27 Sep 2016

The social sciences need each other

Academics spend a lot of time differentiating themselves from each other, both within and across fields. Economists will try to find "unique" data sets or invent "novel" theories to pull ahead of peers. They will also say how much better is their perspective than that of sociologists or psychologists.

The thing is that economists -- and every other practitioner of the "social sciences"-- are only providing one perspective of a complex topic -- human behavior -- that is perhaps best considered in diverse ways.*

I'm been thinking of a way to arrange social sciences along some sort of line that shows their differences and relations. Williamson's diagram of institutions of varying durations (see the figure and read this post) inspires me to suggest the following arrangement.

Highest and slowest to change is the layer of culture that we are born into and affects our perspectives and actions. Anthropologists study culture as the key to understanding the range and thrust of our behavior.

Just below are the political scientists, who study the formal and official bodies we use to govern ourselves.

Then come the sociologists, who study how group dynamics and identity affect our choices and behavior.

Going closer to the study of individual choice, cooperation and autonomy versus collection, we get the economists who think that individual (ir)rationality plays a big role.

Finally, at the most fleeting and individualistic level, we get the psychologists who try to understand how we internalize and rationalize what we do and don't do.

My big thought here is that it's not just useful, but crucial, that we get different disciplinary perspectives on "an issue" (formal employment, say) before rushing to "robust" conclusions.

What are your thoughts on this?

Bottom Line: The best part of working in an interdisciplinary environment is finding novel ways to understand what you think thought you understood.
* The hard sciences and humanities are also complementary at approaching their "larger dimensions" of human existence.

26 Sep 2016

Monday funnies

Condoms for trees... is an actual thing, coming to the world (so to speak) from sunny California. They are looking for Indiegogo funding from tomorrow. 

Perhaps their motto should be "stop seeds locally, plant seeds globally" :)

24 Sep 2016

SoS: Sep 2015

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

20 Sep 2016

Demand for elephants can save elephants

Back in 2008, there was a big kuffaw over a paper that said "Lake Mead has a 50 percent chance of going [technically] dry by 2020." (Lake Mead Reservior is close to Las Vegas and an important reservoir in the western US distribution system. It exists due to Hoover Dam.)

I contacted the authors of that paper -- both scientists at Scripps in San Diego -- and asked them how they calculated the progression from current to predicted supply and demand for water from Lake Mead. On the supply side, they considered how climate change might change precipitation, runoff and evaporation. Good science that. On the demand side, they multiplied current demand by future population (perhaps with some trend adjustments) to find total consumption. Bad economics that.

The reason why good turns to bad is that demand (and supply, to an extent) will adjust to changes in policies, behaviors and prices.

I just wrote this for an article that's soon to be published:
In conditions of scarcity, economists think of reducing demand by shifting in or sliding up the demand curve. The demand curve of an individual or group shows how the value of each unit of water falls as more water is consumed. These values show priorities, i.e., for drinking over irrigation. Taking these values as given, actual consumption --- or quantity demanded --- only occurs for units whose values are greater than the price of water. The demand curve can shift in with a change in tastes or technology that assigns lower values to water. One might, for example, decide not to have a lawn or use drip irrigation to produce the same greenery with less water. An increase in price, in contrast, reduces demand by choking off lower-valued uses, e.g., the tenth minute in the shower.
Now what you should take from this is that there are lots of ways of reducing demand, such that shortage never results in the face of lower supplies. In other words...

Demand is not a fixed constant.

The good news is that the authors of the Mead study did somewhat integrate that thought fact* into their revised study.

So, why this post, 6 years later? Because this problem --- of scientists (and just normal folks) taking demand as a fixed constraint --- constantly produces misleading conclusions.

In this case, it's an article entitled "Can We Sustainably Harvest Ivory?" [open access]. In the paper, "a harvest model is developed to estimate sustainable ivory yield from elephants" and the authors conclude that "even in the best-case scenario, the sustainable yield is well below the current demand... Our study shows that lifting the ivory ban will not address the current poaching challenge. We should instead focus on reducing consumer demand."

So they are sticking with the ban on ivory trading (and thus the continuation of the black market in poached ivory) while hoping to shift demand in by telling people ivory is unsustainable, etc., and that they should not buy it.

This is bad advice because it misses the obvious problem of people who still like ivory. I'm pretty sure that their "campaign of hope and virtue" (my label) will fail --- just as the War on Drugs has failed due to users' continued insistence on buying illegal (but very enjoyable) substances.

I emailed the author of the article and asked why they didn't look into markets and prices as a means of converting a common pool resource (elephants that roam without any owner who could make money from them) to a private good that would be sold for as a trophy but that would also provide a living to its owners as well as a huge incentive to get as many elephants as possible.**

He replied that property rights were not clear everywhere and that quantity demanded was far too high to be brought down by prices.

On the former, I replied that it's not hard (indeed it's done all the time) to isolate and protect -- thereby privatize -- elephants. On the latter, I gave this example: "Say you offer a van Gogh painting for $20. You'd have 10,000 people lined up to buy it. The reason it's auctioned is to find the ONE person who will pay $23 million for it. The same dynamic explains how to choke demand by raising prices."

He wasn't interested in changing his mind, so that was that.

But it wasn't, because it's likely that anti-hunting, anti-market people will use this "peer review study"*** in their fight to keep ivory trade illegal. Yes, they will win a moral victory, but they will lose the war: the black market and its customers don't care about your morals. They will pay for tusks from elephants slaughtered in dead of night, by people trying to make a living.

Bottom Line The only thing worse than killing elephants is leaving elephants vulnerable to murder. We can save them just as we save dogs and cats -- by giving them owners who value them, sometimes as dead trophies but more often as a thriving, growing herd.

* It's ain't called the Law of Demand for nothing!

** Read this paper about a successful program that "farmed" wild animals for community income in Africa. If you're into pandas, remember that they are no longer "endangered" in China because the Chinese government [irony!] spent heavily on breeding pairs that can be rented for $1 million/year.

*** It would never have passed peer review by any economist.

Addendum: Here are a bunch of comments (and my replies) to this post on Reddit.

Addendum: These authors are MUCH better at saying what I am

13 Sep 2016

Oriental Despotism -- the review

I read through this massive (550 pages) book in a hurry because much of its discussion is overly-erudite and many of its examples redundant.

BUT, I recommend that you read the book -- or at least keep its lessons in mind -- due to its relevance to discussions over water management, projects and politics.

Karl August Wittfogel's book was published in 1957, and it reflects upon -- and warns against -- the weaknesses of the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist brand of communism that was practiced at the time.

The key thesis of the book is that "oriental despots" use access to land and water as a means of controlling peasants who have no rights except those given to them. This system -- which can be contrasted with a liberal system in which private rights reside with individuals yeoman farmers -- gives the despot immense powers that can be used to benefit or undermine progress and prosperity.

Wittfogel wrote this book as a lapsed Marxist who objected to Lenin's reinterpretation of Marx. This dispute comes from Lenin's attempt to leapfrog capitalism on the way to socialist paradise -- a move that Marx had never suggested, as he wanted capitalism (including private ownership of land and water) to flourish before it withered away in a workers' revolt against capital that put the means of production in communal hands and resulted in a classless society. Lenin was in a hurry to turn Russian peasants into post-industrial communists, so he decided to skip the whole property rights step (as well as the development of a market economy) and put the land and water under the direct control of Soviet bureaucrats, who would "plan accordingly" for the benefit of the community.

Wittfogel's claim (we'll get to Oriental in a moment) was that these "hydraulic bureaucrats" were essentially a ruling class that controlled land and water for their own benefit, just as oriental despots did.

Now, how did oriental despots behave?
  1. Get big or go home. They controlled whole water basins, to direct water to their designs.
  2. It's all about you. The State, as the possession of the despot, was stronger than "civil society," which made it easy to do what he wanted and die in peace (Stalin died in 1953).
  3. Fuck them. Total power is not benevolent. Thus, local losses are irrelevant to the despot's gains from managing HIS land and water rights.
I'm sure you know how badly the bureaucrats of the USSR treated their fellow citizens and screwed up the future, but that dead experiment has sprung back to life in the guise of Putin's Petro-despotism, which may or may not outlast low oil prices (he doesn't even have enough talent to turn land and water into money). But we can also see these aspects in other dictators, despots and fascist-wanna-bes. They want to control natural resources to serve their own plans -- not the goals of citizens, let alone alternative models of political and economic development.

Examples? How about China's S-N canals? Maybe Malaysia's borneo boondoggle or Aswan High Dam. In the US, you have the classic Cadillac Desert case of the US Bureau of Reclamation competing with the Army Corps of Engineers to see who could throw more money at projects designed to dominate regions by destroying ecosystems to construct irrigation monstrosities. I fear to imagine what would happen if Trump-the-developer turned into Trump-the-land-despot.

Bottom Line: Concentration of power is dangerous because, first, the owner of that power may serve themselves over others. Second, because they may choose the wrong way to even serve themselves. Third (and differently) because land and water management should be left in the hands of those subject to management decisions. Oriental despots were good at controlling citizens but miserable at improving their lot. The US system was excellent at giving citizens freedom but has weakened in the past 100 years as power over land and water has flowed to the centre. I give this book FOUR stars for providing these insights (in a form that's slightly long for today's readers).

Addendum: The Economist has a book review discussing Oriental Despotism this week.

12 Sep 2016

Monday funnies

This is a pretty accurate depiction of how people who have not really looked that deeply into themselves act after they return from Burning Man

(If you're following the "commodification meltdown" controversy, then read my take here and here.)

8 Sep 2016

Urban metabolism is about people

My girlfriend Cornelia is very busy with helping people understand "Sustainable Amsterdam," a topic that includes transportation, urban planning, innovation and so on.

During the summer, the family behind Modacity (Vancouver, CA) came for a visit, and they definitely captured the Dutch talent for building cities around people (not cars).

Rotterdam is the Netherland's second largest city (after Amsterdam)

Eindhoven (after Delft) is the engineering capital of the Netherlands

6 Sep 2016

Bottled water is not a problem, it's a symptom

Via email, I received this:
There is no reason for companies to produce bottled water in developed countries when healthy tap water is available at a fraction of the cost, bottled water is highly inefficient, costly, unsustainable, and a poorly regulated business.
Allow me to object, item by item:
There is no reason for companies to produce bottled water in developed countries when healthy tap water is available...
But they do, without guns to their heads, so it must be both profitable and in-demand. These forces are not necessarily evil, unless you want to have a LONG conversation about profits and/or people's tastes. (Wait a sec on "externalities"!)
...fraction of the cost
And thanks god for that, as safe tap water is always cheaper than bottled water. I consider safe tap water as the first requirement of "developed" status. Now you have to ask yourself: what about parts of "developed countries" where the tap water is NOT safe to drink, from say industrial or agricultural pollution. In those cases, I'd say that country wasn't as developed as it claimed. Hear that, USA, Canada and a few others?
bottled water is highly inefficient, costly, unsustainable...
...from an economics standpoint, these mean the same thing. Inefficient means costs exceed benefits. I can imagine that to be true when you factor in the pollution costs of plastic production and plastic waste on ecosystems, but then we'd have to accuse bottled softdrinks of the same sins. (This is why I want a deposit on plastic bottles, to encourage recycling.) If you wanted merely to talk about wasting money, then I'd have to ask you why so many utilities use "average cost pricing" to sell desalinated water that costs $2 to make for $1. Isn't that inefficient?

On the question of costly, I'd need you to explain why bottled water is so bad but iPhones are good. Aren't iPhones more costly?

On unsustainable, I'd have to ask if this practice could "continue indefinitely," and I'd say yes, given the high price of water. I'm pretty sure it's easier to get bottled water in a drought than it is for a farmer to get (usually subsidized) surface water deliveries.
a poorly regulated business...
I'm not sure if the bottled water business is more poorly regulated than the tap water business. I know that 3 billion people lack access to safe tap water, and I know that I can get good bottled water in many of their countries, so perhaps bottled water "regulation" (via markets, professionalism, or government agency) is doing rather well in those countries. Are there incentives for bottled water makers to cut corners? Sure. Some definitely pump random groundwater they sell as spring water. But then you have to remember examples like Flint, Michigan, where the public water company cut corners in such an incompetent way as to endanger the entire city.

Bottom Line Bottled water, like tap water, needs to be clean and safe to benefit us. There are many aspects to improving water quality and they should all be pursued with respect to bottled and tap water.

If you're interested in this topic, then check out the City Water Project -- an effort by me and my students to improve information on water quality in cities around the world.

Addendum (8 Sep): A funny but insightful review of a refillable water bottle. (Don't forget that you need to use it 500+ times to have a "lower footprint" than using plastic bottles. Those reusable bottles they give you at eco-conferences? Total earth killer if they just end up on the shelf or tossed.)

2 Sep 2016

Care about climate change?

Then write something for Life plus 2 meters -- a group blog I started to help present different people's "visions" of life in a climate changed world, i.e., how we might adapt -- or not -- to the new normal.

We're already publishing but need many more visions! Scientist or not, academic or not, you've got something to say!

Author information here.

Friday party!

Spice it up!