30 Jun 2015

Millennial communications...

As a follow up to last week's post on listening and connection, I want to add two thoughts:

First, "millennials" (those born 1985-2005) will have trouble communicating if they are better at posting selfies and self-discovery rather than listening to what others think. The internet has "caused" this by making it easier to broadcast and find "friends" who agree with you. In the past, people had to talk to those around them (as well as listen), which gave them a better sense of their own weaknesses and strengths.

Second (and as I wrote 10 years ago [pdf]) the internet -- by giving us access to art, music, lectures and information -- threatens our ability to produce, learn and think by making it too easy to "consume" the refined thoughts of others. It's in the struggle to understand, paint or play that we learn about topics and ourselves. The internet makes it too easy to avoid that struggle. School is supposed to force us to "learn how to learn" but many students are using wikipedia, calculators and other shortcuts to complete assignments. Those assignments may look better, have better spelling and even read better, but they may not induce as much learning as examples from 20 or 50 years earlier. (The same holds for teachers!)

Bottom Line: It takes work to listen, think and (thus) make. Internet with caution.

29 Jun 2015

Monday funnies

Everyone's a critic

Should water managers target users or use?

LH sent these articles, asking for my thoughts:
  1. This Southern California water purveyor (Antelope Valley) will punish "users" who go above "average" use.
  2. This one (California Water) has developed a water budget for each household
In the first case, I worry that the utility is calculating averages based on meters (i.e., per household) rather than people (per capita). Few American utilities have headcount data,* so most of these programs will end up punishing large families as "water hogs." The solution, to me, is to set a standard at two people's use (e.g., 50 gallons/200 liters each, per day) and let people give names and social security numbers** for higher allotments. The alternative -- assuming 6 people per household, as many utilities do -- does very little to cut back on excess use.

In the second case, it's common to include headcounts (gathered one way or another) as well as landscaping area. I dislike this system because "lawns" have a right to a budget allocation, just the same as people. I think people are more important.*** Further, budgets are VERY expensive to implement, given their data intensity.

As I've said before, I'd set one price of water for all use and raise that price in drought to prevent shortages. Higher prices will cut down on outdoor "waste." Would they penalize the poor? Not if they have a low per capita use (and thus low per capita bill). My suggestion of rebating excess revenues is also progressive, as it creates a net transfer from heavy to light users.

Why don't water managers take my advice? First, I think they like taking "off-the-shelf" solutions from consultants (like those above), rather than trying new ideas (even if those have been used for hundreds of years in other sectors). Second, I think they dislike the idea of setting one price and allowing customers to choose their use (this is why there are water cops [funny!] rather than higher prices). Third, they are "not allowed" to collect too much money, but this is untrue, given the long-standing use of "rate stabilization funds," etc.

Bottom Line: Don't manage my water use. Manage demand for the whole system.

* The American fear of "being counted" has been attributed to concerns about privacy, vulnerability to exploitation, and/or the return of the AntiChrist ("And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads" -- Rev 13:16). Here's a rebuttal.

** Social security numbers are supposed to be used for retirement, but they are used by banks et al. to track accounts and avoid tax fraud. That practice is semi-legal but tolerated because America has no national identification card scheme. That lack (see *) complicates welfare, voting, and many other government programs.

*** Los Angeles Water and Power has a perverse system of subsidizing lawns without helping people.

H/T to JF

22 Jun 2015

Looking for more?

I've posted a twitter feed on the right sidebar of the blog, or you can just click over to here.

Only connect

Over the past few months, I've run in to a variety of communication failures. Most of them involve a failure of empathy, i.e., taking the other person's perspective into account.

I've been told "this is what YOU believe." I've been told "that's not what YOU'RE saying." I've been told "nobody would think that."

I've been told, in sum, that the speaker has not realized that there's another way of seeing the world that does not revolve around them.

This problem -- of empathy, ego, or perspective -- is common as well as devastating to our societies.
  • In the first instance, you have disagreements or misunderstandings with people.
  • In the second, you cannot work with people.
  • In the third -- and worst -- your "community" weakens.
Adam Smith spoke of "acting as if your better other was looking over your shoulder." F.A. Hayek reminded us that we cannot know everything and must try to understands the ideas of others. Jane Jacobs illustrated how cities drew their strengths from the random interactions and interdependencies of residents. Billions of people live every day thanks to the efforts of others who, somehow, think about them.

Those small scale examples can be applied on a larger, national or international scale, but they depend on respecting the views of others, taking the time to understand those views, and finding ways to reconcile or abide by others' views (except when they harm others).

Does this mean that people cannot disagree? Does it mean that they cannot say hurtful things? No. People are always going to say these things -- intentionally or not. The key is to find ways of living with them and -- hopefully -- removing their sting, two outcomes that come with thoughtful living (wisdom).

Bottom Line: We must spend more time listening to others by spending less time on ourselves.

18 Jun 2015

Anything but water

NB: This was left over from before the big reset...
  1. Stiglitz and Reich discuss the political economy of American inequality from the inside (hint: agenda setting)

  2. Fish are smarter than we think (maybe we're not smart enough to figure that out)

  3. Estonia's digital government helps citizens, but Russia's digital government spreads lies

  4. Solving homelessness by... giving them homes

  5. Nice to see the NY Times catch up with me (and other economists) on the carbon tax. Advantages: predictable charges and domestic re-distribution of funds
H/T to RM

16 Jun 2015

Windfall -- the review

I ordered this book (subtitle: "The Booming Business of Global Warming") as soon as I saw the premise: an exploration of the businesses that will profit from climate change and the businesses whose profits are driving climate change.

Restated from a positive perspective, these businesses profit from adaptation or a lack of mitigation, respectively.

Restated from a normative perspective, they are businesses that serve or exploit society, respectively.

So you can see that there's going to be a lot of hope and anguish in this book, except that it's often buried under discussions of revenue, jobs and market share. As an economist, I can appreciate the fact that money incentivizes a lot of behavior. As a human, I am horrified that so many clever people are making money on the corruption, fear and ignorance of politicians. (The book does not discuss a carbon tax or other mitigation policies that would erase the profits under discussion, and that's not the author's job. It's just a context that depresses me whenever I think of the magnificence of our "civilization" that humans seem determined to ruin.)


So... the book is divided into three sections: Melt, Drought, and Deluge.

In Melt, Funk tells about Canada's rush to defend the Northwest passage that's opening with the shrinking arctic; how Shell oil went from "planning for less oil" to "drilling the arctic" as politicians left the path of Blueprints (limiting carbon emissions) for Scramble (dealing with too much carbon); the development of natural resources (and political shenanigans) as Greenland loses its glaciers; and how the Israelis got into selling (artificial) snow in the Alps. These chapters describe businesses that are making money as ice melts.

In Drought, Funk joins private firefighters that protect insured houses while neighbors burn down; the traders who buy and sell water rights (covered often in this blog); the rush to buy farmland in poor countries to ship food to richer countries (see my article PDF); and the battle to halt desertification in Africa (and the refugees fleeing that desertification for Europe). These chapters are about the rich getting richer as they plan ahead and hedge their lifestyles, while the poor are increasingly marginalized.

In Deluge, Funk explores the tensions along Bangladesh's borders, which are likely to be overrun as some of the 150 million residents flee their sinking, flooding delta; how the Dutch are willing to sell seawalls to anyone with cash (sorry Bangladeshis!); the quest to outwit nature by destroying mosquitoes before they can bring tropical diseases to middle latitudes; and the hopes of geoengineers (a group that deserves to be slandered with rain makers). Yes, there are some "solutions" in these chapters, but their cost (via adaptation) is so extravagant compared to mitigation that I think that we should be handing out penny-wise, pound-foolish awards to our so-called "leaders."

In his final chapter, Funk reflects on his six years of seeing, thinking and talking about climate change. His words say it best:
In psychology, magical thinking is the fallacy that thoughts correspond to actions— that to think is to do, to believe is to act. Perhaps the most magical assumption of the moment is that our growing belief in climate change will lead to a real effort to stop it. But as I discovered in Canada and Greenland and Sudan and Seattle and all over the globe, that is not automatically true. We are noticing that in this new world, there is new oil to find. There is new cropland to farm. There are new machines to be built. From what I have seen in six years of reporting this book, the climate is changing faster than we are.


The hardest truth about climate change is that it is not equally bad for everyone. Some people -- the rich, the northern -- will find ways to thrive while others cannot, and many people will wall themselves off from the worst effects of warming while others remain on the wrong side. The problem with our profiting off this disaster is not that it is morally bankrupt to do so but that climate change, unlike some other disasters, is man- made. The people most responsible for historic greenhouse emissions are also the most likely to succeed in this new reality and the least likely to feel a mortal threat from continued warming. The imbalance between rich and north and poor and south -- inherited from history and geography, accelerated by warming -- is becoming even more entrenched


Climate change is often framed as a scientific or economic or environmental issue, not often enough as an issue of human justice. This, too, needs to change. From this moment on, many of us could get rich. Many of us could get high. Life will go on. Before it does, we should all make sure we understand the reality of what we’re buying.
The people who should read this book cannot afford it or cannot be distracted from their profits. What should those who read it do? The only action that comes to mind is revolution, but that's unlikely to succeed when citizens are distracted and deluded (e.g., Russia and the US), reactionaries are backed by crony capitalists (e.g., Egypt and Turkey), or people are too worried about big screen TVs to see the bigger picture (e.g., India and Australia). Indeed, it's hard to see how any leaders can win support from voters by promising less now for more later. Does this mean that China's dictators are our last hope?

Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS for exploring the stories of those who are profiting from our demise.

15 Jun 2015

Aguanomics reloaded

After seven years of blogging, I have gotten pretty good at filling in the 8-posts-per-week template (Five morning posts -- including speed blogging and anything but water -- Monday funnies, Friday party, and the Flashback), but this structure is not working for me.

First, I feel like it's an obligation to constantly save and queue items.

Second, I'm not sure if many posts are worthy. Yes, people may read them (I know that posts average 200 views) but then what? I don't see much value in posts that do not evoke debate or discussion. That's too much to ask for a cat video, of course.

Third, I think that few people hit the blog every day, which implies that there's too much material.

So, I'm going to make two changes.
  1. I will post once or twice per week on topics I hope are worth discussing and sharing.
  2. I will tweet more (usually with an opinion) on links that are worth viewing.
These changes mean that you can choose your level of exposure, i.e.,
  • Twitter for multiple updates per day
  • This blog for topics a few times per week
  • My mailing list for an overview of what I'm up to twice per month
  • My books [pdf] if you want an overview on politics and economics of water
  • My popular or academic writing for concise or deep explorations, respectively
  • My teaching or consulting for general or specific insights, respectively
I hope that this works out for you. I really enjoy blogging, but it has its place.

Bottom Line: Let's communicate in a way that works for you!

12 Jun 2015

Friday party!

Glacial waterfalls...

Amsterdam (in winter) from above...

98 More here.

H/T to TS

Big visions lead to big failures

Robert Pyke calls BS on Gov Brown's demagogic insistence that the Peripheral Pipes are (1) necessary and (2) understood. Read one (or more) of his five open letters here.

His letters -- which seem sensible in many ways -- reminded me of two common factors for megaprojects (projects of $1 billion or more).

First, they often cost more, come late and fail to deliver promised benefits (listen to this podcast)

Second, they are often implemented over the objections of critics who end up being right.

Case-in-point? The Colorado River Aqueduct that Metropolitan built in the 1930s. It came in on budget and on time, but there was no demand for its (expensive) water. What was the solution? LA covered the cost of selling water below cost to an ever-expanding area in Southern California. The subsidized water, in other words, was used to subsidize growth that turned out to be, I'd say, less than sustainable. (I describe the failure of the CRA in section 3.3 of my dissertation and the resulting unsustainable growth here.)

What's my "solution" to the Peripheral Pipes problem? As I've said for seven years: Water independence for the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

Bottom Line: Don't waste $30 $20 $30 billion of taxpayer money on a non-solution.

11 Jun 2015

Cowboys vs cameras

Maybe "Race & Waste" ?
The Dutch government issued 6.7 million speeding tickets in 2014. Numbers are hard to find for US states, but Wisconsin police issued 156,000 tickets in 2013. See the big difference in numbers? Adjusting for population (16.8 million in NL; 5.8 mil in WI), we see that the Dutch issue speeding tickets at 14x the rate of Wisconsin police.

Why the difference? The Dutch use speed cameras, and the WI police "chase down the bad guys."

What's another difference? The Dutch are far more likely to obey laws (total tickets dropped from 10.3 million in 2013 to 8.3 million in 2014), due to the high risk of getting caught. They are rolling out "safety cameras" at dangerous intersections.

Bottom Line: Enforce laws as effectively as possible. It's worth retiring cowboys adrenalin junkie cops if you get more safety at a lower cost.

10 Jun 2015

Speed blogging -- Water Alternatives

Water Alternatives is a quality, free journal that emphasizes the social side of water. The recent issue has a number of useful perspectives:

Aral Sea update

This is from a National Geographic article.

Note that the "upper Aral" is only intact because Kazakhstan has built a dam to "hold its water" from flowing over the border to Uzbekistan, which doesn't care at all about the Sea (and continues to force citizens slaves to pick cotton). Readers interested in the future of the Salton Sea should also read this, to see the damage of toxic agricultural dust that IID is responsible for. (Recall that I said IID should have its water seized and SOME of the compensating money used to remediate the Salton's bed.)

Related: NASA photos showing environmental impacts, in many places, over the years.

9 Jun 2015

Time for more water smarts!

You need water to grow cows!
It's time for another activity (in fact three!) for the 2015 Water Smarts Calendar.

First, let's look into the "water footprint" of the food you consume as well as the "water stress" of the place your food comes from. This short form (plus "research") should take you about 15-20 minutes.

Second, we're going back to March, to look at how much you pay for how much water you use in your house. I linked to an unreliable site, so here's a new one.

Third, there's STILL TIME to do May's activity: What's your water quality?

Finally, don't forget to download your own Water Smarts Calendar (and recommend it to others). How, after all, are you ever going to learn about the largest flood in recent times (500,000 dead, on purpose) or when the Antarctic was put under scientific protection -- both anniversaries in June -- if you don't download the calendar?!?

8 Jun 2015

Monday funnies

Some just don't agree to hipster cool...

Anything but water

Lisbon's old graffiti artists
  1. James Lovelock, at 96 years old, discusses inevitable climate change, "no fucks given" Gaia, obligatory population control, and deadly wind energy

  2. American-style subsidies screw up farming in Asia

  3. Fool, or be fooled: "The Psychology of Pricing: A Gigantic List of Strategies"

  4. The economics of Uber driving

  5. Where will war and political upheaval come from? Dumb Men: under-employed, under-mated, under-educated working class men in developed countries. This topic also matches my argument that men dominate at the top AND the bottom

6 Jun 2015

5 Jun 2015

Friday party!

This, via CD, is really cool.

Speed blogging

  1. It's all about the land water microclimate!

  2. Last week, I mentioned that MWD is planning to spend $335 million on turf removal. Fleck reports that this program will "save" water (assuming turf replaced by rocks?) at a cost of $1,400/af. Is this smarter than (a) buying water from farmers who get $200/af of profits (high number) or (b) raising prices?

  3. Why do farmers "waste water on low value crops"? Government subsidies for cotton? Or maybe it's subsidized infrastructure? How about prohibitions on trading "use it or lose it" rights? Oh-so-many screw ups!

  4. Planners need to stop assuming water is there for growth. Semi-related: We wouldn't need apps to track our water use if higher prices made water use worth tracking. It's not like we have apps for tracking our wine consumption.

  5. Are migrants responsible for water shortage in California, where 1 in 4 people are born outside the state? Here's a good rebuttal, but I'll add this: California could double its population (to 65 million people) without taking water from current residents... by shifting 25 percent of agricultural water to cities. Maybe some people cannot do the math, but here's the "gut interpretation" -- shortages result when ALL demand exceeds supply, not when one part of demand grows. (NB: I am not saying that population is not a problem, just that it's not the cause of California's water problems -- unless you include food exports!)
H/Ts to SA, JF and RM

4 Jun 2015

A thought on lawsuits

Speaking of lawyers, I was talking to a reporter about the MWD-SDCWA dispute over delivering water in Southern California (yes. again) that's been going on for 20+ years.

I pointed out that the lawsuit has been going so long because each side is using Other People's Money (ratepayers) to pursue their personal interests (mostly about money and power) and because few ratepayers even know that they suit is happening or that they are paying its $50 million (and counting) tab.

This leads me -- in the absence of firing Jeff Kightlinger and Maureen Stapleton -- to think of ways to end zero-sum lawsuits that are destroying value with every passing day.

So, let's say that after a limit (two years?) that one of these events will occur:
  1. Flip a coin, declare a winner.
  2. Allow each side to argue its case for one hour to a jury who then picks a winner.
  3. Trial by combat.
Which do you like? Pros/cons? Better ideas?

Any innovative lawyers around?

JM left the following comment:
Maybe you described this in one of your books, but it would be useful to have a script, or at least some pointers, for when I show up at the STPUD board meeting and suggest that they change their pricing to reflect costs and water scarcity. I could use a simple statement that would make sense and could be backed up by authoritative reports etc.

I think most public utilities have a charter that says how they are allowed to increase prices. I would need a replacement for the language in that charter. I have no problem being an activist, but I want to have a workable solution to offer the board members. And yes, I agree they may want to look good to their constituents by not raising prices in order to win re-election. What's can I give them to counter that fear?
Can anyone help with proposed or enacted bylaws/regulations on setting water prices for conservation? Here's my attempt at a guideline...

  • Our community will need reliable, safe water services into the distant future.
  • Our community accepts responsibility for our water future.
  • Our community values the environment, the poor, business and individual freedom.
Let it here be known that our community requires that
  • Our obligation to maintain our demand within sustainable bounds be observed
  • Our water system be fully funded in terms of operations and renewal
  • Our water prices not discriminate among water users
  • Our system charges reflect users' "capacity requirements" and use
  • Customers' freedom to choose how to use water be respected
We therefore instruct our representatives to design policies for our approval and in compliance with these priorities and guidelines.


3 Jun 2015

Anything but water

  1. Politwhoops stores politicians' deleted tweets (lots of edits, but some gaffes)

  2. Just trying to deceive you: clickbait shysters and making slot machines addictive

  3. Small motors help women start small businesses. Related (bottom up): Crowdsourcing medical diagnosis

  4. "Absent fathers and feminised schools are driving boys into a disconnected online world of porn and video games." Related: Alienated/jobless youth turn to terrorism (Belgian who joined ISIS). Next up? Angola (corruption + lost oil revenue)

  5. Bookmark this: make a webpage printer friendly (or download the PDF)

Water is like marijuana

When marijuana is illegal, people use it, growers damage the environment while growing it, and the government wastes money chasing growers and users.

When marijuana is legal, people use it, growers shift to legal and sustainable sites, and the government makes money on taxes and saves money on policing...

When water shortages are addressed by supply-side and command and control policies, then money is wasted, the environment is depleted, and people are annoyed.

When water shortages are addressed with higher prices, then utilities have more revenue (to reward lower users or fix leaks), lower demand helps the environment, and people choose their water use.

Any questions?

Inspired by one of Fleck's posts.

2 Jun 2015

Pat Mulroy's unsustainable drive

DG sent this profile of Pat Mulroy, from German immigrant to Brookings "Sustainability" Fellow, which clarifies where her "growth gene" came from and how she's continued to talk conservation while acting unsustainably. I left this comment:
This is absolutely brilliant. Thanks for doing the background on what I've been discussing for years, i.e., Mulroy's conservation window dressing on limitless growth. Is she right that "someone had to do it"? Maybe. But maybe (1) she didn't mind the moral tradeoff and (2) she could indeed have managed it better. I think, instead, that she's a real believer in limitless growth -- and thus one of the causes of our crises today. And I sure hope that nobody listens to her advice on how to run ruin cities.
Bottom Line: Don't listen to what someone says; watch what they do.

A thought on academic ethics

Last week, I sent this email (edited for anonymity):
I hereby resign my position on the advisory council of the Journal of X.

I do this because X published a paper I refereed, a paper that I considered unsuitable for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

I know that it's awkward to tell a guest editor that they need to fix their paper, but we academics should not let power or authority get in the way of open, critical and honest scientific debates. I was disappointed that the author/editors did not seem to take my criticisms seriously. Even worse, they did not even bother to respond to my concerns (as is normal in the review process) before proceeding to publication.

I do not want to participate in an endeavor that produces results like this.
The worst part is that the author is likely to claim the paper as a "peer reviewed article" in their CV and for promotional purposes. Will their supervisors know that the paper wasn't exactly peer reviewed? Will the citizens paying their salary know that their "scientific contribution" is flawed?

Bottom Line: Academics depend on openness and honesty to get their work done. Lose those, and the whole system collapses.*

* This article ("The trouble with scientists") looks at author bias, peer-conservatism and other important questions on research.

1 Jun 2015

Monday funnies

Rain -- the review

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover, and Cynthia Barnett's book (subtitled "a natural and cultural history") delivers exactly what it promises. It reminded me of James Salzman's book, Drinking Water (A History), in the way that she approaches all of rain's various roles in our lives.

I received a review copy of this 300 page book, which is divided into five sections (elemental/chance/American/capturing/mercurial + "rain") that help you understand rain's roles -- famous and not -- in our history.

As someone who has lived in damp (San Francisco and Amsterdam), stormy (Vancouver and Washington DC) and dry (Los Angeles) places, I have a keen awareness of rain's effect on us. The Dutch, for example, do not waste a moment to get in the sun when it's shining. Angelenos, OTOH, run outside when it is raining.

Rain, in fact, may be the most important determinant of how we feel about a place, event or time. Indeed, I would say that is the rainscape, not the landscape, that underlies our impressions of new places and sets our rhythms in familiar ones.

So that's how the book feels, but what lessons or ideas did I take from it? On the one hand, the book could be a series of interesting magazine articles, suitable for cocktail conversation. On the other, it might make you think a little more about how a change in rain might affect your life. This latter role is important, as climate change is likely to "arrive" in the guise of changes in rain patterns (e.g., California's snowpack bare mountains, the killer drought in India, or the killer floods in Texas).

The book also prompted these random thoughts:
  • Farmers may not like rain as much as irrigation for growing crops, but rain's variability forces one to be more conservative with plans, plants, and projects. Irrigation is convenient, but interruptions can doom those who depend on it. (Groundwater is the best buffer for variable rain, but you cannot mine it!)
  • In the eastern US, they practice flood control; in the west, they practice irrigation. Cross those traditions to get unexpected consequences on top of expected failures and complications.
  • Politicians are fools for "gee whiz" solutions (e.g., cloud seeding) -- especially when they are bought with Other People's Money (yay Congress!)
  • Rain is a cultural force that makes people feel good when it fits their younger experiences.
  • People and politicians will act to reduce pollution (e.g., acid rain) when its costs fall back on them (hence the challenge for dealing with GHGs and climate change).
Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS for being an interesting read for people who want to think more about rain, history and culture than about policy, technology or economics.