31 October 2012

How to make academics useful: open access

Watch this excellent explanation of the problem:



Anything but water

  1. Very important USDA study:
    researchers set up three plots: one replicated the typical Midwestern cycle of planting corn one year and then soybeans the next, along with its routine mix of chemicals. On another, they planted a three-year cycle that included oats; the third plot added a four-year cycle and alfalfa. The longer rotations also integrated the raising of livestock, whose manure was used as fertilizer.The results were stunning: The longer rotations produced better yields of both corn and soy, reduced the need for nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides by up to 88 percent, reduced the amounts of toxins in groundwater 200-fold and didn’t reduce profits by a single cent.
  2. Learning from how smart people think and lessons for success from psychopaths (but why the US is being taken over by them?). Jesus Camp, meanwhile, made me sad to see kids getting brainwashed due to not learning critical thinking due to a desire to conform to their parents' beliefs at the same time as their parents are their (home school) teachers; and made it easier for me to understand why evangelical Christians see no problem with the environmental "going to hell" -- because they -- and only they -- plan to get sucked up by God before it matters. Damn.

  3. The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy to Lie About Climate Change Has Worked (i.e., science defeated by propaganda).

  4. Perhaps the Arab Spring (and "Fall of the Wall") was an example of where learned helplessness (at the hands of fascists) tipped into challenging authority that was built on a foundation of sand. Listen to this podcast [mp3] on learned helplessness, which may also apply to our confidence in the economy.

  5. In case you were wondering:



    Oh, and there's a lot of misperceptions of libertarians as laissez-faire fans of natural selection who don't care about others (in reference to Paul Ryan's fanfare for Ayn Rand), but that's wrong. (I'd also say it's wrong about Rand, since she was more worried about the sins of collectivism and fascism than the actions of free individuals.)
H/T to BB

30 October 2012

It's not as simple as selling books

Many people ask me to comment on statements made by journalists covering the water sector. Most of the time, I am happy to see journalists covering water issues, since they tend to promote awareness of the need to change our ways, but there are two big exceptions. The first is when a lazy journalist fails to see that water shortages are not caused by a failure to rain as much as a failure (of managers) to keep demand below supply. In those cases, I often leave comments or send emails to correct them, hoping that they look a little deeper in the future.

The second problem is much more dangerous: a journalist posing as an expert.

But what does it take to be an "expert"? Well, it doesn't mean you need a PhD or need to spend years studying the topic. You need a decent framework that explains causes and effects within local institutions that also matches the knowledge and intuition of those who have lived with the situation for many years.

Journalists can certainly explain the causes of a problem, how to resolve it, and why resolution may not be occurring. That's why I admire the work of Fred Pearce and Cynthia Barnett, for example.

But then we run into journalists who turn a few shallow anecdotes into a problem that can be "solved" in ways that won't work. Although some of these journalists are sloppy (see above), others intentionally over-reach because they are making money.

I'm going to name two here (with specific examples) because I want to call attention to their need to do a better job in their jobs as "experts" (I'm not saying anything about their work as journalists) and our need to bring an appropriately critical perspective to their opinions.

Why is this post important? People with limited attention rely on "prime time" outlets rather than study complex problems. That means that mistakes in those outlets can lead to an abundance of bad decisions.

So, that's a preamble for why we need to care about journalists' accuracy, but let me also also clarify why I -- as an academic -- feel a need to correct their contributions to public discourse. It turns out to be more complicated than "that's what academics do."

As you know, I've been giving my opinion on water policy for many years, writing on this blog, giving public talks, holding discussions with experts and stakeholders, and so on. In most circumstances, I combine my knowledge of economics, a familiarity with facts, and a sensitivity to other perspectives into an opinion on what I consider the "right" thing to do.

Economists say that I do "normative economics," i.e., the economics of what should be, but most economists practice what's called "positive economics," i.e., the economics of what is. These positive economists may carry out research describing the connection between water service and child mortality, or measuring the efficiency of water markets or the impact of new water tariffs on consumption behavior. I go further, using these results to advocate for policy changes.

In that sense, I am not an academic concerned with the details of reality as much as a pundit* promising to deliver a future to those who follow my advice. I am not alone in that, and thus we arrive at the problem of identifying who's right, a problem that is often ignored because people standing on high are more often believed than people standing on firm ground.

It's well-known, for example, that there are two ways to become a famous blogger: be famous or work hard.

This definition will raise a warning signal to those interested in maximizing the quality of debate. There may be, for example, hundreds of people qualified to advise on improving urban water management, but these people may not get as much attention as a single tweet from Madonna ("OMG, I'm no virgin, but showering in recycled toilet water? Yuck. Gimme NATURAL water").

That tweet will be heard by many. Most will ignore it, but others will change their opinion about recycled water. In the resulting debate over indirect potable reuse, experts are buried under an onslaught of collective ignorance, the motion to recycle water is denied, and the utility continues to overpump a river full of wastewater into the drinking water system -- to the future regret of everyone.

The problem of short and clever vs 78 pages and precise is widespread. We see it in political debates, cocktail chatter, and the know-it-all friends with the same solution to every problem (some variation of education, regulation or markets).

These opinions may be 50, 70 or even 90 percent right, but they tend to leave out caveats, qualifications and limitations that can render the opinion irrelevant or counterproductive. The trouble comes when readers and listeners assume the opinion is 100 percent right -- perhaps more right than even the author would admit, given his attempt to present the essence of a complex idea while still understanding its limitations.

That's why academics can provide a useful service by recognizing the limits to what they know or can claim and explaining how complex systems are neither simple enough to understand nor manipulate. Academics, in short, are trained to be humble with their ideas.**

So what can we learn from academics?
  1. Take the position of the other side, to understand and address their objections. This process means that you will need to either admit or correct your weaknesses.

  2. Contextualize your idea within the conditions where it is appropriate while acknowledging that those conditions are not universal.

  3. Think very carefully about how your idea will interact with existing policies, taking into account the ways that people have tried to deal with the problem -- or not -- in the past.
Now, after all that long introduction and context, let me get to the journalists whose opinions are not expert in a few recent pieces.

In my review of Charles Fishman's Big Thirst, I said "his journalistic style was too breezy." Indeed, his op/eds at National Geographic and the New York Times are oversimplified and misleading. In the former, he omits the facts that Ireland has charged residential users for water in the past and that non-residential users pay for metered water. Besides these omissions, which make his claims sound more significant than they are, he forgets (or does not know) that meters are not always cost-efficient to install and that customers always pay for meters, either up-front or in the long run. In his NYT piece, Fishman's "obvious" command and control "solutions" have been tried in many places. In some they work, in others they are inefficient from a cost or water perspective. He also omits the more fundamental discussion of why other, more effective actions are not taken (raising water prices in Las Vegas, for example) -- an omission that makes me wonder if he's looked any deeper than press releases and speeches by water managers and politicians. Journalists sometimes get a little over-used to dealing with the contents of the box they are given instead of looking outside the box -- a job that academics (and activists) are accustomed to executing. His over-simplified perspective may sell books, but his solutions are more likely to be counterproductive than useful.

Frederick Kaufman expresses a fear of water markets in Nature and Wired magazines that is straight out of science fiction: global water markets in which derivatives allow traders to hedge shortage in Kazakstan with grain production in Australia by borrowing against wetlands in Canada. His working hypothesis is weak on many levels. I responded to his Nature piece and Wired interview with several comments, but these will do here:
  • Water is NOT EVEN CLOSE to fungible. Are you kidding about "icebergs and aquifers" as interchangeable? Go get $1 of tap water (about one cubic meter) and then move it to the other side of the room. Hard to do? Sure, since 1,000 liters weighs one ton. Water systems — let alone markets — will NEVER be integrated like oil, gold or computer ship markets because the costs of transactions are so high.
  • The greatest distortions in the efficient use of water are caused by political interference. In this sense, bad water management is the same as bad financial management, but don't blame markets for bailing out "too big to fail" fools or failing to get water to efficient farmers or taps in poor countries. Blame politicians.
  • Water markets have been VERY useful in reducing water waste and directing water from the powerful and rich to the poor and powerless - because the rich are getting water at a lower price than the poor are willing to pay...
Go read these pieces and ask yourself: Do these guys know what they are talking about? Should politicians and citizens turn their views and ideas into policies for managing our water? More fundamentally, remember that some people put out uneven work (I know I do). These pieces may not represent the norm for these guys (I sure hope not), but they risk damaging reputations built on solid work that combines relevant facts into a plausible narrative to explain how a situation arose and how it might be improved.

No matter your answer, please leave comments here (or there) to tell me and them what we got right or wrong.

Bottom Line: Journalists can cause a lot of damage when they misdiagnose problems, offer the wrong solution and appeal to fear, uncertainty and dread. What they need to do -- and what I try to do -- is explain the facts and barriers to change before suggesting gradual reforms to improve our water management.

* "Pundit" comes from "pandit," a Hindi word for a scholar or teacher who has mastered a topic (classically Sanskrit language, vedic scriptures, Hindu law, etc.) under a guru. This definition could be applied to any "doctor of philosophy," since PhD programs are designed to impart mastery over a topic to a student under supervision. I wouldn't be surprised if pandits were also supposed to possess wisdom, a characteristic not required of PhDs.

** I may be giving academics too much credit, as many of them disregard their training when it comes to arguing that their opinion is right "because I have a PhD." Academics, OTOH, are routinely absent from debates in which they could make a useful contribution, due to a combination of shyness (PhDs are known for long hours of study not extroversion), professional incentives (professional publication is more important than social impact), and aversion to debate with non-academics who may neither respect their credentials nor engage in "structured fair play."

H/Ts to JB, DE, DH, RM and MV

Addendum: Ed Dolan does a great job summarizing and contextualizing this post.

29 October 2012

Monday funnies

SW sent this, which may apply to a few other water utilities (seem familiar?)



Connecting the dots

Last week, I wrote that San Diego should not build a desalination plant because its $900 million cost ($3.3. billion if you instead count the cost of buying its water) was a waste of money compared to alternatives such as reducing demand and/or reforming water governance in Southern California (there's plenty of water, but no market for redistributing it).*

Last week, I also wrote:
"Israel’s agriculture sector is set to receive a 25 million cubic meter increase in water supply in 2013... thanks to the country’s growing desalination program and its improved rainfall in 2012." In other words, desalination will NOT free water for Palestinians or the Jordan River. It will allow farmers to use MORE water.
Now I read (yet again) that the Dead Sea is dropping at a record rate, due to water diversions from the (way-overengineered) Jordan River. One "solution" is to build a $10 billion desalination project (the Red-Dead project) to try to bring more fresh water to Amman and more salty water to the Dead Sea.

So, the Israelis are redirecting the Jordan River water they used in cities to their farmers, while the Jordanians (with LOTS of foreign money) are going to try to make up for that reduction in Jordan water by spending $10 billion?

Why not direct $5 billion to Israeli farmers, to get them to stop using Jordan River water?** Both sides will make or save money, but that won't happen until Israelis stop looking out for themselves and leaving their neighbors with dust.

Bottom Line: The "solution" to poor governance is not more money. That money is wasted, since the problems of poor governance will come back and hit you from another direction.
* BP sent this article describing how people in SD use 180 gcd, with some using nearly 600 gcd -- mostly for their gardens acreage.

** Israeli agriculture employs between 3 and 9 percent of the population, provides about 3 percent of agricultural activity (about $6 billion) and 90-95 percent of the food consumed in the country (imports and exports are about equal). Does Israel need to produce food "for security"? No.

27 October 2012

Flashback: 21 - 27 Oct

A year later and still worth a read...

Dumb or smart China? is trying to dominate the desalination industry. I don't see much sign of that on the innovation front, but perhaps on installations?

Real time water quality monitoring -- anyone have good examples of this in operation? Is it making a difference?

A simple theory of regulations -- still and will apply for many years to come. On a related note, consider the failure that results from hubris, i.e., Solutions when THE solution is the problem

26 October 2012

Friday party!

So you think you know Africa Jamaica? Watch this. Often.

Anything but water

THIS is how to have dinner with friends
  1. Ties Rijcken, an engineer friend of mine, wrote an excellent essay [pdf] on "wabi," or the ways in which we can balance nature and technology. Such balance can be efficient at the same time as it's sustainable and beautiful. Read it.

  2. UC Davis settled its lawsuits on that incident of police brutality via pepper spraying innocent students for $1 million. The cop who did it, and his chief, were fired. I'm not sure the settlement fixes the poor reputation of police (they've always been a little trigger happy), but it's nice to see SOME repercussions.

  3. Economists can oversimplify things to the point of uselessness, but sometimes they do so in entertaining ways, e.g., the MONIAC analogue computer that used fluidic logic [water flows!] to model the workings of an economy.

  4. WTF + wise quotes = wisdom tha fuck [NSFW]

  5. Hint: If you're running research projects and worry about PIs double- or triple-dipping that leads to lots of money for no effort, then limit them to one project per CV (hear that NIH, NSF and EU?). I know it will work in some places...
H/T to RM

25 October 2012

How to plan for floods

This picture (via TR) from the Netherlands shows how they are leaving space for the river to food. No riverfront property, sure, but also no mud in the living room.


Speed blogging -- Ooska news edition

I have a complimentary subscription to this useful newsletter [$$$]. These quotations from recent stories are lightly edited for clarity:
  1. "European Union auditors reviewed 23 projects in six [African] nations and found that in many cases, the projects were not sustainable and fewer than half were meeting the needs of beneficiaries, citing poor long-term financial and technical support."

  2. "The ongoing economic crisis, and the very high price for scrap metal, have led to an increase in theft of metal pipes that presents a serious threat to the security of fresh and wastewater networks in Ukraine."

  3. "The Karachi Water and Sewerage Board has shut down all water hydrants in the city in a bid to stop water theft... utility service officials must have been involved in the illegal activity."

  4. "Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki fired Livestock and Development Assistant Minister Dhadho Godhana for inciting violence between pastoral and farming communities along the Tana River Delta that has taken the lives of an estimated 112 people."

  5. "Some 17,000 people have been displaced by floodwaters in northern Cameroon. Continuous rainfall and the release of enormous quantities of water from the Ladgo Dam caused the Benue River to burst its banks, flooding neighboring residential areas... there are also fears that the artificial lake there, initially constructed for rice irrigation, could collapse."

  6. "Israel’s agriculture sector is set to receive a 25 million cubic meter increase in water supply in 2013... thanks to the country’s growing desalination program and its improved rainfall in 2012." In other words, desalination will NOT free water for Palestinians or the Jordan River. It will allow farmers to use MORE water.

24 October 2012

Dealing with the water-energy nexus

SS observes:
My experience with the energy crowd (DOE, etc.) is that they make assumptions about water availability (there's always enough) and price (it's low enough to be negligible for whatever thermoelectric monstrosities we'd want to build) -- both of which may be bad assumptions. That kind of ignorance on the part of the DOE is what allows them to be seduced by corn growers, nuclear power generators, and others, and what allows them to sign off on projects that have no business being built in certain communities/watersheds. At a very high level, directives will come down saying that we need to pursue a, for instance, "low carbon future" and water be damned. There have been quite a few power plant permits that have been denied recently as a matter of public awareness and uncertain water supplies, which seems like a step in the right direction. I'd like to see the power industry avoid those places from the outset because high water prices would keep the project from being economical, but we're nowhere near that.

If both energy and water were priced correctly (and neither are!) I agree that we wouldn't need the two sectors to share notes, but how do you push it in that direction without waiting for emergencies? What is Step 1?
Step 1: Do you have rights to your water source? Is your consumption sustainable? If yes and yes, then proceed.

SDCWA must be desperate if they're this stupid

An update from my post yesterday:

The San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) responded to a letter [pdf] from the Independent Rate Oversight Committee (IROC) by writing a pleading letter [pdf] to their sugar daddy, the Mayor of San Diego (and fan of desalination), Jerry Sanders.

In their letter, SDCWA makes some astonishing statements:
Q: Many of the details of the proposed agreement were not yet available

All terms of the proposed Carlsbad Desalination Project Public-Private Partnership are delineated in exacting detail in the Water Purchase Agreement (WPA).
Not quite. The WPA has LOTS of words, but those words do not specify the implications of what happens if various problems arise. FAIL.
Q: ...the Public Utilities Department (PUD) did not have enough information on the proposed agreement to be able to provide IROC with more than a vague estimate of the impact on San Diego water ratepayers.

...the Water Authority Board of Directors is expected to approve at its November meeting the selection of a firm to prepare a Cost of Service Study as part of its 2014 rate-setting process. Therefore, if the Board approves the WPA [on 29 Nov 2012], it will also provide direction for incorporating the cost of desalination into the rate structure, which will be evaluated during the Cost of Service Study... The Cost of Service Study for the 2014 rates will be completed by May 31, 2013, and the study will also determine the allocation of costs for the desalination project, which will be incorporated into the rate structure and added to rates and charges in fiscal year 2015-2016.
So, wait. SDCWA will sign the WPA in 2012 and then inform its member agencies (including the City of San Diego) how it will allocate the $3.2 billion in costs from desalination in 2013? That's a pretty interesting order of doing things! MASSIVE FAIL.
Q: Investors are demanding a very high rate of return to finance this project....

For the Carlsbad desalination project, the Water Authority has targeted a 9.45 percent internal rate of return for the Equity Return Charge component of the water unit price. It is important to note that 82% of the project’s capital cost will be financed through tax exempt Private Activity Bonds and Municipal Purpose Bonds as a direct pass through to the Water Authority at currently historic low interest rates to the benefit of all ratepayers. No profit is earned on this portion of the project’s financing. Poseidon’s return on investment may be higher or lower depending upon their performance and efficiency. If the project is completed on time and budget, if it consistently meets the Water Authority’s demand for desalinated water, and if it is operated efficiently, we estimate Poseidon could achieve an actual return between 10 percent and 13 percent.
That seems a pretty good return to me, given that Poseidon will neither design, build nor operate a project that has a guaranteed income over 30 years. What's the yield on your savings account now? 0.25 percent? Why is Poseidon getting 10-13 percent selling water to SDCWA? FAIL

Bottom Line: It's not illegal to sign a stupid contract, but it will cost you.

Mismanaged religious resources

In this Circle of Blue interview (via RM), Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) and the Las Vegas Valley Water District (LVVWD), says:
Q: There is a lot of talk about pricing water and valuing water to promote conservation and efficiency. What’s the most valuable thing we can do nationally to bring attention to water and these big challenges?

Pat Mulroy: You know, I’ve given obviously — especially over the last, well since the economic downturn — a lot of thought over water pricing. And we in the water business stand back, and we become amazed that somebody is willing to pay $US 80, $US 90, $US 100 for their cable bill, to pay that much for their cell phone bill, but they’re not willing to pay $14.90 for their water bill. And I have sat through any number of discussions in this country that I think are foundational to why that is: people believe that water is a basic human right, and so they don’t view it in the same — and it’s a visceral reaction, I don’t think very many people have intellectualized that, I think it’s a visceral reaction — they feel you owe them that water supply. What they’re paying for is the infrastructure. Anybody in southern Nevada, if they wanted to, and this has been one of the greatest, one of my tag lines going around the community during rate increases: “Yeah, you have a basic human right to water. Here’s your bucket, you can go down to Lake Mead, and you can take all the water out of Lake Mead that you want. But you don’t have the basic human right to have that water treated to an absolute guaranteed safe standard, delivered to your home in whatever quantities you want to use.”

So water lives in two universes. It lives in this real gray, difficult-to-quantify, emotional realm of, “I can’t live without it, so I have a right to it.” And this, “We’ve commoditized it.” So I push back every time somebody wants to put dollar values on the resource of water. We put a dollar value on the infrastructure of water. We have to find a new way to describe the value of the resource itself. And I’ve been looking for that magic way to describe it, and I haven’t found it yet. And so, these economic conversations about water, you know, I hear water is the next century’s gold, and I just cringe. I mean, these are people who only understand the economic silo, and they don’t understand the fiber and the character of the resource they’re talking about. We can live without oil. We can live without gas. We wouldn’t like it, but we could live without electricity. We can survive as individuals — we can’t survive without water. So it takes on a whole different dimension. It’s embedded in our religions, it’s embedded in everything we do. So the challenge to me is finding that new description of what that value of water is. And it’s got to be described in human terms.
Hey Pat, I've got some magic for you. Water is a scarce natural resource, and we need to limit demand to within sustainable supplies. If we use too much of this "religious, human" element, then we're screwed.

You've had 20 years to get this right, but you're still challenged, so I'll help you out.

If you want to build a human religious house in Las Vegas (a church or mosque, say), then you need to pay for land, right? You need to pay a market price for land, a price that reflects the competing demands for the use of that land. Well, do you bitch and moan about how expensive it is? Do you ask for that land for free? No, you PAY FOR IT because it's valuable to you. Then you build your church or mosque and worship away.

It's the same with water. If you want scarce water, then PAY FOR IT. Water managers who give away that scarce resource for free are not water managers, they are water mismanagers, and the only result you can predict is misallocation of scarce resources and a future without the water we need.

Amen.

23 October 2012

The wisdom of Thomas Sowell

Both my dad and I wish that more people would consider his thoughts before voting:
  • The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.

  • No one will really understand politics until they understand that politicians are not trying to solve our problems. They are trying to solve their own problems — of which getting elected and re-elected are number one and number two. Whatever is number three is far behind.

  • There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs.

  • It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.

  • The problem isn't that Johnny can't read. The problem isn't even that Johnny can't think. The problem is that Johnny doesn't know what thinking is; he confuses it with feeling.

  • One of the consequences of such notions as "entitlements" is that people who have contributed nothing to society feel that society owes them something, apparently just for being nice enough to grace us with their presence.

  • Weighing benefits against costs is the way most people make decisions — and the way most businesses make decisions, if they want to stay in business. Only in government is any benefit, however small, considered to be worth any cost, however large.

  • One of the common failings among honorable people is a failure to appreciate how thoroughly dishonorable some other people can be, and how dangerous it is to trust them.

  • It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.

  • People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.

  • Both free speech rights and property rights belong legally to individuals, but their real function is social, to benefit vast numbers of people who do not themselves exercise these rights.

  • And my favorite: If you have been voting for politicians who promise to give you goodies at someone else's expense, then you have no right to complain when they take your money and give it to someone else, including themselves.

Will San Diego make the desalination mistake?

Poseidon Resources has been lobbying to build a desalination plant in Carlsbad (San Diego County), California for around a decade, and I've been skeptical of that proposal (earlier posts) -- mostly because water consumption in San Diego is still quite high (ranging from 100-300 gallons/capita/day; compare that number to Sydney or Melbourne at 50 gcd!).

It makes more economical and environmental sense, in other words, for San Diego to reduce its demand before going for more supply (this year-old analysis of their supply alternatives [pdf] lists desalination at $1,600/af but that cost is now up to $2,000+/af).

But San Diego politicians are not thinking in terms of environmental or economic sustainability. They are at war with the Metropolitan Water District over imported water and in alliance with property developers who want more supply to build more subdivisions. (It's ironic, in fact, that SD leaders worry about the burden of paying too much for more water imported from Met via the Delta [pdf] when they are prepared to throw caution to the wind for a local "solution.")

Those are just some preliminary comments and opinions based on my observations over the past 7-8 years, but there are some new developments that make these comments even more relevant.

First, the San Diego Country Water Authority is thinking of signing a 30-year water purchase agreement to buy water from Poseidon, an agreement that will make it possible for Poseidon to borrow money from the State of California (!) for constructing the plant.

Second, that agreement does not specify how much equity ("skin in the game") Poseidon will bring to the table in financing the $900 million project, but it DOES specify how much money Poseidon will receive for "overseeing" a project that it will neither design, nor construct, nor operate.

Third, it appears that SDCWA will pay about $3.2 billion over 30 years for water that will be twice as expensive as its existing water supplies from Met. Given the industry-norm of charging average cost for water, that means that SDCWA will be selling water it buys for $2,000 per af for about $1,200 per af. Try swinging that business model past Wall Street. (The Independent Rate Oversight Committee sure doesn't like it! [pdf])

Fourth, you should read my 6-page analysis of the water purchase agreement (all 550 pages of what-the-hell-are-these-lawyers-saying!?!). The Surfrider Foundation paid me to prepare it, but -- as usual -- I acted as a consultant with a conscience: I put my original opinions in that report, since I am paid for honesty and accuracy, not groupthink. But read it for yourself.

Bottom Line: San Diego should not build a desalination plant because it would be an expensive non-solution to water reliability problems that are actually caused by poor management of regional water at Metropolitan and a failure to restrict demand to sustainable levels.

22 October 2012

Monday funnies

This (all one face, that of the artist) is wild:

Anything but water

  1. The drug war has failed THIS badly:



    Listen to this interesting (Canadian!) radio show on drug policy in North America, including a (retarded) defense of current laws by an Obama-policy wonk who says "yes, alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana, but we have a cultural tradition of allowing people to use alcohol." So much for evidence-based policy!

  2. A brilliant example (via AT) of how "pure academics" don't understand the power of blogs (to show them wrong).

  3. Private education in developing countries is booming, but aid bureaucrats prefer to fund (inefficient) government-run schools. FAIL.

  4. Click here if you've ever found that your "final" draft wasn't!

  5. This explanation of "Jewish time" provides a really cool reconciliation of physical (actual) time and religious (god) time. Christians need to read it.

19 October 2012

Friday party!

In case you think you have a tough life...

Speed blogging

  1. "Pricing water resources to finance their sustainable management" [pdf] gives a decent overview of the issues and some data on practices.

  2. ER notified me of SB 2109 (Kyl/McCain), which would have quantified Navaho and Hopi water rights (among other factors) in the Arizona region. That bill was controversial in those communities and appears to be dead. That's a pity, since unquantified Native American rights (rights superior to all other rights) cast uncertainty over water activities in the region.

  3. Great example of politicians (in India) creating a water fight to pose as populist defenders of their constituents. Too bad the are creating, instead of ending, conflict. Semi-related is this paper on "private tankers" delivering water in Delhi.

  4. "The [A$3.5 billion Melbourne] desal plant looks like being one of the fanciest and most monumental white elephants ever to grace the PPP landscape..." since the dams are now full of water but the plant costs $500 million per year to NOT run. For more on how to structure private-public partnerships, read this paper.

  5. Although it's hard to invest in "water," it's not so bad to invest in companies that treat/deliver water where abundance is gone.
H/Ts to DL, RM and ER

18 October 2012

Water wars webinar

Tomorrow we will meet for the last webinar covering chapters from my book. (We're going to continue "aguanomics discussions" on Google Hangout.)

This chapter -- water wars -- covers conflict over water -- or the lack thereof. I will explain how conflicts do not arise over water as much as manipulations by politicians seeking to enhance their power.

Please bring your ideas, questions and stories to the session, which will start at 9am Pacific (get the time in your location and test your connection here).

We'll meet at this URL. The archive of past webinars is here.

Speling iz ignst mah belivs!

(via RM) Missouri has passed a law that says "no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs."

Here are some comments people have made on the law:
  • Don't pray in my school and I won't think in your church.
  • This is the only country, aside from the Ayatollahs, in which a bunch of right-wing ignorant hypocrites are able to dictate whether a student should know the truth, or believe in legends.
  • Yes, lets get rid of math and science and medicine too. None of that is in the bible either. Why bother with science and facts when we have a magic book which has all the answers. Let take all technology away from you Godly folk and let your superstitious nonsense rule.
  • C'mon guys, Mississippi has OWNED the bottom of the educational achievement ranks for ages. I think it's only fair that Missouri should have a shot at it.
  • Are religion majors to study only their own religion?
But I prefer Calvin's interpretation:


Bottom Line: You cannot legalize ignorance, just as you cannot plead ignorance of the law as a defense. OTOH, you can make a damned fool of yourself without resorting to government interference.

17 October 2012

Bottles for babies!

Nice suggestion (from Belgium), but one dad told me they switched to [German] tap water for the second baby. No sense in paying 1,000x more for the same quality water.

Anything but water

  1. Why 2x4s are not 2 by 4 inches (not, surprisingly, related to a fear of the metric system!)

  2. Iceland threw bankers in prison. Now their economy is growing. Why not in the US and EU? (Oh, and don't forget the link between too cheap water and financial disasters!)

  3. Government "job centers" are a joke but don't worry: Bureaucrats are great at creating more bureaucratic jobs. Is the private sector always awesome? No -- turns out that "peer-benchmarked" CEO salaries do not compare apples-to-apples.

  4. Plans for starting a "Charter City" in Honduras -- a capitalist haven with light regulation and strong rule-of-law -- move two steps forward, one step back. Now it's time for details. (I know Strong.)

  5. There's not only no sign that we're reducing carbon emissions, projections indicate that new coal plants coming online, worldwide, will have four times the capacity of the entire capacity of existing US coal plants. Wow.

16 October 2012

In defiance of advertising

Top Line: Try to think of a SINGLE circumstance in which advertising serves customers. At all. Now read on...

Last March, I rode my motorcycle from Amsterdam to Marseilles and back (around 3,200 km) without seeing very much advertising on the way. I didn't miss it. I also didn't run out of gas, get hungry or lose my way -- so you can't argue that I needed ads for "essential" information.

In fact, there's little to recommend road-side advertising except some rent to a land owner and additional sales of a product that we probably don't even want, let alone need. I preferred the French highways to the American ones -- even those with "adopt a highway" advertisements sold by road agencies starved of cash by low fuel taxes. It was more relaxing to look at the countryside as it flowed by...

But forget highways. Why do we need advertising? Here are the arguments:
  1. Advertisements give consumers information they need about a product. Hahaha. Advertisements range from optimistic to outright lies. Banksy says it better.

  2. Advertisements help consumers choose among products. No, they produce confusion (flattering apples vs disgusting oranges ) or waste (the political lobbying arms race will cost $billions this year in the US).

  3. Advertisements represent freedom of (corporate) speech. This is neither constitutionally sound (corporations are NOT people where the First Amendment is concerned; Citizens United was a disastrous decision) nor relevant when it comes to selling goods (rather than expressing one's views on public policy).

  4. Advertisements allow publishers to lower their subscription prices. This one assumes that readers are unwilling to pay a higher price for a "clean" version of the newspaper or magazine when they do pay a higher price for books; and that readers will be "served" by advertisements that display information. Yes, it's true that advertisements that lower cover prices will lead to higher sales volumes (making advertising more attractive), but I am much happier to read my National Geographic Magazine without advertisements for SUVs or blood-thinning medicines. I also doubt the value of $55,000 watches and Louis Vuitton as Angelina Jolie's handbag of choice on The Economist's back cover. (OTOH, remember this truth in the age of the internet: If the product is free -- e.g., google or facebook -- then the product is YOU. That observation leads me to the obvious conclusion: Advertisers should pay you!)
But what would happen if we banned advertising? Organizations evaluating consumer products (e.g., Consumer Reports or Underwriters Labs) would get more attention, word of mouth would drive sales, and many "impulse purchases" would not happen.

In fact, I bet that overall consumption would fall, as people made fewer "wrong" purchases (due to deception), fewer "over" purchases (due to advertisements promising a better life for buying product X), and fewer "matching" purchases (to keep up with all the crap your neighbor has, from the McMansion to the third car).

Would that be worse for us? for society? Probably not.

Would it be worse for capitalism? Not for those who offered value for money.

Would it be worse for liars, shysters, late-night sellers, and other sellers of dreams-in-bottles? Yes, definitely. The consumption component of GDP might fall by 20 percent. Would that be bad? Probably not in terms of jobs (people would work elsewhere), happiness (for both consumers with less crap and workers selling products they DID actually believe in), or the environment (lower consumption is better).

What would we see instead? New products would gain market share gradually as people recommended good products to friends. Bad products would get no market share unless they listened to customers and adapted. Local brands could sell value instead of submitting to the onslaught of flash. The best defense for products -- new and old -- is to offer a real improvement, not an advertised improvement (New! Bolder Packaging!).

Politicians lacking attack ads and flattering hagiographies would have to confront each other in public debates or other personal appearances. People would read news stories and talk to each other to understand more about candidates. Print and TV media would hate this, of course, but now they can earn money from cable or satellite subscriptions. They would also have to serve viewers instead of politicians with big budgets (some governments indirectly control the media via advertisements -- or worse).

Could the government ban advertising? Yes, since they already regulate what is said on packaging, advertisements aimed at children, advertisements on roads, etc. In fact, governments would be doing us all a favor by banning advertisements, since a ban would remove the need for producers, politicians and providers of services to compete in the race to put their best lie forward. They could instead concentrate on winning loyalty the old fashioned way: by providing value to us.

Bottom Line: Advertising produces little of value for society. We should experiment with banning it in some places, and then consider banning it in all places.

15 October 2012

Monday funnies

This dubbed video is way funnier than the original.



Speed blogging

  1. Lies: Another article describing Cadiz's attempt to sell public water to Los Angeles. I'd use it as an "end of abundance" example of how desperate people make silly deals for more supply when smart people would look at reducing demand.

  2. Got money? Natasha Gownaris is looking for $6,000. Why?
    I'm a marine science PhD student and my dissertation research focuses on understanding how water level declines in Lake Turkana, Kenya (due to irrigation, dam development, and climate change) will impact ecosystem functioning (with a focus on its fish communities and the fishery).
    This is a worthy cause, I think, because we're going to need good baseline ecological data before dams -- nearly certain to go up -- block/impede water flows into this lake. (I'm slightly disturbed, btw, that PhD students are not getting enough research money. We have plenty to burn for Iraq and the War on Drugs, but not for research? Depressing!)

  3. From great to WTF: Culp and Glennon note that US farmers are exporting high volumes of water (via alfalfa) to dairies in China. They call for laws to be reformed (to allow inter-state and inter-sector trading on the Colorado, for example), but then go off the rails ("the U.S. could capture more of the economic benefit of the embedded water by feeding it to cows here, supporting the growth of the dairy and milk-processing industries"). This is just plain silly. Water traded in markets should go to highest value, and I bet that Vegas can pay more than dairy farmers, esp, if it saves them from wasting another $900 million on white elephant supply-side projects.

  4. Perspective: Fracking may possibly pollute groundwater (there are a few examples, mostly related to poorly-sealed drilling shafts), but BILLIONS of gallons of wastewater pollute the environment every year.

  5. Forget dams: "A new 3R book on the advantages of water retention, recharge and reuse for drinking water and food security, and the economic justification underlying it." Free pdf

H/Ts to PB, DL and RM

13 October 2012

Flashback: 7 - 13 Oct

A year later and still worth a read...

All-in-Auctions -- the video -- watch it if you want to know how to reallocate water without weakening property rights.

The microeconomics of publishing -- some details of how I published The End of Abundance (also see this recent webinar).

We're screwed. Now what? Not much sign that Americans are preparing for climate change. That means more pain (money and misery) in the future, which starts NOW.

12 October 2012

Friday party!

This (NSFW) is awesome!

Anything but water

  • DNA tracking may make it easier to certify that timber comes from sustainable sources.

  • Journalists who report scientific advances fail to report later work that invalidates those advances.

  • Researchers have found that "subjects who reach their decisions [on how much to contribute to group goods] more quickly are more cooperative. Furthermore, forcing subjects to decide quickly increases contributions, whereas instructing them to reflect and forcing them to decide slowly decreases contributions." People, in other words, replace spontaneous generosity with calculated withholding. I'd say that those in the "business" of negotiation (i.e., lawyers, stockbrokers, and certainly some economists) may swing the farthest from cooperation.

  • Surowieki attacks Romney and corporate welfare queens, but Obama should say the same.

  • These guys claim that Singapore provides a good example of urban resiliency that will serve others well to emulate when facing climate change, but it's hard to scale Singapore to larger nations or places that cannot afford to import all their natural resources.

11 October 2012

I'm talking water tariffs on 14 Nov in London

Ofwat and Environment Agency are hosting the 2012 Water Tariffs Workshop ("Price signals and sustainable water use") on 14 November, from 10:30 to 15:00, at Abbey Centre, 34 Great Smith Street, London, SW1P 3BU.

Book your place at this free workshop by email before 22 Oct, but places are limited

First lesson: Low prices (free!) that fail to limit demand may result in a shortage (esp. if people reserve "just in case"), so email sooner than later!
Geek alert: Published at 8:09 on 10/11/12 :)

Water, human rights and government failure

I wrote a paper on a human right to water several years ago,* in which I made the point (using data!) that laws supporting a human right to water are unlikely to work in countries where the rule of law is weak.**

But what about places where the rule of law means something? What about in California, where Governor Brown just signed AB 685 into law? AB 685 was drafted into law as a "do something" response to the problems to the poor quality water that communities in the southern Central Valley were facing. These communities -- mostly poor, mostly migrant -- are in the middle of California's "industrial ag" belt, and their groundwater was contaminated by runoff/seepage from cowshit generated at large-scale dairies (Happy cows! California #1!) and from excess pesticide/fertilizer applied at big farms.***

Although AB 685 sounds good, it actually does nothing concrete. It merely espouses a nice idea that will only be implemented if convenient. Here, in fact, is the entire addition to the State's water code [pdf]:
SECTION 1. Section 106.3 is added to the Water Code, to read:
106.3. (a) It is hereby declared to be the established policy of the state that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.
(b) All relevant state agencies, including the department, the state board, and the State Department of Public Health, shall consider this state policy when revising, adopting, or establishing policies, regulations, and grant criteria when those policies, regulations, and criteria are pertinent to the uses of water described in this section.
(c) This section does not expand any obligation of the state to provide water or to require the expenditure of additional resources to develop water infrastructure beyond the obligations that may exist pursuant to subdivision (b).
(d) This section shall not apply to water supplies for new development.
(e) The implementation of this section shall not infringe on the rights or responsibilities of any public water system.
Although sections (a) and (b) sound good, sections (c-e) seem to create giant loopholes (I still cannot understand what "beyond the obligations that may exist pursuant to subdivision (b)" means).

So, I see this bill as a non-solution to a problem that needs to be addressed by:
  • Reducing pollution from agriculture; and
  • Requiring farmers whose pollution has damaged groundwater to pay for substitute water supplies to communities with "impaired" water supplies or pay for the relocation of the people in those communities (polluter pays).
Without a doubt, this ridiculous bill is a failure because it shifts the costs of a problem caused by agriculture onto public water agencies, giving us yet another example of how farmers representing less than 3 percent of California's population, economy and workforce screw over the other 97 percent of Californians.****

So, that's the most recent development in the ongoing, worthless "discourses" in water policy -- a human right to water -- and another example of how politicians totally screw up policy present empty promises as "solutions."

If you're interested in hearing more of my thoughts on this topic, challenging those thoughts, or adding your own ideas and impressions, then tune into tomorrow's webinar on Chapter 11 of my book (A human right to water), here at 9am Pacific (get the time in your location and test your Flash installation).

Bottom Line: Words are nice, but deeds matter. The easiest way to get deeds is to create an incentive to act, and fine words from activists to politicians are hollow unless those politicians (and their bureaucratic minions) must deliver results.

* I submitted the paper to Water Resources Management in August 2011, but they failed to find referees for it after one year. I withdrew it last week. FAIL.

** I go on to suggest that a property right in water is more likely to result in water service to the poor, since they will be able to convert their rights into money, and money DOES flow towards those who can pay.

*** I asked a representative of one of those counties about the "cowshit plume" in groundwater about eight years ago. She changed the subject to their LEED-certified office building. They were either too afraid of or owned by dairy farmers.

**** This pattern holds in many countries, with the noble exceptions of New Zealand and Australia.

H/T to KH

10 October 2012

A failure to serve the poor, part 43

MW sent me this:
I finally got the time to watch the Google Hangout discussion on transparency in the water sector that you posted a few days ago. Truthfully, I was rather underwhelmed and was wondering if you had any more thoughts about this discussion and its true efficacy in terms of changing the culture of aid and development of sustainable water resources. I'm not denying that these speakers were knowledgeable about water and/or intelligent but I felt like there was something missing from the discussion.

What I mean by that is, with the incredible resources at the disposal of the internet (the blogger), the Gates Foundation (the independent consultant), the World Bank, WIN, etc. you would think that there would be more of a push for these individuals to come up with concrete ideas or plans that could really institute change. Instead, I felt as though the majority of the time during this Hangout these individuals were really just patting each other on the back for a job well done. They spent so much time discussing this mythical concept of non-governmental "corruption" but then seemed to disregard the obvious irony that their organizations (and they themselves) are the ones that may be most at fault for such a state of affairs. These speakers discussed learning from their failures (even alluding to how they are like Thomas Edison) but, to me, it represented an hour of blowing smoke on how great they are each doing their jobs and how they are slowly making a difference in the world. There seemed to be a sense of individual detachment from responsibility for organizational failures. Also, It was striking to me that there was so much uniform agreement on what should be done in the future - where were the professionals that believe in market-based pricing, water privatization, or other methods of solving water problems? Isn't that the point of social media - to spark innovation through debate rather than just like-minded group think?

I spoke with a woman recently who installs wells in small African villages and what she told me is that before her charity comes in all of these villagers know the names of non-profits like Charity Water and Water.org but only because they have big decals on the side of their SUVs as they drive by. Maybe creating these massive non-profits that are answerable to a Board of Directors and wealthy donors isn't the best way to develop sustainable change (in terms of aid not water resources in general) and is inherently susceptible to the search for quality quarterly reports.
In my reply, I said:
I agree that international aid is driven more by the needs of donors (i.e., more PR, jobs for friends, religion) than the people (I've published on that topic), and I'm looking forward to discussing this performance gap in the next webinar (Friday, Oct 12).
Bottom Line: People who depend on the kindness of others may receive "gifts" that are more the result of selfishness than altruism.

It's not about the money

Russ Roberts interviews Robert Skidelsky on his new book (How Much is Enough?) where they discuss the difference between money (an input) and happiness (an outcome).*

Skidelsky says (at 32 min) that these factors make us happy:
  • Health
  • Security
  • Respect
  • Personality
  • Harmony with Nature
  • Friendship
  • Leisure
I agree, as these are outcomes that we can get through a combination of money, personal effort and participation in a functional society.

I'm doing well on 7/7. Are you? And if not, can you do something about it?

* Economists know the difference between the two (we study the "maximization of utility," a jargon word for happiness), but non-economists often conflate the two, with the sad result that they pursue money assuming that it will make them happy.

09 October 2012

Bleg: Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines?

One of the problems with working in Europe is their excessive attachment to vacations. I therefore find myself with an obligation to take a seven week vacation (7 Dec to 29 Jan, 2013) to Malaysia (with side trips to Singapore and Brunei), Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Cornelia and I are already planning to visit the Batu caves for Thaipusam in Malaysia, and we may get to Ati-Atihan in the Philippines.

But where else shall we go? The plan at the moment is to visit peninsular Malaysia and Borneo, Bali to Flores in Indonesia and places on Luzon in the Philippines, but we're looking for suggestions related to culture, nature, etc.

So -- tell us where to go. Better yet, tell us if you know cool people to meet.

We'll report back, of course.

Water pricing and conservation

I wrote these summaries recently and would love to get your feedback on their clarity and completeness (or lack thereof):

"Water conservation" [pdf] for Environmental and Natural Resource Economics: An Encyclopedia

"How to price water" [pdf] for the Association of California Water Agencies

08 October 2012

Discussion TODAY on enabling water conservation

I'll be talking with Shahram Javey of Aquacue at 1pm (Pacific) today on a Google hangout here. Damn. The link is NOT fixed. I do NOT know how to invite you to the right location. ARG!

Here we are!



[Sorry for the error -- I am in the camera when Shahram is talking -- but we're learning!]

Monday funnies

Worried about the week ahead. Try not giving a fuck!

Nigerians scams and the decline of research

I've been following changes in the world of academic publishing ever since I wrote on the failure of academic publishing -- and how to fix it.*

Now I see a new development in that trend: "academic publishers" offering to publish articles in an open access format, for a fee. International Scholars Journals and International Research Journals have been spamming my inbox with requests to referee papers (for free) that are laughably bad in their most basic components.

Why are they sending such poor quality papers? Because their real goal is not advancing academic knowledge but collecting money from authors who need publications for professional advancement.** Why do they keep spamming me? Because there's nothing like free labor to help them collect money.

Bottom Line: Academic publication is breaking down due to an over-reliance on publish or perish incentives. There are too many papers in too many journals for anyone to read. That means that academics cannot reconcile different views, reject poor work or even understand all the dimensions of topics in which they are supposed to be experts. We're moving towards collective ignorance as we pile papers so high that we cannot see out of our offices.
* Read Tim Haab's funny sad version of the long, tedious and demeaning process.

** Note that these guys are only slightly less good for academics. Existing journals (e.g., the American Economic Review) have also been expanding their supply of publication slots (by issuing four new sub-journals) to meet rising demand. I got an email this morning that listed 240 experimental economics papers on three related protocols. How can someone hope to read all 240 of these to find where their work fits, let alone understand the "state of the art" in those areas? (Forget "economics," I can't even keep track of water economics!)
Addendum: Wow. This is a big problem. Check out (via EW) “Beall’s list of predatory open-access journals

06 October 2012

Flashback: 1 - 6 Oct

A year later and still worth a read...

Global survey of water tariffs has some numbers and More on US water tariff structures has interesting details.

Steve Jobs on life before death -- it's easier to read wisdom or understand it than live by it.

Customers? What customers? A reader writes about the frustration of water charges that do not reflect water use. On a related note, read "Are Tap Water Managers Lazy Marketers?" to find out why.

05 October 2012

Friday party!

I saw this* at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration building in Silver Springs, Maryland:



* (from the interwebs) "These waves, a real-time representation of the Atlantic Coastline being broadcast from Woods Hole, Massachusetts NOAA station, vary in height from six to twenty-four inches. Upon making 'land-fall' they can create surf up to twelve feet high. With Aquatic Development Group supplying the Vacuum Surge Wave System interpreting the modem fed live data, Jim Sanborn's conceptual work of art comes alive to demonstrate the power of the ocean."

Poll results -- communication

Hey! There's no new poll. Although people who like polls want to polls to continue, I am making an executive decision to end polling, since I cannot think of additional interesting questions to ask (there have been over 100 polls in the past few years).

But here are the results of the last poll:

Academic essays 7%2
Audio recordings (water chats, talks) 0%0
This blog 79%22
The End of Abundance (book) 4%1
Live webinars (audience participation) 0%0
Video recordings (lectures, talks, webinars) 11%3
These results are (again) biased by the fact that the poll was posted on the blog, but I do see blogging as an accessible way to present and discuss aguanomics. I'll keep blogging, with occasional modifications to improve quality, but also try to improve my efforts with audio/video chats.

Bottom Line: Communication is important, but you need to vary your techniques if you are going to get ideas to as many people as possible.

04 October 2012

Weather & climate change webinar tmrw

Tomorrow at 9am Pacific/18:00 Netherlands (get the time in your location), we will discuss chapter 10 of The End of Abundance -- A human right to water weather and climate change (whoops!)

Most of this discussion will focus on water service in developing countries, corruption in water services, and the gap between political rhetoric and outcomes on the ground. how we will experience climate change via water and how to adapt to the coming storm.

You MUST have Flash working on your computer. Check your microphone and video if you want to be active in the discussion (test here).

We'll meet at this URL. The archive of past webinars is here.

Anything but water

Oh Canada!

Cornelia and I were discussing household income and living standards, and I mentioned that median wages in the US were around $35,000.* She was shocked, saying that they were much higher in Canada.

Wait. Canadians make more money than Americans? Yep.
USA Canada
[1] USD** Median household income 50,050 71,300
Household size 2.6 2.5
[2] USD GDP per capita (2011 nominal) 48,400 50,400
USD GDP per capita (2011 Purchasing-power-parity) 48,400 40,500
[3] Gini Coefficient (CIA, 100 = most unequal) 45 32
So here's how I reconcile these numbers:
  1. Median household income is nearly 40 percent higher in Canada, even after adjusting for the number of people in the household.
  2. PPP GDP per capita is higher in the US by nearly 25 percent. This number, mind you, refers to total economic activity and cost of living, not income to individuals.
  3. These numbers are reconciled via inequality: Canada is more egalitarian (similar to Spain and Italy) than the US (similar to Bulgaria and Iran), circa 2005-2007. I reckon that inequality has recently worsened in the US.
So it seems that the income derived from economic activities in the US is skewed in distribution -- with more going to rich people than the average person -- compared to Canada.**

Bottom Line: Canadians are well known for their higher levels of social harmony. This harmony may be due to a fairer distribution of income, but it's also accompanied by a higher average incomes.*** Americans are both poorer AND less equal than their neighbors.

* Average wages in 2011 are $42,000 in the US and $32,600 in Canada, but those numbers do not account for employment (66.7% and 71.5%, respectively) or the distribution of wages/capital gains. Right, Mitt?

** Gross income is not the same as income net of taxes, and total taxes are 27% of GDP in the US and 32% of GDP in Canada, but those rates ALSO do not take the distribution of the tax burden into account.

*** My definition of the American Dream -- "being able to do what you want" -- does not match common definitions that include upward mobility. That dream is -- relative to the past and relative to other countries -- more dream than reality [pdf].

03 October 2012

Deadly water!



For those of you missing the pattern, this rhetoric is used as a justification for the drug war. Here's the latest chapter in that failure but don't blame me if it makes you angry and sad.

Speed blogging

  • Last week, I gave a talk on my idea for using insurance to (1) improve performance at utilities and (2) make it easier to charge the right price (not too high or too low) for water services. Here is the 55 min talk [20MB mp3] and my slides [pdf].

  • I also recently talked about climate change with Steven Spierer on talkradioone. He asked if CC was real, and -- if so -- what to do about it. Listen in.

  • Is your city suffering from clogged sewers due to low flows? Fix that problem the way they do in Zimbabwe -- via a city-wide synchronized toilet flush!

  • San Diego County Water Authority has agreed to buy desalinated water at twice the price it usually pays, to gain 7 percent independence from Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Customers are going to pay about $80 per year more because water managers in Southern California cannot bring themselves to use market instruments for water allocation, but I doubt that managers are ashamed to spend money on water that they don't even need (remember that over 50 percent of drinking water is dumped onto lawns).

  • (via DL): Histories of the Salton Sea and the Clean Water Act.

02 October 2012

Economists do haiku!

I liked these haikus on the 2012 U.S. election:

Time again for votes
Amidst party promises
What is different?
- Amol Agrawal (Mostly Economics)

Ideology not enough
Brain cells required
Someone tell Romney
- Robert Cringely (I, Cringely)

Summer's bright wishes
Pretty flowers
Winter sweeps away gently
- Atanu Dey (On India's Development)

Exciting numbers!
Beat The Street's expectations!
Later revised down.
- Will Franklin (WILLisms.com)

Four jobless summers
Dry up re-election votes
As Obama said
- Tim Kane (Hudson Institute)

Policy--who cares?
It's hatred of the other
That makes people vote
- Arnold Kling (econLog)

Snow falls on buried
Memories of promises
To make the nation rich
- Megan McArdle (Asymmetrical Information)

Romney better pray
Unemployment still 8 plus
Come election day
- Nick Schulz (AEIdeas)

We dug you a hole
We tipped over your ladder
Soon we will join you
- Andrew Samwick (Andrew Samwick's Blog)

Ugly election
Distorting issues by both
Can we just ignore?
- John Whitehead (Environmental Economics)

Trust not either side
Both gambling your future
With blind ambition
- David Zetland (Aguanomics)

Webinar TODAY on alternative energy subsidies

Today at 9am Pacific (get the time in your location), Alex Trembath of the Breakthrough Institute will present the case for government-stimulation in the development of alternative energies.

We will then have a discussion on the effectiveness of such plans [my opinion].

You MUST have Flash working on your computer (test here).

We'll meet at this URL.

Reviewing peer review

I submitted "When worlds collide: business meets bureaucracy in the water sector" to Water Alternatives in April, and it was rejected five months later. I've decided to put the paper in my "finished" section since it's not worth revising and submitting elsewhere.

For the sake of completeness (and perhaps some insight into the world of academic peer-review), I include here the results of five months of referee effort -- plus my replies.

Reviewer #1
Does the abstract reflect the contents and conclusions of the paper? Insufficient evidence to support the conclusions presented.

Is the article original or creative? An interesting idea, but not presented to its full advantage.

Are the evidence and arguments sound and convincing? No; insufficient support for the central hypothesis; lack of current scholarly references and bold assertions without convincing evidence in support.

Are the figures necessary and of good quality? Simplistic and could use references to more detailed studies.

Is the language clear and correct? Needs a good English language edit and work on grammar. Inconsistent use of terms.

Does the article reference appropriate citations in the relevant literature? This is largest shortcoming – needs current and relevant research citations, including current World Bank and related reports on this topic.

General comments: Interesting topic, but not a scholarly work; more a provocative think-piece that fails to convince due to lack of concrete supporting evidence for some pretty bold assertions. Perhaps more of a policy piece; which still requires considerable grounding in practice.

My reply: Reviewer #1 wanted more citations of other academic works but did not provide any references (something that's both polite and a best practice, even when referencing the reviewer's own work), which makes it hard to know what I was missing. In my experience, these objections mean either that my points have been made already or that I need to integrate others' work into my point. I'll never know.

Reviewer #2
The general premise of the manuscript, that institutions must adapt to changing water scarcity conditions in order to effectively manage water resources, is sound. The four domains identified in Table 1 need to be fully developed. A paragraph or two on the decision frameworks within each domain would be helpful. The argument for market-based allocation strategies should discuss “greater good” criteria in more detail. Is it better to allocate water resources for municipal or agricultural use, where resources are limited? Why? Explore the underlying ethic of greater good to support the argument. Water rights should be at least discussed if not addressed directly. See Mike Acreman,, 2001 (Water Policy 3(3):257-265)

My reply: Reviewer #2 is asking for clarifications without rejecting the paper.

Reviewer #3
I have taken a look at the Zetland paper, and I don’t think it is worth including in this issue. Much of it is a primer on economic theory; most of it makes sweeping statements without evidence to back them up. For example: “Market pricing signals are already very effective in allocating other goods and inputs among trading countries, and they could be used for sustainable water allocation. “ This has nothing to back up the assertion, and ignores the research that has been done showing that market allocation of water is very problematic. The examples that are there are scatter-shot, rather than building a solid foundation for the arguments.

My reply: Reviewer #3 appears to misunderstand the nature of markets, trade and the meaning of "could." S/he also fails to provide any references. I've never seen evidence that "market allocation of water is very problematic" except in circumstances that the initial allocation is also flawed. That's because there are, to my knowledge, no instances of "market allocation;" there are only instances of "market RE-allocation" of water rights that were originally allocated through political means.

Overall, I am surprised that these comments are so brief, vague and dismissive, but Water Alternatives is known to have a political slant that is less accommodating to market-friendly discussions. Rejection is easier than engagement.

Bottom Line: Social scientists engineers spend more time arguing that they ARE right (biased citations, theoretical models, and empirics that support their pre-conceived notions) than analyzing problems and leaving conclusions to readers. Back to blogging.