Consequential weather

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail[1].

Americans are used to waking up in the morning to find that weather has made the headlines overnight. A hurricane, a tornado outbreak, a major winter storm – these and other punishing weather extremes and their trail of death, injury and destruction are all too common for those living in a country that has some of the world’s most hazardous weather.

But what’s this?

“As most Americans basked in the warmest, sunniest March in half a century, economists stared at the skies with dread:” [Dread? Really? Maybe a touch of hyperbole? A shade over the top?] “Could good weather portend bad news for the economic recovery?”  Interesting to wake up this morning to find these quotes and good weather to be the lead story on the Washington Post website – and on the front page and above the fold in the print edition. Read the rest of the companion stories a little more closely, and we begin to wrap our minds around the idea is that this past mild winter may have artificially inflated job growth statistics. The Post print headline reads “robust job gains lose steam in March,” and the news stories suggest that “February alone stole about 72,000 positions from March and future months.” Wouldn’t it be just as accurate to say that the mild winter added work in February for 70,000 people who might otherwise have remained unemployed for another month – until March? Isn’t a mild winter an overall good thing?

Our community makes much over weather’s chaotic nature and the so-called butterfly effect – “the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, where a small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state.” But today’s newspaper stories show that these butterfly effects can be imbedded in one another. Why was last winter particularly mild over most of the United States (and rather more unpleasant in Europe)? Scientists have some ideas, but struggle to make unambiguous attribution when so many details might have contributed. But then the weather’s impacts not just on the hoped-for recovery from 2008’s collapse but on details in that recovery are shaping not just economic fortunes but political fortunes. This is an election year. The campaign rhetoric and the hopes and aspirations of both major political parties hang in significant part on the economic narrative that spins out over the next several months. Steady job growth, lower energy prices, and economic recovery are held to favor the incumbents. By contrast, any breakdown in such trends – any monthly dips and swings – will be seized on by the opposition as pointing to ineffectual leadership.

Weather extremes have shaped the outcome of recent elections. Most say that President Carter lost reelection in 1980 largely because of his economic performance, but the capture and seige of the U.S. embassy in Iran was a contributing factor. The U.S. rescue attempt failed because of a dust storm. We’re told that George Herbert Walker Bush lost the 1992 presidential election in part because he went back on a promise not to raise taxes…but he was hurt as well by what opponents termed his administration’s seemingly callous and ineffectual response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992. George W. Bush and the Republican party would later see the struggles to cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as contributing to electoral reversals in 2006 and 2008. This year’s elections are shaping up to be a close thing. You can bet that all sides will be keeping close watch on the weather…and harboring widely different (though privately held) views on what constitutes favorable weather. Both parties will seek to be politically Weather-Ready.

Weather – even mild weather – creates winners and losers. Weather matters.

[1]This proverb has been around for centuries, perhaps dating back to Richard III’s quote on the Battle of Bosworth Field, immortalized in Shakespeare’s play: “My kingdom for a horse!”

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2 Responses to Consequential weather

  1. Rob P. says:

    Economists are always looking at stuff with dread.

  2. William Hooke says:

    It’s called “the dismal science” for a reason.

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