30 Jun 2016

Some thoughts on my recent Reddit AMA

My third Reddit AMA on 9 April 2015 was extremely popular (3,800 upvotes, 2,700 comments, me and Obama) so I expected to have some heavy traffic when I did another on Tuesday, but I was a little disappointed that traffic was slow to pick up and overall activity only a fraction of that "highpoint" 16 months ago.

Although I am willing to consider a loss in traffic due to a decay in my dashing-good looks, it's also possible that other issues mattered. It's thus -- with all due respect to its limits -- that I turned to Google Trends, where we see this:

The peak in that figure? April 4-11 2015! A quick look at the four dates of AMAs shows a correlation of +0.62 between upvotes/ "drought" index (pairs are 687/41, 2873/33, 3798/100 and 717/48). I'm not going to bet my career on 4 data points, but it's still a reminder that people (and politicians) tend to pay attention to policy when events are in the news.*

Anyways, the AMA went well as far as I'm concerned, as I got a lot of interesting questions, was able to reply to everyone (sometimes several times), and got some ideas for improving the Life Plus 2 Meters project. Indeed, I did this AMA mostly to boost that project's presence before we left for vacation, so I can't exactly complain about timing around water crisis, drought, etc. (Yes, I have set up alerts on those terms!)

The top rated comment (and my reply) was:
Besides browsing the other questions, answers and discussion, I also recommend my prologue (at the top of the post), as it gives some useful oversight/introduction to what I do and why I like talking with general audiences.

Bottom Line: You always get something out of a water conversation with curious people :)

* More data:

28 Jun 2016

27 Jun 2016

Monday funnies

"There's a reason education sucks... and politicians keep screwing us"

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice?

I have both US and UK passports, and I use my UK passport to live in the Netherlands, so I am directly impacted by the recent Brexit vote.

Although "Leave" politicians and "Bregretful" voters appear to be backtracking at a world-record pace from their pre-vote promises and beliefs, I assume Brexit will go forward.

This post will discuss the factors that -- in my opinion -- led to the vote for Britain to leave the EU and the potential impacts of Brexit on Britain and the EU. I think that some of this discussion applies more broadly in the world, i.e., to the US in a Trump/Clinton presidential contest or to NAFTA's trade and diplomatic relations.*

What factors led to the British vote to Leave the EU?

  1. Britain, Ireland and Sweden opened their labor markets to Eastern Europeans after 10 countries joined the EU in 2004. Other EU members put delays and restrictions on free movement of labor.
  2. The arrival of "Polish plumbers" captured the popular imagination, but most communities did pretty well with migrants.
  3. The financial crisis made everything harder by reducing economic activity. Government austerity made things worse by increasing debt and cutting budgets. 
  4. Bailouts to bankers -- and continued increases in inequality -- led natives to see foreign workers their enemy. (Cynical aside: Just what elites want, two sets of working classes hating each other.)
  5. Many people voted to Leave because they thought that Leave would (a) bring jobs "back to British workers" and (b) increase economic activity in the UK.
Unfortunately, the logic on #5 is weak. If the UK wants jobs to come back, then it has to end "free movement of workers," which means the UK also departs the common market with which it carries out 45-50% of its trade. (The figure for the US with Canada and Mexico is 25-30%.) So British leaders are now stuck with explaining to the population that Santa Claus does not exist: they will have to choose between more local jobs in a smaller economy or the same number of foreigners in an economy linked to the EU (i.e., de jure Leave means de facto Stay).

Sadly, it seems that most voters did not understand this logic (let alone the basic facts on jobs, migration, spending, etc.), perhaps due to the lies of Leave politicians or the hubris of Stay elites.**

What is likely to happen to Britain and the EU after Brexit is complete?

I was not around in the 1930s, but it was an era of depressed economies, rising protectionism, and political populism emphasizing how "They" were a danger to "Us." That era ended with World War II, the deaths of 50-80 million people, and vast destruction of human and environmental capital.

That terrible calamity was caused by "leaders" who promised their people that they could just take advantage of other peoples. Although that rhetoric worked (tragically) in the colonial era, it did not in World War II (despite the experience of WWI, "the war to end all wars").

Millions died for lies.

Although I am far more worried about Putin invading other "historically Russian" territories and Trump "doing a Berlusconi" on the US than I am about World War III, I cannot rule out a series of stupid events cascading into civil and then military conflict. It's not as if we lack for haters who don't mind killing innocents or exploding "civilization."

In the best case, a post-Brexit UK will get its house in order, sign free trade agreements to replace EU relations, and reform its migration laws to address fears. Such a country will look better than today's UK because it will be more efficient and fair.

In the worst case, Northern Ireland and Scotland vote to leave the UK for the EU, leaving the English and Welsh rump to an economic and political status similar to, say, Canada. The costs of such a devolution are likely to mirror those of Britain losing its empire after WWII.

The case(s) for the EU are similar in their divergences. In the best case, the EU reforms its internal and external borders (to address the refugee and terrorist crises), puts citizens before bankers (many who have left London for New York or Frankfurt), and "gets religion" about applying subsidiarity (decentralization) in a way that makes Brussels useful rather than the butt of "banana regulation" jokes.

In the worst case, Russia invades the Baltics (the EU cannot respond nor convince NATO to help), Turkey sends a fleet of refugees to Greece, the EU closes borders, and populists take France, Poland et al. out of the EU. Life shifts back to the 1990s of passport controls, tax dodging and mafia operations at all levels.

Bottom Line: A year ago, I wrote that we need to "connect" with others if we are going to have productive conversations about topics of mutual interest, i.e., economy, society, and the environment. The Brexit vote, agrees The Economist, shows what happens when we do not.
* Americans have to realize that there's YUGE populist support for Trump that ignores facts and hates on others in the name of "making America great again." That's how Berlusconi, Putin, Chavez and a number of other disasters-in-chief were elected (sometimes, a la Hitler, without intending to ever leave office).

** I'm not saying that globalization or competition does not cause harm. I'm saying that it's worth compensating for that harm to get the gains.
Addendum: Tyler Cowen is thoguhtful (as usual) in this and this post. Oh, and the UK can't blame "Europe" for its public spending or debt.

24 Jun 2016

Friday party!

Paris is still kinda flooded...

but the party goes on!

Les picniks, aussi!

Bottom Line: Life Plus 2 Meters will be normal... and not! Follow on facebook and/or twitter!

Addendum: A nice article on this year's +6.1m flood with discussion of "what would happen" if a "Century flood" (like that of 1910, +8.6m) hit the city. H/T to MV

23 Jun 2016

Beeping devices

A fascinating insight into our crippled thought processes:
The whole point of accumulating knowledge--and this is true for all species--is to be able to anticipate what might be happening the next minute, the next hour, the next day. And humans have the unique ability--we think it's unique--to be able to think retrospectively and prospectively, not just second-by-second, but weeks, even decades and millennia forwards and backwards. So, we accumulate all this knowledge. We build this mental model of the world. Again, this is very well documented by neuroscientists. We have a mental model of the world by which we actually go into any situation and we anticipate what we are going to see. And the brain, which is assaulted by so much information all the time, without doubt it ignores, it dumps anything that looks familiar and instead focuses on what might be new in an environment. That's why--[?] is able to figure out what threats are, for example--so, something new. So, what this has to do with our inability to attend very much, what we perceive as our shortening attention span in the digital age, is that we haven't got the filters yet in our brains to filter out such an assault on our brains--such a demand for our attention all the time that digital devices, the demand of us, essentially. And in the case of, severe cases--and I talk about this in the book--people like that actually cannot even develop a sense of--they don't understand cause and effect. They don't understand narrative. They actually feel kind of lost. They can't figure out how life works, because there's no pattern that emerges. They can't--there's no ability to extrapolate a general meaning from any particular. And that's a very serious memory affliction. And, you know, that happens to individuals. But culturally, this culture of distraction means that we are going to be very crippled in understanding long term patterns in this digital age.
Two of three are too distracted to learn at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris
And that's why I talk about these "bleeping devices". We need to be able to take in a certain amount of information, and then we need to be able to process it. I mean, scientists have said this processing of short term memory, dumping what's not valuable and turning it into valuable long-term memory--that can take--well, we have to have a good night's sleep; a lot of it happens when we sleep. And sometimes it can take up to months. So, we know very well that people whose attention is constantly interrupted, just like their sleep is interrupted, have chronic problems with developing long-term memories.

22 Jun 2016

Tomorrow the UK votes on whether to leave the EU

I am against, as a UK citizen who benefits from integration, but I can see how the EU might be better off -- assuming it doesn't break apart on the free movement of people, goods and ideas -- without Britain's Euroskeptics.

That argument was well known over 30 years ago.

21 Jun 2016

How will we live in a different world?

Long time readers of this blog will know that energy drives climate change, which arrives via the water cycle. It is therefore useful to talk about energy and mitigation but water and adaptation. (The basic science explains that greater warming requires faster air and water circulation to dissipate the heat, which translates into a faster and stronger hydrological cycle.)

The sad news is that we (humans) have been slow -- even negligent -- in taking action to mitigate climate change. Countries cannot agree on who should cut how much. Governments subsidize fossil fuel use. Regulations are designed to obscure, rather than highlight the "negative externalities" of fossil fuel pollution (see this and this on carbon taxes vs cap and trade).

I have therefore put more energy into understanding and explaining how we can adapt to a climate-changed world, via posts on this blog as well as discussions in my books. I put those efforts into overdrive in recent months after reading two papers. In the first, Hansen et al. talk about 6-9m of sea level rise by 2100, far above an IPCC "consensus" figure of one meter due to IPCC's overly conservative methods. In the second, Weitzman explains how economists have really underestimated the danger from "fat tailed" outcomes in a climate changed world.

Those papers, together, provide a frightening vision of what we might (and probably will) face: massive storms, flooding of coastal cities and "record-breaking" variations in weather that will cost billions in damages, drive millions to migrate and destabilize the ecosystems and food chains we all depend on. Even worse, those problems are not going to arrive in the distant future, with years of warning. We are already experiencing predicted impacts (the "record" El Niño, floods in Paris, drought, crop failures in India and Africa, etc.), and those impacts may get radically worse if major ocean currents slow and melting glaciers increase sea levels by "3-4 meters in a few years."

Few people want to think about a grim, rather than ever-better, future (I have for awhile now), but preparation offers more protection than hope. That's why I have started a new project, Life Plus 2 Meters, that will give authors and readers the chance to explore many possible visions of life in a different world. As it says on the project's website:
These visions may bring optimistic, pessimistic, social, technical, macro, and/or micro perspectives to the discussion. There is no right way to engage this complex topic.
I invite you -- and anyone you know -- to contribute your vision to this project. It's only by exploring the numerous facets of life in a different world that we might understand what's at stake as we change our world and how we will learn to live with it.

I will be posting updates here occasionally, but I recommend that you access the site directly and/or follow the project on facebook or twitter if you want to contribute a vision or follow the discussion when I start posting contributions in September. I am hoping to get over 100 contributions from a variety of people with different training, perspectives and cultures.

Here's the page for authors and the scientific background page. Here's my sample post on flying the not-so-friendly skies.

Bottom Line: The best way to understand ourselves is to engage in a broad discussion of how humans, in all their diversity, will live in a different world.

17 Jun 2016

Friday party!

Remember MySpace? Remember Tom from MySpace? Well, he sold out for $millions and now takes (really great) photos. Check them out here.

Somewhere in Canada

14 Jun 2016

Corrupt water management reverses development

The title of this post must seem obvious to many of you, but WHY is it obvious when we can see many areas of human activity where corruption has such a small impact?

The place to start is with the nature of water management, which often involves sharing the costs and benefits of water within a group. The water has a "non-excludable" status that can lead to unfair outcomes. Failures occur when users shirk from paying their share of costs ("the provision of a public good," in Elinor Ostrom's nomenclature) or take more than their share of benefits ("the consumption of a common pool good," according to Ostrom). As respective examples, consider when polluters "get away with" degrading water quality or users "with excess rights" deplete quantity.

The political necessity of managing costs and benefits within a group opens up that management to problems of corruption, i.e., decision makers favoring one group over another, to the detriment of society-at-large. That corrupt favoritism can result from ideology (e.g., farmers should pay less), greed (e.g., donations resulting in free water) or laziness (e.g., rebuilding flooded areas "because tradition).

It's thus clear how bad political decisions can result in polluters "getting away" with pollution or users with "excess rights" leaving others dry. Those decisions allow actions that lead to shortages, toxicities, ecosystem collapse and failures in human development.

What defines a developed country? Drinkable water and healthy ecosystems.

These governance problems do not affect the provision of "excludable" private and club goods like bottled water or company water operations because users in those situations are forced to face the costs of their actions. What about plastic bottle pollution or companies that dry out aquifers? Both of those problems are of the commons, i.e., someone buys a bottle of water from a store (private good) but then dumps it on the ground (commons). The company example has to do with "too many rights"  (including the entire absence of rights) being given to the company and other water users (private rights exceeding supply in the commons).

These "negative externalities" from the use of private goods manifest as damage to the commons. That damage can be lowered or eliminated by, say, adding a deposit on plastic bottles (maintaining its value after being emptied) or removing groundwater rights when levels drop. Those are just two possibilities, but you can see -- and agree -- that political power is necessary for change. Is political action required for managing private goods? No. Bottled water sellers have advertising.

Why should you care about this question if you've got enough water to drink and live in a healthy environment? Because those governance failures usually start to destroy private goods. Undrinkable water keeps people from going to work or helping their families. Dry rivers nearby might lead neighbors to tap into your groundwater. Crop failures and flood damages can drive people to flee as migrants and refugees.

Bottom Line We all lose when water is mismanaged, wasted and polluted. We all need to make sure that politicians, water managers, and leaders are held to account in providing the basic mark of civilization: drinkable water from a healthy environment.
Addendum: The OECD has an ongoing project on water governance. This recent paper summarizes a bigger report.
Abstract: There is a lack of evidence-based assessment on how engagement processes contribute to water governance objectives. This article addresses this research gap by presenting key findings and policy guidance from a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on “Stakeholder Engagement for Inclusive Water Governance”. This study employed comprehensive methods, including a survey administered to 215 stakeholder groups worldwide and separately, 69 case studies of specific stakeholder engagement initiatives on water management.

13 Jun 2016

Monday funnies

Natural selection is far more sophisticated than our understanding*

10 Jun 2016

Friday Party!

LUC students made a spoof video over my habits of allowing drinking during class* and Facebook debates with Brandon, another professor. Win!

* The drinking age in Netherlands is 16 for beer and wine, 18 for other stuff. Our on-campus bar and drinks during late classes (5-7p) helps students and faculty talk in a more relaxed environment.

8 Jun 2016

Globalization breaks things but still does good

The upsides of globalization -- exchanging goods and ideas on a larger scale -- are massive. We know this from the theories of comparative advantage, innovation diffusion, and institutional evolution. The downsides of globalization include the transaction costs of change and negative impacts on the "losers" -- the less efficient producers, rulers of old ideals, and masters of outdated institutions.

As I said two weeks ago, the transaction costs of change can be reduced by allowing enough time for adjustments in procedures, expectations, contracts and relationships. That economic fact also has a bigger political role, as more rapid change also creates greater threats to the beneficiaries of the status quo. The obvious implication is that change should happen but at a speed that minimizes transaction costs and opportunities for political backlash.

We can see these tensions often, but I will link two ideas here.

First is the danger of "hot flows of capital" that result from liberating financial markets. In this IMF paper on macroeconomic neoliberalism (i.e., more open capital flows and reduction of public debt), the authors show that an over-hasty turn to markets can result in counterproductive volatility. I agree with their recommendations of slowing down direct investment flows and reducing government spending by program, rather than across the board.*

Second is the disruption and controversy caused by increasing "globalization of ideas." Back in 2004, I visited Peru and saw how internet cafes were proliferating in remote villages. Although those cafes surely brought information, connection and entertainment, they also brought "anti-community" ideas of individualism, novel approaches to living one's life, and -- of course -- pornography.

This clash of new ideas is causing troubles in many places. "Radical" versions of bigotry, dogma, liberalism, and nationalism are causing more trouble, more broadly, because they are arriving faster, without filters, into communities and mentalities that may not be willing or prepared to accept them.

On the one hand, we have to agree that people need exposure to new ideas as a means of evolving human culture. On the other, we have to admit that "hot flows of ideas" disrupt and threaten dominant ideologies and power structures. 

The resulting backlash against ideas -- like the backlash against financial liberalization -- throws out the good (freedom and innovation) with the bad (challenging outdated beliefs). It's thus similarly useful to find a happy medium that allows ideas to flow at a rate that is more helpful than harmful. This debate is now front-and-center with the war for/against free speech that takes different forms everywhere -- from micro-triggered in the US to machete murderous in Bangladesh.

Such a battle will be fought regardless of our wishes or intentions, due to the presence of losers, but it should be fought to maximize the gains to winners. It therefore makes sense to maximize the small flows of cash or ideas across borders, while perhaps slowing down the flows of larger-scale cash or ideas. Let individuals trade or talk without constraint, but avoid large-scale flows of hot money and zealotry, respectively, that come with global finance and populist jihad.

Bottom Line Globalization is useful to the vast majority of humanity but the losers (the local monopolists in trade and ideas) will try to disrupt it. Their chance of suceeding is lower if we defend the long term benefits but also allow for a slower disruption of "bedrock" institutions that should be abandoned gradually (and individually) rather than through frontal assault.**

* I still agree with the "neoliberal agenda" of increasing competition and reducing the role of the state, but not dogmatially, as there are always places for less competition (e.g., where production creates pollution) and presence of the state (e.g., regulating public health).

** Examples: Saudi financing of Wahabbist medrassas or US evangelicals writing anti-gay laws in Africa, but NOT Facebook or the Daily Mail. The former two are push-supply side; the latter pull-demand side.

3 Jun 2016

Friday party!

This may not be the future you want to see, but it's probably close to the future