"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

World Record Hottest Low Temperature

This is an all-time anywhere instrumental record:
At Khasab Airport in the desert nation of Oman, a remarkable record was set yesterday--the low temperature for the day was a scorching 41.7°C (107°F). The record was brought to [Jeff Masters'] attention by weather records researcher Maximiliano Herrera. The previous highest minimum temperature for the world he was able to find was set just last year at Khasab Airport, 41.2°C (106°F). The U.S. record high minimum temperature may be a 39.4°C (103°F) taken in Death Valley, California in 1970. Higher record high minimums were set there in the early 1920s, but the quality of the data is suspect. Mr. Herrera notes that Khasab Airport in Oman lies at the base of a mountain range, behind which is desert. Winds blowing from the desert towards Khasab Airport flow downhill, undergoing compression and warming, like the Santa Ana winds in California. Incredibly hot conditions in Oman in late June are common, due to a seasonal shift in winds caused by the onset of the Southwest monsoon in India.
More locally, the San Francisco bay area had its wettest summer day ever, and the summer in Texas is shaping up pretty nasty. Though the all-time state high temperature of 120 F still seems to be secure, an astonishing temperature of 117 F was recorded at Childress in northern Texas. As readers here will be aware, drought centered in Texas is affecting all neighboring states in both the US and Mexico as well as other parts of both countries.

Parts of Mexico expect respite from the drought in the form of severe floods, as a consequence of the season's first Atlantic basin tropical storm, Arlene.

Images: The massive, burgeoning urban heat island at Khasab Airport, satellite image via Google Maps. (see comments below), photo by Jayavarman VII via Panoramio.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Is Full Employment Good Policy?

This is the fourth part in my utterly uncredentialed and hopelessly eccentric review of recent economic history. I will end up claiming that not only were Donella Meadows and Norbert Wiener right all along, but the the person who first picked up the thread of a civilized and sensible macroeconomics was no less than Bertrand Russell.

Previous parts are here:

The Missing Automation Crisis


The Leisure Crisis, Feminism, and Overwork


Divide and Conquer or Multiply and be Fruitful

Suppose you have a given proposition for public policy: more renewable energy, more highways, smaller teacher-to-student ratios, startup funding for entrepreneurs, public hospitals, whatever. No matter what the question, an ancillary debate always arises. Those opposing the effort will say "it is too expensive", and those supporting it say "it is not expensive at all: it creates jobs".

I was taught in US history in a Canadian high school that in the early days of the WPA, before federal work was well-organized, there were instances of work crews engaged to fill in ditches that other work crews has dug up. I wonder if this is true. I sort of hope it is, because there is the dignity of labor for you.

The hard-working protestant populace would not countenance paying unemployed people for their idleness, but they could tolerate paying them to undo one another's work, as long as it raised a sweat.

By the 1970s, I had read Wiener's The Human Use of Human Beings and was steeped in the ideology of the Leisure Crisis. At about this time I was subjected to an introduction to a Keynesian education at the hand of a then well-known economist who taught the introductory sequence at Northwestern. I'm afraid I've forgotten the fellow's name. I believe George McGovern intended to appoint him to his cabinet. Maybe someone can refresh me.

I clearly recall the argument that deficit financing in a recession was harmless, "you're borrowing from yourselves". Indeed Nixon said "we're all Keynesians now", and this counterintuitive spending-when-you're down was regarded as an intellectual breakthrough of Galilean proportions. This is how we would avoid financial crises for ever and ever. We would employ ourselves when we were poor, build up our nest egg, and once we had reached prosperity we would pay ourselves back! Nobody would be there to complain because there would be no "them", just "us" huzzah!

But I was unable to reconcile this with my idea that if one work gang digs a trench and another one fills it in, you might as well just fork over the mony and forego the trench-digging. Why all this fascination with full employment?

The other question, though, is demand. What exactly would people demand if they were endlessly wealthier. It wasn't clear. For awhile, there was creeping featuritis: the three channel TV became the five channel and the twenty channel and the three hundred channel TV, but the actual demand for television didn't change. The thousand square foot house became the five thousand square foot house, four thousand feet of which were only occupied by ill-disciplined children and their plastic detritus. Your word processor could do a god-awful job of being a spreadsheet, a desktop publishing program, and an illustration program, though when you made a numbered list in it all the enumerated items would be mysteriously numbered "5". (Eventually Steve Jobs became fabulously wealthy by helping people finally understand that the thing they most wanted from non-professional user interfaces was fewer features that they could remeber and understand.)

In the Keynesian scheme (and the Monetarist scheme which followed it, which I don't claim to understand as well) economic growth is the primary objective of governance, policing, education, transportation and security notwithstanding.

Such growth is expected to be substantial in "normal" times and is fueled by free choice of people to always have more, more, more.

But in the early 1970s, alarming signs of economic satisfaction began to emerge along with various ethical and spiritual dissatisfactions. "Demand" was going away. Young people, in particular, were not bending over backward in pursuit of "careers" so the trend looked bad. The dread "stagflation" emerged.

Stagflation basically derailed the Keynesian gravy train, because slow growth required stimulus while inflation required cutting back. They were not supposed to happen at the same time. (If I recall correctly, there was some mismanagement, petty by our standards, at the banks at the time which emerged as rapid inflation which in turn led to unaffordable mortgages which in turn led to - horrors - less employment and less demand!)

I believe this threat was eventually beaten back in the 1980s during the Reagan administration using a pair of interesting artifices. The first was to use the military as an instrument of economic revival. Unquestioned American technical superiority could be converted to unquestioned military superiority. The hidebound Soviet economy could be bled dry keeping up. In retrospect this part was, perhaps inadvertently, quite clever.

(Reagan himself was the first of the transparently unintelligent national republican figures, but he was following closely in the footsteps of the clever and ambitious Barry Goldwater, and now we're getting perilously close to the LBJ story which I'll forego at this point, except to advise you in the strongest terms to visit his memorial library when you are in Austin.)

But the second part of it was developing a new pillar of "conservative" "ideology": that "greed is good". Go ahead. Have the big house. So you only use that boat once a year. Buy it anyway! Think how it will impress everyone. Have houses in several states just like J. P. Morgan. We can all be fabulously wealthy, except perhaps for the famous friends and getting invited to all the right parties. But we can fake that too!

In short, a few years after the first talk of limits to growth, a few years after the emergence of an anti-materialistic counterculture, the problem was solved. Ignore the damn filthy hippies and party on! Despite the Christian posturing, I sometimes think the zeitgeist and the commercial classes were pretty much in the grips of a cocaine psychosis and an accompanying base cynicism of unprecedented proportions. (cf. Enron.)

And so, the questions of leisure and of limits and sustainability and of human ethics and of what sort of a society we wanted to build were all triumphantly subsumed in the Reagan administration by an orgy of celebrated excess and desperate growth. And still, there were these nagging episodes of flagging of demand. Would people buy ten thousand square foot houses? What to do, what to do?

Enter Private Sector Keynesianism, or Tobis's Theory of the Requisite Kluge, also known as Microsoft. Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Southwest Connecticut Mountain Lion

Another heroic animal looking for the root of the trouble? Or just wanting tickets for a Broadway show? Is there a revival of Cats? (h/t @revkin)

Connecticut officials are denying that this could have been a wild cougar. But remember the South Dakota cougar in Roscoe Village, Chicago?

Also, about ten years ago I found myself ten feet from an unconstrained cougar in a part of Florida where they are not supposed to exist anymore. So I am inclined to suspect they are more common than is believed. I think these critters mostly are doing a very good job of hiding from us, but it seems the occasion daredevil among them is attracted by bright lights and big cities. Which is really pretty interesting.

Good Question

Yet another graph of the "you ain't seen nothin' yet" variety from our friends Martin and Stefan, one which presumably some skeptic has already attacked using a linear extrapolation.

A crucial key to more-or-less genuinely skeptical misunderstanding of climate science is revealed in this question at Kloor's from kdk33:
The most difficult, almost intractable, aspect of the technical debate (IMVHO), is the time constant argument (both MT and Bart have offered this to me recently), Basically, the idea that GHG added today lock in warming for coming decades (the system has large time constants or lag times).

So, rabid deniers like myself ask to see the scary SLR data or the extreme weather data or the runaway temperature data and the scary just ain’t there. But the MTs and Barts will say the the scary is yet to come; we must act now, hurry, if we wait for confirming scary data it will be too late.

I, rabid denier, think MT and Bart sound like carnivel seers. MT and Bart, convinced their predictions are firmly grounded in science, think I’m a knuckle draggin’ republican who believes in god and other right wing fairy tales.

Their predictions AIUI are based in part on computer models and in part on their understanding of various climate forcings and responses. One the one hand, I’m forgiving if computer models don’t get all the details right – I think they are useful, even necessary, learning tools. OTOH, I do think they are (very much) abused…

So, my question to MT and Bart and other similarly minded folks (my questions are usually ignored, indicating my position on the CaS pecking order, but nevertheless) is this: What data can you show us, what evidence can you offer, to better convince people that your projections are likely to be right.
I object to the religion-baiting but otherwise it is a perceptive question

I think a really good answer will require some work. Please don't let me get away with forgetting. I think it is worthwhile, at least, agreeing that this is a sticking point.

But if anyone cares to venture a quick answer, please give it a try.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

TX Panhandle all-time record temperature

All time high recorded at Amarillo Texas.
We were going to give you the exact time it took to melt an ice cube (with video proof), but after a quarter of an hour in the sweltering heat, all we came back with was a bag full of water, a malfunctioning iPhone and a sunburn.

Not long after we learned the temperature had finally peaked at 109 degrees,
breaking the all-time high record for Amarillo, someone got the bright idea to see how long it would take to melt an ice cube on the sidewalk.
Intrepid reporter melts ice cube, iPhone; doesn't mention climate change.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bartlett's Unfamiliar Quotations

Neven pointed to Albert Barlett's "Laws of Sustainability", published in 2006 in the anthology The Future of Sustainability by Marco Keiner and repeated at The Oil Drum. Thanks to Neven for pointing these out.

Because these claims are very close to my point of view, and in many cases articulate my point of view better than I have done to date, I will brazenly repeat them here. I have emailed Prof Bartlett asking for permission as well.

Before pasting, let me state my own caveats clearly, and one I think others holding these positions will be likely to agree with. The constraints here are essentially absolute, not culturally mediated. However, they operate on time scales long compared with conventional politics. How we get from here to there matters a good deal less than that we get there eventually. Limits to growth exist - we either plan for them or we get blindsided by them. Those are the choices.

Second, the law of limited growth, which I think ought to be explicitly stated in a rigorous form:

In a finite physical domain, in the long term average, the growth rate of any physically extensive quantity approaches exactly zero.

(note, I changed "limit" to the more correct "average")

This includes population, and that portion of wealth that involves real control of real physical resources. We've already had a bit of vigorous discussion on these things here, and I especially appreciated Pangolin's comment:
Well, we can sit on the beach in a circle and sell each other buckets of sand and call it economic growth.

Eventually, somebody is going to want a hot dog. Probably made of meat from a named animal. I suspect a soda or iced tea will be on the list of demands also.

Those items, like all similar items provided to people who engage in fictional economic activity, (cough, Wall Street, cough) have to come from the domain referred to as "physical reality."

The only physical reality providing resources to humans is this tiny skim layer between a ball of rock and an infinitude of hard vacuum. That layer is oversubscribed and actual production is falling in several resource areas due to overuse.

So, nope. Economic growth that includes growth in the use of real materials is a no-go in the long run.
There is no limit to the growth of "fictional" activity. "Real" economic activity can reasonably be defined as activities which cause redistribution of physically extensive quantities. Fictional activity is the stuff of bubbles. When food becomes scarce, making a really great movie will not have much value.

Finally, at least one of the points does not follow directly from the law of limited growth, and this has been one that has engendered some controversy. I highlight in red those that I think require some extra reasoning.

I highlight in purple one with which I slightly disagree. I do in fact question whether what we understand as agriculture might be replaced. Most people wouldn't like it very much, though.

First Law: Population growth and / or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.

A) A population growth rate less than or equal to zero and declining rates of consumption of resources are a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for a sustainable society.

B) Unsustainability will be the certain result of any program of "development," that does not plan the achievement of zero (or a period of negative) growth of populations and of rates of consumption of resources. This is true even if the program is said to be “sustainable.”

C) The research and regulation programs of governmental agencies that are charged with protecting the environment and promoting "sustainability" are, in the long run, irrelevant, unless these programs address vigorously and quantitatively the concept of carrying capacities and unless the programs study in depth the demographic causes and consequences of environmental problems.

D) Societies, or sectors of a society, that depend on population growth or growth in their rates of consumption of resources, are unsustainable.

E) Persons who advocate population growth and / or growth in the rates of consumption of resources are advocating unsustainability.

F) Persons who suggest that sustainability can be achieved without stopping population growth are misleading themselves and others.

G) Persons whose actions directly or indirectly cause increases in population or in the rates of consumption of resources are moving society away from sustainability.

H) The term "Sustainable Growth" is an oxymoron.

I) In terms of population sizes and rates of resource consumption, “The only smart growth is no growth.” (Hammond, 1999)

Second Law: In a society with a growing population and / or growing rates of consumption of resources, the larger the population, and / or the larger the rates of consumption of resources, the more difficult it will be to transform the society to the condition of sustainability.

Third Law: The response time of populations to changes in the human fertility rate is the average length of a human life, or approximately 70 years. (Bartlett and Lytwak 1995) [This is called "population momentum."]

A) A nation can achieve zero population growth if:
a) the fertility rate is maintained at the replacement level for 70 years, and
b) there is no net migration during the 70 years.
During the 70 years the population continues to grow, but at declining rates until the growth finally stops after approximately 70 years.

B) If we want to make changes in the total fertility rates so as to stabilize the population by the mid - to late 21st century, we must make the necessary changes now.

C) The time horizon of political leaders is of the order of two to eight years.

D) It will be difficult to convince political leaders to act now to change course, when the full results of the change may not become apparent in the lifetimes of those leaders.

mt: Obviously requires some detailed demographics, but this all seems pretty clear.

Fourth Law: The size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average standard of living of the population are inversely related to one another. (This must be true even though Cohen asserts that the numerical size of the carrying capacity of the Earth cannot be determined, (Cohen 1995))

A) The higher the standard of living one wishes to sustain, the more urgent it is to stop population growth.

B) Reductions in the rates of consumption of resources and reductions in the rates of production of pollution can shift the carrying capacity in the direction of sustaining a larger population.

Fifth Law: One cannot sustain a world in which some regions have high standards of living while others have low standards of living.

mt: some debate on this topic. I see it as a consequence of basic ethical principles rather than a substantive result.

Sixth Law: All countries cannot simultaneously be net importers of carrying capacity.

A) World trade involves the exportation and importation of carrying capacity.

Seventh Law: A society that has to import people to do its daily work (“We can’t find locals who will do the work,”) is not sustainable.

Eighth Law: Sustainability requires that the size of the population be less than or equal to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for the desired standard of living.

A) Sustainability requires an equilibrium between human society and dynamic but stable ecosystems.

B) Destruction of ecosystems tends to reduce the carrying capacity and / or the sustainable standard of living.

C) The rate of destruction of ecosystems increases as the rate of growth of the population increases.

D) Affluent countries, through world trade, destroy the ecosystems of less developed countries.

E) Population growth rates less than or equal to zero are necessary, but are not sufficient, conditions for halting the destruction of the environment. This is true locally and globally.

Ninth Law: ( The lesson of "The Tragedy of the Commons" ) (Hardin 1968): The benefits of population growth and of growth in the rates of consumption of resources accrue to a few; the costs of population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are borne by all of society.

A) Individuals who benefit from growth will continue to exert strong pressures supporting and encouraging both population growth and growth in rates of consumption of resources.

B) The individuals who promote growth are motivated by the recognition that growth is good for them. In order to gain public support for their goals, they must convince people that population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, are also good for society. [This is the Charles Wilson argument: if it is good for General Motors, it is good for the United States.] (Yates 1983)

mt: This is a plausible inetrpretation which I share, but it's much weaker than the rest of it.

Tenth Law: Growth in the rate of consumption of a non-renewable resource, such as a fossil fuel, causes a dramatic decrease in the life-expectancy of the resource.

A) In a world of growing rates of consumption of resources, it is seriously misleading to state the life-expectancy of a non-renewable resource "at present rates of consumption," i.e., with no growth. More relevant than the life-expectancy of a resource is the expected date of the peak production of the resource, i.e. the peak of the Hubbert curve. (Hubbert 1972)

B) It is intellectually dishonest to advocate growth in the rate of consumption of non-renewable resources while, at the same time, reassuring people about how long the resources will last "at present rates of consumption.” (zero growth)

Eleventh Law: The time of expiration of non-renewable resources can be postponed, possibly for a very long time, by:

i ) technological improvements in the efficiency with which the resources are recovered and used

ii ) using the resources in accord with a program of "Sustained Availability," (Bartlett 1986)

iii ) recycling

iv ) the use of substitute resources.

Twelfth Law: When large efforts are made to improve the efficiency with which resources are used, the resulting savings are easily and completely wiped out by the added resources that are consumed as a consequence of modest increases in population.

A) When the efficiency of resource use is increased, the consequence often is that the "saved" resources are not put aside for the use of future generations, but instead are used immediately to encourage and support larger populations.

B) Humans have an enormous compulsion to find an immediate use for all available resources.

Thirteenth Law: The benefits of large efforts to preserve the environment are easily canceled by the added demands on the environment that result from small increases in human population.

Fourteenth Law: (Second Law of Thermodynamics) When rates of pollution exceed the natural cleansing capacity of the environment, it is easier to pollute than it is to clean up the environment.

Fifteenth Law: (Eric Sevareid's Law); The chief cause of problems is solutions. (Sevareid 1970)

A) This law should be a central part of higher education, especially in engineering.

mt: Really a claim of a different ilk. Probably it doesn't belong here. But still it's an opinion which I share. The whole limits to growth problem is a consequence of past successes in evading the limits to growth. Had we failed in the first place, the probable reimposition of limits by nature would not be taking us by surprise.

Sixteenth Law: Humans will always be dependent on agriculture. (This is the first of Malthus’ two postulata.)

A) Supermarkets alone are not sufficient.

B) The central task in sustainable agriculture is to preserve agricultural land. The agricultural land must be protected from losses due to things such as:

i ) Urbanization and development

ii ) Erosion

iii ) Poisoning by chemicals

mt: I wonder if agriculture couldn't be moved indoors and into three dimensional structures. I don't think this change would be popular, though. And it would remain resource intensive, just not land intensive. It would also be resilient to widespread pollution.

Seventeenth Law: If, for whatever reason, humans fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, Nature will stop these growths.

A) By contemporary western standards, Nature's method of stopping growth is cruel and inhumane.

B) Glimpses of Nature's method of dealing with populations that have exceeded the carrying capacity of their lands can be seen each night on the television news reports from places where large populations are experiencing starvation and misery.

Eighteenth Law: In local situations within the U.S., creating jobs increases the number of people locally who are out of work.

A) Newly created jobs in a community temporarily lowers the unemployment rate (say from 5% to 4%), but then people move into the community to restore the unemployment rate to its earlier higher value (of 5%), but this is 5% of the larger population, so more individuals are out of work than before.

Nineteenth Law: Starving people don't care about sustainability.

A) If sustainability is to be achieved, the necessary leadership and resources must be supplied by people who are not starving.

mt: Obviously. But not exactly a growth law.

Twentieth Law: The addition of the word "sustainable" to our vocabulary, to our reports, programs, and papers, to the names of our academic institutes and research programs, and to our community initiatives, is not sufficient to ensure that our society becomes sustainable.

Twenty-First Law: Extinction is forever.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Shiny-Side Revkin on Sea Level Rise

An excellent piece on Dot Earth today that I can't recommend highly enough, on sea level rise.

Somebody, please express mail this to Judith Curry:
[NASA Glaciologist Walid Abdalati] said: “It is always a challenge to convey scientific uncertainty (and there is a lot in this case) to the general public. People want ‘the answer,’ and when you start to explain why ‘the answer’ is not as obvious as they would like, it is easy to lose them. Plus, there is so much hype made of uncertainty by skeptics, that it gets spun into the idea that scientists don’t really know what they are talking about and don’t have the answers.

“At the end of the day, you can be 90% confident of something, and all people will hear is that you aren’t certain about what you are saying. This is why the debate is often cast in extremes, rather than an honest consideration of the data. It is really too bad, because an honest consideration of the data is still quite compelling.”

Revkin also has a Tumblr on the side, where he displays this new hockey stick:

That's from Andrew C. Kemp, Benjamin P. Horton, Jeffrey P. Donnelly, Michael E. Mann, Martin Vermeer, and Stefan Rahmstorf: Climate related sea-level variations over the past two millennia PNAS 2011; June 20, 2011, doi:10.1073/pnas.1015619108

You expected, what, now?

"Most" (?) of the Warming is Man Made

I keep hearing that "most" of the observed global warming is man-made, but I think that is just short hand to avoid confusing the most casual audience, and it perhaps causes more misunderstanding than it avoids.

More than 100% of the warming is due to anthropogenic warming forcings. That is balanced by a hard-to-constrain anthropogenic cooling.

Whether the residual is even attributable to natural variability is not obvious to me; the residual may be dominated by adjustment transients and nonlinear couplings.

But is the residual a warming or a cooling? I think there is no evidence that we would be in a warming period had humans gone suddenly extinct in 1700 or so.

Natural forcing is basically volcanic and solar, right? Is there any evidence that these have been weighing on the warming side over the past century?

Skeptical science basically says no, by the way.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Theory vs Practice

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Is Peer Review Double Blind?

The egregious Pat Michaels makes the following claim:
In order to limit any bias caused by personal or philosophical animosity, the editor should remove your name from the paper and send it to other experts who have no apparent conflict of interest in reviewing your work. You and the reviewers should not know who each other are. This is called a “double blind” peer review.

Well, this is “the way it is supposed to be.” But in the intellectually inbred, filthy-rich world of climate science, where billions of dollars of government research money support trillions of dollars of government policy, peer review has become anything but that.

There is simply no “double blindness.” For reasons that remain mysterious, all the major climate journals leave the authors’ names on the manuscripts sent out for review.

Economists, psychologists and historians of science all tell us (and I am inclined to believe them) that we act within our rational self-interest.
Removing the double-blind restriction in such an environment is an invitation for science abuse.
Emphasis added.

I can pretty much dismiss "inbred" and "filthy-rich" as completely out of touch with reality, but I'm not sure how to make the case to someone who believes otherwise.

But what about this "double blind" thing on peer review? I am pretty sure that this erasure of authorship doesn't happen in computer science, for one. A little searching reveals this recent Nature article.

Salient points:
  • Double-blind peer review, in which both authors and referees are anonymous, is apparently much revered, if not much practised.
  • Although at least one study in the biomedical literature has suggested that double-blind peer review increases the quality of reviews, a larger study of seven medical journals2, 3 indicated that neither authors nor editors found significant difference in the quality of comments when both referees and authors were blinded. Referees could identify at least one of the authors on about 40% of the papers, undermining the raison d'être for double-blinding. The editors at the Public Library of Science abandoned double-blind peer review because too few requested it and authors were too readily identified.
  • The double-blind approach is predicated on a culture in which manuscripts-in-progress are kept secret. This is true for the most part in the life sciences. But some physical sciences, such as high-energy physics, share preprints extensively through arXiv, an online repository. Thus, double-blind peer review is at odds with another 'force for good' in the academic world: the open sharing of information. The PRC survey found that highly competitive fields (such as neuroscience) or those with larger commercial or applied interests (such as materials science and chemical engineering) were the most enthusiastic about double-blinding, whereas fields with more of a tradition for openness (astronomy and mathematics) were decidedly less supportive.
On the other hand,
  • The one bright light in favour of double-blind peer review is the measured reduction in bias against authors with female first names (shown in numerous studies, such as ref. 4).
But as for Michaels' implication that double-blind review is common practice and that climate is somehow exceptional, that double blindness is a default which climate sciences have somehow conspired to reverse, it's a complete fantasy, like most of what he purveys.

Does Tom Friedman Read This Blog?

Tom Friedman, along with Paul Gilding, apparently claimed yesterday that

Well, actually that is just bad headline writing again.

The point is that the end of growth is not far in the future if we haven't already passed it, and we had better get used to it.

Gilding made the key point:
commodity prices, which have been going through a pretty steady fall since you know, the turn of the last century, so for 110 years or so we've seen a consistent decline averaging about 1.5 per cent per year, 70 per cent over that time frame.

And they've only really gone up during period of extreme demands like WWI, WWII, you know, sort of price shocks have seen it go up otherwise they've gone down.

Those commodity prices have now gone up again during a recession and so of course what that means is that the prices are going up because demand is out stripping supply and this is not just one or two items, this is like the entire range of commodities across food, minerals and so on. So of course that's in a recession.

What that means of course if we could get the global economy really growing again, then of course those prices would spike and would stop growth again and I think that's probably the biggest example we've got.

And those resources, those commodities are actually coming from Mother Nature and what we're now seeing of course is that now we're running right now at about 150 per cent of the sustainable capacity of the planet and we're planning to grow the economy to three or four times this size by 2050.

It's just not going to happen. Not because we don't want it to not because it wouldn't be nice or because polar bears will die, because physics and chemistry and biology as Tom said, I mean it's just not physically possible for that to occur.
I actually think that goes too far. I don't think any economic outcome is physically impossible in the usual sense, myself, because money. hence "growth" is just a sort of fuzzy abstraction. But if something continues to grow, it will be different from what we currently construe as wealth.

The way I look at is this: if we define the maximum ethical consumption level of a society as the consumption level that would be sustainable if everybody in the world achieved it, then we are far past our limits in America.

Sustained Growth is Impossible

In the long run, all real-world growth rates asymptote to zero.

It seems to me that there are two kinds of people; those who understand this as a crucial basis for reasoning about the world, and those who don't.

If you're in the latter category, this may help. It's a very accessible introduction to exponential growth, featuring Prof A. Bartlett of Colorado:

(multipart video continues here)

The way to duck this distinction is to say you don't care about the very long run. Maybe the story about somebody speaking for the seventh generation in tribal meetings somewhere is true and maybe it isn't. But as we become more and more a force of nature, our behavior impacts even the seventieth generation. To make our time horizons shorter and shorter as our impacts get longer and longer is obviously flatly unethical, though not entirely irrational.

But for those who don't understand the argument (rather than choosing to duck it) there are a couple of places to look.

Joel Cohen in his nonfiction magnum opus "How Many People Can the Earth Support?" makes the case well. I was surprised to see a comparable argument on a business site. Henry Blodget quotes Jeremy Grantham to make the case on Business Insider.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Divide and Conquer or Multiply and be Fruitful

Continuing the discussion from

The Missing Automation Crisis


The Leisure Crisis, Feminism, and Overwork

The daily 100-second video collage at TPM today includes this frame,

and herein lies the issue that has many people worked up. Apparently I have inadvertently taken the wrong side of it in some way. I am not sure what correctness I have transgressed, but I feel like I should plunge ahead.

This graph shows profits have recovered to pre-recession levels, but "labor" (really, payroll) income has drastically lowered. Given what is currently happening to Wisconsin, and what is currently happening to climate conversation, and the general lack of honesty I have seen from certain quarters about who should take the blame for the debacle, I cannot easily dismiss a conspiracy to extract wealth from the workers into the hands of the oligarchy, as I ordinarily would have done. If a man as reasonable and as involved as Russ Feingold can say
It's divide and conquer by the big money interests in this country, that's always been their strategy. Frankly, I don't think all of us saw it coming. I certainly didn't see the ruthlessness and how far they would go with this.
it isn't possible anymore to shrug off the idea that the problems we are seeing amount to a sophisticated form of looting, of reverse Robin Hood, of exploitation of the middle class by the wealthy. Still, it may be worthwhile to step back and take a longer view.

TPM also provided this frame,

which seems consistent with this image from the Fed:

and in that source we can identify that what is being plotted is salaries as a fraction of net income plus salaries; i.e., the proportion of the captured value in a business that labor keeps. Even before the astonishing recent drop, things were flat for half a century, and have been trending mostly downward since the start of the Clinton administration.

Now, rather than looking at the odd "unemployment" number which seems somewhat ill-defined, we can look at the percentage of the population employed:

The fraction of the total retained by salaried work has stayed steady and lately retreated. But the number of people working as a fraction of the population has (until recent events) steadily increased, and there is plenty of evidence (See Juliet Schorr's book The Overworked American) that de facto hours worked or spent in support of work per job has gone up.

During the feminist breakthrough period 1970 - 1990, we see an increase in likelihood that an adult is employed by about a fifth. Because of the frictions in a household where two adults work, and because of other pressures, hours also arguably increased.

When we look at household income, we do see a barely comparable increase:

but it hardly compensates for the lost intangible benefits of a stay-at-home adult, contributing to raising the family and building the community.

Now consider that US GDP more than doubled during that same period.

Clearly this doubling is not showing up in median household income. It must have fone to the rich, as other metrics confirm.

Women entering the job market did not free men to spend more time with family and community. Women entering the job market enabled corporations to bid less for labor. The resulting labor glut meant much more work for hardly any more pay.

For families with two modest incomes, that means a constant time scramble. For those with only one income, it means poverty.

(In any case it leaves nobody in the middle class with any time or energy to participate in democracy. Television substitutes for conversation. And this ties in at the end when we try to decide what we can do about the present mess.)

So in fact, what Weiner and Reuther feared in some sense came to pass. People did start competing with slave-machines. Also, of course, with near-slave-workers overseas. And finally, with more of each other as women entered the workforce, providing a gift not, as they intended, to their families or themselves, but primarily to corporate interests.

For the most part, this did not occur in other advanced countries. It's interesting to speculate why. I think it's because America has been in a phase of professionalized politics for a long time. The professional politicians didn't understand the scale of the changes, and the general public didn't understand the need for legislation to protect it. Americans are peculiarly disengaged from politics.

But the point is that labor lost its bargaining power during arguably the greatest period of growth in any nation ever in history. That seems simple enough.

But things remain baffling. After fifty years of compounded robust growth from a rather wealthy start, the country is suddenly pleading poverty, defunding its grade schools and libraries and parks. How is such an absurdity taking place?

Hint: The Red Queen has the answer.

The Fan is not Entirely Clean Anymore

More evidence compiled by Jeff Masters:
Unusual global extremes in May and spring 2011

As I discussed in yesterday's post, during the spring period of March, April, and May 2011, 46% of the U.S. had abnormally (top 10%) wet or dry conditions--the greatest such area during the 102-year period of record. On average, just 21% of the country has exceptionally wet conditions or exceptionally dry conditions during spring. In addition, heavy 1-day precipitation events--the kind that cause the worst flooding--were also at an all-time high in the spring of 2011.

A highly extreme precipitation pattern was also observed over the British Isles during spring 2011. England suffered its driest spring in over a century during May, with late May soils the driest on record over large parts of eastern and central England. In contrast, Scotland had its wettest spring on record.

New Zealand had its warmest May since records began there in 1909, whereas Australia saw its coolest March-May since their records began in 1950.

Our weather historian, Christopher C. Burt, has a detailed summary of May 2011 global weather extremes.


May Arctic sea ice 3rd lowest extent on record

Arctic sea ice in May 2011 was much-below average according to data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, and ranked 3rd lowest on record for the Northern Hemisphere. Sea ice loss has accelerated during the first half of June, and as of June 16 was the lowest for the date since satellite measurements began in 1979. Snow cover extent in the Northern Hemisphere was also below average, making May 2011 the 7th consecutive May with below-average snow cover extent in the Northern Hemisphere.

Five-day period of critical fire conditions expected in the Southwest

The powerful winds that helped fan Arizona's massive Wallow fire into the state's largest fire on record will return in force today, after a two-day quiet period that allowed firefighter to achieve 29% containment of the fire by Wednesday evening. The forecast for Eastern Arizona calls for afternoon winds of 20 - 30 mph with gusts to 45 mph today and Friday. NOAA's Storm Prediction Center forecasts that even stronger winds will blow Saturday and Sunday. With hot conditions and humidity values below 10%, these are likely to be among the worst fire conditions the region has seen this year.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Florida, Texas

I generally dislike people quoting other people's blog articles at great length, but Steve Scolnik's blog is more than a bit interesting right now and I'll make an exception.
The National Weather Service reports that Wednesday's (June 15) high at Tallahassee, Florida was the all-time hottest temperature in records dating back over a century:


The old record had also been observed on 4 other previous occasions. The previous day's high of 103° also blasted away the old record for June 14 by 4°. So far this month, daily records have also been set on June 1 (103° vs. 101° in 1927), June 3 (101° vs. 100° in 2000), and June 13 (102° vs. 101° in 2010). For the first 2 weeks of June, Tallahassee's temperature has averaged 5.8° above normal.

The high temperature of 98° at Apalachicola blasted away the previous record for June 15, set just last year, by 4°. The previous day's high of 97° also broke a daily record of 95° set last year.

Elsewhere in Florida, daily records were set at Miami (96° vs. 94° in 2010) and Gainesville (103° vs. 100° in 1977). Records were tied at Tampa (95°) and Daytona Beach (99°).
Meanwhile here in Texas, well,

I guess the most notable thing is that 97 F no longer qualifies as "hot".

I hear people complaining about the weather, and, Texas newbie that I am, I shrug and say "that's Texas in summer for you, I guess", but the old-timers squint at me and say "but it's only June".

And rivers are starting to run dry in parts of the state where they don't normally do that.

From the linked Austin Statesman article:
Central Texas experienced one of the driest October to May periods on record, said Bob Rose, chief meteorologist for the Lower Colorado River Authority. Normally, the region would get 23.1 inches from October to May; this year, only 8.96 inches of rain have fallen at Austin's Camp Mabry, Rose said.

Rain is not typical in July, and it could be as late as August or September before Central Texas sees any, Rose said. The dry spell is due to one of the strongest La Niña patterns the Southwest has seen, he added.
I played with the colors on the official drought map of Texas and came up with something pretty (click to embiggen). It's not so pretty on the ground, though. Over half the state is in "exceptional drought" and less than a fiftieth is in "normal" conditions. Exactly backwards of the statistically typical proportions. If the colors were reversed, this would be an unremarkable map.

Automation: Obama vs The Economist

The Economist chooses exactly this moment to address the Automation Crisis and the current employment situation! They start by quoting O:
There are some structural issues with our economy where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers. You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don’t go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you’re using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate.
And they refer to this blog entry by Karl Smith:

Lets take some obvious examples. Suppose to create welded metal I need both a welder and welding torch. The welding torch goes down in price. That means that its actually cheaper to create each piece of welded metal. This will allow me as a factory owner to either lower my price, sell more welded metal while maintaining my profit margin.

However, to do this I will need more welders. So a fall in the price of welding torches, increases the demand for welders.

On the other hand suppose that I am an airline considering whether to have more booking agents or whether to invest in more sophisticated booking software. Specialized software can run well into the multi-millions but if it gets just cheap enough it might actually be a better deal than new agents.

In the end, The Economist does me the favor of concluding:
I wouldn't blame ATMs on our jobless recovery, but surely the general skill-bias of technological change is an important part of the issue. I suspect Tyler Cowen may be right that the recession created an occasion for firms to shed "zero-marginal-productivity workers". In that case, the ranks of the unemployed are filled with wannabe workers whose labour is at present worth less to employers than the cost of employing them. This puts Mr Obama in a politically perilous position. We can expect rising aggregate demand to make it pay for some firms to once again employ some significant number of relatively low-productivity workers, but we probably can't reasonably expect the unemployment rate to return to its pre-recession level, at least not in the absence of politically unlikely employment subsidies or government make-work schemes. Given the current creeping pace of growth, the unemployment rate may not improve very much before next fall, which would bode ill for incumbents. Mr Obama can blame it on the machines and deny Republican charges that his administration made the recession worse. But jobless voters and the voters that love them tend to blame the guy in office, no matter who's really to blame.
Yeah. Something like that. This is on the time scale where conventional economic thinking makes sense to me, and that's pretty much what I think. Losing the last election eliminated the possibility of "politically unlikely employment subsidies" which clinches a very long period of relative unemployment.

Where I part company from the mainstream is only in thinking it's likely permanent, and we ought to get used to it. That is, I expect them to get the short run right and the long run wrong, as usual.

Two Empty Kerfuffles

More noise on the climate front this morning.

Somehow Mark Lynas has been roped into a fuss about IPCC by Steve McIntyre. Let me let everyone in on the Rule of McIntyre: no matter what he says, there is vastly less to it than he makes out.

It is true that Pachauri wrote a half-hearted introduction to a Greenpeace position paper in 2008:

and it's true that the Greenpeace scenario, claiming a possibility of nearly 80% renewables by 2050, was included among the scenarios in a recent IPCC report. From the Summary for PolicyMakers:

"More than half of the scenarios show a contribution from RE [renewable energy sources] in excess of a 17% share of primary energy supply in 2030 rising to more than 27% in 2050. The scenarios with the highest RE shares reach approximately 43% in 2030 and 77% in 2050. [10.2, 10.3]"

There also appears to have been an over-optimistic press release somewhere, which I haven't seen. McIntyre concludes not just with the arguable:
The public and policy-makers are starving for independent and authoritative analysis of precisely how much weight can be placed on renewables in the energy future. It expects more from IPCC WG3 than a karaoke version of Greenpeace scenario.

It is totally unacceptable that IPCC should have had a Greenpeace employee as a Lead Author of the critical Chapter 10, that the Greenpeace employee, as an IPCC Lead Author, should (like Michael Mann and Keith Briffa in comparable situations) have been responsible for assessing his own work and that, with such inadequate and non-independent ‘due diligence’, IPCC should have featured the Greenpeace scenario in its press release on renewables.
but no less than
Everyone in IPCC WG3 should be terminated and, if the institution is to continue, it should be re-structured from scratch.
Now, I agree with Lynas that WG 2 and WG 3 are problematic and inauspicious company for the remarkable effort that the WG 1 provides. And press releases for scientific output just really ought to stop altogether. On the other hand, whether Greenpeace itself is in some sense a disreputable outfit as a purveyor of research seems a matter of innuendo rather than established fact to me.

But there is really no sign in any of this that the report or the SPM are tainted or in any way inappropriate.

I'll admit, WUWT-guy Charles-the-Moderator makes an interesting and amusing point:
Contest, I’ll get the ball rolling.

1. We could have a self-sufficient Lunar colony by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies a new report shows.

2. Fusion power could generate all the energy the world needs by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies a new report shows.

3. AIDS, All Cancers, all infectious disease, and aging could be cured by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies a new report shows.

4. Proof of the existence of God could be established by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies a new report shows.

5. Proof of the nonexistence of God could be established by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies a new report shows.
Yes, of course. The first two are, most likely, literally true. And the point is, we could get to 100% renewables by 2050 if we decided to. The "cost" is what confuses matters. It seems to me that we don't know how to think on these time scales.

I share Lynas' dismay at the Fukushima disaster's political implications for our future. But to respond by parroting McIntyre is no help.

An even more ludicrous teapot-tempest is the recent publication of speculation that the sun is going into a new Maunder-like minimum. The prospect is being met with nothing short of glee, as if the sun going dim refutes the greenhouse effect somehow.

Of course, the forcing from a dim sun on historical scales is pretty small beer compared to the anthropogenic greenhouse forcing; it's unlikely that this will have any bearing on our climate trajectory. But even if nature decides to complicate our lives with a solar dimming far more severe than anything for which evidence exists, it will only make matters messier.

There is no cancelling out anthropogenic forcing. There is only avoiding it or removing it. Geoengineering by the sun will no more save us than other global-scale geoengineering. There is nothing to celebrate in this news except the opportunity for shallow sarcasm.

All of this is just distraction and posturing. Anything to avoid grappling with the problem, I suppose. Mark Lynas, everybody, please keep your eye on the ball. Distraction is the name of their game.

Image: logo of the Red Herring coffeehouse, Urbana IL

The Intractability of the US Unemployment Problem

If the problem is construed as getting back to employment levels of the past, it's probably not solvable by any means in the short run.

Some more graphics to make the point:

GDP and GDP growth:

Correlation of oil prices and recessions:

US employment impacts of various recessions:

Total US employment (http://delong.typepad.com/):

Now consider the relatively healthy 2005-2007 economy as representative of baseline employment growth rate.

Upshot: this number is not going anywhere anytime soon, no matter who or what you choose to blame.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

GDP Path

This is something of an aside from my economics multi-part essay. I found a graph I've been looking for in the context of the discussion about employment as a design goal for an economy.

Now as context, note that the US historically returns to baseline after a recession

So the expectation in Serious Circles is an eventual return to the "normalcy" expectations set in the 20th century. (Note that the recovery to baseline is not universal in other countries.

As I understand it, normalcy in the job market lags normalcy in GDP growth. The following graph is the one I mentioned in a recent comment. It should clarify that the drop in GDP over the Bush recession was so sharp and severe, that even a "normal" recovery will take a long time. Obama deserves none of the blame for the slow recovery in employment, even in conventional economic terms.

Since the graph was plotted, the US GDP has flattened out a bit as I understand it (and the UK is in an unambiguous double dip.) So things look even worse.

The point here is that, even if the limits to growth scenario hasn't really arrived yet, nobody should be holding their breath about a return of the missing jobs. The growth rate required to get back to baseline in a few years is extraordinarily high, because the Bush screw-up was so spectacularly deep. That is, we require a sustained period of substantially above average growth to get back to "normal" which would amount to rehiring most of the laid off folks.

Given that any short-run return to growth will run into the crunch of inelastic petroleum demand meeting inelastic petroleum supply, this isn't in the cards on a time scale short compared to the replacement time of transportation infrastructure.

So, let's face it. Obama will not get things back to "normal" this term and he or his successor will be very lucky to manage it in the following term. There's enough "peak oil" phenomenology in the mix to clinch this. I suspect few countries, unless they are oil-rich, will sustain GDP growth in the near future. (Canada's horrifying defection from climate governance shows that at least one government sees the writing on the wall, albeit cynically and maliciously.)

It's my belief that this kick may well turn out large enough to be seen by history as the inflection point in the overall growth curve. In the long run this may not be a bad thing, but much depends on whether the societies living through it can see it in perspective.

My market preferences

This map shows my recommended bus route to work and available bike paths in the region. It requires two cricuitous bus routes and a transfer.

You will note that there is NO safe bike route, no matter how circuitous, shown. This is not a cartographic error. In my opinion it is correct.

The recommended bus route requires only a half mile of walking and twelve additional minutes of waiting in the typically 100-degree weather, each way, and takes 48 minutes each way. This doesn't account for walking inside the research campus, which is about another half mile.

My car commute takes nine minutes each way.

So I "want" a car. I "demand" continued road maintenance and gasoline. I "show no interest" in bicycle or bus options. This is my revealed marketplace preference.

Update: Atmoz takes me to task, and offers up one of the suicidal bike routes I have considered. Suffice it to say that my wife forbids the enterprise. Austin takes out better bicyclists than me with considerable regularity. I am forced to leave the bike pioneering to wilder spirits with better maintained bodies. But if it encourages Atmoz back into blogging, I will be happy to quibble about the really dangerous bits, viz. Burnet Rd and 51st St (or alternatively St. John's.) I was visited at the Pickle campus once by a wiry and healthy young bicycle fanatic, and he swore to me he would never again take the risk of riding the mile up Burnet Rd. It is necessary to approach via Rutland, which means crossing 183 somewhere upstream. As for crossing I-35 on St. John's, it's not so much the rogue traffic (one could do a portage over I-35 on the sidewalks) as the muggers in the neighborhood that will happily do in a fat old puffing gringo with a laptop trying to commute through on a bike.

I would sacrifice the time for the exercise gladly, but it is not feasible: it would as likely do me in as do me any good. So I drive to my hideous workplace and drive to my hideous gym.

Austin thinks of bicycling as recreation, not as transportation. The bike paths to nowhere are excellent, but the roads to where one actually goes are death traps. Austin's highly touted claim to being a "green" city has always struck me as a cruel irony, nothing more.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Leisure Crisis, Feminism, and Overwork

Note: This article follows on to The Missing Automation Crisis

It may be hard for younger people to imagine, but in the mid twentieth century there was in many circles a presumption that liberalism was the ideology of the future, and that in particular the ideas of fundamentalists were in remission. Nobody was taking the objectivists too seriously, and the concept of an unholy objectivist/fundamentalist/chamber of commerce alliance calling itself "conservative" and pretending to a cohesive worldview was pretty much unimaginable. An alliance between academics and labor seemed a far more natural heir to dominance in a technocratic and generous civilization.

Lyndon Johnson's slogan of a "Great Society" is barely remembered, its meaning lost under the avalanche of "conservative" obfuscation. It really was a pity about that damned war. Johnson narrowly missed greatness.

But the Viet Nam fiasco war wasn't on the horizon yet, and what became the culture wars hadn't gone past the jukebox, in the context in which the concern about an employment crisis due to "Automation" was first raised, and as a matter of urgency. Thus, once Wiener got it into the heads of Serious People his ownership of the problem faded. The general idea was that the general prosperity would in some way be rebated to the general population, and that there would be no great economic consequence to the unemployment once it arose in earnest. Thus the Automation Crisis morphed into the Leisure Crisis. Symposia were held, and academic essays written: How were we to deal with our lives now that even those of modest means would have ample free time, all the work being done by machines?

Yet, not only did the expected decline in employment fail to arrive. The cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s thoroughly changed expectations in many aspects of modern life, but none so strongly as the role separation of males and females.

You can look back at the hippie literature that pushed this change, and it's often regarded as perhaps the greatest success of the cultural revolution. Even the most conservative culture warriors nowadays accept women as equals. Should things go especially badly, after all, we may spend a great deal of time in the next few years contemplating Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin, hardly the vanguard of one-world mysticism and rejection of materialism.

But when you look at what they (okay, okay, we) were saying, it wasn't ONLY that women should be accepted as equals in the workplace. It was ALSO that men should be accepted as equals in society-building, child-rearing, and self-expression. And we were hardly a work-oriented bunch. The idea was EXPLICITLY about job-sharing. We would all soon be blissfully half-time.

And this expectation, on its face, makes sense. Double the work force, and EVEN WITHOUT THE MACHINES the amount of work per head would be halved. Sure, there would still be driven people being brain surgeons and all, but the average person would be working substantially less.

What was the outcome?

Well, in 1993, Juliet Schor wrote a book called The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. From a blurb:
Contrary to all expectations, Americans are working harder than ever. Juliet Schor presents the astonishing news that over the past twenty years our working hours have increased by the equivalent of one month per year a dramatic spurt that has hit everybody: men and women, professionals as well as low-paid workers.
So, WTF?

Well, there's the "America's favorite fries" argument that McDonald's makes. Since, as a matter of free choice, Americans eat more McDonald's fries than any others by a large margin, they must be everybody's preference. (I would argue that McDonald's fries are the favorite of few individuals over the age of 4. But very few people never eat them. And nobody is forcing the matter.

The ideology of Polyannism will claim that Americans make a free choice to work hard so they must want to. And this is surely true of some people. But others work many more hours than they would prefer.

And once we have most people choosing to do things they wouldn't choose to do that we have a very interesting economic quandary. And one that reflects very oddly on one of the few remaining points of bipartisan agreement: the more employment, the better.

Really? Or perhaps not? What happened to the Leisure Society?

Injecting Sanity

A great swath of the Australian science community is participating in a series of blog outreach pieces on climate science, starting now. Here's the introductory article.

A key quote to whet your appetite:
understandable economic insecurity and fear of radical change have been exploited by ideologues and vested interests to whip up ill-informed, populist rage, and climate scientists have become the punching bag of shock jocks and tabloid scribes.

Aided by a pervasive media culture that often considers peer-reviewed scientific evidence to be in need of “balance” by internet bloggers, this has enabled so-called “sceptics” to find a captive audience while largely escaping scrutiny.

Australians have been exposed to a phony public debate which is not remotely reflected in the scientific literature and community of experts.

Beginning today, The Conversation will bring much-needed and long-overdue accountability to the climate “sceptics.”
The list of signatories is impressive. Thanks and congratulations to all concerned!

H E B Chairmain Asks Gov Perry to Reconsider on Education

A bit off topic.

The chairman of Texas' dominant grocery chain (and a good one!) pleads for sanity in the Texas education budget.
Our company has been serving Texans since 1905 and this recession isn't our first rodeo!

We kept adding people and stores right through the Great Depression of the 1930s until building materials became unavailable due to World War II. Company growth continued through the recessions of 1973-75 and the 1980s and we are building and hiring aggressively today.

For Texas to cut $4 billion from public school funding now, when a better-educated Texas can be a bulwark against future recessions, seems unwise, not conservative and, in fact, very risky for the state. Falling back isn't the way Eisenhower and Patton won World War II.

This isn't about political parties or national issues; it's about the future of Texas.

As business people investing annually, we are worried about the state's future if we start cutting education funding — lower per capita income and higher crime rates are almost certain to result. An educated workforce is essential to all industries.

With 160,000 children joining the system in the next biennium we at least need to fund at 2010-2011 levels.

In March 2011, the Financial Times reported Texas to be 44th out of 50 states in funding per student and said Texas had "one of the most underfunded - and needy - education systems in the U.S." Let's move forward (as Texas always has), not back.

I urge you to consider these views for the future good of the state we all love.

Thank you for your public service! Respectfully,

Charles C. Butt, chairman and CEO, H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio

via http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/editorial/outlook/7603731.html#ixzz1PB6ESspc

HEB is not a liberal institution by any means. But they are a family business, rooted in Texas, and in it for the long haul. That even they are publicly raising questions about the ALEC policy portfolio shows just how far from "conservative" this party-of-pillage approach really is.

Meanwhile, as part of its response to the manufactured budget crisis in Wisconsin, the budget bill advocated by the majority has provisions that "would give a $150,000-a-year exemption from the state sales tax for snow-making and grooming equipment used by ski slopes and trails and a $500,000-a-year sales-tax exemption for direct-mail advertising."

These are worthy causes for cutting back on education, aren't they?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Missing Automation Crisis

Among the things we are a half century behind in addressing properly is the economics of plenty. Let's start with one of the less controversial of the conundrums of the modern world: the disappearance of the Automation Crisis.

One of my great heroes, uber-geek Norbert Wiener, pretty much got himself into terrible trouble over this. He basically invented information technology (Though it was entirely analog and/or mathematical at the time, which is very interesting in itself. Most information theory taught these days is more based in Shannon's much more accessible ideas. But the whole network lives on top of an amazing hidden Wienerian world of transmission and detection that few people look at. While Shannon's ideas get more attention, we would not be where we are today without Wiener's work.)

Basically, he realized that a lot of mundane decision making, as well as mundane activity, would eventually be delegated to machines. Accordingly, he felt that low-skilled jobs everywhere were under a long-term threat, which would lead to a dangerous oligarchy of the skilled and educated. He construed this as a threat to the prosperity of the working class. As a mid-20th-century academic intellectual of obviously Jewish ethnicity, thus with Nazism being fresh in his mind, he in turn had little trouble extrapolating these stresses on the working class into a direct existential threat to pretty much everything he valued.

Wiener had already run afoul of the authorities by refusing to work with the Pentagon after WW II ended. As a mathematician first and an engineer second, Weiner's ideations had little to do with what was considered ideology in those days in some circles. (If it's obvious to anyone that closed loop systems like capitalism work better than open-loop ones like Stalinism it would be Norbert Wiener!!!) But this didn't stop J. Edgar Hoover from opening a dossier on the fellow. Fortunately, he ended up with the Douglas-Adamsish designation "mostly harmless" and was left alone.

Somewhere in those days, though, Wiener attempted to capture the attention of the labor movement, going so far as to have meetings with AFL-CIO chairman Walter Reuther.

Here is Wiener's astonishing letter to Reuther.

South Tamworth, August 13, 1949

Walter Reuther

Union of Automobile Workers

Detroit, Michigan

Dear Mr. Reuther,

First, I should like to explain who I am. I am Professor of Mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Iam the author of the recently published book, Cybernetics. As you will see, if you know of this book, I have been interested for a long time in the problem of automatic machinery and its social consequences. These consequences seem to me so great that I have made repeated attempts to get in touch with the Labor Union movement, and to try to acquaint them with what may be expected of automatic machinery in the near future. This situation has been brought to a head by the fact that I have been approached recently by one of the leading industrial corporations with the view to advising them as to whether to go into the problem of making servo-mechanisms, that is, artificial control mechanisms, as part of their extended program.

Technically I have no doubt what direction my advice should take. My technical advice would be to construct an inexpensive small scale, high speed computing machine, together with adequate apparatus for putting the readings of photo-electric cells, thermometers, and other instruments into the machine as numerical data, and for putting numerical out-put data into the motion of shafts and other out-put apparatus. The position of these output shafts should be monitored by proper sense organs, and be put back into the machine as part of the information on which it is to work.

The detailed development of the machine for particular industrial purpose is a very skilled task, but not a mechanical task. It is done by what is called 'taping' the machine in the proper way, much as present computing machines are taped. This apparatus is extremely flexible, and susceptible to mass production, and will undoubtedly lead to the factory without employees; as for example, the automatic automobile assembly line. In the hands of the present industrial set-up, the unemployment produced by such plants can only be disastrous. I would give a guess that a critical situation is bound to arise under any condition in some ten to twenty years; but that if war should make the replacement of labor mobilized into the services an immediate necessity, we should probably have a concentrated effort put into this work which might well lead to large scale industrial unemployment within two years.

I do not wish personally to be responsible for any such state of affairs. I have, therefore, turned down unconditionally the request of the industrial company which has tried to consult me. However, it is manifestly not enough to take a negative attitude on this. If I do not put this information in the hands of the industrialists, it is merely a question of time when so obvious a method of procedure will be urged upon them by other people.

Therefore, the procedure which I shall follow depends finally upon whether I can get you and the labor interests you represent to pay serious attention to this serious situation. I have tried to do this in the past without success; and I do not blame you people for it, but since then there has been a turn-over in personnel among you and the present group of labor leaders seem to have transcended the point of view of the shop to a sufficient extent to make it worthwhile for me to make an appeal to you again.

What I am proposing is this. First, that you show a sufficient interest in the very pressing menace of the large-scale replacement of labor by machine on the level not of energy, but of judgment, to be willing to formulate a policy towards this problem. In particular, I do not think it would be at all foolish for you to steal a march upon the existing industrial corporations in this matter; and while taking a part in production of such machines to secure the profits in them to an organization dedicated to the benefit of labor. It may be on the other hand, that you think the complete suppresion (sic) of these ideas is in order. In either case, I am willing to back you loyally, and without any demand or request for personal returns in what I consider will be a matter of public policy. I wish to warn you, however, that my own passiveness in this matter will not, on the face of it, produce a passiveness in other people who may come by the same ideas, and that these ideas are very much in the air.

If you determine that the matter does not deserve your serious consideration, you will leave me in a very difficult position. I do not wish to contribute in any way to selling labor down the river, and I am quite aware that any labor, which is in competition with slave labor, whether the slaves are human or mechanical, must accept the conditions of work of slave labor. For me merely to remain aloof is to make sure that the development of these ideas will go into other hands which will probably be much less friendly to organized labor.

Under these circumstances, I should probably have to try to find some industrial group with as liberal and honest a labor policy as possible and put my ideas in their hands. I must confess, however, that I know of no group what has at the same time a sufficient honesty of purpose to be entrusted with these developments, and a sufficiently firm economic and social position to be able to hold these results substantially in their own hands.

I have a book ((The Human Use of Human Beings) which will be forthcoming with Houghton-Mifflin next spring which will bring these ideas to a head. If you so wish, I shall send you copies of the relevant chapters.

Naturally, I do not expect you to take these matters on my momentary say-so. If you show sufficient interest to be willing to push the matter further, I shall be glad to put my ideas both technical and social at your disposal, so that you will be able to judge them better.

Sincerely yours,

Norbert Wiener

Department of Mathematics

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge 39, Massachusetts

Before long, to Wiener's satisfaction, Reuther was writing articles like this:

Inactivists will of course be delighted to note that neither was the recommended course of action followed nor did the dire consequences emerge, for three generations.

When we look at our current quandary, though, it may pay to ask how and why these things didn't happen. The simple theories of "growth" may be contrasted with the observational evidence that the average person in North America is not on the whole safer or more comfortable or happier than his or her predecessor. (Though the coffee and the razor blades are much improved!) So whatever the increased efficiency of labor is doing, it is not actually doing much for the benefit of the general population.

But the redistribution of wealth and allocation of responsibility as a matter of policy interest did not happen. Nor did massive underemployment. Indeed, in the intervening years, an expectation of employment of married female adults has actually greatly increased the proportion of the employed! So what happened?

Has the great chicken of the Automation Crisis finally come home to roost? And where has it been meanwhile?