14 March 2013

Engineering people

Over the past few years, I've noted repeatedly (example example) that the Pacific Institute tends to put too much emphasis on engineering and not enough on economics, i.e., they calculate, calibrate and manipulate human, social and natural variables when making their policy proposals and solutions as if those variables are known and static, but I dislike this method. It puts too little weight on the reality of incomplete calculation, miscalibration and games of manipulation.

PI just issued two new reports demonstrating how their method fails.

Their first is an assessment of California's water footprint, a report whose title implies that "California" is some person walking around on water. The authors claim that the calculations of where water is used (agriculture, no surprise) will help promote sustainable policies, but we don't need to know anything about footprints -- or efficiency, another PI fetish -- if we want sustainable water management. Just set a limit on use (i.e., set aside environmental flows) and ration water with prices and/or markets. That's what I said here (mp3 PDF) -- and what I say all the time.

The second is a study of the potential for "green jobs," in which PI says:
An investment of $1 million in alternative water supply projects yields 10-15 jobs; in stormwater management, 5-20 jobs; in urban conservation and efficiency, 12-22 jobs; in agricultural efficiency and quality, 14.6 jobs; in restoration and remediation, 10-72 jobs
Now, I'm going to ignore non-skilled jobs that cost $50-$100k each as well as the ludicrous range of estimates and concentrate on two obvious flaws in this report. First, it ignores the fact that jobs are a COST. We should be concentrating on destroying, not making jobs, since fewer workers per project implies higher productivity and living standards. We want people to work, of course, but where their salary creates value. Second, the opportunity cost of these "green investments" [sic] is not just the $1 million that comes out of taxpayer pockets but the other places that could use $1 million. Green jobs sound nice, but they are often worthless. marketing. bullshit.

Bottom Line: PI needs to look outside of their engineered system, to include (1) the causes of problems and (2) other factors that are affected by or involved in their solutions -- above all, the potential for people to game their "calculated" solutions. Don't make their mistake!

6 comments:

  1. I yield to no man in my contempt for Peter Gleick and the Pacific Institute, but I have never seen any hint of real engineering capability there. Do they involve any real engineers? I think what you are complaining about is not engineering but something-else.

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  2. Anonymous, the kind of engineering they like is social engineering, not the dispassionate kind that uses numbers and objective standards. They are much smarter than the rest of us, you see, and can see far into the future. Just letting people respond creatively to market forces means that we peons will try all the bad ideas that PI has already identified and dismissed for us.

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  3. its funny how there's a handful of ideas that all economists agree on.. this is one of them. i wrote about both my frustration of engineers and the term green jobs for cornell's magazine
    http://www2.johnson.cornell.edu/alumni/enterprise/fall2009/index.cfm?action=department&department_id=4

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  4. hm forgot to subscribe to follow ups

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  5. I love this assessment! Thanks for saying what I often think. However, I have to admit, I am thankful for the PI green jobs report even thought I completely agree with you assessment of its shortcomings. The reason I like report is because my employer asked for a reason why we need a water program at our college – and they of course want to see numbers and a study – and this report is the best assessment currently available. But kudos (and thanks for the laugh)!!! “worthless. marketing. Bullshit”.

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  6. Thanks for saying this... " First, it ignores the fact that jobs are a COST. We should be concentrating on destroying, not making jobs, since fewer workers per project implies higher productivity and living standards. We want people to work, of course, but where their salary creates value."

    Great article!

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