"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Middle of the Roaders aka Dead Armadillos

The trouble with talking to people who are too interested in politics that relate to quantitative matters is that they don't seem especially interested in the quantitative matters. They see "politically realistic" as a constraint. They don't see "adequate to the circumstances" as especially relevant.

But political realism is a grossly premature calculation in the absence of quantitative reasoning.

The anecdote I like to repeat (I saw it in a comment somewhere by a "Z" (Zeke?) ) is of a fish viability study in Atlantic Canada. The scientists said the fish catch had to drop to X. The fishermen said they could not afford for it to go below Y. The Government, good liberals at the time, presumably, settled on the obvious (X + Y)/2 but (X + Y) /2 is substantially higher than X, so the fish population collapsed and now the fisherman have (another) Z which in this case stands for zilch.

First you have to figure out what is necessary. Then you come up with a bunch of schemes that achieve the necessary goals, with their various drawbacks and advantages, which, like it or not, will not work out to equal utility for each stakeholding constituency (in our case, that is everybody now living and, in a more diluted way but still significantly, everybody who might ever live).

You are as always entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to weigh in on this until you have a clear enough understanding of what is actually necessary.

If you feel that there is a responsible array of opinion on the matter of what is necessary, you should weigh your strategy appropriately to your degree of confidence in each possibility. This is even harder.

Once that is established, you figure out the politics. Maybe the market will handle it. Maybe not. List the scenarios out and come up with reasonable risk estimates. Then figure out what politics is necessary.

The reason the new Republicanism is irresponsible (both on climate and on budgetary matters) is because they have not taken into account informed and plausible scenarios of what is necessary. What they are doing is not conservatism. Neither conservatives nor liberals should mistake this for conservatism.

The reason the compulsive middle in America is irresponsible appears to be that they always were, but it wasn't clear until one of the official poles of debate went bonkers. They just split the difference. Either side of the matter is always "unrealistic". The solution is always "compromise".

Under circumstances with two moderate parties this works well enough and the middle looks smart. Those circumstances are gone, and now it turns out that many of them weren't very smart after all.

P.S. It begins to appear that Obama is of that school, but I'm not sure yet.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Problem with a Carbon Tax

Fuel is a luxury, sometimes. And sometimes it is a necessity.

If we rely entirely on a "price" on carbon, and carbon remains fungible, what happens?

Well, in a sense we already know. We in the US have encouraged the use of farmland to produce corn to produce ethanol. This notoriously contributes to the rise in prices of the coarsest, meanest foods (as does climate disruption). This in turn means that the poorest people in the poorest countries starve because, and to the extent that, the market in the US "prefers" driving "safer" and more comfortable and enjoyable large vehicles. The market for large vehicles as opposed to vehicles is unambiguously a luxury market. A tenth of what a typical Yukon driver spends for gasoline (i.e., the agriculture-based component) is more than the poorest Haitian or Egyptian can afford for food. (Leaving aside the fact that corn ethanol is not a real biofuel in that its EROEI is arguably less than 1. That's a topic for a different time and place.)

The "free market" is distorted in this case, but the ethanol vs food story still delivers an important moral.

Suppose we found a farmland biofuel that really did have a positive energy return and a significant profit. It's not in the cards as far as we can tell, but that turns out to be a good thing. Because if it were possible, here is what the free market would do. All suitable farmland would be converted to fuel until food prices rose to the point where food becomes equally profitable to grow as fuel. And more people would starve.

Now, we can mitigate the free market with charity or international aid. There is no sign that charities allocate funds in a globally optimal way, of course. So the demands on international food aid go up, as they have. Perhaps these demands remain small enough that the international community will step up to the plate. Under the present circumstances of widespread political incompetence, perhaps not. Americans seem totally uninformed about the present Somali famine, for instance, but even if they were, the congress is too busy destroying our own country to bother with poor people.

What causes the problem is the huge difference in available money between the Yukon owner and the gruel subsistence family. The Yukon owner, having access to capital and perhaps having some abstract skills, can outbid the starving people for a luxury even though the starving people's desire and willingness to work for the resource is much greater (it being a matter of survival). The Yukon owner is kept innocent. There isn't a picture of the Somali child that you are starving to death at the gas pump. Fifty dollars a tank doesn't slow the well-off SUV owner.

OK, the corn ethanol thing is insane, just another symptom of the bizarre state of US governance, a meaningless capitulation to the special status somehow acquired by Iowa.

The carbon tax has a similar problem, though. Suppose we raise prices, with a revenue-neutral tax, as Hansen sensibly suggests, on fossil carbon enough to start limiting demand, with the intention of gradually turning the screw until fossil carbon goes away. Who cuts back?

I became aware of this problem when my wife told an anecdote of going on a hundred mile photography field trip with a woman she knew slightly through a photography club. Irene showed up to their rendezvous in an early model Prius, and her companion showed up in an RV motor home. Guess which vehicle they ended up traveling in?

It turned out that the other woman was in the RV business. Inevitably the price of gasoline came up in conversation. The RV vendor was unconcerned. "My customers can afford gasoline," she said.

The person who is going to be forced to cut back is the person who needs the fuel to heat their house, or to visit their customer. People living on narrow margins in an energy-intensive infrastructure get squeezed. People who revel in their capacity for waste will not.

I still think a tax is the best way to proceed, but a simple tax may not work. I'd much rather hit the motor home traveler (who was offered a seat in a Prius, mind you) much harder. Somehow the price has to be progressive in the early stages. Making matters even more difficult, as if they weren't difficult enough already.

Yes, the urban poor, who can resort to busses and who have less heating and cooling bills, can adapt. So the burden will fall exactly on the people who are most suspicious and hostile in the first place. Bother.

The people forced to adapt by price mechanisms are not going to be the people who should adapt first.

This is sort of ironic, isn't it? The free market solution works best if the distribution of wealth is roughly even. The more the difference between the rich and the poor, the more price mechanisms are unfair ways to adjust collective behavior.

Libertarianism leads to concentration of wealth, which leads to regulation. Or at least would, if people were sane. In a world where so many people outsource their thinking to Rupert Murdoch, who knows what in hell happens.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Not Polar Bears II

I told you messin' round with them polo-bears was diendge-ress, dinna, son?

Headline Disease at e360

I'm not sure but I think we are starting to see signs of a decline in quality at Yale's Environment360. I hope not.

In any case we have another instance for the misleading headline file on their short article "Greenland's Ice Sheet May Be More Stable than Previously Thought". It could equally read "Antarctica's Ice Sheet Less Stable than Previously Thought". Better would be "Antarctica Drives Greater Fraction of Sea Level Change than Expected".

The press release was titled "Sea Level Rise Less from Greenland, More from Antarctica, Than Expected During Last Interglacial"

The actual article is here: Elizabeth J. Colville, Anders E. Carlson, Brian L. Beard, Robert G. Hatfield, Joseph S. Stoner, Alberto V. Reyes, David J. Ullman. Sr-Nd-Pb Isotope Evidence for Ice-Sheet Presence on Southern Greenland During the Last Interglacial. Science, 2011; 333 (6042): 620-623 DOI: 10.1126/science.1204673

Headlines are important.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Odd Phenomenon

Nation's Climatologists Exhibiting Strange Behavior

(Sorry, put up with the ad, it's worth it.)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mr. Gore Finds the Link

There's a fairly obvious link between the impending economic train wreck in the US and the disastrous response to climate change. Al Gore spells it out.
We haven't gone nuts — but the "conversation of democracy" has become so deeply dysfunctional that our ability to make intelligent collective decisions has been seriously impaired. Throughout American history, we relied on the vibrancy of our public square — and the quality of our democratic discourse — to make better decisions than most nations in the history of the world. But we are now routinely making really bad decisions that completely ignore the best available evidence of what is true and what is false. When the distinction between truth and falsehood is systematically attacked without shame or consequence — when a great nation makes crucially important decisions on the basis of completely false information that is no longer adequately filtered through the fact-checking function of a healthy and honest public discussion — the public interest is severely damaged.

Computation and Prediction

I'll be in the right place at the right time for an interesting event for a change and will report.
"The Emerging Age of Predictive Computational Science"

with Dr. Tinsley Oden, Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences (ICES), The University of Texas at Austin

When: Tuesday, August 2, 2011
Where: AT&T Conference Center / Amphitheater (Room 204) / 1900 University Ave.
Cost: Free and open to the public


What exactly is the purpose of scientific discovery if it is not to inform us sufficiently to make predictions of the outcome of physical events and processes? Science is the enterprise of acquiring knowledge, and knowledge enables us, so we thought, to anticipate how things will behave-to forecast the way things will happen in the future.

A modern look at this idea suggests that scientific predictions aren't as straightforward as some may think, particularly with the enhanced power of scientific discovery made possible by computer models and computers. The anatomy of computer predictions has recently become the subject of intense research, because we are now relying on computer models to predict events of enormous importance in making critical decisions that affect our welfare and security, such as climate change, the performance of energy and defense systems, the biology of diseases, and the outcome of medical procedures. Just how good are predictions of such complex phenomena, and how can we quantify the inevitable uncertainty in such predictions?

This presentation traces the development of scientific thinking and philosophy that underlie predictivity. It is argued that the fundamental issues of affecting the quantitative prediction of physical events using computer models are code and solution verification, model calibration and validation, and uncertainty quantification. These are the components of Predictive Science. It is also argued that the subjective probability inherent in Bayesian statistics provides a general framework for understanding and implementing predictive computational methods. Some examples of progress in this area at ICES will be presented.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Disappointment from e360 Egregiously Spun

I refer you to the disappointing e360 piece "Is Extreme Weather Linked to Global Warming?" and the revealing gloss on it by Michael Cote that is brazenly repackaged as "Is the Heat Wave Caused by Climate Change?"

Cote's title doesn't summarize the question and his calculation doesn't summarize the answers. But the fact that he found Curry the clearest and most reliable is a revelation to me. Those of us in the field tend to find Curry confusing and inconsistent. That is, she is giving answers that are easy for novices to understand in preference to answers that summarize the state of knowledge.

The question Cole asks is akin to "did the loaded dice cause me to roll a 12?" and the only serious answer is "they contributed to its likelihood".

Even if we encounter weather events that would have been impossible absent anthropogenic climate change ("rolling a 13" type events, a candidate at least being last year's Russian heat wave and Pakistani flood) there is still, generally, an element of chance involved. We have to go to phenomena not generally considered weather-like to be able to give a more coherent answer. (The Japanese earthquake has nothing to do with climate change; the melting ice cap is caused by it.)

But this is not the question raised in the article Cote pretends to summarize. That question is whether climate change is "linked" to recent extremes. To say "no" in this case is flatly absurd. Not even Curry, who has been dedicating the last few years to cultivating an audience among skeptical nonspecialists, nor Pielke, who is himself a nonspecialist, has been beating this drum forever, is willing to hazard a clear no.

All in all this is a disappointing performance from the normally reliable Yale e360 site. One commenter justly summarizes:
"E360 has 'balanced' the opinion of several experts with 'celebrity contrarians'.

Roger Pielke is not a climate scientist and is notoriously unreliable and frequently wrong. Curry has been excoriated for her anti-science ranting and is now more accurately described as a political blogger than climate scientist.

It's clearly not a coincidence these two were picked from thousands of possible experts - someone knew they could be relied on to 'spice up' the story with contrarian views.

This is just more of the never-ending false balance from a media that is more concerned with drawing traffic than informing the public with good science."
This is true enough and bad enough. But Cote adds some additional filtering and now has a false package of insouciance he can peddle to his customers.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Rural North America

A couple of days in the British Columbia interior have been something of an eye-opener for me.

When you see two distinct cultures, you can parse out what they have in common as well as where they differ.

The rural South and rural BC have many superficial differences. The mostly bad food is different. The peculiar speech patterns are different. The TV is different. The magazines and newspapers are different. But both are areas of recent settlement and the patterns of twenty-first century life are set by the environment of the late twentieth century commercial environment more than the nineteenth century constraints of the natural environment, which amount to more of a decorative motif than a reality.

First of all, though rich people are everywhere, they live in a coccoon of suburban life. The great majority of the people think themselves "independent" and "private", but their "freedom" and "independence" is actually massively more social, interdependent, and even communal than urban people, who actually are much more private and aloof. The skills needed to survive can more easily be rented in a city. In the country, they have to be borrowed or bartered. The solitary life is actually an endless parade of unhurried negotiations over chickens and goats, firewood and eggs, tires and furnaces. But the illusion of independence and privacy is immensely valued. This is the reverse of the city pattern, alienated and isolated and cherishing an illusion of a vibrant and tight-knit community!

What a strange continent we inhabit!

The problem is this: the city can decarbonize. The city will happily decarbonize; the air will be cleaner and the effete and fussy foods and beverages will taste even better as a result. Our lungs and our consciences will be cleaner.

The countryside developed as an adjunct to the automobile. In many areas there is vanishingly little pre-automotive skill or community to draw upon. People's closest connections can live more miles away than horse could ride. The urban postcarbon transportation network cannot scale. Our building "real estate" in at the core of our economic structure ties people to the absurdly sprawled infrastructure. People should live in strings of beads, towns spread along roads. Instead they are everywhere, and it is more or less unaffordable to leave your isolated plot unless you can convince a greater fool to move in.

The fact is that decarbonization really is, like it or not, an attack on the already stressed rural lifestyle. The addiction to huge energy expenditures is inscribed in the settlement patterns. Even in places that are sufficiently forested and unpopulated to draw on wood for energy, wood-burning vehicles are hard to come by, and hundreds of miles of driving every week cannot be avoided. Even garbage disposal, in many places, requires a drive of some miles for each rural household on each occasion.

In many parts of the US, the genuine spirit of sharing doesn't usually cross racial lines, which is a great shame, and only serves to make matters even more delicate, but the spirit of community is genuine and is something cities desperately need to reimport. But that community is dependent on real estate value and therefore on mobility and therefore on energy. North America does not have any idea how to readjust its rural lifestyles. In this matter the US and Canada are alike. I know little about Australia but I'd guess matters are similar there.

The much higher population densities of the northeastern states, like Europe, may be able to find low energy adaptations. I am thoroughly enjoying Vancouver's bus system this week, which is almost as effective as the Paris Metro in magically transporting a person from anywhere to anywhere in a short enough time as not to matter. Without the absurd pseudo-poverty of Republicanism, Austin, or any US city could easily do as well. Austin would have to double the number of routes and triple the frequency of service; I'd happily abandon my car in a heartbeat if it did. But this cannot be done in Paris, Texas, or rural British Columbia for that matter. The suburbs, contrary to what Bill Kunstler says, will only be somewhat stressed when energy costs what it is worth.

But the North American countryside is in for a lot of pain. It's important to remember that when considering their hostility to decarbonization.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Marshall McLuhan, What're Ya Doin?

I learn in today's Toronto Globe and Mail that this is the centennial of the birth, in frigid Edmonton AB, of U of Toronto professor and media maven Marshall McLuhan, coiner of the catchphrase "The Medium is the Message", collagist of the unclassifiable book "The Medium is the Massage", and author of the scholarly tome "The Gutenberg Galaxy".

The Globe also summarizes McLuhan's numerous insights in a sentence which I will take the liberty of paraphrasing and improving as:
The visible or audible content delivered through any medium is less important than the implicit messages the medium itself introduces into human affairs.
(Original: "the visible content delivered through any media, such as the television, is less important than the invisible effects the vehicle that conveys it introduces into human affairs".)

This key observation is why Wired called Prof. McLuhan the "Prophet of the Internet" even though, as far as I know, he never envisioned anything like it. From a McLuhanistic perspective, the internet is every bit as big a revolution in human consciousness as the printing press; its effects will evolve over the next century or two, but those of us privileged to be on the scene in its early days will have much to say about the long future of human civilization (presuming civilization sufficient to support the internet survives our other present turmoils).

McLuhan, (like Norbert Wiener,) was prominent in my teenage reading list and influential in my own subsequent thinking.

Recent McLuhan stories in the Globe and Mail:

A Catholic Cassandra's Faith
McLuhan: From tweedy academic to household name
The return of Marshall McLuhan

Speaking of Media

If I were a billionaire I would purchase a subscription to the Toronto Globe and Mail for every journalist working in the US.

Unlike American journalism which is so desperate to be inoffensive that it becomes uniformly empty, the Globe is eager to give people things to think about and talk about. If today's issue is an indication, the Globe is almost as deficient as the US press in its focus on sustainability issues. So it's not as if I had no complaints. But the stupefying and mystifying feeling of reading the US press, even the Times these days, is blissfully absent.

Today's headline: Failed State Gives Rise to Famine

Today's feature photo: Born to Run?

other interesting items in addition to the previously mentioned McLuhan piece:

As Leopard Habitat Dwindles in India, Humans Become Prey

Gang Violence: Why We Need a CeaseFire (opinion by Sheema Khan)

Heartbreak Charm and Betrayal (review of movie Project Nim)

Oddly, most of the headlines of the articles (all except the opinion piece) I picked are different on the web. Apparently the Globe has not escaped the peculiar journalistic confusion about article titles.

As I contemplate moving from writing about writing about sustainability to actually just writing about sustainability, I take inspiration from the fact that competent journalism still survives in North America; that I'm not just imagining the possibility. (But the belief that the author of a journalistic article ought to choose the title still seems like an innovation for some reason!)
Image: Globe and Mail columnist Sheema Khan

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The South Will Rise Again

The quotation below is from "Ecology of a Cracker Childhood", by Janisse Ray (1999), an imperfect book but moving and smart and highly recommended nonetheless.

You can't understand the world today without understanding the American South: it is a keystone. And you can't understand the South by trivializing and villainizing it. These words from Janisse Ray may strike many, from North and South alike, as strange, but perhaps they carry the seeds of some deeper understanding:
When we consider what is happening to our forests - and to the birds, reptiles and insects that live there - we must also think of ourselves. Culture springs from the actions of people in a landscape, and what we, especially Southerners, are watching is a daily erosion of unique folkways as our native ecosystems and all their inhabitants disappear. Our culture is tied to the longleaf forest that produced us, that has sheltered us, that we occupy. The forest keeps disappearing, disappearing, sold off, stolen.
We don't mind growing trees in the South; it's a good place for silviculture, sunny and watery, with a growing season to make a Yankee gardener weep. What we mind is that all our trees are being taken. We want more than 1 per cent natural stands of longleaf. We know a pine plantation is not a forest, and the wholesale conversion to monocultures is unacceptable to us.

We Southerners are a people fighting again for our country, defending the last remaining stands of real forest. Although we love to frolic, the time has come to fight. We must fight.

In new rebellion we stand together, black and white, urbanite and farmer, workers all, in keeping Dixie. We are a patient peopple who for generations have not been ousted from this land and we are willing to fight for the birthright of our children's children, and their children's children, to be of a place, in all ways, for all time. What is left is not enough. When we say the South will rise again we can mean that we will allow the cutover forests to return to their former grandeur and pine plantations to grow wild.

The whippoorwill is calling from the edge.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fracking Question

Q: What is the picture for long-term methane leakage from tapped out fracking operations? Pondering it spooks me. Any science on it?

Social media postscript: asked here, on Twitter, on Google+, and on Quora. Apologies if you see it more than once. (Not bothering with Facebook.)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Toward Competent Reporting

The Beeb:

Although a normal monsoon has been forecast for South Asia this year, and rains have begun normally in many parts of the region, people are still anxious about the rainy season that lasts for four months.

Their anxiety has to do with the uncertainties surrounding the timing of the monsoon in recent years.

While the debate continues over the role of climate change, scientists have also been looking at the possible role of soot and urban smog pollution in disrupting this weather system.

Emphasis added. Paraphrase: "Scientists have been debating the respective roles of certain climate forcings and climate change in this instance of climate change."

OK, everybody. These things have different meanings:

anthropogenic climate change
anthropogenic climate forcing
anthropogenic global warming
carbon cycle
carbon dioxide
climate change
global climate change
global change
global warming
greenhouse effect

The best name for "the problem" is "climate disruption", which is shorthand for "dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system".

I am not sure I know how to reframe the offending sentence. Admittedly (if I understand their meaning) it is awkward. Perhaps:

"While climate change on the global scale may play a role, scientists have also been looking at the role of local mechanisms such as soot and urban smog in disrupting the monsoon."

The use of the word "debate" was presumably unnecessary and feeds right into denialist tropes.

Another howler:
Ramanathan's result suggested a large reduction of solar radiation at the Earth's surface simultaneous with the warming of the lower atmosphere increases atmospheric "stability". It also slows down the hydrological cycle and reduces rainfall during the monsoon.
"Also"? What does "stability" mean in this context? Oh, I have no idea so I'll put it in quotes.

This is the worst of it though:

"The consequence of these contrasting processes needs to be understood before arriving at conclusions on the aerosol impact on a regional climate system," the INCCA said in its statement.

But one of the experts in the recent UNEP/WMO report, Chien Wang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said there was no confusion on the issue.

"I have to indicate that the basic conclusion that black carbon aerosol forcing over South Asia is large enough to perturb the monsoon system is reached by all the studies so far, therefore there is no different opinion here," he told BBC News.

The basic mechanism is agreed, and there is work to be done on quantifying it. There is nothing here resembling what a journalist would call a "debate" which is Wang's point. Such debate is rare in research meteorology. This is not because meteorologist march in lock step on pain of excommunication. It is because meteorology is actually a mature science.

The point about monsoons and aerosols is interesting, but WTF?

Increasingly I think journalism is too important to leave in the hands of journalists.

A Headscratcher

from Watts, in response to "Now it is clear why people with little training are so easily confused." justthefacts replies:

I question whether “training” is the best way to learn about Earth’s Climate System. I think it’s better to actively identify the gaps in your knowledge and seek to fill them. With access to much of written human knowledge in a matter of a few keystrokes and some great professors hanging out in places like WUWT, one isn’t reliant upon trainers. Furthermore, a diversity of sources and opinions is advantageous when studying such an uncertain subject. I think it is better to be well researched, well read, well taught and well learned, than it is to be well trained…

At first it sounded ludicrous to me. Obviously this is a person who does not Get It. But there's something to think about here.

"a diversity of sources and opinions is advantageous when studying such an uncertain subject" is the nut of the question. How do you know that the subject is uncertain? The more diverse your sources the more uncertain you will be, but what does that actually tell you? What you need is to know the diversity of reliable sources, and coming in fresh, you do not know who the reliable sources are.

It seems to me, actually that "training" is not exactly the issue. Many an undergraduate is highly trained in mathematical methods but doesn't understand research; that is the recruiting ground for skeptics and denialists, and the place where the defense of science has been shockingly weak.

The best way to understand research is to obtain a new fact or two that is more or less recognized as such. Those who haven't achieved this are at a disadvantage in identifying where to cull the input on a question in which they take an interest. Perhaps there is some way to make the real intellectual hierarchy more apparent.

How the scientific community winnows and sifts ideas and settles on theories, that is, the details of the social mechanism, changes over time and with the technological and social context. It is in some turmoil right now, as is any communication-intensive pursuit.

The recent process has largely been invisible. It is designed to protect the egos of marginal players. This is why peer review tries to be anonymous and private. But there may be more important goals now.

The appearance of suspicious/hostile amateurs at various levels of competence and seriousness changes the balance of power quite a lot. It may be necessary for scientists to drop all the formal circumspection and be as frank (or "arrogant") in public as they are in private. This is not a time for waffling.

Almost everything is wrong. The superpower of science is the ability to say something is wrong. Jim Bouldin suggests that Wit's End is wrong about tree mortality. I wondered about that. I smell expertise here and so be it; I don't choose to argue the point. It's sort of funny but in a way his response is far more convincing to me than chapter and verse would be. Of course, and this is the point, your mileage may vary.

My Economic Theory in a Nutshell

The graph of globally aggregated economic activity vs globally aggregated welfare is concave downwards.

Under present circumstances, the harder we collectively work, the less we will collectively prosper.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Employment infographics.

This one's different. Here's a couple of graphs that came out today.

US employment compared to other recessions:

Fastest growing and fastest shrinking categories below. "Other Information Services" includes “publishing and/or broadcasting content exclusively on the Internet”.

Bodes ill for America, but nicely for Texas, don't it? Well, for a few years, anyway. (Where would we be without fracking? And where will we be once we're all fracked out?)

Does anyone seriously those yahoos in the other party could do better? I seriously doubt it - they're the ones that kicked us off the cliff in the first place, remember?

Growth is over, I think. Back to the drawing board.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Rent Seeking, Corruption and Madness

I think that anyone defending climate science occasionally runs into an economist type who accuses those of us who would like to limit CO2 emissions of "rent seeking". There is more than a whiff of contempt usually associated, which is peculiar, because the contempt tends to come from someone who (like most people) would not hesitate to rent out surplus space at the highest rate they could get.

Wikipedia to the rescue:
"rent-seeking is an attempt to derive economic rent by manipulating the social or political environment in which economic activities occur, rather than by adding value. An example of rent-seeking is the limitation of access to skilled occupations imposed by medieval guilds."
And here is a case in point:
Washington, D.C. is considering a bill that would require every cab driver in the city to own a special permit called a medallion. The total number of medallions would be capped at 4,000, which would reduce the current number of cabs by more than one-third and put thousands of drivers out of business. (The city government has no idea how many licensed cabs are in the district, though estimates range from 6,500 to 10,000.)

If that weren't bad enough, most drivers wouldn't have the option of buying a medallion. The first set of medallions would be offered for sale to the minority of cabbies who have been driving for at least five years and who live in Washington D.C. (Again the city government has no idea how many current drivers meet this criteria, but rising real estate prices and weak city services have led many drivers to leave the district.)

Who will be offered the next set of medallions, according to the bill? That would be cab companies, who could then rent medallions to drivers. This system would destroy the relatively open-access taxi industry in D.C., in which the majority of drivers are owner-operators free to make their own schedules and keep whatever money they earn on the job. In cities such as New York and Boston, drivers pay upwards of $800 a week to rent their medallions.

A libertarian blog comments:
You can think of two theories of government. One theory is that government exists to correct externalities and provide public goods. The other is that government uses the language of helping people to justify giving stuff to the politically powerful out of the pockets of the rest of us. Here’s some evidence for the second theory.
My sympathies are entirely with the small-timers who choose their own hours and can scale their efforts informally to match available demand. Here is a case where the diseconomy of scale is absolutely obvious.

The video implies that the governmental process is corrupt and that there is no legitimate reason for medallions. I don't know about that, though to be honest I can't really think of one. But I know this is another example of pressure to increase the minimum amount of work people have to do to participate in the economy. As such, it is clearly retrograde to the world of leisure that has been stolen from us for no good reason and replaced by a frantic false scarcity.

And the video, amidst the innuendo, does at least sketch the case for how the process might be corrupt.

So when people for whom limits to growth and limits to carbon emission treat us with suspicion and hostility, and bandy this "rent seeking" term around, it's important to remember that such a thing can conceivably happen. That is, we are making business more difficult for them, and the first question on their mind is "follow the money". How they get to us is perfectly silly, though Dick Lindzen is happy to spin crazed fantasies about it.

But this is the kind of thing they are worried about.

In this particular case, I have nothing to say about the corruption angle.

I very strongly think cutting people off from part time and informal income is just generally anti-resilience. Some will see it as abuse of the public by government, others as abuse of government by big business. But in any case, it concentrates wealth and increases stress, exactly the opposite of what ought to be happening. I wonder if there isn't some common ground to be found here with libertarian types.

Taking 10,000 people working half time, turning them into 5,000 people working full time and splitting their take with the people who have the capital to snap up all the medallions, is just the sort of lunacy that the anti-leisure economy foists upon us. This, as Shrek would say, is the opposite of helping.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Heartland Musings

Two very interesting essays at least as a result of the Heartland SICCC.

I thank Willard for pointing me to a moving piece by Wit's End: "Beware the Banality of Evil - Heartless at the Heartland Institute SICCC"

and Brian Dupuis for alerting me to Chris Mooney's "In the Climate Debate, the Misunderstanding is Mutual", along with (so far) two very interesting replies in the comments thereto.

I'll be responding to the latter myself, shortly. Any others?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Japan national record high for June broken

h/t James from an interesting piece about Fukushima, Japan, and nuclear power. 40 C is 104 F, to save you the trouble.
Sataima sees 39.8 C as heatwave covers Japan

Temperatures soared across the Japanese archipelago Friday [June 24 2011], with the mercury reaching 39.8 C in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, a record high for June, due to hot and humid wind flowing from the south, the Japan Meteorological Agency said.

The scorching heat observed in Kumagaya at 2:20 p.m. exceeded Japan’s previous record for June of 38.3 C logged on June 27, 1991, in Shizuoka city, Shizuoka Prefecture.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Requisite Kluge

Following up on my economics series. Previous installments:

Essentially, I have been looking at the growth economy from the point of view of employment. We have found that, contrary to the expectations of improved efficiency, employment went up during the late part of the twentieth century, especially in America. I argue that this is because of the individualist perspective of Americans, ironically promoted by corporate interests, whereby it was impossible for wage earners to hold onto their gains in the face of a growing wage-earning population. Accordingly, a sort of cheap-labor economy emerged that centered on replacing housework with low-skilled services (cheap restaurants) and retail positions.

The problems of success did not end there, though. The creative foment of capitalism found ways to replace more jobs with machines (as expected) or to ship jobs overseas (perhaps less expected) thereby weakening demand for labor (and crippling the power of private-sector labor unions). At this point, the expectation of one job per household was breaking down, and an expectation of two or even three jobs per household was emerging. Social pressures weren't just limited to the approval or admiration of neighbors - living in a less desirable neighborhood meant sending your children to incompetent and dangerous schools, putting massive pressure on their future earnings. The demand for income was tied into the safety and prosperity of offspring. It wasn't optional for most people. Note that this is tied directly into inadequate delivery of social services, specifically education. Demand for cars and various support services also can be stimulated by locating the best neighborhoods far from the best jobs. And of course, this can be taken further by rolerating collapse of urban cores, forcing populations outward, and thereby encouraging new construction employment.

So it was that the "morning-in-America" years of the Reagan administration in combination with the entrance of women into the marketplace began the break between the period of growth due to demand to the period of grow-or-suffer. People no longer climbed the ladder out of ambition or desire. People climbed the ladder for fear of being crushed in the chaos below.

America thus began its descent into third-world status; the first modern country in which civilization actually declined. The re-emergence of superstitious, backwards literalist religions such as one expects from the rural backwaters of the tropics coincided, but perhaps was no coincidence. Voodoo economics brought back voodoo itself. The use of abortion as a tool of moralist absolutism was instrumental in distracting the population from its own interests. (See "What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America" by Thomas Frank)

So employment was driven to a large measure but by a frenzied demand for employment by employees; this in turn because of the deliberate fraying of the social safety net, which was in turn achieved by distracting the middle-American public from their own interests with manipulative and symbolic issues, a mostly shallow and retrograde religiosity, and fear of association with aliens, racial minorities, and some sort of caricature of beatnik-delinquent "liberals".

For a generation, this dynamic has spun out of control, with nobody further left than Bill Clinton or Barack Obama in the white house. (Which is to say, uninterrupted control of economic policy by moneyed interests.) The public demands "growth" as loudly as the corporate sector does. The corporate sector, because it is a machine designed to maximize profit. The public, essentially because it has been tricked by the corporate sector into lacking the imagination for a world where anything less than extremely hard work will keep your kids from falling into bad company and a career as a consumer of the criminal prosecution and imprisonment service sectors.

Of course, this unrelenting pressure gives America a competitive advantage over countries where workers did establish rights. Some aspects of the underlying ideology have been successfully exported as well. And some of America's issues with a racially distinct lower class have been exported to other western countries as well. So all these trends have, under American economic and social pressure, emerged in many other countries. Those countries would do well to reconsider.

But what was all this "work" about? If you looked around in the 1980s, you would find that most "jobs" were in retail, sales, or marketing. My brother-in-law, a machinist, had a little blue collar factory business in Chicago during this period where he outcompeted overseas competitors on agility. He could turn product around very quickly. What product was that? Custom plastic doodads for large corporate retailers!

If one person spends their life trying to convince you to buy Coke instead of Pepsi, and another does exactly the reverse, how is this different from the old public sector Keynesian ploy of
having one team dig ditches and another team fill them in? Clearly, no real value is added in either case. The only difference is that in one case the government is not directly involved. So according to the prevailing ideology, it is okay.

Whence the Red Queen's dictum: "Around here it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place".

It was way back in my undergraduate days that, in thinking about this, I came up with "Tobis's Theory of the Requisite Kluge".

King of the Road will be able to picture the scene without any difficulty. I was sitting around Joe Galvin's room doing the usual sort of thing we did in Joe Galvin's room. I recall running the theory by Joe twenty years later and he saud he remembered the conversation much as I did.

I noted that recessions were being described as a "weakness of demand" and resulted in "excess unemployment", and that all it takes is a tolerance of absurdity to kill both birds with one stone. I imagined some national specification for a bizarre decorative gizmo, which changed annually. Everybody would be required to buy one and display it, on their lawn if possible, or in the apartment courtyard or on the roof if necessary. The entire streetscape would be festooned by silly things; say steam-powered flagpoles or pedal-inflated singing balloons or whatever. In years when employment was otherwise lax, the standards could be made more demanding. Voila! Full demand and full employment via a Requisite Kluge!

What I didn't reckon with was the genius of the marketplace. It turned out that government intervention was altogether unnecessary. Instead, the Kluge was developed and marketed without the necessity of the requirement. The enormous prosperity of the 1990s was largely based on the incompetence of Microsoft.

Note that if Microsoft had done a better job (and this will come back into our story in the obvious way with Microsoft's final, merciful decline in the 2010s) the 1990s boom would not have been as strong. Much of what you had to buy in the 1990s was workarounds and defenses for Microsoft's grotesque and bizarre design and engineering. Antivirus programs. Substitute shells. And even the stuff you didn't have to pay for chewed up your productivity (Trumpet Winsock! Yes, a miracle it worked, but how many hours did you sink into it before it did?) And of course, the things failed, and failed to keep up with increasing technology. I spent twenty dollars on a gizmo from Disney of all people to work an audio output through my parallel port. It eventually worked! But then it went off the market,and somebody else had the equivalent for two hundred. And on and on, one silliness and half-failed goofy external device or software patch after another. So why am I looking on this horror with such nostalgia now?

Because those were the boom years! Everybody was doing this nonsense. Even though there was no internet worth mentioning, we were fussing with Eudora. Gates thought TCP/IP was a weird protocol and he resented having to support it. It was hidden under several layers of whatever proprietary crap networking options Microsoft was offering at that time! It wasted time and money! And it was great! People were getting rich left and right. It was the triumph of the Requisite Kluge!

Things started to go sour in 2001 with the release of Windows XP, which was, while a fairly repulsive visual design, and somewhat oily and smarmy in its dialogs ("Would you like me to hold your hand?[OKAY!] [No, thanks, maybe later!]") actually usable as a computing device and an internet tool. Despite the attempt to revert to the lack of quality of Windows 3 with the later release of Vista, the emergence of actual useful things to do with the machine along with improved design made the Kluge phenomenon less powerful. But the clever marketplace had another trick up its sleeve.

Image: T-Shirt Humor of Austin TX, 2005.

Over the Top at Watts Up

I have long been amazed and impressed at how sites like the Blackboard and Climate Audit allow mainstream opinion in comments section. Of course, one is immediately subject to such a barrage of antagonism at various levels of bakedness that it's difficult to maintain a presence. But in my experience Lucia Liljegren and Steve McIntyre have at least been scrupulously fair in letting posts through.

I've been slumming a bit at Watts', though. I had thought I was getting a similar treatment (fair from the moderator, but negatively reinforced by a variety of expressions of contempt from the mob) but now I have a posting that for some reason isn't making it through moderation. Here it is, in response to this comment:
"If Tobis took the time to notice, he would see that the rise in [harmless, beneficial] CO2 has been stagnant since the beginning of the year."

OK. I just looked. That is wrong. ftp://ftp.cmdl.noaa.gov/ccg/co2/trends/co2_weekly_mlo.txt

You guys are being fed a lot of made up stuff. If you applied a tenth of the skepticism to the stuff you like or wish were true as to the stuff you don't like or hope is false, you might make more progress in understanding what's going on.
Oh, well. Just documenting for the ages. For what its worth, this year's CO2 cycle is about 2 ppmv higher than last year's. But I suspect it was the skepticism thing that got me purged.