2011 - %3, March

Science of the Quake: Corrosion

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 2:37 PM EDT
Saltwater rust.

As MoJo's Kate Sheppard and Josh Harkinson write, bad things seem to be happening at the reactor number 3 of the Fukushima I Plant, including the possibility of a core breach. Reactor 3 is the one that uses a mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel made in part with highly carcinogenic plutonium.

There's also the potential that the problem stems from the seawater being pumped in to cool the reactors and spent fuel rods. The saltwater is at least partially vaporizing in the process, leaving behind salt encrustations. Anyone who's ever worked on a boat at sea knows firsthand the unbelievable power of saltwater to corrode anything and everything, particularly metal, including stainless steel.

The New York Times reports that a former chief safety researcher at General Electric when the company installed Fukushima's boiling-water reactors estimates that 57,000 pounds of salt have accumulated in Reactor No. 1 and 99,000 pounds apiece in Reactors No. 2 and 3—and that was a couple of days ago.

[Salt] crusts insulate the rods from the water and allow them to heat up. If the crusts are thick enough, they can block water from circulating between the fuel rods. As the rods heat up, their zirconium cladding can rupture, which releases gaseous radioactive iodine inside and may even cause the uranium to melt and release much more radioactive material.

 

Earthquake and tsunami damage to the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. Credit: Digital Globe via Wikimedia Commons. Earthquake and tsunami damage to the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. Credit: Digital Globe via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Another New York Times piece reports on how just how radioactive some of the waters in the plant have become, whether from a core breach or saltwater corrosion or both, unknown:

The National Institute of Radiological Sciences said that 3.9 million becquerels per square centimeter of radiation had been detected in the water that the three workers stepped in—10,000 times the level normally seen in coolant water at the plant. The injured workers’ dosimeters suggested exposure to 170 millisieverts of radiation. But the institute said that the actual amount of radiation the workers are thought to have been exposed to in the water is 2 to 6 sievert. Even 2 sievert is eight times the 250 millisievert annual exposure limit set for workers at Daiichi.

Radioactivity levels from Fukushima are now approaching Chernobyl levels. Via New Scientist:

Austrian researchers have used a worldwide network of radiation detectors—designed to spot clandestine nuclear bomb tests—to show that iodine-131 is being released at daily levels 73 per cent of those seen after the 1986 disaster. The daily amount of caesium-137 released from Fukushima Daiichi is around 60 per cent of the amount released from Chernobyl.

 

Near-realtime radiation monitoring map. Credit: GEBWEB.Near-realtime radiation monitoring map. Credit: GEBWEB.

 

On the positive side, Daniel Clery writes in the current Science that newer reactors have benefited from greatly improved safety designs.

The Fukushima I reactors are very old reactor designs, direct copies of "the hairy edge of the first commercial plants in the U.S." in the 1960s, says nuclear engineer Tony Roulstone of the University of Cambridge in the U.K. The new machines, using so-called Generation III+ designs, "have the benefit of 50 years of design evolution and operational practice," Sherry says. Modern reactors have multiple layers of defense, use natural forces such as gravity and convection to move cooling water rather than rely on pumps, and employ automatic valves that kick in extra measures if necessary. Their manufacturers claim the reactors can be left for days and not overheat. "You can walk away from [such a reactor]. It's designed to cope with decay heat," Sherry says.

On the down side, the The Fukushima I reactors were no doubt the pinnacle of safety in their day and marketed as "foolproof." Turn on your light and forget about it.

 

Tsunami damage. Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd, courtesy the US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons.Tsunami damage. Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd, courtesy the US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Then there's the human corrosion factor: Safety will be compromised in the interest of profit. Especially over time, like rust. How many times do we have to process those data?

Plus, business is habitually resistant to the warnings of scientists. In Tokyo Electric Power Company's case, they apparently ignored warnings from seismologist Yukinobu Okamura that the area is susceptible to far larger tsunamis than Fukushima I was built to withstand. New research proved it. Did TEPCO care? From the Financial Times:

Mr Okamura said he was angry that Tepco had not acted on the evidence that tsunamis in the area could be bigger than their designs had allowed for. "I don’t know if all the damage could have been prevented, even if they had responded immediately when I pointed this out, but I do think they should have responded," he said.

 

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Huck, Newt and Haley Palling Around with Anti-Muslim Extremist

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 2:26 PM EDT

For GOP presidential hopefuls, its become necessary to court the crazy. Earlier today, Tim Murphy told you about Newt Gingrich's remarks at an American Family Association forum in Iowa, where the former House Speaker—and likely Republican presidential contestant—lavished praise on Islamophobe conspiracy theorist David Barton.

But wait, there's more: The Iowa Independent reports that Gingrich, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are scheduled to appear on Bryan Fischer's radio show today. Fischer, the AFA's issues director, has long been a leading basher of Muslims and gays and lesbians. He has said that inbreeding causes Muslims to be stupid and violent; he has equated gay sex with domestic terrorism; and he has claimed that Hitler and his stormtroopers were gay. Yesterday on his blog, Fischer wrote that the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion does not apply to Islam:

Islam has no fundamental First Amendment claims, for the simple reason that it was not written to protect the religion of Islam. Islam is entitled only to the religious liberty we extend to it out of courtesy. While there certainly ought to be a presumption of religious liberty for non-Christian religious traditions in America, the Founders were not writing a suicide pact when they wrote the First Amendment.

Our government has no obligation to allow a treasonous ideology to receive special protections in America, but this is exactly what the Democrats are trying to do right now with Islam.

Fischer also claims that the First Amendment was intended to safeguard "the free exercise of Christianity." According to his reading of history, America's first brush with jihad happened off the shores of Tripoli, during the First Barbary War.

Despite Fischer's hateful rhetoric, GOP heavyweights continue to chase after him to win over social conservative voters, undeterred by the fact that the Southern Poverty Law Center recently classified the American Family Association as a hate group. It was on Fischer's show that Huckabee  repeated his erroneous claims about President Obama's upbringing. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who both harbor presidential ambitions, have also appeared on his show.

In response to the scheduled appearance of Barbour, Gingrich, and Huckabee, People for the American Way wrote letters to each, asking them to denounce Fischer's anti-Islam bias on his show:

Mr. Fischer isn't simply wrong about this point—he is spreading a dishonest and dangerous lie about how America should treat not only Muslims, but people of all faiths or no faith at all.

If you choose to appear with Mr. Fischer today, you have a responsibility to disavow this lie while on the show.

So far, none of the three has indicated that he will heed this call. The GOP presidential aspirants hobnob with Fischer because they believe they need to. After all, it's an easy way to reach out to the extreme, the misinformed, and/or the bigoted voters who will be part of the Republican primaries.

Gingrich Praises Anti-Muslim Conspiracy Theorist

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 2:20 PM EDT

Courtesy of WallbuildersCourtesy of WallBuildersFormer House Speaker and likely GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich commenced his address at an American Family Association event in Iowa today by lavishing praise on a controversial amateur historian who believes that Jesus opposed the minimum wage and that Islamic extremists have literally infiltrated the Justice Department. "I never listen to David Barton without learning a whole lot of new things," Gingrich said, while inviting his audience to read the Texans' writings on the Founding Fathers. "It's amazing how much he knows and how consistently he applies that knowledge."

Barton is the founder of WallBuilders, an Evangelical organization devoted to breaking down the barrier between church and state—which Barton believes to be a work of pure fiction. Although his work has been torn apart by professional historians, Barton has fashioned himself as one of the leading experts on the idea that the United States is a Christian nation and that its development has been aided at key junctures by divine intervention. (He does have an honorary PhD. from Pensacola Christian College.)

So, what exactly can you learn by listening to Barton? For one, Barton subscribes to a conspiracy theory that has taken hold on the far right: that the Muslim Brotherhood has infilitrated the highest levels of American law enforcement and is planning to destroy America from within. On his radio show last week, Barton, referring to a former FBI agent named John Guandolo, said, "John used to be the guy who briefed the FBI on terrorism and radical Islamic terrorism and so many Islamic folks worked their way into the FBI, they got him thrown out. They said he keeps speaking bad about Islam, he keeps saying bad things about radical Islam, you need to get rid of him.'"

He added, "you can understand why [Eric] Holder and others in the FBI wouldn't want Guandolo around there. These are the kind of people they are chasing off because you're starting to see the Muslim Brotherhood actually get in to some of our institutions." (Actually, Guandolo was forced to resign because he slept with a witness in a corruption case involving former Rep. William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson.)

While Barton concedes that Islam is protected by the First Amendment, he has previously argued that the Bill of Rights does not afford protections to polytheistic religions (like Hinduism or Wicca), and that atheists should not be allowed to hold office or testify in court. After Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) became the nation's first Muslim congressman in 2007, Barton declared concerns about the lawmaker's faith "understandable."

In addition to cozying up to aspiring Republican politicians and helping the state of Texas draft its much-maligned textbook standards, Barton has previously spoken at conferences alongside proponents of Christian Identity—a white supremacist ideology with ties to white supremacists—as well as Holocaust deniers and militia leader Bo Gritz. Barton says he did not know about his fellow speakers' beliefs. Perhaps Gingrich would say the same regarding Barton. The possible GOP presidential candidate, who two years ago converted to Catholicism, has been trying hard in recent years to win support among evangelical Christians. Should Gingrich officially enter the 2012 presidential race, it might be useful for voters to know just what he has learned from Barton.

Friday Cat Blogging - 25 March 2011

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 1:53 PM EDT

On the left, we have a cat and his shadow. On the right, we have a cat and her garden. Who do you think has the better deal?

The Return of John Lott

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 1:26 PM EDT

Hey, John Lott is back in the news! Remember him? Chris Brown of Media Matters catches him retroactively changing a blog post and then complaining that he was misquoted. Luckily, Chris kept a screen shot of the original, always a useful precaution when dealing with Lott.

For what it's worth, Lott is famous in the blogosphere for conducting a gun survey that nobody else could duplicate and then claiming that literally every trace of evidence that he'd actually conducted the survey was missing. He's also famous for using a sock puppet named Mary Rosh, who popped up in discussion threads and lavishly praised Lott whenever he was criticized.

But for my money, his biggest sin came in 2003, when he surreptitiously made retroactive changes to a dataset to make it look as if the modified version was the one he'd been using all along. I summarized all this in EZ-to-follow bullet points here. Chris Mooney talked to Lott for Mother Jones here. It's a nice trip down memory lane. Making changes and then backdating them is an old MO for Lott, so his latest antics come as no surprise.

Obama's Gamble in Libya

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 12:46 PM EDT

Jonah Goldberg is dumbfounded at Barack Obama's desire for the United States to let others take the lead in the Libya operation. But that's not what really ticks him off:

What’s most infuriating is that if this ends “well” — say Qaddafi is killed by one of his own men in the next couple days or the rebels manage to assassinate him, or he flees to Venezuela, whatever — you know that Obama will take credit for leading this successful mission and he will be praised for his “leadership” by many of the same people who are now pretending they believe this fiction that NATO has taken over.

Actually, it seems like this would be fair enough, since Goldberg and his copartisans are equally ready to trash Obama regardless of how everything turns out. Still, I think this is a telling comment. It's no surprise that conservatives are upset that Obama is taking the back seat in a military operation — even rhetorically — and allowing our allies to take the lead. Given their peculiar worldview in which America is required to assert its superiority at all times and in all places, this is plainly intolerable regardless of whether or not it makes sense. Goldberg, in fact, views it as almost self-evidently impossible for someone else to be in charge.

But as bad as this is, what's even worse is the possibility that it might work: it's entirely possible that Qaddafi will leave or be defeated and that the rebels will win a victory that's not viewed as merely another case of American imperialism run amuck. That would genuinely be a victory for American foreign policy, and Obama would deserve tremendous credit for it.

If it works, that is — something that's obviously still up in the air. I'm not thrilled with this operation, and I'm not thrilled with the seeming disarray over who's controlling it and what we're trying to accomplish. Still, this isn't Vietnam or Iraq: Obama is taking the risk that a limited military operation in Libya can succeed in the short term if American arms are brought to bear, and can also succeed in the long term as long as American arms and American interests aren't viewed by the Arab world as the prime motivation for action. Oddly, even after decades of experience with blowback, conservatives still don't seem to get the second half of this equation.

In the end, Obama might be wrong. We might not be able to topple Qaddafi with France and Britain driving things, and even if we do it might not turn out to make much difference in how the Arab world views us. That's the risk Obama is taking. But if it does work, he'll deserve all the credit he gets for it.

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Japan's Nuclear Emergency Explained

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 12:10 PM EDT
A satellite image of shows damage after an explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in quake-ravaged Japan.

This was originally posted on Saturday, March 12 at 2:01 PM EST and is being updated regularly. Some of the information at the top is very basic; if you're familiar with the outlines of the problem, you can jump straight to the latest updates.

Fears of a potential nuclear catastrophe are high in northern Japan, where multiple explosions have occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and the cooling systems at four separate reactors are suffering problems. Officials have reported that a partial meltdown has likely occured at three reactors, though the extent of the damage to their cores is not yet clear. Spent fuel rods at a fourth reactor also threaten to melt down. The emergency at the plant comes on top of the devastation caused by an 9.0-magnitude earthquake and a 33-foot tsunami.

What is wrong with the plant? There are six boiling-water reactors on the site, though only three were in operation at the time of the earthquake. These systems, designed by General Electric, rely on an influx of water to cool the reactor core. But the water systems require electricity that was cut off by the earthquake. It also appears that something—the initial quake, the tsunami, or aftershocks—knocked the site's back-up generators offline. Without the cooling system bringing in water, the core of a reactor will start to overheat—which in turn heats up the water already in the system and causes more of it to turn to steam. Emergency responders have been forced to vent some of the steam, releasing radiation, in order to prevent the containment domes from exploding. They are in a race against the clock to bring in new water supplies before the reacting nuclear fuel heats up beyond control.

It is believed that all of units have already suffered a partial meltdowns of their reactor cores—the uranium fuel rods where the nuclear chain reaction happens—and four of the plants have been damaged by explosions or fires. There was a blast on Saturday March 12th at Unit 1, followed by explosions at Unit 3 the following Monday and Unit 2 on Tuesday along with a fire at Unit 4, where spent fuel rods may have boiled off all of the water in their cooling pond.

Tokyo Electric Power Company, the owner of the plant, has been flooding the reactors with a mix of sea water and boric acid, which is used to slow down the chain reaction. They have encountered multiple problems, however, with keeping water levels up. Leaving the rods exposed causes them to heat up faster and increases the risk of a meltdown.

How large is the area affected by radiation? Trace levels of radiation from the plant are expected to travel thousands of miles. Of course, radiation powerful enough to pose a health threat will cover a much smaller area. The Fukushima plant is about 160 miles north of Tokyo, and residents within a 12.6-mile radius have been evacuated. However, US officials have advised Americans in Japan to evacuate to at least 50 miles from the plant. British authorities are recommending that their citizens leave Tokyo and the whole of northern Japan. It's still unknown how large an area will be seriously affected.

On March 13th, the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, which is docked at the US naval base in Yokosuka 200 miles south of the reactors, detected "low levels of radioactivity" on its decks. The ship's commander recommended the military personnel limit outdoor activities. A 17-man Naval helicopter crew flying a relief mission about 60 miles from the reactor passed through a radiation plume that exposed them to a month's worth of radiation within one hour. A US Navy spokesman told Bloomberg that low-level radiation exposure will probably become "a fact of life" for military personnel flying relief missions in the area.

Levels of radiation more than four times the legal limit have been found in milk more than 40 miles from the plant. Radiation has also contaminated local crops and tap water.

The IAEA reports that officials are working in the most affected areas to distribute iodine tablets, which are used to block the absorption of radiation.

Will the radiation reach the West Coast of United States? Yes, but experts don't think the levels will pose any danger. MoJo's Julia Whitty has a rundown of the latest modeling and key uncertainties.

How many people have been killed or injured as a result of the disaster? As of Sunday, 8,277 people are dead and more than 12,000 are missing in the aftermath of the earthquake. The precise impact of the nuclear accident is unknown, and its worst-case impacts could ultimately be longer-term health problems such as cancer. According to the New York Times, five Tokyo Electric workers "have died since the quake and 22 more have been injured for various reasons, while two are missing. One worker was hospitalized after suddenly grasping his chest and finding himself unable to stand, and another needed treatment after receiving a blast of radiation near a damaged reactor. Eleven workers were injured in a hydrogen explosion at reactor No. 3." 

Hundreds of Japanese soliders and firemen have been working to cool the reactor units. On Thursday, Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, expressed fears that many of them will suffer lethal radiation doses, despite their protective gear. On March 19th, Tokyo Electric (TEPCO) raised the radiation threshold for workers responding to the crisis from 100 to 150 millisieverts. Earlier in the week, the Japanese government had raised the legal limit to 250 millisieverts. The typical person is exposed to about 3 millisieverts of radiation a year. The International Commission of Radiological Protection recommends no more than 50 millisieverts of radiation a year for nuclear recovery workers. However, it offers no restriction in a crisis when "the benefit to others clearly outweighs the rescuer's risk." 

Where can I learn more about the science and health effects of radiation exposure? Here and here.

We'll be providing updates on this developing story below:

Education: Standardized Tests, Explained

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 12:00 PM EDT

Let's face it: Jargon happens. And in education circles, it happens a lot. Curious what a buzzword actually means? Or how a seemingly unrelated concept migrated into discussions about kids and schools? Let MoJo's education team research it so you don't have to. Help us decide what lingo to look at next by leaving suggestions in comments.

This week's education primer: "STANDARDIZED TESTING."

It's springtime in the U.S. of A, which for millions of kids and teachers means just one thing: Standardized tests. Be prepared for acronym soup.

What are "standardized tests," and when did they become required in the American public education system? When teachers talk about high school "standardized tests" these days, they're not talking about the SAT. They mean federally mandated, timed, 'one set of multiple choice questions fits all' tests designed to measure students' performance in basic subjects like math and reading. Each state decides how to define educational proficiency, and tests use a minimum of three scores: Below Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. Some governmentally required standardized testing isn't new: Since 1969, the federal Department of Education has given the National Assessment of Educational Progress test to American students to monitor their educational achievement. The feds didn't start requiring states to develop their own standardized tests, however, until 1994, when the Clinton administration changed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. (President Johnson created ESEA during the War on Poverty to reduce achievement gaps in public K-12 education.) What the Clinton administration did in 1994 was start requiring that every state receiving federal money for high-poverty schools (i.e. Title 1 funds) begin testing third through eighth graders annually in math and reading. President George W. Bush subsequently moved the testing ball down the court with the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to test fourth and eighth graders in math and reading every two years. Tests in subjects like science and writing are optional. Other than the NAEP test and state math and reading assessments, NCLB requires states to give science assessments at least once during grades three to five, six through nine, and ten through twelve. For these assessments (such as California's Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) test, Maryland's School Performance Assessment, and Georgia's Iowa Basic Skill Test) each state designs the questions on its own test. If you're thinking that students are now getting tested more than ever, you'd be right.

What happens to test scores once they're collected?

Once state test scores are in, NCLB requires states to separate scores based on students' ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status. Then the district sends a report card of these results to parents, teachers, and the media.

How are students directly impacted by their scores?

It depends on the school, but they're frequently not. Some states, like Massachusetts, require students to pass state assessments to graduate from high school. In Utah, teachers can also use standardized test scores to grade students. But like several Mission High students have noted, college admissions don't depend on the STAR test. Thus motivation to improve school test scores can take creative forms.

How are teachers and schools impacted by student scores?

It depends on the state. If Florida Gov. Rick Scott signs the 'merit pay' bill currently on his desk, teachers in Florida will get raises depending on whether their students score well on standardized tests. In Philadelphia, Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver, schools were shut down or sold to charters because of repeatedly low standardized test scores. Whole teaching staffs in Nevada, Ohio, and Rhode Island have been fired because of test results. School, district, and state funding are tied to standardized test scores.

States are required to make sure schools tested make what's called "Adequate Yearly Progress" each year so that by 2014, 100 percent of students will be labeled proficient. If schools don't make Adequate Yearly Progress, states are required to take certain steps.

Let's say third graders at Any School USA don't score higher on their standardized tests than last year's third graders. Then Any School USA is put on a watch-list and could get labeled "in need of improvement." It could also get money to raise test scores. If next year's third grade class scores lower than last year's third graders, Any School USA gets publicly labeled "in need of improvement" and now its required to develop a two-year improvement plan for the subject kids are scoring low in. At this second strike, Any School USA students are given the option to transfer to a better school within the school district, if one exists. If Any School USA misses its AYP for a third year in a row, the school has to offer free tutoring and other supplemental education services to struggling students. If a school misses its AYP target for a fourth consecutive year, the school gets labeled as requiring "corrective action," which might involve the wholesale replacement of staff, introduction of a new curriculum, or extending the amount of time students spend in class. The fifth year of low AYP scores at Any School USA results in plans to restructure the entire school; the plan is implemented if the school misses its AYP targets for the sixth year in a row. This means Any School USA may get closed, turned into a charter, or handed over to a private company or the state office of education to run.

Why are some people unhappy with this system?

Schools are cutting back on teaching science, social studies, and art to become proficient in math and reading tests by NCLB's 2014 deadline, The New York Times' Sam Dillon reports. This is the reason the US lags so far behind other countries when it comes to science proficiency, researchers told The Hechinger Report. Also to make the goal, more than half of states have lowered their standards to redefine "proficient."

Last year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said standardized tests "rely mainly on multiple choice items with fill-in-the-bubble answers. They generally provide time-sensitive data and results months later, when their instructional usefulness has expired. Typically, students take a state assessment in March or April—and get the results mailed to them after school is out." A Pennsylvania mother decided not to let her two kids take the Keystone State's two-week-long standardized test, CNN reports. Standardized tests don't accurately measure accomplishments and they're used to punish schools, Michele Gray, the mom of a 9 and 11-year-old boy, told CNN. Duncan agrees. "It is no secret that existing state assessments in mathematics and English often fail to capture the full spectrum of what students know and can do," Duncan said last year. While advocating a new generation of math and English tests for the 2014-15 school year, Duncan added: "Schools may give lots of tests—often too many—but the assessments aren't always testing important knowledge and skills." On the other hand, Duncan said the new tests for the 2014-15 school year will assess students' ability to read complex text, incorporate technology to simulate problems, and better measure growth in student learning.

Can California Still Afford the Death Penalty?

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 11:35 AM EDT

The "hanging judge of Orange County" writes today that he's had a change of heart:

I watch today as Gov. Brown wrestles with the massive debt that is suffocating our state and hear him say he doesn't want to "play games." But I cringe when I learn that not playing games amounts to cuts to kindergarten, cuts to universities, cuts to people with special needs — and I hear no mention of the simple cut that would save hundreds of millions of dollars, countless man-hours, unimaginable court time and years of emotional torture for victim's family members waiting for that magical sense of "closure" they've been falsely promised with death sentences that will never be carried out.

There is actually, I've come to realize, no such thing as "closure" when a loved one is taken. What family members must find is reconciliation with the reality of their loss, and that can begin the minute the perpetrator is sent to a prison he will never leave. But to ask them to endure the years of being dragged through the courts in pursuit of the ultimate punishment is a cruel lie.

It's time to stop playing the killing game. Let's use the hundreds of millions of dollars we'll save to protect some of those essential services now threatened with death. Let's stop asking people like me to lie to those victim's family members.

More at the link.

Leaving the Workforce

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 11:02 AM EDT

The Congressional Budget Office has a new study out suggesting that labor force participation is declining not so much because of our current recession, but because of long-term demographic trends:

The downward trend since 2000 can be attributed largely to the aging and retirement of the baby boomers. It also reflects a leveling off in participation among women between the ages of 25 and 54 — who are no longer participating at higher rates than their predecessors did at the same age — and a pronounced decline in participation among people under 25....Demographics account for slightly more than the entire projected decline of 3.0 percentage points in the aggregate participation rate between 2007 and 2021.

So if the CBO is to be believed, in the tight labor market of the late 90s we overshot the natural rate of labor force participation, setting us up for a sharp drop after the dotcom crash. The 2008 recession caused a another sharp drop that sent us below the trend line, but even so we're likely to see labor force participation drop even further from now forward, regardless of how quickly we recover.

I want to write more about this in the future, but that will have to wait until I get my thoughts in order. In the meantime, there are two takeaways from this. First, we're well below the trend line right now, and we ought to be doing everything we can to get back to it. Unemployment is our biggest problem at the moment, not the specter of future inflation. Second, the long-term trend of lower labor force participation isn't necessarily a sign of anything fundamentally wrong with the economy. It might just be the result of an aging population and changes in work preference. More later.