22 Dec 2016

Renewable reliable desalination

I asked Sid Vollebregt to write a guest post about his young company's technology, which sounds exciting (they've got projects running!), but I have not checked out the company's financials or technology. Please ask for details if you have a project or partnership in mind. -- David

In a recent TEDx Talk, we explained how we can produce fresh water sustainably.

Desalinated water production usually requires lots of fossil energy. Desalination already accounts for 1 percent of the global electricity consumption, while it currently only supplies half a percentage of our global water needs. This means that desalination powered by renewable energy is basically the only way forward in order to truly provide a sustainable source of freshwater.

The problem with renewable energy driven desalination is the coupling of fluctuating renewable sources (sun, wind, waves) with the preferred desalination technology, reverse osmosis, which is designed for constant operation. Existing solutions either use batteries or operate discontinuously, resulting in high cost, limited scalability and variable water quality.

Elemental Water Makers delivers affordable, renewable-energy-driven desalination.

Our system uses the renewable energy, for example, solar energy generated by solar panels, which are connected to a seawater pump which displaces the seawater towards an elevated water buffer. This buffer delivers the required pressure for the reverse osmosis process. The elevation difference required is reduced by 80 percent using a mechanical form of energy recovery, re-using the excess pressure still present in the brine flow. For seawater, 90 m is required. Brackish water requires about half the elevation. The elevated water buffer is filled throughout the day and will be able to cover the nights, producing fresh water without any auxiliary power, leading to affordable fresh water.

Here is a summary of our benefits (for details, go here)
  • Up to 70 percent savings on electricity usage
  • Scalable for community & municipal sized water production
  • Reliable and independent water supply
  • Green solution without fossil fuels, preventing any greenhouse gas emissions
  • Off-grid operation with limited maintenance
  • Stress-free operation through remote monitoring
  • Silent operation by excluding high pressure pumps & generators
In 2015, Elemental Water Makers delivered their first commercial project in the British Virgin Islands, producing 12.5 m3/day. The end-user saves 63 percent in comparison with his former, conventional fossil electricity driven reverse osmosis unit. Besides cost savings, the project reduces CO2 emissions by 25 tons per year. Here's a video tour of the installation.

Brine can be a big environmental issue, which is mostly caused by the large difference in salt concentration between the brine itself and the environment (often sea) it is disposed in. In order for our system to allow for an 80 percent decrease in required elevation, the system is forced to run at a low recovery ratio, resulting in more energy to be recovered from the brine and thus a lower required elevation. This 80 percent decrease is only possible when using a very efficient (95 percent) energy recovery process. If we add this together, we get a system, which runs at a low recovery ratio, leading to only a slightly more saline (less than 20 percent) brine discharge, while still being able to run a very efficient desalination process.

Elemental Water Makers does not only provide adaptability on a technological aspect, but also in a social and economical way. Renewable energy driven products will always involve higher investment costs than conventional powered systems, due to the fact that energy is "purchased" up-front, instead of spreading it out over the operational years, as is the case with fossil fuel or grid powered products. Governments, municipalities and general end-users in need for a fresh water solution often do not have the means to cope with these high up front costs. Therefore Elemental Water Makers is also working on Water Purchase Agreements (DBOT). By entering into an agreement for the purchase of the produced water for a certain amount of years, financing can be obtained to cope with the investment. Currently an agreement is entered with a municipality in Cape Verde for a village of 1300 people, who will soon enjoy a 50m3/day reliable and affordable potable water supply, without having to invest. The strength of this project is the combination of immediate cost savings while enabling a safe and sustainable water supply. Simultaneously the Cape Verde system will be used for educational purposes about fresh water scarcity, desalination and renewable energy. This should be an example for all 57 Small Island Developing States who can benefit from this solution.

Bottom Line Elemental Water Makers has a solution, but we need help reaching end-users, decision makers, international agencies, developers, architects and NGOs who can benefit from our technology and knowledge. Please contact us if you want to know more or have some people for us to meet.

21 Dec 2016

Introducing the City Water Project!

I'm working with four students on a project to empower local groups seeking to promote (their good) or improve (their bad) water quality.

Watch this video (in HD, with subtitles of your choice) to learn more.

This project is just emerging from beta testing, and we're looking for partners in new cities. Check out the website for more!

19 Dec 2016

Life Plus 2 Meters is out!

I started this project about five months ago, and it's gone better than I expected.

I've just finished editing and assembling the first set of visions into another Aguanomics Press publication, Life Plus 2 Meters (volume 1). From my preface:
I began the Life Plus 2 Meters project in August 2016* after reading Martin Weitzman's 2011 paper "Fat-tailed uncertainty in the economics of catastrophic climate change" and Hansen et al.'s 2016 paper "Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2C global warming could be dangerous." The two papers led me to believe that our economic models severely understate the risk from climate change and that the IPCC's estimated increase in sea level ("1 meter by 2100") is far too optimistic. Hansen et al. say that sea level may rise by 6-9m by 2100. Even worse, that rise may arrive in an abrupt shock (e.g., "3-4m in a couple of years") that would make retreat, rather than adaptation, the only response.

This project aims to engage the public in planning for changes far more dramatic than those discussed in governmental and international forums, and it uses "climate fiction" methods of bringing different potential outcomes to life.

This edited volume presents a series of 29 "visions" by 27 authors of how we might (not) adapt to life in a climate-changed world where sea levels are 2 meters higher, weather patterns have shifted, storms have grown stronger, food systems are strained, and so on.

These visions may not agree with each other: their authors come from different academic, social and philosophical backgrounds. They will not be 100 percent accurate: our lives are affected by a complex mix of environmental, social, political and economic forces. They may not change your mind: everyone will read and interpret them differently. Our only goal here is that these visions help you think about how you, your community and your world -- our civilization -- might adapt to life in a climate-changed world.
The book is now available as a free PDF as well as cheap ($4) paperback and Kindle versions.

Bottom Line: Read the book and recommend it to others. We need more people thinking of how we will adapt to climate change.

* I registered the URL on 30 April, but only began in earnest in August :)

Monday (not so) funnies

America's (perhaps not-duly-elected) Assclown-in-Chief is going to be delivering enough crazy to keep the comedians busy for years.

I'm glad to see Noah Trevor calling the bad economics like it is.

16 Dec 2016

Friday party!

I've had a lot of respect for Madonna over all these years of her career (34!), as she's been a consistent innovator.

But her recent speech is really a fine example of how smart and hard working she is, in the face of sexism and discrimination from people in the industry and people in society.

Why do her complaints matter (besides the fact that they represent real suffering)? Because she -- and others facing discrimination -- could have accomplished so much more if they did not face the additional challenge of discrimination.

Watch it, share it.

And then watch this to get an idea of her creative genius:

14 Dec 2016

Interesting links

  1. Q: Why do research papers have so many authors? A: Academics are padding their CVs
  2. Academics Without Borders works to promote development. I signed up.
  3. Flint, two years (and not fixed) later. By my calculations, it will be around $650 million to replace pipes ($25,000/house). My question is whether that money would be better spent helping people leave the city "that's a 'hood everywhere."
  4. "Fidel Castro is dead" - a long obituary of a liberator and tyrant
  5. How to Hide $400 Million -- The Rich are different from us, they have more money pay no taxes.
  6. An Arabic view of Trump
  7. "How did you get your job, testing hallucinogenic drugs?"
  8. Speaking of entrepreneurs, watch this video I took of Muhammad Yunus (Grameen Bank founder, Nobel Peace Prize winner) explaining why we ALL can be entrepreneurs
  9. "When is desalination the right choice?" (including some of my comments)
  10. IBNET has water tariffs for 4,000+ utilities in 188 countries. IWA has them for 170 cities in 40 countries. IWA should merge their data with IBNET and help us all.

H/T to JM

13 Dec 2016

Before the Flood -- the review

I was originally hesitant to watch Leonardo DiCaprio's film on climate change (the trailer is a little too Hollywood), but I am glad that I saw it at a screening last week in Den Haag.

I recommend that you watch it (it's no longer free online but there are copies around), as ol' Leo has done an excellent job at exploring the problem, what needs to be done, and what's being done. (There's definitely some "gee whiz" hyperbole, but it's not totally inappropriate.)

As a post-screening discussant, I had the following comments:
  • The 20/80 rule: Most people watching the movie -- the 20 percent -- want to do the right thing (eating less meat, not flying, etc.) but "the rest of us" -- the 80 percent -- can't be bothered to act. That's why a carbon tax would be so useful, as it prods everyone into finding ways to use less. (Same holds for "raise prices" with water.)
  • REAL global agreements to reduce GHG emissions will stumble over (a) accounting for emissions via production or consumption (if consumption, then China looks better and the EU does worse) and (b) deciding rights/reductions via existing emissions ("grandfathering") or population (global environmental justice). Those aspects block agreement on cap and trade regimes that will depend on some countries (citizens) paying others, which is politically unpopular.
  • I favor carbon taxes because they are more transparent and raise revenue that can be returned to citizens. Crooked politicians hate the transparency, businesses dislike paying, and environmentalists dislike rebating the money to citizens rather than directing it to "green" projects they favor.
  • In the movie, a guy from the Sierra Club says we need to cut GHG emissions, but the Sierra Club joined with fossil fuel interests to oppose Washington State's W-732 carbon tax initiative. That's pretty sad.
  • Senator Inhofe (OK) is shown in the movie, claiming that the existence of a snowball "proves" climate change is a hoax. That was bad enough, but Trump has named Pruitt, Oklahoma's Attorney General, as his head of the EPA. They are already asking for the names of climate scientists (presumably to fire them). Just terrible.
  • Finally, the movie was not nearly as aggressive as it should be, in my opinion, as they did not go over the increasing probability (as "all the predictions are being surpassed") of more than the 2m of sea level rise IPCC forecasts for 2100. Shouldn't we think about how to prepare (or react) to the quite possible 6-9m of increase? Yes, we should, so head over to my Life plus 2 meters project to subscribe to new posts and -- more important -- the soon to come book and Kickstarter campaign to raise prize money for authors of works for the NEXT book!
Bottom Line: I give this movie FIVE STARS for giving a useful overview of the challenges we face due to our failure of collective action.

8 Dec 2016

Oily water does not make for good salads!

BB sent me this report ("Hazard Assessment of Chemical Additives Used in Oil Fields that Reuse Produced Water for Agricultural Irrigation, Livestock Watering, and Groundwater Recharge in The San Joaquin Valley of California: Preliminary Results" [pdf]), to whose authors I sent the following questions:
Do I read your report correctly, that you are merely enumerating the chemicals but NOT measuring their concentrations?  And am I right to assume that produced water use/discharge is occurring WITHOUT any purification treatment? Or is there some treatment that’s not detailed?
Seth B.C. Shonkoff, PhD, MPH replied with:
You are correct that we did not evaluate concentrations of these chemical additives in the produced water. The first step that we undertook in this hazard analysis was to compare the recently reported chemical constituents to toxicity, priority pollutant, and other databases to identify what should be monitored for and then how. To date the only chemical constituents monitored for were naturally occurring constituents (e.g., boron, arsenic, heavy metals) as well as some others less frequently (annually or every 5 years). This is the first assessment of chemical ADDITIVES used during oil and gas production in fields that are reusing their water for these purposes.

There is very limited treatment prior to irrigation, groundwater recharge and livestock watering. The produced water undergoes oil-water separation and then is run through walnut shells prior to application. Depending upon water availability from other sources it is mixed with between 20% to 50% other water sources prior to application.
In other words (my summary), scientists are merely identifying which chemical additives and related byproducts may be present in the Central-Valley-oil-field wastewater now used for irrigation. The concentrations and impacts of those chemicals are yet to be understood.

Bottom Line Higher water scarcity results in greater use of sources that are farther, dirtier and potentially more harmful to public health and the environment. Policies dating from an age of abundance may not consider the costs of those sources to health or the environment. They need to be updated.

H/T to BB

Does LA have a shortage of water or imagination?

Tim Smith's ever helpful "notes on sustainable water resources" contained this tidbit:
Bureau of Reclamation's Los Angeles Basin Study looks at the changing demographics, climate change and competing interests for available water supplies and identifies options to meet the water needs of the Los Angeles area into the future. The study [pdf] found that there is a potential water supply deficit for the region of approximately 160,000 acre-feet-per year by 2035 and 440,000 acre-feet-per-year or 25-percent less water than the region is projected to need in 2095.
I'm always curious about these "needs" and "deficits", so I skimmed through the study, which uses "low, medium and high (business as usual)" projections for future demands that are 63 gallons/capita/day (gcd), 99 gcd and 136 gcd, respectively (page 34).

Translated in to liters/capita/day (LCD), you get 240, 376 and 517 LCD, respectively. Is this reasonable? Not when you consider that consumption is about 100 LCD in Amsterdam and 160 LCD in Australia's hot, dry cities.

Bottom Line: Los Angelenos can easily avoid water deficits and shortages by reducing their demands, i.e., lawns. How do you get them to do that? Raise prices.

5 Dec 2016

Let's choose a cover for Life plus 2m!

We need to choose a cover for the first collection of visions that will help people think about and prepare for adapting to climate change.

The goal is to get people interested in reading the book.

Feel free to forward this post to anyone who has opinions on the matter :)

VOTING CLOSED! There's a winner!

Monday (not) funnies

The Dutch "tradition" of Zwarte Piet (Black Piet) dates back to the 1850s when slavery was still legal (and accepted). The interesting point of this video is its clarification of some Dutcher's vehement defense of blackface: many Dutch associate it with their childhood excitement and happiness.

I see no reason why today's Dutch children need to grow up with men in blackface. They can be happy with any version of a gift-giving sidekick to Sinterklaas.

Addendum: The EU network against racism debunks just about every "defense" of Zwarte Piet.

1 Dec 2016

How to Start a Business & Ignite Your Life -- the review

I assigned this 2012 book to my "entrepreneurial production" class because I like Ernesto Sirolli's perspective on start ups and entrepreneurs.

(His 1999 book, Ripples from the Zambezi: Passion, Entrepreneurship, and the Rebirth of Local Economies is really great for understanding how he learned to just "shut up and listen" -- watch his TED talk -- but it's not as pragmatic as this book.)

The main point of this book (subtitle: "a simple guide to combining business wisdom with passion") is that few entrepreneurs succeed on their own. Teamwork is useful necessary because:
  1. A startup product or service needs attention to production, marketing and finance. Pretty much everyone is better or worse at each of these skills.
  2. Teams share the burden of work as well as limiting (not) brilliant ideas that can derail or distract efforts to produce value for customers.
  3. Communication among team members forces them to quantify and qualify ideas that may be "obvious" in their head but make little sense when explained to others.
The book is short (100pp), clear and useful. Rather than discuss it chapter by chapter, I will leave a few notes that may interest potential readers.
  • Passion ("suffering") is important for entrepreneurs, as success is neither quick nor inevitable.
  • Outsiders are usually ignorant of what a community needs (the development aid trap), so they should try to find and enable passionate locals with solutions.
  • Entrepreneurs often have good ideas but little experience. That's why they may need partners who can speak from experience and/or fill in areas where the entrepreneur is weak.
  • Every team must have at least one person with a comparative advantage in each of the big three roles: production, marketing and financial management (P, M and FM). A division of labor improves time allocation, speeds decisions, and drives innovation on each of these critical margins.
  • If you don't like (or can't do) P, M or FM, then find someone who can. They may even work for free if they have passion.
  • Good production people are always looking to improve but don't let perfection prevent sales!
  • Good marketers genuinely want to help people, not dump crap on them.
  • Good financial managers can help you understand where you are and where you might go, using only realistic numbers.
  • Investors back teams, not ideas. A good team will write a good business plan. A bad business plan means the team is too weak in talent or cooperation.
  • "Entrepreneurship is much more a social game than an individual one. The most striking characteristic of a successful entrepreneur is perhaps the ability to identify, cultivate, and use other people’s competencies."
  • If you need a partner for P, M or FM, then find someone you like in that area and ask for a referral. They may not be free, but they probably know someone who is.
  • "Solitude is the death of the entrepreneur. Just as you must look inward to understand your passion, you must look outward to find others to help you. Success in business rests primarily on these two actions. Never be reluctant or embarrassed to seek assistance, and do so with prudence and optimism. Remember, there are “magical helpers” out there waiting for a passionate “hero” to commit to the entrepreneurial journey."
Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS for providing useful advice to would-be entrepreneurs and insight to those of us who want to understand the elements of success. Find partners and bring value to the world!

29 Nov 2016

Interdisciplinary incentives

Continuing from this morning's other post...

In my most recent newsletter (subscribe here!), I wrote:
I'll be presenting at an interdisciplinary education conference in Amsterdam in February. I'm still surprised and dismayed at how hard it is to get academics to talk outside their disciplines (like economists talking to hydrologists), let alone outside the ivory tower. The reason is (a) it takes work to translate jargon into the common tongue and (b) a total lack of professional incentives (i.e., publish or perish), which explains why so much academic research brings few insights (partial analysis is useless) or impacts (inaccessible means unconsidered).
To this, Ed Dolan replied:
I agree with your interdisciplinary comments. One of the pleasures of being retired is being liberated from some of those constraints. I have been giving a series of talks at a local discussion group of almost all retirees in our small town here. At the latest one (Free Trade under Fire) there were about 40 people, at least 10 with PhDs in various fields (only one other economist) and another dozen or so with advanced degrees in engineering, law, or medicine. More than an hour of lively and insightful discussion following the slideshow. In contrast to a discussion with students in the audience, the participants had not only opinion but experience. In contrast to a faculty seminar within an econ department, or at an econ conference, there was no feeling that the discussion was a competitive event in which the goal was to ask questions that made the discussant look brilliant and the presenter look stupid.

The economist as public intellectual

Gordon Tullock (1984):
Most economists only occasionally give lectures to something like the Rotary Club. I am suggesting that this aspect of professional life be sharply increased. Furthermore, I am suggesting that you become an expert on some rather obscure topic instead of giving your lecture to the Rotary Club on what is right or what is wrong with Reaganomics. This is indeed a change from the normal academic life but not a gigantic one. I am not suggesting that you devote immense amounts of time to these joint projects, merely that you do indeed devote some time to them. In a way it may be a pleasant change from the more profound and difficult work that I am sure mainly occupies your time.


Even if there were no beneficial impact on your career, nevertheless, I would urge it on you. All of us are, to some minor extent, charitable and this is a particularly convenient way for economists to work out their charitable feelings. Getting rid of the British Columbia Egg Board* might not impress you as a major accomplishment, but individuals can expect to have only small impacts on the massive structure that we call modern society. It is likely that you will do more good for the world by concentrating on abolishing some such organization in your locality than the average person does—indeed, very much more. It is an unusual form of charity, but a form in which the payoff would be high. But although such work falls squarely in the path of virtue, it also has positive payoffs. You can, to repeat my title, do well while you are doing good.
Bottom Line: I'm glad to have such a distinguished thinker as an inspiration for my work.

* The BCEMB, sadly, is still screwing Canadians ... just as the milk and alcohol boards are.

24 Nov 2016

For whom are fisheries managed?

A fisherman writes [edited for anonymity]:
I want a license to fish X. I made an application, but they said I would have to buy out an existing fisher. The cost of which would be approximately one million dollars even if anyone would sell.

The X fishery was developed approximately 25 years ago out of experimental licenses that were given to those that took part in the experimental fishery. Those fishers have formed a group, but they have never fully caught their quota for X in all those years.

I proposed that I be allowed to fish only the average of the past five years uncaught quota by fishing where the "group" did not chose to fish. Ultimately this was rejected.

I am asking for some advice on attacking this situation. From your perspective is there a reasonable argument that I could put forward?
In reply, I wrote:
It seems that the regulator is defending the property rights of the existing folks as a means of (1) protecting their (cartel) profits that would fall if you brought X to market and (2) potentially protects the X fishery from pressures on other places that may serve as nurseries for the commercial catch.

The purpose of cap and trade is to keep the fishery sustainable and profitable -- not to allow entry by those who may like to make money. The only angle I'd predict you could get would be to introduce some innovation that promises enough profits that you could buy out an incumbent. But, as you said, that's a lot of money.

My only suggestion is that you work for a permit owner who wants to retire, perhaps on a partnership that transfers quota to you over 10 years... like an apprentice.
Bottom line: New fishermen do not have the right to start fishing in sustainable fisheries.

23 Nov 2016

Interesting links

I stopped "speed blogging" about a year ago as I switched to twitter and (for my students) Facebook. Now that I am off both (except for tweeting for Life plus 2 meters -- without much success), I will return to posting interesting links here.
  1. The Society for Decision Making Under Deep Uncertainty (free membership :)
  2. I donated $100.22 to the American Civil Liberties Union. Trump tower's ZIP is 10022
  3. The "Lex Mercatoria" (private merchant courts dating from the 1450s) never existed
  4. The power of peers: self-evolving institutions that aid development
  5. Basic income lowers risk and raises productive fulfillment
  6. "We’re heading into dark times. This is how to be your own light in the Age of Trump"
  7. Yes, you can be too successful as a startup (eatable cutlery!?!)
  8. Michael Lewis on the intellectual foundations of MoneyBall
  9. Trump the Troll (analysis by cyber-psychologist) is now paying fraud damages. He's also making business deals with foreign leaders to benefit himself his daughter. People who voted for "the guy who makes deals" may not have realised that he wasn't talk about making deals for them.
  10. James C. Scott: "I was trained as a political scientist and the profession bores me, to be frank. I am truly bored by mainstream work in my discipline, which strikes me as a kind of medieval scholasticism of a special kind. People ask me about the intellectual organization of my interdisciplinary work, and I have to say, it’s the consequence of boredom and the knowledge that so many other things had been written about peasants that are more interesting than anything political scientists have written about them, that I should go to those places and learn these things and read things outside of the discipline like Balzac and Zola, novels about the peasantry and memoirs."
H/Ts to MV and CD

22 Nov 2016

Do lawn rebates work? Yes but badly

This story explains how California water agencies spent $350 million subsidizing lawn removal so that people would should might use less water.

While this program was a success in terms of spending, I'm not sure it was either efficient, sustainable or equitable.

In terms of efficiency, it's clear that higher water prices would encourage people to use less water on all margins, i.e., by watering less but also fixing leaks, etc.

In terms of sustainability, "the jury is still out" as there's no sign that (a) use in those households fell (the rebound effect) or that (b) use by neighbors didn't consume the savings.

In terms of equity, you have to ask "who paid $350 million?" and answer: ratepayers who saw increases in their bills. Assuming that that wealthier ratepayers were the ones with lawns (and the cash to pay the rest of the cost to rip them out), then the implication is that poorer ratepayers subsidized the richer ratepayers. Not exactly the way it's supposed to work.

Bottom Line: If you want people to use less water, then raise the price. If you want to protect the poor from price increases and the utility from revenue fluctuations then read this.

21 Nov 2016

So I'm sitting in my armchair...

Anne frank is on her bike going to school, the economy continues to suffer from trade disturbances, and the streets are tense. People pass each other warily.

Our leaders say they can protect us but how are we safe when the neighbors hate us?

It's not just Trump. The whole world is in the thrall of nationalist-populists who promise to "take back" sovereignty and wealth from neighbors making the same promises. Those zero sum negative sum games cannot work, by definition. When they fail, those populists will try to avoid the people's anger by shifting blame onto minorities and outsiders. In the resulting conflict, everyone will lose.

We've been here before.

Bottom Line: Voltaire (born 322 years ago today) wrote: "War is the greatest of all crimes; and yet there is no aggressor who does not color his crime with the pretext of justice."

Monday funnies

At least the kids can make us laugh...

More: The bucket terrorist and drinking physics

19 Nov 2016

HyperNormalization -- the review

I've watched, enjoyed and learned from Adam Curtis's other documentaries ("Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" and "The Century of the Self") but his most recent, "HyperNormalization" is extremely timely, as it starts with a trend of deception in the 1970s that delivers Trump's victory just 10 days ago.

Perhaps the most important part is that social media companies -- which make money from serving advertisements (and thus want you to visit and click often) -- are entirely fine with (a) misinformation, (b) echo chambers, and (c) personalized reality.*

Their goal is not to show you the truth or to force people to face and engage over different perspectives. The goal of companies like Facebook, Breitbart, Twitter, Huffington Post, et al. is that you get angry and click a lot. Do those clicks force others to see your perspectives and insights? No, because they also isolated by the same algorithms. The resulting segmentation into isolated communities yelling online does nothing to affect life and policies in the real world, where the 1 percent are left to find new and interesting ways to deepen their power and increase their wealth at a cost to all.**

Can you make Facebook work for you, like the protestors at Tahrir Square used it to help their rebellion? I don't think so, since The Algorithm is NOT optimized to help you. It's designed to make money.***

Bottom Line Helpless anger and depression is not a bug. It's a feature. I give this documentary FIVE stars for revealing a lot of fact to be fiction.

* Years ago, I said that Facebook could NOT be good for users, as its revenue model was not subscription charges but advertisements. I joked that FB would only be able to make money by blackmailing people like me with personal information, but now I see that FB is *still* making money off of me b/c every article I share or click on generates money to facebook from the media companies that depend on Facebook for readers (and thus people to click on THEIR advertisements).

** I wrote this in 2010:
FB is often Fakebook, a place where people create their perfect version of themselves. That's not an issue per se (we all like to see our best sides), but this exercise can get out of control, so that people spend more time living in an imaginary world and less time face-to-face with people who see them in all their dimensions, good and bad.

*** I got so angry writing this, that I deactivated my Facebook account. (No, you can't delete your profile because Facebook, like the Hotel California, can never be left. FB will use your data forever.)

On choosing to "deactivate," Facebook The Algorithm argues with you, using psychological manipulation. First, there's the guilt trip:

Then there are arguments against your reason for leaving.

I just said "other," i.e., Facebook's advertising model serves companies, not me.

Addendum. "It’s time to get rid of the Facebook “news feed,” because it’s not news" and "Mark Zuckerberg – Dead At 32 – Denies Facebook Has Problem With Fake News" and "Facebook should hire me to audit their algorithm"

H/T to RM

17 Nov 2016

All studies intending to use a virtual water strategy to solve problems of water scarcity may stop now.

That's one of the conclusions of this straightforward paper [pdf], which explores how food (and other) production requires more inputs than just water (land, labor, capital, etc.) to be efficient and sustainable.

This critique is exactly the same as my critique of energy-water nexus perspectives. Their focus on energy/water interactions (rather than all uses contributing to "overuse") means that the analysis is biased and probably wrong.

H/T to MV

15 Nov 2016

Trump, the commons and migration

As I've said many times, economics is to markets as politics is to communities. Thus, you can find countries where private goods are well provided relative to public/common pool goods because markets are working while political institutions are failing.

I moved to the Netherlands because I preferred to live in a country where the people worked together to protect those without the "market power" necessary to buy private solutions to their vulnerabilities, i.e., to the poor, the sick, the old and young.

Now the US has a president-elect who not only disparages vulnerable groups but promises to mess up markets to "help" other downtrodden groups. This is not the right way to go, but -- much worse -- Trump is not even interested in helping the middle class compared to helping lobbyists and crony capitalists.

Trump doesn't care about the commons. He made his money as a real estate developer whose private profits depended on subsidies and tax breaks that often undermined communities

What we are seeing, in other words, is the results of a Baptists and Bootleggers campaign in which Saint Donald the Baptist promises to use his presidential power to help the underemployed and discouraged white middle class while actually delivering all the power and policy decisions to corporate lobbyists (the Bootleggers) who will make bigger profits off the backs of those exact people.

We have seen this before with Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, and so on, but most Americans would not know this because most Americans have neither visited foreign countries (compare passport holding with state voting here) nor follow news from those countries.*

Indeed, Trump's rapid betrayal of his supporters nearly duplicates the reversals of Brexit leaders -- but many Americans won't even know about those broken promises as they've been told that Brexit is a great idea (Fox: "How Euro elites are trying to kill off UK independence").

This September article calling for "Trexit" is even clearer in its parallels:
Every corrupt, greedy, entitled, fat-cat creep is lined up to hand a bag of cash to Hillary. Because they know if she wins, “THE FIX IS IN.”

They know under President Hillary the country is up for sale. They know they’ll own the president of the United States. They know she’ll hand them the keys to the taxpayers’ vault.

On the other hand, Trump couldn’t care less about their resume, pedigree, title or wealth. He’ll throw them out the door on their butts. They’ll get rich under Hillary. They’ll starve under President Trump.

They fear Trump because they all feed at the public trough. Because they are all part of the slimy, corrupt system rigged against middle class Americans.

Trump threatens to upset their apple cart. He will turn their worlds upside down. He will end their gravy train. The jig is up -- all of their fun at the people's expense ends on November 8th if Trump is elected.
Well, this article -- like similar articles from Murdoch-owned papers in the UK -- is wrong on its most important point: Rather than "starving the greedy fat cats" President-elect Trump is using his "independence" to pander to the fat cats of industry.

It looks like Mr. Art-of-the-Deal can't wait to give away American's money to the One Percent (e.g., 99.6% of income tax cuts will benefit them). What will he say as he does it? Perhaps the same thing he said in the debates: "I'm smart for paying no taxes" [because I keep my money and the country can go to hell]. Trump's experience in turning investors' $billions into $millions for himself (via serial bankruptcies) suggests a terrifying precedent:  As "Commander-in-Chief," he is likely to waste America's income and assets on silly ideas that make him look good but leave everyone else (except his business political partners) worse off.

Looking outside the US, don't forget that Putin is just charmed to his socks to have Trump as President, as now he can dominate the "near abroad" without the pesky Americans blabbing about NATO or human rights. He will probably be even happier when Trump leaves Syria to him and removes sanctions related to Ukraine, so he can get rich while killing even more civilians.

So, yeah. Trump is just about the worst person to put in charge of the commons in the United States (adios environment!) or the world (adios American protection of Europe, S Korea, Taiwan, let alone free trade).

A friend replied to my plan to exchange my American passport for a Dutch passport, saying "America needs people like you... and you will have more stature as an American than as a Dutch." On the former claim, I'm not sure that enough Americans really want my help; they seem to prefer a lying, sexist, racist and incompetent "leader". On the latter claim, I'd prefer to carry the Dutch brand to the American one.

I came over here for a job six years ago and decided to settle here (buying a house) just over two years ago. I made that decision because I think the Dutch do a better job at protecting, building and sharing their commons. Like many migrants, I decided to stay here because "this land is made for me." I was born and raised in America, but I no longer recognize myself in it.

Bottom Line: Nobody wants to leave their home country, their memories and their people behind, but some choose to migrate because another land offers them a better life.

* Addendum: Check out this (negative) correlation between passport holding and Trump voting

14 Nov 2016

Monday funnies

Perhaps a little post-modern perspective on our new world order?
Prinn, Stephen Q. J. (2016). "Marxist capitalism, capitalism and surrealism," J. Postmodern WTF, vol 12(3):23-33.

1. Expressions of rubicon

The primary theme of the works of Fellini is not materialism, as surrealism suggests, but submaterialism. Bataille suggests the use of the postcapitalist paradigm of narrative to attack sexual identity.

It could be said that Sontag uses the term ‘textual narrative’ to denote a structural reality. Lyotard promotes the use of predialectic nationalism to deconstruct archaic perceptions of society.

Thus, the premise of surrealism states that context comes from the collective unconscious. Derrida uses the term ‘cultural neodialectic theory’ to denote the difference between sexual identity and society.

In a sense, if textual narrative holds, the works of Fellini are empowering. Marx suggests the use of surrealism to analyse and read class.
Get your own postmodern insights here.

H/T to TR

10 Nov 2016

Presidential priorities

Based on exit poll interviews with 25,000 voters, we get this set of priorities:*

Bottom Line: Trump supporters (as a group) want someone who can bring "needed change" but don't care about that person's experience, good judgement, or care for them. The people have spoken.

* As to the method behind this question ("What's the most important quality of the candidate you voted for?"), I assume it takes each voter's choice of ONE quality, then compares the percentage of people for each candidate that identified that quality. Thus, 90 percent of people who said "experience" is most important voted for Hillary, while 8 percent of people saying "experience" voted for Trump.

Trumped up policies

I can't really put a limit on how many potential probable bad policies we're going to see from a three-way alliance of Trump in the executive office, Republicans holding the House and half the Senate, and 1-3 justices appointed by Trump to the Supreme Court, BUT I'll keep (and update) a list of predictions here:

Within 100 days:
  • Keystone XL approved
  • EPA ends regulation on CO2 emissions*
  • US withdraws from climate talks.*
Within one year:
  • ACA (Obamacare) repealed. Poor have Medicare; middle class screwed.
  • Republicans in the Senate routinely use "the nuclear option" to override Democratic filibusters, to give the Donald what he demands ("for the people," of course).
  • ICANN "freedom" is prevented by a R vote. Freedom arrived Oct 1, 2016. #thanksobama
Within one term:
  • Roe v Wade overturned.
Bottom Line: One man can do a lot of damage when strong (wrong) ideologies are set against weak institutions.

Addendum: Coyote predicts Rs will have "buyer's remorse" within 6 months, as Trump implements policies too radical for them. I think they will be too drunk with power to break off. Tyler Cowen is far less pessimistic than I am.

Addendum2: I may have been too optimistic: "Basically, Trump has promised an America-first, drill-baby-drill energy policy. He has promised unfettered production of coal, oil and natural gas and to "bring the coal industry back 100 percent." ... For his energy and environmental policy team, Trump has selected one of the nation's most prominent climate contrarians, Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, to head his EPA transition. Ebell worked on policy for the tobacco industry before his years of work opposing environmental regulations and sowing doubt on climate science. Trump is also reported to be considering Harold Hamm, chief executive of fracking industry leader Continental Resources, for energy secretary, and Forrest Lucas, co-founder of oil products company Lucas Oil, for interior secretary."

* Myron Ebell of CEI is leading the team to staff the EPA (a commenter said this on yesterday's post, but I read it elsewhere). I had a few emails with him at the end of Jun 2012. He's a skeptic of Anthropogenic CC (AGCC), i.e.,


I'm not sure what your point about climate change is here. Global warming does not lead to more extreme cold events, and global cooling does not lead to more extreme hot events. The longest and most extensive Arctic temperature data sets are in Alaska. Igor Polyakov has compiled them. They show that Alaska was warmer in the 1940s than in the 2000s. Temperatures the last few years are headed down again. That's why Nome was frozen up this fall and the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas have a lot more ice this summer than in the past couple decades. As for the other side of the Arctic, recent melting near Hudson's Bay has revealed tree lines much further north than today. That shows that some hundreds of years ago (ending about 800 years ago), it was warmer than today for an extended period. If warming hasn't stopped, then perhaps in a couple hundred years there will be trees growing there once again.

  1. That's not the most extensive temp record.
  2. Core-based records show warming
  3. Trees (or haddock) are not a good sign for an ecosystem built on another climate
  4. Your comments about warming/cooling and "extremes" makes no sense to me, in the context of thermodynamics...
More important, why are you guys arguing with scientists? Why not reduce the harm of policies that lead to more energy use, building in flood plains, agricultural subsides, etc.
  1. Are you funded by any of the "denialist" sources?
  2. Are you actually interested in US -- as opposed to global -- policies?
The only reason I talk to CEI is b/c I think we can make common cause in some areas, not b/c I see no role for government or international cooperation... and I'm a libertarian-environmental-economist!


Polyakov’s is the longest temperature station dataset record. The Arctic Climate Impact Commission report that the bureaucratic duffer Bob Correll chaired excluded the involvement of most Arctic experts and then published a temperature record that began in 1950. When challenged, Correll replied that there weren’t enough stations before the second World War. In fact, there were two to three times as many stations as there are today. I would be very careful about making assertions based on ice core records. The advance and retreat of the tree line is a very good indication of temperatures in the Arctic. When there is no ice cover and no permafrost, forests return over time. We are a long way away from Arctic temperatures that allowed the tree line to advance to where it was during the Medieval Warm Period.

We don’t argue with scientists. We follow the scientific debate. And we rely on a lot of the chapters in the IPCC Assessment Reports. They are of highly variable quality, so need to be used with care. The most discouraging things about the global warming scientific debate are the endless claims of the modelers (who use models that have no forecasting ability for GMT, regional change, or impacts) and the repeated readjusting of the temperature data by GISS and NCDC.

We have been one of the leaders in opposing policies that raise energy prices, reduce access to energy, and force people to use less energy. We have been active for decades opposing federal flood insurance and similar policies that subsidize building in flood plains and on beaches. We have always opposed the farm bill and have spent quite a lot of effort trying to get rid of environmentally destructive subsidies, such as the sugar program and the ethanol mandate.

Our funding comes from a wide variety of individuals, corporations, and foundations.

We spend a lot more time on U. S. than on international policies.

I’m very pleased you talk to us. We look forward to co-operating with you on those issues where we have much in common. We work on specific issues with people who are much further from us politically than you are. For example, we co-operate closely with Friends of the Earth in trying to get rid of the corn ethanol mandate and subsidies. They of course support the mandate for advanced (cellulosic) ethanol, which we of course oppose. And Greenpeace recently signed a joint letter with us, even though they spend a lot of time smearing us in the media.


Thanks for all the information. I am not going to get into the science debates, except to point out that any scientist who could show the huge majority of his fellows to be wrong would not only get massive attention and funding, but endless apologies, etc.

That's how the scientific method works, of course. We saw it recently with the debunking of the autism-vaccine claim.

I see zero sign of such debunking by AGCC deniers. There's no world conspiracy of scientists aimed at securing funding. There's not even a cabal of ideologues who want everyone to wear a hair shirt.

So, how about we make a gentleman's bet ($1) that AGCC is happening. We can close in some time in the next 20 years, I reckon.

Until then, let's work on the low hanging fruit:
We have been one of the leaders in opposing policies that raise energy prices, reduce access to energy, and force people to use less energy. We have been active for decades opposing federal flood insurance and similar policies that subsidize building in flood plains and on beaches. We have always opposed the farm bill and have spent quite a lot of effort trying to get rid of environmentally destructive subsidies, such as the sugar program and the ethanol mandate.
(do you support Pigouvian taxes aimed at local pollution resulting from energy? Burning coal, for example?)


[no reply]

9 Nov 2016

Trump's election was a long time coming

On Sept 12, 2001, I wrote ...
It is clear, as the reaction to this tragedy develops, that many people were killed or hurt and MANY more are scared, mad and/or upset...Americans, in general, do not have alternative life experiences from other cultures. For many of them, this attack was the first time that the outside world has directly intervened with their lives. It seems that many people are handling themselves in a way that deserves tremendous respect and pride, but I have some fear of anger replacing what's "right".


Before we go off and start shooting (or nuking) all the "rag heads" (as Howard Stern's listeners want), perhaps we should consider where the perpetrators are coming from in terms of their anger at what "America" has done to them. It's too bad that US citizens are not called upon to make the decisions that the government makes for them, because, if we knew more of what was happening (there is a clear lack of coverage and bias in most of the US press/television - against Muslims), it is likely that the USA wouldn't be responsible for as many messes as it is.
Sadly, what we got was a "crusade" led by ignorant and ideological "neoconservatives" that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, more chaos in the Middle East, increased human rights abuses, and so on.

The (not-unrelated) global financial crisis that began in 2007 added economic misery to political instability. The rise of Occupy and the Tea Party in the US (and their failure to get traction), the implosion of cooperation in the Euro-zone, the backlash against free trade, and collapse of climate change negotiations ("now is not the time") can be traced to the blame game and half-cocked responses to economic troubles.

Although 20008 US elections were nearly decided in favor of "Drill Baby Drill" Republicans, Obama was elected president. The joke was "everything's fucked, so they gave the job to the black guy." Although Obama did not deliver as much hope and change as he promised, he did a damn fine job under the circumstances. Perhaps the greatest barrier to his good ideas was the knee-jerk reactionary opposition of the Republicans in Congress who blocked everything they could -- even ideas that they had proposed (the original design of "Obamacare" for example) or norms that had held for over 200 years (voting on the President's nominee to the Supreme Court).

The Republicans' scorched earth policy -- and the related propaganda and lies in an increasingly biased media -- deepened the divisions across American states, thereby turning a republic of "e pluribus unum" (from many, one) into two sides, Red and Blue, each striving to "take back control" of Washington DC so that they could force the losing side to accept their agenda. To me, this process began with FDR's centralization of power in the 1930s (via the Commerce Clause), the rise of "win at all costs" electioneering in the 70s (from "dirty tricks" to Reagan's manipulation of Iranian hostage release) and 80s (the Willie Horton ad) and 90s (Newt's Contract with America, Clinton's impeachment).

Although Hillary was obviously more qualified for the job, she bore the triple burdens of sexism, lies and partisanship as she faced an opponent who promised that Americans could eat their cake and have it. (Watch his final video advert if you want to see how he presses the fear and pride buttons.) I'm sure that The Donald knew he could win after seeing Berlusconi win, Putin lie without consequence, and Sarah Palin's dimwitted policy pronouncements. Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) gave him an excellent chance of winning for his constant appeal to fear, and Brexit more or less showed how angry people would vote against their own interests, to "send a message."

These results are horrifying to the thoughtful among us who see cause and effect, who consider rights to come with obligations, who prefer to negotiate from strength rather than use it to abuse the weak, but they are exactly the results that fearful, nationalistic, bullying people like Donald Trump love.

And they are not novel, as we can see from the writing of H.L. Mencken:
Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
And in the words of George Carlin:

The winners from yesterday's election results will not be the American people. The winners will be the demagogues, bullies and oligarchs who prefer theft over trade, violence over negotiation, and lies over honesty. (Putin was the first head of state to call and congratulate Trump.) Even the Onion cannot spin itself too far from the fact that Osama Bin Laden would be pleased: "FBI uncovers Al-Qaeda plot to just sit back and enjoy collapse of United States"

I am glad that I am watching these results from Amsterdam, as I could not imagine waking up today in California without facing a serious emotional crisis (even with the help of recreational marijuana!). I wrote this on Facebook:
The worst mistake was deregistering when we went back to Canada. Not only did i lose my 30% exemption (now I pay taxes like a proper Dutch!), but I also restarted the "5 year clock" for application for Dutch nationality. So, I have another 2.5 years to go. Until then (and perhaps long after then), I do not plan to visit the US.

I cannot think of a worst case scenario under a Trump-led government (with the supreme court and Congress in his pocket), as one-party states (Egypt, China, Russia, Turkey, et al...) are known for harming both their citizens and neighbors.

The most likely parallel I can imagine is the election of Hitler in 1933, which -- combined with disastrous anti-trade, nationalist policies -- led to WWII. [The New Yorker agrees]

This result is no surprise, but the result of the 1% getting so greedy that "the people's revolt" has brought a populist into office with a mandate to "do something" that is (a) likely to harm those exact people, (b) likely to help the 1% and (c) harm most inhabitants of the planet. #newworldorder
Bottom Line Trump's presidency adds momentum to an racist, nationalist, fascist trend towards a Dark Age that will make 99 percent of us poorer in heart, mind and home.

ps/There is a slim chance that Trump, with the support of the Republican-controlled Congress and Supreme Court will "Make America Great Again" in some yet-to-be-announced way (a la Nixon goes to China). I'd be thrilled, but I'm not putting more than 10 percent odds on that. I'm putting 90 percent odds on Trump being worse for the world and for the average American (based on both his history and the party he's working with). I hope I'm wrong, but I'm not usually wrong.

pps. If Trump is a real revolutionary outsider then he will appoint Michael Moore as SecLabor and Lawrence Lessig as AG. #realrevolution

8 Nov 2016

Dear Americans -- your choices have impacts

You can't even mark this as sarcastic...

Read more on the (German) author's story -- and the death threats he received...

4 Nov 2016

2 Nov 2016

I voted for Hillary Clinton

Economists say that voting is "irrational" because the likelihood of one vote affecting the outcome is zero, and that's particularly true in my case.

(My California absentee ballot adds about 0.0000001% to Hillary's 100% chance of winning California.)

But there are other reasons to vote.

The first most important is that voting, by forcing us to make a decision, also forces us to think about the candidates or topics at hand. Although those thoughts are not going to deliver the wisdom of crowds,1 there's still some benefit to us and our community from having at least an idea of the people and policies that affect our lives.

Second, voting helps politicians understand how popular (or not) they or their policies are. A landslide approval (or defeat) makes it clear where they -- and others -- are going right (or wrong). California's 1982 vote on the Peripheral Canal was interesting for the northern population's 90+ percent opposition to a canal. Sadly, that issue is "back in play" due to the assiduous lobbying of farmers for unsustainable withdrawals of water to be delivered to them by other people's money. It would be great if California voters would punish the politicians helping special interests over the majority of the population next week.

Third, voting keeps us involved in the people or policies that we supported or backed, just as we pay more attention to news from the schools we attended, the countries we visited, etc. That attention means that we are more likely to make a better choice when a similar situation comes up again.

Moving to the candidates, I am voting both FOR Clinton and AGAINST Trump.

In favor of Clinton are her experience and [hard-to-see] leadership skills; the against (her email shenanigans, paid speeches to Wall Street, etc.) is not very remarkable to me when held up against common practices in US politics.2

Against Trump is everything I stand for. He's a lying, sexist, racist populist authoritarian.3 Even worse, he has no concept of economic policy, as can be seen in this open letter from 370 US-based economists [pdf],4 which rebuts his misleading lies in two pages and ends with this:
Donald Trump is a dangerous, destructive choice for the country. He misinforms the electorate, degrades trust in public institutions with conspiracy theories, and promotes willful delusion over engagement with reality. If elected, he poses a unique danger to the functioning of democratic and economic institutions, and to the prosperity of the country. For these reasons, we strongly recommend that you do not vote for Donald Trump.
Although I can't be certain, I am pretty sure that Trump as president would be a disaster for the US population (including the "less-than-college-educated white men" backing Trump), as well as the world. It may be good for rich people who can capitalize on the resulting chaos (a la Oligarchs in Putin's Russia), but I'm not in that class. Even if I was, I wouldn't want to destroy my country (or see my native country destroyed) for such a tiny personal benefit.

Bottom Line: Don't vote until you think of the direct impacts of your vote. If you're mad "at the establishment" then don't put an egotistical lunatic in charge of the establishment.

  1. The wisdom of crowds works pretty well for simple questions. In the classic case, someone asked 100 people "how much does that bull weight?" and the average of their guesses was within 1 percent of the actual weight. That method does not work so well with "should we elect George Bush president?" or "should the UK leave the EU?" as those questions involve multiple factors as well as unknown future events and decisions. (I voted for Bushes in 1988 and 2000, but not in 2004, as I found out how different terrible Bush II was.)
  2. The US system was already screwed up by gerrymandering that has resulted in 97 percent re-election rates in the US Congress (I was shocked to not see Barbara Boxer on the California ballot; she decided to step down as Senator) as well as the baleful impact of money on campaigns (and thus dependency of candidates on donors who want something in return).
  3. I have some background working with real estate developers (here's my paper describing their impact on water and urban sprawl), which helps me see how The Donald doesn't care about the wreckage of his projects, as long as they make him money.
  4. I would have signed it if if I was working in the US.
Addenda: Here's an environmental economist's perspective on how bad Trump would be, and Mathbabe discusses how Facebook distorts news and views to worsen partisan divisions (connecting this post with my post on anti-social media).

1 Nov 2016

Technology will not save us

Technology can be used to overcome many obstacles. It killed distance by letting us speak over phones or fly to distant cities. It saved lives by bringing new medicines and techniques. It made us rich by multiplying our labor output.

But technology cannot overcome "human weaknesses" that must be addressed by changes in our habits, beliefs and instincts. Those can only be changed by introspection and analysis, combined usually with some formal rules of behavior. That process explains our "civilizing progress," but its challenges and setbacks reveal how difficult progress is.

Just 6 months ago (give or take), I wrote how we humans could use the daylight savings time disaster-of-a-policy as a test case for reforming our international systems of governance, thereby making it easier for us to help refugees or tackle climate change. If we could fix that silly, self-imposed confusion, then who knows what we could do!?

But this weekend, I noticed that the clocks on our computers had changed* and thought: Hey, maybe technology (or the internet of things!) would eliminate my confusion every six months. Could we use technology to fix up climate change? But, no, I realized. My wall clock didn't notice the sun coming up "earlier," and I didn't really get an extra hour of sleep. I don't want to know how many other habits, systems and agreements were jostled by our self-imposed "jet lag."

Bottom Line: Technology is excellent, but it's not a solution to human problems. We still face greed, violence, and stupid rules, so we need to make sure we develop our people skills to match our technological advance.

* Note that yours may not have changed. (DST is worse than you think!)

31 Oct 2016

29 Oct 2016

SoS: Oct 2015

These posts are still useful one year (or more) later. Please comment on the original if you have updates on progress or deterioration...

27 Oct 2016

Is Los Angeles finally going sustainable?

In this editorial (via BK), the Los Angeles Times "gives up" Southern California's claim on Northern California's environmental water flows, i.e.,
In this sixth year of drought, the agriculture industry and its supporters have pushed hard for diverting every scarce drop of water flowing down streams and rivers to orchards and field crops instead of, as they often describe it, allowing good water to be flushed downriver, through the Delta, into the San Francisco Bay and out to sea.

But like the water that sustains the Everglades, the water that is allowed to move through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and into the Pacific is not wasted. It is the lifeblood of an ecosystem whose health is essential not just to a particular run of salmon but to agriculture, to the fishing industry, to the economy and to the special qualities that make California what it is.

[snip] Just as Los Angeles residents were prepared to take on a little more hardship and a little less water in order to preserve and sustain distant Mono Lake, to partially restore the Owens Valley and to repair and reverse other environmental damage — and just as they must adapt to even less water in coming years — growers too should be prepared to scale back their wants and needs to ensure that the state and its iconic species survive.
I know that the LATimes was a booster of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (entered service in 1913) and probably was of aqueducts from the Colorado River (1941) and for the State Water Project (1972), but the LATimes is no longer "defending" water imports from Northern California. It wasn't so long ago that I was making fun of LA's useless policies (this 2011 editorial doesn't exactly apologize for Los Angeles' use of water), but the renounced claim on Mono Lake (and semi helpful "partially restore Owens Valley") makes me think that Los Angeles has finally understood it needs to get along with its own, local water supplies.

Anyone got a different (non-)turning point?

You can see signs of that reality in terms of programs to restore the Los Angeles River (adding greenery as well as saving storm runoff) and reclaim polluted groundwater from local aquifers. You can also see it in "ok" programs for water conservation.

I'm happy to see those changes in policy, as I called for such "local resilience" back in 2008. What's even more interesting in this recent opinion is the way the city separates itself from the farmers who are the biggest (80 percent-plus) users of water diverted from the Delta. It's clear (to me) that urban LA has decided to part ways from the farmers who use "urban water security" as an excuse for subsidized projects whose benefits go mainly to farmers.

Bottom Line: California's cities don't need to take water from the environment as much as farmers do. Urban citizens should therefore worry less about short showers and more about the subsidies that encourage farmers to destroy local ecosystems so they can grow and export cash crops.

25 Oct 2016

Dark Age Ahead -- the review

Jane Jacobs is most famous for her Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book that I continue to recommend to anyone interested in the way that cities create value by encouraging human interaction (and destroy value by inviting cars to disrupt and impede that interaction), but Jacobs was also a prolific thinker and writer on a number of other topics.

In this 250pp 2004 book, she looks back at past dark ages to identify the patterns that she sees emerging in North America. (She was born in the US but migrated to Canada as a 52-year old after she was arrested  in 1968 for disrupting plans to "pave over" Greenwich Village. She died in Toronto.)

In her definition, a "dark age" is one in which a culture loses its past knowledge, falling into a mass amnesia in which life grows more miserable and short under the influence of quacks, fear and superstition, with each resulting failure driving people further into desperation, isolation and further self-destructive action.

The key idea is that dark ages arise internally within a culture, even as failures are blamed on outsiders, thereby creating a dynamic in which further reliance on homegrown "solutions" leads to more failures because those solutions are untested, inefficient and oversimplified.

As an economist, I would put this theory in the context of trade, i.e., the exchange of goods or services that leads each trading party better off by allowing both to benefit from the resources and experience (the comparative advantage) of the other. Such win-win exchanges clarify why a reduction in trade (towards "self-sufficiency" or autarky) is so harmful: it turns us from specialists able to benefit from our productivity into generalists who must learn skills and use resources over which we are more amateur than expert.

You should be seeing some parallels to Brexit and Trump by now, but those parallels are merely the most recent version of a long-running human desire for simple answers that end up failing, thereby increasing misery and poverty.

Jacobs discusses five pillars of culture whose decay moves people towards a dark age:
  1. Community and family
  2. Higher education
  3. The effective practice of science and technology
  4. Taxes and government powers connected to needs and possibilities, and 
  5. Self policing by the learned professions
In making this list, she notes that she is not listing racism, environmental destruction, wealth inequality, and so on. That's because -- and I agree -- she sees those problems as the result of failures of the deeper factors listed above.

Let us look briefly into how the weakening of each of these pillars leaves a culture vulnerable to demagoguery, civil strife and collapse.
  1. A weakening of family and community has multiple negative impacts on individuals. First is the loss of social interactions that support tolerance, provide mutual insurance, help children mature, and protect the commons from decay. Single parent families, gated communities, and "government charity" signal such weaknesses at the same time as they provide less-than-complete replacements.
  2. Higher education gives people skills in critical thinking and exposes them to new ideas. The biggest problems with higher education these days comes from an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) degrees over other fields (especially humanities such as classics, languages, history and so on) that are not "marketable." This emphasis, combined with the need to earn money to repay student debts, leads to a narrowing and biased collective perspectives rather than skills in critical thinking or acceptance of other perspectives.
  3. Science and technology can provide an important check on superstition and fantasy, but its effectiveness will be undermined by "know nothings" who think with their guts and reject experts ("we've had enough of experts"). All that remains are echo chambers of group thinkers who lack the ability -- and inclination -- to reconcile their views with those of others, as well as with reality.
  4. Taxes and powers are a big topic, but their effective use contributes to our collective prosperity just as their abuse contributes to conflict and corruption. Government powers should be used with caution, not for the abuse of citizens (war on drugs or on minorities), foreigners (wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), or the other party (Congressional sabotage of presidents dating from 1994).
  5. Professionals such as lawyers, police, doctors and bankers have all undermined their credibility and contribution by blocking attempts to improve their accountability, introduce competition where they abuse market power, and so on. The rise of "occupational licensing" has made it hard for unemployed people to get jobs cutting hair just as it's blocked the expansion of AirBnB or Uber.
I'm sure that you can add your own arguments and examples to these categories, but Jacobs's claim is that their mismanagement undermines our collective wealth, cooperation and tolerance, leaving the door open to quacks and demagogues who promise quick victories over "those guys." The Economist recently covered this story by way of Trump's campaign, but you can see similar lies by "leaders" in Russia, China, the (semi-)UK, France, Turkey, Egypt and many other countries. The upshot of lies and deception in all corners is an increase in paranoia and permissiveness towards "us versus them" policies that makes everyone worse off.

What drives this process of undermining the five pillars? Money provides an excuse to sacrifice others. Jacobs describes how the US car industry did its best to remove public transportation and pedestrians from city streets that would be freed for use as parking lots and expressways. She also identifies "credentialism" businesses that make money from selling access to jobs that used to be open. (I'd add universities that have raised their prices just as fast as "affordable loans" were issued to  students.)

Then you have the "job creators" who seem to think that it's ok to pollute the environment or kill children if someone gets paid to produce that death. The US Chamber of Commerce just claimed that "EU energy prices in the US" would cost the average American household $4,800/year. This travesty of an analysis misses the obvious point that higher prices in Europe are due to taxes that can easily be recycled to families. Energy intensive US businesses, OTOH, are NOT eager to pay for their pollution, as that would force them to use waste less energy. (Don't even get me started on Wall Street's Crony Capitalism.)

Jacobs has her own (sound) logic for debunking the "cars=jobs=growth" garbage spewed by the car/oil/cement industries, but what matters here is the combination of weak communities that cannot oppose new roads, undereducated graduates who cannot think of the human impacts of cars everywhere, a lack of sound science to counter lobbyists, the distortions of lobbying to oppose taxes on harmful car/fuel use and to favor those industries, and -- finally -- the lack of consequences for lawyers and engineers paid by industry to forego their professional methods as they serve their employers' PR departments. Jacobs's point, in other words, is that the social infrastructure that has opposed exploitation of the many by the few (aka "privatize profits and socialize losses") has weakened to the point where we risk slipping into a Dark Age.*

Recall that she published this book in 2004.

Her solution, as ever, is "subsidiarity," which would often be more effective than centralization, e.g., cities controlling their budgets and policies (something that's prevented by provincial governments in Canada, Washington DC in the US, and Brussels in the EU). Greater subsidiarity makes it easier to avoid one-size-fails-all policies,** but not it is not the solution to larger issues such as international trade or climate change. Those issues cannot (and should not) be resolved at the postal code level, BUT it would surely be easier to talk about free trade if people lived in safe communities, felt protected by poverty-reducing taxes (e.g., basic income as an insurance against unemployment) and so on.

Speaking of communities, she has an interesting discussion of the housing bubble and its "inevitable collapse" due to supply outpacing demand. She predicts that collapse will create an opportunity to cut back on sprawl and "densify" cities and suburbs as people find cheaper ways to live in the existing housing stock. This analysis has turned out to be exactly right, except in the magnitude of the damage from the bubble blowing up from its Wall-Street-DC-supercharged size.***

Hopefully, this review gives you a feel of the topics under discussion -- topics that can hardly be more important in today's world. As additional notes, I will mention that the book seems to be structured into a series of essays rather than one long thesis, which can make it seem more like a series of magazine articles than a book, even if its chapters all revolve around the same topic. Further, the book has end notes that are far more interesting than normal. Jacobs was clearly a passionate thinker on these topics.

Bottom Line I give this book FIVE STARS for its timely (timeless?) examination of the forces that support and undermine our communities. The forces propelling us towards a Dark Age are already there, and we must understand them if we are to fight for our quality of life today and in the future.

* The current difficulties of the no-brainer carbon tax in Washington State -- lefties oppose it because they cannot spend the tax money on their pet projects -- is a perfect example of where a good policy will be undermined by ideological greed, much to the pleasure of the oil lobby. Hello Baptist and Bootleggers!

** Her bashing of zoning codes (e.g., single family residence vs light industrial) was gratifying. She doesn't call for a Houston-style free for all, but "performance codes" that allow buildings and behaviors that do NOT contribute to heavy traffic, noise, smells, blocked skies, ugly lighting and unharmonious building shapes. The US adopted codes in 1916 that banned high density and separated commercial and residential uses. Those codes produced dead neighborhoods that required cars to access. (My Amsterdam neighborhood is full of mixed uses; I was sad to see the metal working shop shut down but the owner was retiring...)

*** Again, you can use her five factors to explain how weak communities (who needs community when you're getting rich?), etc. contributed to the housing crisis. The sad thing is that there's no sign of the Federal Reserve or Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac changing their poor underwriting policies.