Monday, February 09, 2009

Possible side-effects include...

An intriguing mix of speculation about how the recession will affect us other than economically is emerging (although it may be fair to say they simply spring from the financial turmoil).

For example, we may become more spiritually inclined.  Pastors have long admonished their flocks that we should attend to our duties of faith all the time, but without doubt our interest in a beneficent deity perks up as we face hard times.

The feeling of loss of control may be the key.
Uncertain times cause us to cast about more widely for explanations of our circumstances - and rational reasoning, alas, does not always come naturally when we are desperate for answers. It is ironic that science is revealing our modern, sophisticated, scientific world view to have a fragile hold on our minds (see "Natural born believers"). But there are also lessons to be learned. First, we ought to be more understanding of seemingly irrational world views. Many psychologists now see irrationality as the default state of the human mind. No wonder the idea that life arose spontaneously has such a hard time trumping creationism: overcoming that "natural" perspective takes a lot of cognitive effort. Research into irrationality may also provide insights to help guide the treatment of those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and related mental illnesses.
The other lesson is more direct: be careful. In a recession, or any other time of uncertainty, you are more likely to make bad decisions. By all means play the lottery if it provides a momentary diversion from the gloom. But keep your head. However seductive and comforting the idea of a win, and however tricky your circumstances, playing the lottery is not a rational path to riches. Even if God did tell you this week's numbers. [More]
But not only our worship patterns may change. Leisure may take on a new, more laid back - and certainly less expensive - style.
First, consider entertainment. Many studies have shown that when a job is harder to find or less lucrative, people spend more time on self-improvement and relatively inexpensive amusements. During the Depression of the 1930s, that meant listening to the radio and playing parlor and board games, sometimes in lieu of a glamorous night on the town. These stay-at-home tendencies persisted through at least the 1950s.
In today’s recession, we can also expect to turn to less expensive activities — and maybe to keep those habits for years. They may take the form of greater interest in free content on the Internet and the simple pleasures of a daily walk, instead of expensive vacations and N.B.A. box seats. [More]
One less obvious change in how we operate as a society may be an increasingly favorable view of women in higher positions of power in business.  Testosterone-laced traders seemed to have made a bit of a mess, and one answer is to leaven the decision-making groups with more females.
Wall Street is one of the most male-dominated bastions in the business world; senior staff meetings resemble a urologist’s waiting room. Aside from issues of fairness, there’s evidence that the result is second-rate decision-making.
“There seems to be a strong consensus that diverse groups perform better at problem solving” than homogeneous groups, Lu Hong and Scott E. Page wrote in The Journal of Economic Theory, summarizing the research in the field.
A fascinating British study supports that conclusion with evidence from the drool of financiers. The researchers, using the saliva of male traders, tracked natural variations of testosterone in the morning and the amount of profits they earned for the firm that day.
“We found that a trader’s morning testosterone level predicts his day’s profitability,” reported the study, published last year in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Higher testosterone meant more risk-taking and, usually, more money.
On its own, that might suggest that men have an advantage on the trading floor. Yet the same study also suggested that elevated testosterone levels could lead to greater assumption of risk; high testosterone levels “may shift risk preferences and even affect a trader’s ability to engage in rational choice.” In other words: when male traders crash ... boy, they crash. [More]
For me this idea of women in financial leadership positions rings true, as I have worked with a woman banker for years and her attitudes help offset my ruggedly manly brain malfunctions. I have also noticed mixed committees at church or Farm Bureau seem to be able to get more done with less hassle. Maybe we're about to improve productivity by simply acknowledging this capability in our midst.

Oddly this change may come about partly because we could soon have more women at work than men as this is shaping up to be a male-targeted recession.  The longer the recession goes, the more likely this outcome could be.
The proportion of women who are working has changed very little since the recession started. But a full 82 percent of the job losses have befallen men, who are heavily represented in distressed industries like manufacturing and construction. Women tend to be employed in areas like education and health care, which are less sensitive to economic ups and downs, and in jobs that allow more time for child care and other domestic work.
“Given how stark and concentrated the job losses are among men, and that women represented a high proportion of the labor force in the beginning of this recession, women are now bearing the burden — or the opportunity, one could say — of being breadwinners,” says Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress.
Economists have predicted before that women would one day dominate the labor force as more ventured outside the home. The number of women entering the work force slowed and even dipped during the boom years earlier this decade, though, prompting a debate about whether women truly wanted to be both breadwinners and caregivers.
Should the male-dominated layoffs of the current recession continue — and Friday’s jobs report for January may offer more insight — the debate will be moot. A deep and prolonged recession, therefore, may change not only household budgets and habits; it may also challenge longstanding gender roles. [More]
All things considered, I think we will not be the same society as we were when all this is over. Of course, that is a "well, duh" statement, but something about this experience seems to suggest widespread and fundamental changes lasting for decades.

I think agriculture will not escape this transition either.

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