Saturday, October 3, 2015

What the terrible job report means for US; Decline of 'big soda'; India village where a man was killed for eating beef

1 What the terrible job report means for US (Neil Irwin in Sydney Morning Herald) The September jobs numbers are easily the worst of 2015 so far. The weak numbers offer some vindication for those Federal Reserve officials who preferred to hold off on interest rate increases last month to ensure the economy was on sound footing before tightening the money supply.

The question now is whether it means anything - whether the US economic expansion, which seemed set to roar into 2015, is slowing in some meaningful way. We don't know that yet, and it would be a mistake to leap to that conclusion. But that possibility became quite a bit more plausible after the September numbers.

The new numbers are poor on pretty much every level. US employers added a mere 142,000 jobs last month, far below the analyst forecast of 201,000 or the average over the last year of 229,000. Revisions pushed July and August numbers down substantially. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 5.1 per cent.

This is usually the point in one of these stories where we would list the silver linings -- the countervailing details that suggest it isn't as bad as all that. This report doesn't really offer any. Average weekly hours fell. Average hourly pay was unchanged. The number of people in the labor force fell by 350,000, and the number of people who reported having a job fell by 236,000.

The most positive angle I could come up with, with credit to an anonymous Twitter user, is the possibility that with the unemployment rate scraping relatively low numbers, we should expect the rate of job creation to slow simply because the pool of potential workers is dwindling.

The best silver lining is that this is a data series with a lot of statistical variance that can send false signals, even for a few months in a row, that don't ultimately mean anything. So we might turn out to be in one of those periods when the data falter for no particular reason. If so, it would be an unfortunate coincidence that it's coming when so much else about the world economy is looking perilous.

2 Decline of ‘big soda’ (Margot Sanger-Katz in The New York Times) Five years ago, Mayor Michael A. Nutter proposed a tax on soda in Philadelphia, and the industry rose up to beat it back. The lesson from Philadelphia is that the soda industry is winning the policy battles over the future of its product. But the bigger picture is that soda companies are losing the war.

Even as anti-obesity campaigners like Mr. Nutter have failed to pass taxes, they have accomplished something larger. In the course of the fight, they have reminded people that soda is not a very healthy product. They have echoed similar messages coming from public health researchers and others — and fundamentally changed the way Americans think about soda.

Over the last 20 years, sales of full-calorie soda in the US have plummeted by more than 25 percent. Soda consumption, which rocketed from the 1960s through 1990s, is now experiencing a serious and sustained decline. Sales are stagnating as a growing number of Americans say they are actively trying to avoid the drinks that have been a mainstay of American culture.

Sales of bottled water have shot up, and bottled water is now on track to overtake soda as the largest beverage category in two years, according to at least one industry projection. The drop in soda consumption represents the single largest change in the American diet in the last decade and is responsible for a substantial reduction in the number of daily calories consumed by the average American child.

From 2004 to 2012, children consumed 79 fewer sugar-sweetened beverage calories a day, according to a large government survey, representing a 4 percent cut in calories over all. As total calorie intake has declined, obesity rates among school-age children appear to have leveled off. The soda tax didn’t pass. But the debate about it, along with a series of related city policies, helped discourage people from drinking soda.

For many public health advocates, soda has become the new tobacco — a toxic product to be banned, taxed and stigmatized. It’s clear that soda’s calories contribute to weight gain and obesity, but whether its impact is greater than that of other unhealthy foods has not been conclusively demonstrated. Nevertheless, the change is already underway.

Water has been the runaway success story of the industry. Gary A. Hemphill, an industry consultant, projects that in 2017, water will surpass soda in sales and become the largest beverage category in the US.

3 India village where a man was killed for eating beef (Jason Burke in The Guardian) The minister has arrived. The motorcade fills the unpaved street. Mahesh Sharma, India’s minister of culture, is preceded by a small aide in a purple shirt and followed by a large grey-suited bodyguard. He has come to “condole” the family of Mohammed Akhlaq, a 50-year-old labourer beaten to death by a mob in his small two-storey home in the centre of Bishara village, about an hour’s drive beyond the outskirts of Delhi, India’s capital, last Monday night.

The mob that killed him believed that Akhlaq and his family, who are Muslim, had eaten meat from a cow, an animal considered sacred by the 80% of the Indian population who follow the Hindu faith. Akhlaq and his son were dragged from their beds and beaten with bricks. The father died; the son is fighting for his life in hospital.

Sharma’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Hindu nationalists, stormed to power in a landslide victory in May 2014, unceremoniously dispatching Congress, which had ruled India for most of its 68 years as an independent country, to the political margins. The BJP is led by Narendra Modi, whose appeal is based on his promise to bring economic development and opportunity without sacrificing India’s cultural identity.

Critics of the prime minister say that since Modi took power rightwing groups have felt empowered. “The silence at the top ... is absolutely stunning,” Abhishek Singhvi, a Congress MP, told reporters following the murder in Bishara. In an interview last month, Sharma said India should be “cleansed” of “polluting” western influences so as to restore “Indian culture”.

A suggestion by India’s foreign minister last year that the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu epic, be made the “national book” provoked an outcry from Muslims and Christians, 14% and 2.3% of the population of 1.35 billion respectively.

The route from central Delhi to Bishara passes first over the heavily polluted Yamuna river, past a vast new temple and a metro station and on to a recently built expressway slicing through the city’s sprawl. Bishara, a huddle of hundred or so breeze-block cement and brick homes with intermittent electricity and patchy sanitation, lies among fields that stretch to the horizon.

Sitting on a narrow, worn rope bed in a corner of the Akhlaqs’ home was Hanif, a brother of the dead man. Like Mohammed, he too was a labourer and described a life of working 14-hour days in often blinding heat for less than 200 rupees (£2) a day. “Mohammed was a quiet man. Like most of us, he just worked and kept quiet. There are 60 Thakur villages round here, so they can pretty much do what they want and get away with it. Today it was my brother. Tomorrow it could be anyone,” Hanif said.

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