Changes In U.S. Consumer Spending; Pres. Obama’s Student Loan Plan; And More


 The Economist posted a graph, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data, that shows how U.S. consumer spending changed between 2007 and 2010. The results provide a good snapshot of the economic trade-offs Americans are making (i.e., we’re buying more canned veggies and eating out less), as well as which industries are taking the biggest hit as consumers redefine their products as less essential.

The “nominal” numbers refer to the unadjusted overall changes in spending; the “real” numbers are adjusted for the fact that prices rose by about 5.2% on average, so consumers are getting less for what they spend. So the light blue bars tell you the absolute change in what we’re spending; the dark blue bars, the change in spending relative to how much we’re buying. When adjusted for price inflation, consumer spending fell by about 8%:

Via Talking Points Memo.

Obama’s Student Loan Plan to Offer Welcome Debt Relief

Jose Luis Pelaez / Getty Images

In a move sure to be popular with recent college graduates, the Obama Administration released details of a plan Tuesday that will ease the burden of student loan debt. The first and perhaps most welcome part of the plan moves up the start date on the income-based repayment program passed by Congress last year from 2014 to 2012. According to a statement released by the Administration, under its “Pay As You Can” plan, an estimated 1.6 million students will be able to cap their loan payments at 10% beginning next year.

(GALLERY: The 20 Colleges With the Most (and Least) Student Debt)

Additionally, beginning in January, the some 6 million students who hold both direct government student loans and government-backed private loans will be able to consolidate their debt into one government loan. In effect, that part of the plan allows students to refinance private loans at a lower government rate, which according to the Administration amounts to an interest rate reduction of up to 0.5%.

The plan will also allow student debt to be forgiven after 20 years, compared with 25 years under current law.

But while every little bit helps, the plan only applies to federally-backed loans, which are capped, and does not affect the private loans many students take to cover the rest of their education costs. These private student loans, which often entice families with variable interest rates that start low and then rocket sky-high, also lack certain consumer protections, such as the ability to discharge the debt if the borrower dies. Talk about onerous.

Obama will formally announce the executive action — the third in as many days aimed at bypassing Congress and boosting his re-election campaign — at an event in Denver later today, the same day as a report from the non-profit College Board shows tuition and fees at public colleges nationwide rose more than 8% this year. It also comes on the heels of USA Today story last week, which — using data from the Department of Education, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and other sources — found that for the first time ever student loan debt is expected to hit $1 trillion. It is also the first time Americans have owed more on student loans than on credit cards.

The skyrocketing student loan debt is especially unwelcome for the Class of 2011, which received the unwelcome distinction of becoming the most indebted graduating class ever. In fact, USA Today found students today are borrowing double the amount they did 10 years ago — after adjusting for inflation.

Not only are Americans taking on more student debt, they are not paying it off as quickly. In the wake of the recession, consumers have prioritized paying off credit cards and mortgages, which often carry higher interest rates, at the expense of student loans. In fact, over the past five years the total outstanding student loan debt has doubled and todaymore than 1 in 10 people with student loans are more than three months behind in their payments.

But while the news is good for current and former students, it is less positive for the private companies that have issued government-backed loans to students. Shelly Repp, president of the National Council of Higher Education Loan Programs, told the Wall Street Journal, that banks and other firms that administer federal student loans stand to lose assets and income as a result of the plan. According to the WSJ story, investors rushed to sell off the stocks of some lenders in the wake of the news, including SLM Corp., the parent company of Sallie Mae, which lost nearly 13% Tuesday, while another education-finance company, Nelnet Inc., fell by nearly 7%.

Read more:


Historic Halloween Storms

This Halloween marks the 20th Anniversary of two historic storm systems that greatly impacted various regions of the United States during the final days of October 1991. One was “perfect”, the other was an early season winter monster.

1991 Perfect Storm
The Perfect Storm has become part of pop culture after the release of the 2000 drama/thriller with the same name. But what exactly made it perfect? It was a combination of weather factors. A combination of a cold front emerging off the northeast United States coast, a developing non-tropical low pressure system near Atlantic Canada, Hurricane Grace spinning near Bermuda and a strong area of high pressure that stretched from the Gulf Coast to eastern Canada.

The Perfect Storm Satellite Image
Reaching Peak Intensity: This is an infrared satellite snapshot of “The Perfect Storm” when it reached its peak intensity on the morning of Wednesday, October 30, 1991. Source:

Even without any influence from Hurricane Grace, the area of low pressure that developed on October 28, 1991 east of Nova Scotia became quite the formidable storm system all by itself. After its “birth” on the Monday, the 28th, it quickly deepened further on Tuesday, October 29. As it did so, a strong area of high pressure was burgeoning over eastern Canada. This gave way to the development of a tremendous pressure gradient between the high and the lowering pressure of the gale center. The stronger the pressure gradient, the more fierce the winds…and this was a STRONG pressure gradient.

So again, even before any influence from Grace, winds were already increasing to sustained tropical storm-force near the center of the storm and along New England coast of the United States. Wave heights had been growing in size for two days and propagating toward the U.S. coast.

Then things got more interesting…

It was during the 29th when the large non-tropical low near Nova Scotia began to absorb Hurricane Grace; wrapping in its tropical moisture and likely receiving an injection of energy. You can see the evolution of this development in this YouTube video clip with Stu Ostro’s analysis from The Weather Channel’s coverage of The Perfect Storm.

All the ingredients of The Perfect Storm were now in play. On the morning of Wednesday, October 30, the storm reached its peak intensity; the pressure lowered to 972 millibars. As it peaked in strength, the storm then began to drift southwest toward the New England coast on Wednesday and Halloween.

Perfect Storm Surface Analysis
Surface analysis for October 30, 1991. A tightening pressure gradient between the mature storm system (surface pressure of roughly 972 millibars) and an area of high pressure stretched out from the Carolinas northward to far eastern Canada. The Perfect Storm reached its peak intensity on this day producing ferocious northeasterly winds across coastal New England and battering the shoreline with tremendous wave action. Source:

 Series of Visible Satellite Images of The Perfect Storm

Wind gusts exceeding hurricane-force lashed the New England coast on October 30 and 31. Powerful waves battered the East Coast. Tides rose to well above average levels. Damage was extensive. Per the NCDC,

“Representative peak gusts included: 78 mph at Chatham NWS, 74 mph at Thatcher Island, 68 mph at Marblehead, 64 mph at Blue Hill Observatory (all in Massachusetts) and 63 mph at Newport, RI. Even more damaging were the heavy surf and coastal flooding caused by the tremendous seas and high tides caused by the long overwater fetch length and duration of the storm. Waves 10 to 30 feet high were common from North Carolina to Nova Scotia. A state by state damage summary reveals the widespread and extensive damage caused by the storm and accompanying seas. Beach erosion and coastal flooding was severe and widespread, even causing damage to lighthouses. Hundreds of homes and businesses were either knocked from their foundations or simply disappeared. Sea walls, boardwalks, bulkheads, and piers were reduced to rubble over a wide area. Numerous small boats were sunk at their berths and thousands of lobster traps were destroyed. Flooding was extensive invading homes and closing roads and airports.”

The evolution of The Perfect Storm didn’t end there. The final phase involved the development of an unnamed hurricane on November 1 within the center of the overall weakening storm. Yeah, it got weird. Stu Ostro has more on this unnamed hurricane here.

Halloween Blizzard of 1991

As the Perfect Storm was perfecting its storminess along the New England coast, another (perhaps sometimes forgotten) major winter storm was raging across the Upper Midwest.

A blizzard of historic proportions was dumping feet of snow over the region with the state of Minnesota taking nearly the full brunt of the storm. The severe winter storm has come to be known as the Halloween Blizzard of 1991 or the Great Halloween Megastorm.

Evolution of the Blizzard
The Halloween Blizzard, also called the Great Halloween Mega Storm, struck the Upper Midwest on Halloween 1991 and continued until November 2, 1991. The storm dumped feet of snow over Minnesota and a major ice storm to southern Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska.
Image source:

The path of this early-season winter storm was pretty remarkable. With The Perfect Storm acting as an atmospheric block on the East Coast, a track from west to east was a no-go. There was only one way to go for the Megastorm – north.

The storm first developed over the far western Gulf of Mexico on October 30. It strengthened and tracked nearly due north toward Minnesota and Wisconsin on Halloween and November 1. Its tropical moisture connection with the Gulf of Mexico allowed for plentiful available moisture and the resulting big snow totals.

1991 Blizzard Snow Totals
Snow totals across the state of Minnesota. Blue colors indicate 8-20 inches of snow. Purple indicates 20-32 inches of snow. Parts of the Arrowhead (white colors) picked up 32 inches or more.
Image source: MN State Climatology Office

The snowstorm set the largest single storm snowfall record for the city of Minneapolis; dropping over two feet of snow (28.4 inches). In Duluth, 37.9 inches of snow fell was the largest amount on record for the entire state of Minnesota – surpassing all snow totals from a single storm during any of the winter months! This record was later eclipsed by a lake-effect snowstorm on January 6-8, 1994 in which 47 inches fell over Finland in Lake County

Farther south, with warmer air nosing in, a major ice storm unfolded with southern Minnesota and the state Iowa feeling the worst. From the La Crosse, Wisconsin National Weather Sercice: “1-2 inches of ice accumulated from southwest Iowa into north central Iowa and 2-3 inches of ice accumulated across south central and southeast Minnesota.”

Although many have forgotten this storm because of the attention being splashed on The Perfect Storm, those who lived it in Minnesota and Iowa will likely never forget.


from the Root

Getting Closer to Our African Origins

Historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton explain why new research is making a difference.

The recent article in The Root by Boston University historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton generated considerable interest in their groundbreaking findings that most American blacks are descended from just 46 ethnic groups and three major regions of Africa.

In a follow-up interview, they explain the process they used to reach their results and the significance of those findings for African Americans in search of their ancestry.

The Root: Your article for The Root described how the majority of African Americans originated with just 46 ethnic groups in Africa from three major regions. What is the significance of those findings?

John Thornton and Linda Heywood: By showing how concentrated the slave trade was, in just a few regions of Atlantic Africa, we can bring more attention to the exact historical processes that caused people to be enslaved. The histories of these areas are fairly well-known among historians specializing in African history, for example, and we can name rulers, outline the course of wars, discover trading patterns and learn about judicial systems in the areas.

We can also see in detail how relations between Africans and Europeans changed over time, and how this, in addition to changes in African politics, resulted in the capture, enslavement and export of some African groups and not others.

TR: What impact does the narrowing of origins have on the efforts of African Americans to trace their origins?

JT and LH: At the present time, DNA results often produce matches with people living in different regions of Africa, some of which never participated in the Atlantic slave trade. We can discount results that point to Cameroon, South Africa or Ethiopia, for example; few or no enslaved Africans from these regions came to North America during the period of the slave trade.

On the other hand, we favor results that indicate Angola, Nigeria or Senegal connections, as these were areas that supplied the majority of slaves to the United States. It will also allow researchers who are seeking to identify populations to target these areas to collect samples, and thus expand the pool of potential African relatives of African Americans.

TR: Is there often a gap between the oral history in families and the actual DNA results of many African Americans?

JT and LH: As far as we’re aware, very few African-American families have traditions that point to specific regions of Africa. In fact, in places where such traditions are found, they are usually quite right. We know, for example, of people who have been told their ancestors came from Congo, and sure enough, the DNA established that it was true.

TR: What scientific advances or progress in research enabled you to reach your conclusions? Did you analyze DNA data?

JT and LH: Our research for this article was based on documentary sources, studying the patterns of trading between Africa, Europe and America (especially using the newly expanded Du Bois database), the reconstruction of events in the relevant African regions and notices from the period of the slave trade of the African origins of people who were listed in documents of the time. We also made extensive use of interviews conducted by missionaries with first-generation enslaved Africans.

DNA research has also advanced, largely because of the increase in the number of people being tested. This expanded pool will continue to grow as more research and testing is done.

We only made use of DNA data for our work with Henry Louis Gates Jr. (editor-in-chief of The Root) as consultants for African American Lives, his PBS TV show, and as consultants for We’re not geneticists; we’re historians, but we have read scientific papers written by geneticists to understand the general problems.

TR: The mapping and quantifying of the slave routes has been an important advance in recent years. How does that tie into your research?

JT and LH: Certainly one crucial step has been the development of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Databasesince 1999, which has combined literally thousands of documents on the movement of shipping across the Atlantic and allowed quantitative estimates of the arrivals in America. Over the years many scholars have slogged through inventories and reported their results, which cumulatively have greatly increased our knowledge of origins of Africans held in slavery.

We have also benefited from the publication of missionary documents that were vital to understanding this. The publication of Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp’s German manuscript in 2001 was absolutely vital to this article.

TR: A number of DNA services offer to pinpoint your African origins. How accurate are such results? Is there enough data to justify these results?

JT and LH: Initially the results were uneven. We combined DNA results with other data, such as family history in America and shipping records, to try to get over ambiguities in the results. Many users of the services found that they had potential ancestors in more than one area in Africa, and at times these contradictions could be limited or resolved by these methods. But for only a few could the results be considered really definitive.

Linda [Heywood]’s result was one of the more secure ones, because of the peculiarities of her ancestral group. Her mitochondrial DNA test showed that she matched people today who are called Fulbe, in the Futa Jallon part of Guinea Bissau. We know historically that the Fulbe of Futa Jallon, along with those of Futa Tooro, undertook long migrations in the 16th through 19th centuries from the coast of West Africa (Senegal and Guinea) all the way to modern-day Chad and Cameroon.

Linda had a number of matches in the Fulbe homeland, but also with people not identified as Fulbe but clearly living on their migration path. Since she was dealing with female ancestors, through the mitochondrial DNA these problems could be understood by thinking of marriages by Fulbe women to non-Fulbe men, whose descendants would not claim Fulbe origin.

In Linda’s case, and some others like hers, yes. But for others, more data will certainly help. There have still not been many Africans tested, and many of those who have been tested do not come from the core regions of the slave trade. For example, Cameroon is heavily sampled, thanks to a variety of projects often not related to the study of the slave trade, whereas Angola is very poorly sampled. Yet Cameroon supplied very few people to North America, and Angola supplied over one-quarter of the African-American ancestral population.

TR: What areas of African history are you exploring at this time?

JT and LH: We both have continuing projects that investigate the history of the African regions that supplied the slave trade. Linda is working on a biography of Queen Njinga, the 17th-century Angolan queen who fought the Portuguese, and Africans in Brazil. John is working on the history of the Kingdom of Kongo as well as other parts in Atlantic Africa and some of the American regions where these Africans went.

Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root.


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