02 September 2014

Time to rename the Rust Belt?

In End of Abundance, I wrote:
In 1840, Americans lived where it rained. By 1990, there was no connection between population and precipitation.* Why? Infrastructure projects brought water to arid regions, and people moved from wet cold areas to dry warm areas. Once they got there, they found that water was also abundant and cheap. Their demand for water grew to include lifestyle uses — for lawns, swimming pools, long showers and washing the car and driveway.

In other words, water projects increased population in dry areas (extensive demand), and cheap water increased water consumption in these areas (intensive demand).
It's pretty obvious to most people that the damage/threat/danger from the current southwestern drought is the result of too many people living in a region with vulnerable and variable water resources (JW Powell wrote about this potential problem in 1879!). It's also obvious that climate change is going to make matters worse in the future.

This metric means that people in the region have two choices: spend much more money to live with less water or leave the area for wetter places. I am sure that the former will happen -- one billion dollar desalination plant and crop disaster at a time -- but the latter intrigues me, as an option that will make environmental and economic sense.

So now I want to know how you would rename "the Sun Belt" that people are leaving for "the Rust Belt" that promises a better life. Ideas?
* Beeson, P. E., DeJong, D. N., and Troesken, W. (2001). Population Growth in US Counties, 1840-1990. Regional Science and Urban Economics, 31(6):669–699.

01 September 2014

Monday funnies

Another mighty cultural export from the US of A!

(Does "celebrate on the next level" mean a level up or down?)

Speed blogging

  1. A photo essay from "the wettest place on Earth"

  2. Department of uh-oh: "Pennsylvania [finally] reveals over 200 cases of fracking-related contamination." I'm guessing that most of these are related to sloppy exploration and production, but definitely a sign that regulations and enforcement are less important than jobs money

  3. The World Bank's 300 page book, Who Benefits from Utility Subsidies [pdf] conducts a detailed analysis and concludes that "the vast majority of utility subsidies practiced today are regressive." Policy recommendations include emphasis on connecting people to the grid, subsidizing only a small quantity of consumption, and shifting subsidies out of utilities and into other social programs (e.g., education, health, etc.). The book is from 2005, but the message is for now

  4. Reality check: "California has allocated five times more surface water than the state actually has." We've known this for years. Time to retire some "rights" to protect the environment and improve the use of "wet" rights

  5. Groundwater in the Tigris/Euphrates region (Turkey, Syria, Iraq) is being depleted rapidly, which can only mean more environmental, social and economic stress for people already facing violence. Related: Iran's Urmia (the largest lake in the region) is drying up due to diversion of water from the rivers that feed it. Another example (like the Aral Sea and Dead Sea) of the eco-catastrophe resulting from cheap irrigation

30 August 2014

Flashback: 25-31 Aug 2013

A year later and still worth reading...

29 August 2014

Friday party!

Now THIS is a drop! (Skip the first 30 sec if you're in a hurry :)

Do we have a RIGHT to use too much water?

After my radio interview with (libertarian) talk show host Bob Zadek (57 min), I got this email:
Are you aware of this document? Looks like the end game of the UN Environmentalists is 26 gallons per person per day worldwide, in the name of “sustainable development” and “smart growth”.
I replied:
I don't read it as you do,* but I agree with its principles. In places where water is scarce (i.e., NOT Chicago or Seattle), then it's a good idea to limit withdrawals for lawns (100 liters is PLENTY for indoor use) because of the environmental benefits to everyone.

Current water consumption is not, btw, a "property right" as the right to use is determined by public policy. That can (and should) switch to rebalance back from the over-consumption that was policy in the "water running to the sea is wasted" era. We know now that "ecosystem services" keep fisheries alive, clean water, prevent floods and balance droughts. We can replace those services, but at 10x the cost, so it's efficient to "reduce waste" IF you want a high quality of life.
I interpret her subsequent silence as agreement ;)
* Action 19: Develop policies to increase adequate access to safe drinking water, aiming at access for all by 2015. For cities with potable water consumption greater than 100 liters per capita per day, adopt and implement policies to reduce consumption by ten per cent by 2015

28 August 2014

Anything but water

"Green" festivals with discarded reusables are not
  1. Truth: "You show me a polluter, I'll show you a subsidy; I'll show you a fat cat who's using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and force the public to pay his production costs. That's what all pollution is -- it is always a subsidy." --Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

  2. I talk about "reality" quite often but Mike Munger has expressed it elegantly, as the quest for Unicorn Governance, i.e., "people who favor expansion of government imagine a State different from the one possible in the physical world"

  3. The New Yorker takes apart Vandana Shiva for her irrational opposition to the GMOs, i.e., "She is a demagogue who opposes the universal values of the Enlightenment."

  4. An overview of the legality and use of drugs (marijuana) in Amsterdam

  5. Increasing gas prices to grow the economy, by changing relative prices and incomes

27 August 2014

Writing versus winning

I've used peer review/grading in several of my classes because I think it gives students a different perspective (from mine) on their work.

I think the process leads students to...
  • write differently -- and perhaps more carefully
  • get more written feedback than I can provide
  • learn from their peers' writing and perspectives
  • improve their skills when critiquing others' work
These benefits bring some additional costs. The most obvious is the extra paperwork and sorting that I need to do, to move the process along. The most dangerous is students' perception that their peers are being unfair to them.

Thsi is how the system used to work:
  1. Each author's essay is given to three peers
  2. Each peer ranks the three different essays they get as A, B or C
  3. Peers then give written feedback to accompany their ranks
  4. Authors then rank the quality of the peers' feedback as A, B or C
This system ensures that the "average" essay gets a B at the same time as it removes the problem of subjective awarding of points (one student would give A, A and B; another B, C and C).

Although I worried about students who complained to me that their peers were being unfair (or even sabotaging them, to help themselves in a roundabout way), I told them that three grades from peers should help reduce bias, on average.

But I also underestimated two problems. The first was a propensity for authors to give bad ranks to peers in exchange for bad ranks. We reduced this problem by separating ranks from the written critiques. The second was the potential for a peer to write a review that justified their rank.* Such an action would lead to flowery reports for the A essay and brutal reports for the C essay.** Indeed, I had seen examples of terrible comments given to essays that didn't deserve them.

Luckily for my students, LUC's policy forbids peer grading, which forced me to rethink and reform the process into a better structure. What's interesting is that it's nearly the same as the system peer-reviewed journals use: A paper goes to three peers, who write anonymous critiques that the editor uses to decide whether to accept or reject the paper.***

I will therefore use a peer-review process that's modified in three ways. First, I'll ask peers to give constructive criticism (e.g., "what did they miss, how can they improve, what did you learn?"). Second, I will grade peers on the quality of their critiques (journals do not do this, formally). Third, I will end the process with the Author's grade, rather than another revision.

Bottom Line: Students will help each other more if they are graded on the quality of the help rather than their rationalization for a grade they may not even want to give.

* Cornelia pointed this out, and it's obvious in hindsight. I assumed students would read and critique and THEN rank, but the need to give A, B or C meant that students would rank first, justify later.
** Psychologists have shown that people are clever in rationalizing pretty much any involuntary situation as the outcome of free choice.
*** The most common move is in-between, i.e., "revise and resubmit" for potential acceptance or rejection.

26 August 2014

Sadly appropriate

Do water subsidies help SMALL farmers?

MH emails:
I have a question that has come up in my conversations with a friend (who is actually a libertarian, but I guess not on this issue) about water.

He claims that subsidized water in California is necessary for small farmers to make a profit. If the price of water increases, it will only hurt the small farmers and not big agribusiness. I tried to explain that someone has to absorb the cost of water (infrastructure, transportation, negative externalities etc.) but he kept returning to the idea that without these subsidies for small farmers, it would put an entire sector of the economy out of work, while raising prices for fresh produce.

My response was if you are growing a crop that is not profitable without government subsidies (say rice), you should stop growing it. Though, to me, this seems logical, it also seems heartless, especially towards small farmers. My friend works for a small, organic, sustainable farm and knows from experience the value of cheap water for their survival.

What say you on this dilemma?
In response, I wrote:
I disagree with your friend.
  1. Subsidies goto people who are organized enough to GET them, via paperwork, political lobbying, etc. Small farmers are often too busy to "get subsidies"
  2. Assuming EVERYONE has access to "cheap" water, larger farmers will see a greater share of their costs in water, since they've minimized capital costs, management costs, etc. per ton of production. That means a 20% increase in water prices will raise total costs by a larger share than it would for a small farmer who is less efficient and/or has a larger share of costs from other inputs.
  3. Small farmers are better able to adjust (different crop mix) than larger farmers with big fixed operations (think almond orchard), which gives them more flexibility.
Now I agree that some organic farms struggle and that "they need all the help they can get," but I think cheap water helps the COMPETITION stay in business, which lowers prices to small farmers.

So, I'd predict that expensive water would hurt large farmers and help small farmers.
What do you think?