tiny biology has big impact, the consequences of a stagnant median wage

 Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in À Bout de Souffle (Breathless 1960)

Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in À Bout de Souffle (Breathless 1960).There was an American remake with Richard Gere. Not great, but interesting. Quentin Tarantino thinks it is “cool,” if that means anything. Both films keep to the basic premise, young women beware of jerks.


A recent NYT article looked at the important role of microbes in the human gut. Those microorganisms may have an effect on everything from weight loss to heart attacks to infections from yet other microorganisms. Little things can have a big impact, Microbial Changes Regulate Function of Entire Ecosystems

A major question in ecology has centered on the role of microbes in regulating ecosystem function. Now, in research published ahead of print in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Brajesh Singh of the University of Western Sydney, Australia, and collaborators show how changes in the populations of methanotrophic bacteria can have consequences for methane mitigation at ecosystem levels.

“Ecological theories developed for macro-ecology can explain the microbial regulation of the methane cycle,” says Singh.

In the study, as grasslands, bogs, and moors became forested, a group of type II methanotrophic bacterium, known as USC alpha, became dominant on all three land use types, replacing other methanotrophic microbes, and oxidizing, thus mitigating methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, explains Singh. “The change happened because we changed the niches of the microbial community.”

The pre-eminence of USC alpha bacteria in this process demonstrates that the so-called “selection hypothesis” from macro-ecology “explains the changes the investigators saw in the soil functions of their land-use types,” says Singh. The selection hypothesis states that a small number of key species, rather than all species present determine key functions in ecosystems. “This knowledge could provide the basis for incorporation of microbial data into predictive models, as has been done for plant communities,” he says.

Singh warns that one should not take the results to mean that biodiversity is not important. Without microbial biodiversity, the raw materials—different microbial species with different capabilities—for adapting to changes in the environment would be unavailable, he says.

Perhaps because of our physical size and brain size in proportion to body, humans tend to see detrimental change, if they bother to notice at all, solely on the macro level. If we clear cut a forest, we’ll just replant with a monoculture. If we fill in a wetland, we’ll mitigate that with a man-made lake. If we create huge mounds of mine wastes, we’ll just throw some grass and shrubs on there and everything will be fine. The real effect in the destruction of something very complex, that despite our large brains, we are not very good at replacing.

 Sidney Poitier and Juanita Hardy

Sidney Poitier and  Juanita Hardy. New York, NY. March 1959. Photo by Gordon Parks. Those who like to do the classic movie viewing night might want to give A Patch of Blue (1965) a try. Poitier has several classic movies on his resume, but Patch does not get the attention it deserves.

Our national crisis is not that most Americans have been living beyond our means, but our means have not kept up because of widening inequality:

The notion that we can’t afford to invest in the education of our young, or rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, or continue to provide Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, or expand health insurance is absurd.

If the median wage had kept up with the overall economy, it would be over $90,000 today — and tax revenues would be more than adequate to cover all our needs. If the wealthy were paying the same marginal tax rate they were paying up to 1981, tax revenues would be far more.

Get it? The problem isn’t that most Americans have been living too well. The problem is we haven’t been living nearly as well as our growing economy should have allowed us to live.

Widening inequality is the culprit. If President Obama is looking for a central theme for his second term, this is it.

There is a video at the link. Robert Reich is like the Mr. Rogers of economics. Listening to him talk about a normally dry subject is a little less painful than it usually is.