest observed since 1928. This follows SC 23 which had an unusually enduring and inactive trough. What this might mean is that the sun is going into a cooler period—and that, at least based on common-sense logic, should also mean that the Earth will echo that back. Is such speculation heterodox?

Well, let’s just see. Precise measurement of cycles began in 1749, but pretty good measurements go much farther back. And looking back, we see earlier periods of very low solar activity. The most pronounced of these was the Maunder Minimum, a seventy-year period extending from 1645 to 1715. That period was experienced on Earth, and has been referred to since, as the coldest period of the Little Ice Age, which began earlier. Another, later dip, which lasted 40 years, is known as the Dalton Minimum, 1790-1830. Significant global cooling took place then as well. These two minima are named after astronomers, Edward Maunder (1851-1928) and John Dalton (1766-1844). Measurement during the Maunder Minimum, as shown below in little red crosses, was not quite as systematic as it later became, but the extremely low activity of the sun was noted by a handful of expert astronomers at the time, and the Little Ice Age is well documented (see, for instance, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850, by Brian M. Fagan). During the Dalton Minimum, lower-than-average temperatures were noted, and one observatory in Germany, Oberlach Station, observed a 2° C drop in temperature over a twenty-year period. Herewith a look at 400 years of sunspot observations from Wikipedia (link). The colored lines show the sun cycles; the black line is not identified in the source but may be carbon-14 measurements, an indirect indicator of sunspot activity. More on that on Ghulf Genes (link).

The modern scientific consensus rejects the idea that the solar cycle has a direct effect on global temperature. Climate is a massively complex phenomenon, not well understood even today. And the heat-production of the sun at its minimum (in the troughs) is only about 0.1 percent lower then its output at the maximum (in peaks). But then, of course, I wonder why we speak of the Little Ice Age—which had drastic consequences at least as recorded in Europe—and the cooling during the Dalton Minimum. Could the modern consensus have something to do with excessive caution in a day and age when Global Warming is a major socio-political issue? If the experienced global warming is due to what, in the chart above, is labeled the Modern Maximum, i.e., of solar activity, and may be followed by a lessening of solar heat production in due time (a “weak” SC 24 followed by others), let us hope that that period won’t last long either. Cooling periods are much worse for humanity than periodic warmings.