At least five interesting things to start your week (#4)
The racial employment gap, the Dark Ages, the global renewables boom, BlackRock and the housing market, and American state capacity
Well, I skipped the “five interesting things” roundup last week, because there were just so many things happening in the wacky world of geopolitics — Blinken’s China trip, Modi’s America trip, and Prigozhin’s brief and bizarre rebellion in Russia. But in any case, now it’s back to your regularly scheduled programming; last week was a bit slow anyway, but this week we have some fun ones. As usual, if you’re a paid subscriber, please feel free to leave any other interesting links in the comments.
1. The Black-White employment gap has closed!
For as long as the U.S. government has been keeping data, Black Americans have been less likely to have a job than their White counterparts. For the first time in…well, possibly ever, that is no longer true. In March 2023, the Black employment rate exceeded the White employment rate, and in general the two numbers are now just about equal.
This is not to say that America is a land of racial equality — there are still gaps in income, wealth, and so on. But I think we have to regard the closing of the employment gap as a major milestone.
The next question is: Why? Well, one obvious reason is age. The White population is a bit older than the Black population on average, with median ages of 43.7 and 34.6 years, respectively. A younger population means a lower percentage of retirees. (Sadly, I couldn’t find prime-age employment rates by race.) You can see on the graph that although Black employment rates have risen, much of the closing gap has been due to White employment rates falling. Most of that is going to be due to the aging of the White population. But much of it isn’t about age; the Black population has been aging too, and yet Black employment rates are at or near their all-time high.
Another reason is a long period of tight labor markets. You can see that the racial employment gap tends to rise whenever there’s a recession. This is due to the so-called “LIFO” problem (well, so-called since I named it that); lower-wage workers are the first to be fired in a recession and the last to be hired in an expansion. So the fact that we’ve managed to keep the U.S. economy humming without a prolonged downturn since 2012 or so has done a lot to help Black workers close the gap.
There are probably other long-term reasons as well, such as the decline of racial discrimination in hiring since the 1970s. It’s also worth noting that the increase in the Black employment rate is being mostly driven by Black women, rather than men.
In any case, I think this milestone provides a good opportunity to remind people that Black Americans, by and large, are working people. “Black working class” is a phrase I would like to hear used more in our daily discourse.
2. Yes, of course there was a Dark Age in Europe
Most people, if you ask them, will tell you that there was a period of time in Europe called the “Dark Ages”, somewhere between the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages. Some historians, though, argue that this is a misnomer. For example, Eleanor Janega, a guest teacher at the London School of Economics, says there’s “no such thing” as the Dark Ages, and that the term merely refers to a lack of source material from the period:
Is there a time that historians use the term ‘Dark Ages’? Yeah, we do use it to talk about source survival rates. It’s not a term we use as a value judgment, however. We just mean that we don’t have a lot of evidence to go off of.
Janega is so confident in this thesis that she had it written on the posterior area of a pair of her shorts, in a photo she regularly retweets.
Now, I think this is rather humorous, not just because of the photo, but because one would think that if a region suddenly starts producing many fewer written texts, there is probably some underlying economic reason for that — for example, that the region got poorer.
But when I drily pointed this out on Twitter, I drew the ire and scorn of two other historians, Matthew Gabriele of Virginia Tech and David M. Perry (now an independent journalist). Gabriele and Perry wrote a post entitled “You Gotta Do the Reading, Man”. In this post, they demand that I do more in-depth reading about the period before posting funny memes on Twitter, call me racist for assuming that “all civilizations should be defined by widespread literacy” (which by the way I never said and do not assume), and then declare that there are plenty of existing historical sources from the Middle Ages (which seems to conflate two different periods, and also contradicts Janega).
Then Gabriele and Perry go after the eminent economic historian (and my podcast co-host) Brad DeLong. While pointedly refusing to name him or link to his blog, they cite a post of his in which he argues that there was a slowdown in the rate of economic progress during the period we typically call the Dark Ages. They call DeLong an “econobro”, and issue vague broadsides against the “inherent virtue of technological innovation” without addressing any of DeLong’s points. At that point they end their post, apparently content that their work here is done.
But DeLong has done the reading, and in a tartly worded follow-up post, he takes Gabriele and Perry to task for ignoring the vast reams of evidence showing that Western Europe, and probably all of Europe, was much poorer during the period from about 300 through 900 than before or after. For example, Brad posts this graph from Jongman (2007):
As other incisive observers also noted, West Europe’s population also fell substantially during the period we call the Dark Ages.
DeLong and I then discuss the topic at length in our most recent episode of our podcast Hexapodia, which has returned after a long hiatus, and which you can listen to and read a summary of here:
All in all, I see every reason to call an era of material poverty a “Dark Age”.
As I see it, Gabriele and Perry have failed to make any sort of a coherent case that economic output is a poor measure of civilization. If you want to argue that how well a society feeds, shelters, and clothes its people is less important than your own subjective judgement about the cultural quality of the books you manage to find from that time period, then you need to make that argument, instead of just sneering at anyone who thinks otherwise.
3. All the other countries are getting on the renewable train too
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Noahpinion to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.