What do the aliens think about AGW politics?

Alien and Gort: You know Fission but are still building windmills?

Two years ago I was puzzling over the other-worldness of US politics on AGW which includes references to some better-informed researchers. It would be instructive to hear what the more-advanced aliens think about the earthly goings-on. I envision the alien walking down the ramp of his starship, looking out over California’s once beautiful landscape, now covered with the litter of tens of thousands of diffuse-energy contraptions

You’ve mastered the science of fission, and you are still building windmills?

The Great Progressive Reversal: how the TVA supporters became the prison jailers of the developing poor

It wasn’t long before environmental groups came to oppose nearly all forms of grid electricity in poor countries, whether from dams, coal or nuclear.

“Giving society cheap, abundant energy, would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” —Paul Ehrlich 1975

Prof. Erlich continues to preach the same theme, which is essentially the low energy hymnal as written by Amory Lovins. I think Erlich and Lovins are completely on the wrong side of the low-energy/high-energy debate. If you are an Amory Lovins believer I hope to persuade you to read The Breakthrough Institute’s concise briefing document Our High-Energy Planet. Arizona State University's Dan Sarewitz is one of my trusted sources on science policy issues. Here’s Dan’s summary of the choice between high-energy and low-energy policies:

“Climate change can’t be solved on the backs of the world’s poorest people,” said Daniel Sarewitz, coauthor and director of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes. “The key to solving for both climate and poverty is helping nations build innovative energy systems that can deliver cheap, clean, and reliable power.”

If, after reading Our High Energy Planet, you are still thinking that we already have all the tech required, that all we need to address climate change is more efficiency and renewables, then I recommend that you need to learn more about the staggering magnitude of the energy transition required. Start with energy expert Vaclav Smil’s Power Density Primer, then his Energy Transitions and finally Will nine billion people exhaust our materials resources?

If, like me, you are puzzling over how the former protectors of the energy-impoverished have transformed into the prison guards responsible for preventing their escape, their breakout from the energy-poverty jail — then read the captioned three-part The Great Progressive Reversal. This is a very different history than what I was taught in public schools, even university. When I studied civics and social history the prevailing progressive theme was the signature New Deal program of the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority.

(…snip…) In 1933 Congress and President Roosevelt authorized the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. It mobilized thousands of unemployed men to build hydroelectric dams, produce fertilizer, and lay down irrigation systems. Sensitive to local knowledge, government workers acted as community organizers, empowering local farmers to lead the efforts to improve agricultural techniques and plant trees.

The TVA produced cheap energy and restored the natural environment. Electricity from the dams allowed poor residents to stop burning wood for fuel. It facilitated the cheap production of fertilizer and powered the water pumps for irrigation, allowing farmers to grow more food on less land. These changes lifted incomes and allowed forests to grow back. Although dams displaced thousands of people, they provided electricity for millions.

By the 50s, the TVA was the crown jewel of the New Deal and one of the greatest triumphs of centralized planning in the West. It was viewed around the world as a model for how governments could use modern energy, infrastructure and agricultural assistance to lift up small farmers, grow the economy, and save the environment. Recent research suggests that the TVA accelerated economic development in the region much more than in surrounding and similar regions and proved a boon to the national economy as well.

Perhaps most important, the TVA established the progressive principle that cheap energy for all was a public good, not a private enterprise. When an effort was made in the mid-'50s to privatize part of the TVA, it was beaten back by Senator Al Gore Sr. The TVA implicitly established modern energy as a fundamental human right that should not be denied out of deference to private property and free markets.

From The Great Progressive Reversal I learned how the progressive movement mutated into what it is today, a supporter of anti-progress development policies. The three-part series concludes with this:

Since Ehrlich made his famous prediction, the global death rate declined from 13 to 9 deaths per 1,000 lives, and India’s fertility rate declined from 5.5 to 2.5, thanks not to forced sterilization's and cutting off food aid, as Ehrlich advocated, but due to the continuing development and modernization of Indian society.

If there is to be a solution to global warming, then it is as likely to come from the rising powers of the global East and South than the superannuated precincts of the West. “Old men like to offer good advice,” Bruckner writes, quoting the 18th-century philosopher François de la Rouchefoucauld, “in order to console themselves for no longer being in a position to give bad examples.”



A Global Quorum for Fee & Dividend?


I felt more optimistic for a few seconds after reading James Hansen’s latest Assuring Real Progress on Climate. I won’t spoil your Holiday Spirit by enumerating the reasons my optimism quickly faded. Hopefully you will come back with compelling arguments why this time is different: multi-national negotiations will produce a binding commitment to Fee & Dividend. The main argument:

Alternative 2: Courageous leadership emerges. In this scenario, actions proposed in Lima are adopted, but also plans for a rising carbon fee to come into force once approved back home by a quorum of nations. Quorum is defined so that Protocol initiation practically requires acceptance by either the United States or the European Union and either China or a combination of nations such as India and Brazil. The gradually rising carbon fee would be accompanied by border duties on products from non-participating nations, collected by the importing country, unless the exporting country shows that no fossil fuel carbon was emitted in production of the product.

In Alternative 2 no single nation can blackmail humanity. Once a quorum is achieved, there is a huge incentive for other nations to join, to avoid economic disadvantage and enjoy the economic stimulation. A carbon fee, which would be collected at domestic mines and ports of entry, spurs an economy if the funds are fully distributed to the public. However, the fee becomes a tax and a drag on the economy if a government keeps the funds to expand its programs. Governments are prohibited from returning the funds to the fossil fuel industry as subsidies. Otherwise specific use of the fee is a national prerogative. However, it is noted that equal division of funds among residents tends to address income disparities, providing opportunities for low income people, while spurring essential efforts in conservation, energy efficiency and clean no-carbon energies. Alternative 2 is a challenge, but one that we must fight for with all our strength and intelligence.

I think the economic outcome will be net-positive over a couple of decades. I’m not confident the near term jobs & incomes data will be comforting to politicians who find themselves out of work after implementing a binding form of Alternative 2. What is our best evidence that Fee & Dividend will boost GDP per capita? Over what time frame?

WaterInTheWest: technical solutions to California’s water crisis

Stanford’s NewImageWaterInTheWest program is an important resource for anyone wishing to study technical solutions to the California water crisis. E.g., consider the possibility of artificial groundwater recharge?

Now in its third year, the current drought reminds us that California’s water supplies are limited. Calls are growing louder to enlarge dams – or build new ones – to expand the state’s water storage capacity. But far less attention is given to a cheaper but less visible option – storing water under our feet.

Groundwater storage represents both a practical solution to the state’s additional water storage needs and a tool to help manage groundwater more sustainably. Groundwater levels are continuing to decline across the state, not just from California’s current drought, but from decades of chronic overuse. Augmenting water supply through recharge into aquifers presents a cost-effective way of increasing the availability of groundwater for the inevitable dry times ahead.

There are so many water-related resources that I won’t attempt to summarize. Go to the WaterInTheWest site, explore. Then you will be better-equipped to address the really-big challenge: political change. 

We know from Economics 101 that any less-than-infinite water supplies will be squandered unless water is fully priced at its economic value (i.e., marginal cost equals marginal value). My understanding of the political challenge is that agriculture was given nearly-free access at the beginning of the water infrastructure development. The farmers are politically powerful enough to (so far) defeat every market-pricing initiative. Since agriculture consumes 80% of CA water we know that fiddling with household consumption is another “feel good” policy. Once California water consumers have to pay market prices, then technical solutions like artificial groundwater recharge become financeable.

That political change is possibly more difficult than getting US, EU, China, India, and Brazil to agree to a harmonized carbon tax. So the chance of a sensible CA water policy solution is approximately zero until things get seriously bad: perhaps when there are crop failures and people dying because they no longer have adequate access to sanitation and clean drinking water. That seems to be how democracies make unpleasant changes – at the cliff edge, or over the cliff.

EconTalk: Steven Teles on Kludgeocracy


This Econtalk interview with Johns Hopkins prof. Steven Teles was sufficiently interesting that I've listened to the conversation three times (podcast link, partial transcript and supporting reading here at Econtalk).

Why do democratic governments tend towards increasing complexity? I have thought of that as fundamentally an issue of the incentives that are built into the electoral system – particularly when professional lifetime politicians are permitted. The incentives are:

  • Get re-elected, keeping all the power that one has accumulated so far;
  • Re-election is enhanced by promising “I will do this and that for you”, therefore the politician keeps her promises by working to pass new laws, generally adding to the scale of the machinery of government.

The consequences are:

  • There is no incentive to eliminate complexity, to reduce the scale cost of the machinery.
  • Every new law that is passed creates an ecosystem of interests who will fight to protect the benefits they derive from the law.

There are a variety of different institutional designs that would inhibit these negative consequences. Unfortunately, now that “the foxes are in charge of the henhouse” any reforms that threaten the status quo interests are very unlikely to be politically feasible. Regarding the current US political system, two of the important concepts discussed are the legislative “veto points” which function as “toll booths” for the politicians to collect their toll in exchange for allowing legislation to pass through their veto point. In his National Affairs essay Teles describes this source of sluggish complexity:

The most obvious reason why American institutions generate policy complexity is our system's numerous veto points. The separation of powers means that any proposal must generate agreement at three different stages — each house of Congress and the president. But opportunities for vetoes turn out to be more extensive than the simple text of the Constitution would imply. Most legislation has to pass through separate subcommittee and committee stages, each of which presents opportunities for legislators to stymie action. Many ambitious proposals are considered by Congress under “multiple referrals,” in which more than one single committee is given jurisdiction. This multiplies the number of veto points, as we saw with the Affordable Care Act, which had to pass through five separate committees in Congress. Finally, the super-majority requirement for breaking a filibuster in the Senate, combined with the intense partisanship that accompanies most major policy reforms, means that any single member can stall the progress of a piece of legislation, and a cohesive minority can kill it.

A superficial analysis would predict that this proliferation of veto points would lead to inaction, generating a systematic libertarian bias. In practice, however, every veto point functions more like a toll booth, with the toll-taker able to extract a price in exchange for his willingness to allow legislation to keep moving. Most obviously, the toll-taker gets to add pork-barrel projects for his district or state in exchange for letting legislation move onto the next step. This increases the cost of legislation, even if, as John Ellwood and Eric Patashnik have argued, it might be a reasonable price to pay for greasing the wheels of a very complicated legislative machine.

But the price of multiple veto points is much larger than an accounting of pork-barrel projects would suggest. First, many of our legislative toll-takers have a vested interest in the status quo. In exchange for their willingness to allow a bill to proceed, therefore, they often require that legislation leave their favored programs safe from substantive changes. Consequently, new ideas have to be layered over old programs rather than replace them — the textbook definition of a policy kludge. Second, the need to gain consent from so many actors makes attaining any degree of policy coherence difficult at best. Finally, the enormous number of veto points that legislation must now pass through gives legislative strategists a strong incentive to pour everything they can into giant omnibus legislation. The multiplication of veto points, therefore, does not necessarily stop legislation from passing, but it does considerably raise its cost and, more importantly, its complexity.

How to get out of this mess?


New York City: uh oh


The Big Apple has been well run for 20 years. The mayor-elect promises change

We do not follow USA politics – better for the blood pressure that way. But a friend gifted us the 9 November Economist, so I flipped a few pages – finding a quite alarming article on the NYC mayoral election. Two decades ago NYC was a city that I dreaded having to visit on business. Now it is a thriving technology center, has much-improved public schools and some school choice. NYC has even become a desirable tourist destination. Some of that transformation is due to the steady and practical hand of 3-term mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Besides its traditional brainy industries—finance, property and the media—the city now has a thriving technology sector, which generates $30 billion in annual wages. Pay for tech workers is growing even as total pay on Wall Street has fallen (since so many bankers were laid off). Roche, a drugmaker, recently announced that it would move its biotech centre from New Jersey to Manhattan. Since 2007 Brooklyn’s tech cluster has grown faster than that of any large American county save San Francisco. Mr Bloomberg has given land and money to Cornell University and the Technion (an Israeli college) to develop an applied science campus, hoping that this will foster a start-up culture like Silicon Valley’s.

What is scary is that Bloomberg has been replaced by a public-service-union backed politician with zero executive experience. Let’s hope this guy turns out to be similar to London mayor Ken Livingstone. I.e., not as much a disaster as expected. 

Can the Bloomberg education reforms withstand the assault promised by a man bankrolled by teachers unions?

Before 2002, New York’s schools were in poor shape. More than a fifth of students dropped out of high school before graduating. Not one city public school was in New York state’s leading 25, says Mr Bloomberg; today 22 out of 25 are. Mr Bloomberg took control of the schools from a reactionary school board. He closed failing schools, opened smaller ones and allowed some charter schools (which are publicly funded but independently run) to operate. He made principals accountable for test scores and tried to make it easier to sack bad teachers. Overall, he made some progress. In 2003, 20.5% of New York’s pupils were proficient, or better, in maths on national tests; today 29.6% are. Charter schools in Harlem have done particularly well. But the unions hate them and Mr de Blasio means to curb them. Some 20,000 parents protested against his plans last month.

NYC was nowhere near “done” with transforming a dysfunctional, unaccountable school system to Finland standards. And the 1% won’t be touched by a reversion to typical US schools that are primarily in the business of making life comfortable for administrators (and to a much lesser extent, for teachers). The 1% send their kids to elite private schools. Meanwhile middle class hopes depend on what is available at public schools (and the lucky lottery winners, a tiny number access charter schools). And education is only one aspect of the better 2013 New York City.

Besides the unions, who voted for Bill de Blasio?

What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

If you get depressed by the low quality of media [and politicians], spend some time at The Edge:

It’s ever more delectable that the Edge Foundation— the network of prominent scientists and intellectuals founded by literary agent John Brockman in New York — has worked against the reciprocal ignorance of literary cultures and sciences of each other. Successfully. If you take the algorithms developed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, which measure the value of links, Edge’s website ranks seven on a global scale of ten. The New York Times ranks nine, eBay at eight. — Sueddeutche Zeitung


Was Saving the Chevy Cruze Worth $10 Billion?

Did America want to spend $10 billion to save the Chevy Cruze? That’s almost $200,000 for every worker still on GM’s assembly line. For that kind of money, you’d better like the cars an awful lot.

Megan McArdle sums up how much the American taxpayers paid to bail out the Detroit GM unions.  

 (…snip…) A lot of those decisions were driven not by management idiocy, but rather by the need to make cars at margins that could absorb their extremely high labor costs. Which meant, first, large cars that people paid a lot of money for, and second, small cars that had lower-quality components than their competitors.

Now that GM’s labor costs are closer to industry averages, it can afford to put better components in its cars. (…snip…)

In this short piece Megan does not have space to tally up all the costs of the union bailout. In particular the money owed to senior bondholders that was essentially stolen to pay off the unions. The rule of law does not always apply in the land of politics.

American politics: Morris Fiorina on Polarization and Stability

Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina is co-author of the book Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. Dr. Fiorina was interviewed by Russ Roberts for the 8 July Econtalk. Given that we invest nearly zero time on the study of politics, especially American politics, I’m not qualified to recommend resources. Nevertheless I recommend this interview – primarily because the media coverage interferes with any understanding of the workings of the US in particular. E.g., the “polarization and gridlock memes”. The real world is so much more nuanced and complex.

If you have too little time for the one hour podcast, try starting at 42:33 for the conclusion – including helpful discussion of red/blue states or districts.

If you are a political junkie, or simply motivated to access objective research on US politics, I highly recommend two other Stanford political scientists. Both have been interviewed several times on Econtalk:

David Brady, e.g., Brady on the State of the Electorate

Doug Rivers, e.g., Rivers on polling. Dr. Rivers is also an expert on polling (see e.g., YouGov.com). This particular podcast is an excellent primer on sophisticated polling – how to dig down to what people really believe – usually very different than reported by such as Gallup. E.g., if you do interactive polling where you first ask typical opinion questions, then expose the respondent to a few facts (such as costs), repeat the questions – then backing for the currently favored elite agenda often disappears.

Econtalk: Epstein on the Constitution

If you are at all interested in the evolution of the US Constitution then you will learn from this Econtalk where Russ Roberts interviews constitutional scholar Richard Epstein of New York University and Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

At around 52 minutes, following a summary of the constitutional history which lead to the creation of the fourth branch of government – the “Administrative State”, Richard Epstein said:

You can’t create wealth if all you are interested in doing is transferring from one party to another.

The transcript continues with this exchange:

Russ: Ah–a sigh. A long sigh.

52:35 Russ: It crosses my mind, as I ask the guests from time to time a variant of this question, that, we get the Constitution we deserve. You and I, we like the Constitution of 1787. Other people like the 1937 one or the 2007. And we don’t have many people that agree with us. So, there are these underlying political forces–again, all these ideas about theories of judicial interpretation, that’s just window dressing. What’s really going on is, the President nominates Supreme Court justices that are politically popular, and basically the ones that are politically popular, because the President wants to be politically popular, and his party wants to be popular, are going to be justices that don’t have the “right theory” of the Constitution, but who open the door to laws, legislation, that most people want. And what most people want is a more active Federal government.

Epstein: (…snip…) Most people want–I think most people want a more active Federal government to advance the particular cause that they champion and a smaller Federal government with respect to all those things which harm them so greatly. And so what happens is you still can get large numbers of people who will quote to you Gerald Ford when he says to you: the government is big enough to give you everything you want; it’s big enough to take away everything that you have.

And most people straddle that particular kind of an insight. So they don’t know which side they are on. But that’s why these academic debates, so called, are so absolutely important. Because quite simply, the stakes are enormous. It’s very clear that there is no sort of automatic guardian of the public welfare that sits outside of human beings, by divine origin or divine power to structure these things, so what you have to do is to change the climate of opinion in the hopes that once you do that, you’ll be able to change the input of the judges on the Court. And remember, it is very common for justices on the U.S. Supreme Court to shift one way or another. Harry Blackmun started out in some sense as a Nixon appointee, and he does the abortion cases because he worked for the Mayo Clinic, and by God, by the time he’s done he’s a member of the liberal faction. Indeed, if you look at the Supreme Court there are many conservative Presidents who appointed liberal justices. I think I did a rough calculation once that between, say, 1956 and 2005, roughly speaking, what you could say was that each year on average there were three justices appointed to the Supreme Court by conservative presidents who turned out to have deeply liberal sentiments.

Russ: My theory of that is they like to go to good parties. So, after you’ve been in Washington for a while, and most people are not like you, you think: Well, this isn’t any fun. 

This is a very information dense interview. I’ll have to listen at least a couple more times to absorb it all.