Search This Blog

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The business of slavery, no. 2

A new online exhibit at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Harlem, NY) is called "In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience," and one section of it deals with the domestic slave trade, a topic, as I noted in an earlier post, that has been much neglected by business historians. The site offers images, maps, graphs, and text on various facets of the slave trade.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Text adventure game -- World's Columbian Exhibition, 1893

Here it is, only the fourth week of the semester, and I'm (still) totally backlogged (sigh). Maybe I'll take up historian Patricia Limerick's funny idea of setting up an "apologies" booth at one's professional society 's annual meeting (Western Historical Quarterly 32 (Spring 2001): 5-23). In any case, from now on, when I don't have time for anything more, I'll make only the briefest notes about items of interest (rather than letting the newspapers pile up on the coffee table). Example:

Review of a "text adventure game" set at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893: Brendan I. Koerner, "The Goods: A Game with a Low Body Count," New York Times, 1/30/05, sec. 3: 2.

Counter-factual history

Cynthia Crossen's columns ("Déjà Vu") in the Wall Street Journal are always a pleasure to read. (Of course, when I finish it, I hope she'll find my book on the history of shareholder voting rights -- how and why one-vote-per-share voting rights came to dominate in the U.S. during the 19th century but not in Europe [= British, France, or Germany] -- interesting enough to warrant a column!)

On Wednesday last week, her column concerned "alternative history" or what is sometimes called counter-factual history. It's true that a few rather far-fetched counter-factual histories gave the genre a bad name, but in one sense counter-factual history is like comparative history: we (historians and everyone else) engage in them all the time on a casual basis, almost as a reflex. It's hard to imagine arriving at any new insight into past events without either measuring those events against other events we know about or speculating about what might have happened instead, had certain (apparently causal) events taken a different course.

Cynthia Crossen, "Déjà Vu: 'What Ifs' Don't Thrill Historians, but They Raise Intriguing Issues," Wall Street Journal, natl. ed., 2/2/05, B1.

Comparing unemployment rates

"The number of unemployed people in Germany rose to five million last month, the most in the post-World War II period, as the government transferred some longtime welfare recipients to the jobless rolls," reports Mark Landler in the New York Times. As a result the German unemployment rate stands at 11.4 percent. Last year's unemployment rate in U.S., he notes, was only 5.4 percent.
Mark Landler, "German Joblessness Rises as Benefits Are Reduced," New York Times, 2/3/05, C5.
What a striking contrast, further enhanced if one goes by the German rate of 12.1 percent reported in the International Herald Tribune and by the news that the U.S. "unemployment rate dropped to a three-year low of 5.2 percent in January" 2005.
Carter Dougherty, "Jobless Rate in Germany Hits Record," International Herald Tribune: The IHT Online, 2/3/05; Eduardo Porter, "Labor Market Expanded at Modest Rate in January," New York Times, 2/5/05, B: 1,4.
The obvious inference is that the U.S. economy is doing much better than the German, since its unemployment rate is less than half of the German rate.

But how much better is not as obvious as it might seem. As Porter goes on to observe, the latest drop in the U.S. rate came "because hundreds of thousands of people stopped looking for jobs and dropped out of the labor force." (Porter, B1) Meanwhile, the German rate rose because some long-term unemployed workers not previously counted were added to its unemployment rolls. Both the numerator (numbers of "unemployed") and the denominator (size of the labor force) matter, and how they are defined varies by country. On the intricacies of such comparisons, see Constance Sorrentino, "International Unemployment Rates: How Comparable Are They?" Monthly Labor Review, June 2000, 3-20.

Wouldn't it be nice if the major media developed some rule of thumb for translating unemployment rates across countries, rather than merely citing the numbers as if they measured exactly the same thing?