Monday, August 30, 2010


This is a very impressive movie:

Note especially the change starting in the very late 1990s. It's like somebody suddenly turned on a light somewhere between the orbit of Mars and Jupiter (Jove is the outermost planet on the margins.)

Turns out Bjorn Lomborg is Danish for "Richard Cohen"

Ugh. Watch as another entirely discredited voice gets free press for belatedly coming to grips with the facts that were in front of his face the entire time.
The world's most high-profile climate change sceptic is to declare that global warming is "undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today" and "a challenge humanity must confront", in an apparent U-turn that will give a huge boost to the embattled environmental lobby.

Bjørn Lomborg, the self-styled "sceptical environmentalist" once compared to Adolf Hitler by the UN's climate chief, is famous for attacking climate scientists, campaigners, the media and others for exaggerating the rate of global warming and its effects on humans, and the costly waste of policies to stop the problem.

But in a new book to be published next month, Lomborg will call for tens of billions of dollars a year to be invested in tackling climate change. "Investing $100bn annually would mean that we could essentially resolve the climate change problem by the end of this century," the book concludes.
So Lomborg is only about twelve years late to the party. This makes him twelve years less credible than, say, Jim Hansen or Joe Romm. He is also a direct analog to the voices who came out against the Iraq War, circa 2006-2007.

Interesting side note: In Canadian English, "Bjorn Lomborg" is properly pronounced "Michael Ignatieff".

Sunday, August 29, 2010

10 Years ago

10 years ago today, me and a girl went out on a date. Everything else in my life has followed from that day in my life as surely as night follows day.

When Vicki and I started dating, I was what polite company would call "between opportunities" and what impolite company called a high school dropout. One year later, I had finally completed high school. One year after that, I was entering university with a substantial scholarship. Four years after that, I had graduated with highest honours and was moving in with Vicki. Two years after that, she agreed to marry me, despite the fact that I was in the middle of finishing a second degree. One year after that we bought a house. And three months ago yesterday we were made man and wife by the powers vested in our officiant by the Province of Ontario and the Castle Grayskull.

Yes, we had the officiant say that. If you've got a problem, get your own wedding. Were there Imperial Storm Troopers at our wedding? Why yes, yes there were.

Not too bad for a relationship that started with dinner at a restaurant that no longer exists and a viewing of The Cell.

I could go on, of course. I could talk about the good times, the bad times, how happy we make each other, and how every once in a while we want to kill each other with whatever blunt object is handy. But frankly, none of that is as startling to me as the massive changes in my life since we met.

The thing I remember about the days before Vicki was how angry I was. I still get angry, and maybe too often, but back then I was angry the way I'm a mammal--angry at my failures in school, angry at my parents (hey, I was 19) angry about nearly everything. I look back and simply cannot understand why. Since meeting Vicki, it just seemed so much easier to be happy.

I always assumed that boys learned to be men from the men around them, and that's true--we can learn the how and whats of manhood from out fathers, uncles, and friends. What I didn't learn until I met Vicki was the why. Without her, I probably would have muddled through my life in one way or another--I like to think I have some innate abilities--but there's no doubt in my mind my life would be poorer and I wouldn't have accomplished what I have without her. Her love for me gave me clarity and focus, and to this day when I'm confused, lost, or unable to choose a path forward, I know that she's there to help me make the right choice or love me if I make the wrong one.

Vicki, I love you more than spaghetti and more than Babylon 5. I hope you're okay with the last 10 years, because I'm a non-smoker and probably have another four or five decades ahead of me. If you'll have them, they're all yours.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity

I fear that historical evidence of poor economic performance in the wake of asset price bubbles bursting is creating a mood of dangerous complacency. You can read that as evidence that we’re destined to experience an extended period of poor growth, but you can also read it as evidence that what normally happens after a bust is that policymakers implement an ineffective response. And as Posen argues, accepting the view that slow growth is inevitable is a major cause of ineffective policy and becomes self-fulfilling. Japan started growing once it got some policymakers who believed it was possible for Japan to grow, and thus that they would try pro-growth things and try them on a large scale.
Meanwhile, in Greece:
This dire prognosis comes even despite Athens' massive efforts to sort out the country's finances. The government's draconian austerity measures have managed to reduce the country's budget deficit by an almost unbelievable 39.7 percent, after previous governments had squandered tax money and falsified statistics for years. The measures have reduced government spending by a total of 10 percent, 4.5 percent more than the EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF) had required.

The problem is that the austerity measures have in the meantime affected every aspect of the country's economy. Purchasing power is dropping, consumption is taking a nosedive and the number of bankruptcies and unemployed are on the rise. The country's gross domestic product shrank by 1.5 percent in the second quarter of this year. Tax revenue, desperately needed in order to consolidate the national finances, has dropped off. A mixture of fear, hopelessness and anger is brewing in Greek society.
And back in the US, the one signature Obama program on easing the economic crisis was a deliberately cruel hoax:
Was HAMP a bait-and-switch? Did Treasury know all along that it was likely to fail in its stated aim, but go ahead with it anyway because of its second-order effects? That seems to be the message they’re sending — that HAMP was a way of encouraging owners to apply for loan modifications, not because they were likely to get those modifications, but just because the sheer fact of applying for the modifications would help out homeowners generally, by reducing the rate of foreclosures, and banks too.
When Jared Diamond's book Collapse came out, a lot of people focused on the first part of the argument (hey, collapse happens!) and ignored the second part of it: namely, that governments are frequently unwilling or unable to make the social changes needed to stave off calamity. Indeed, they often make the exact wrong choices that make conditions worse.

I'd say the last two years have given a lot more evidence to that argument.

Monday, August 16, 2010

In Memoriam

Matthew Simmons died last week, and it's a loss to the peak oil advocacy network. It was only after his death that I started to peek around his website -- the Ocean Energy Institute -- where I noticed that he too shared a belief [PDF] that ammonia played a major role in the future of any carbon-free economy. Basically, Simmons advocated for massive construction of offshore wind on both coasts of the US and in the Great Lakes, as well as onshore wind in the midwest, all tied together with a major grid and with plug-in hybrids, and later ammonia fuel, as storage.

I first wrote about Ammonia about two years ago, and haven't seen anything to really change my mind since: if we need a liquid fuel that can be produced on a large scale and power both existing infrastructure (with modifications) and future projects, ammonia is definitely a winner. If anything, I've become more convinced of NH3's merits because the "reserve" of the key element--nitrogen--is enormous and omnipresent, while doing anything with carbon at this point other than burying it seems like madness.

Welcome to the last ditch

That's the last line of one of Gwynne Dyer's latest columns:
Before the current recession, global emissions of greenhouse gases were growing at almost 3 percent per year, and they will certainly return to that level when the recession ends. To come in under +2 degrees C of warming, we need to be reducing global emissions by at least 2 percent by 2012: a total cut of around 5 percent each year, assuming that economies grow at the same rate as before.

That would be hard to do, but not impossible. However, as the years pass and the emissions continue to grow, it gets harder and harder to turn the juggernaut around in time. On the most optimistic timetable, there might be US climate legislation in 2013, and a global climate deal in 2014, and we really start reducing emissions by 2015.

By then, we would need to be cutting emissions by 5 or 6 percent a year, instead of growing them at 3 percent a year, if we still want to come in under +2 degrees C. That’s impossible. No economy can change the sources of its energy at the rate of 8 or 9 percent a year. So we are going to blow right through the point of no return.
He also points out that what we're seeing in Russia at the moment--an economically and politically weakened state casting about trying to deal with an unprecedented natural disaster--is something we ought to get used to. You could add Pakistan to the list.

Fun fact: In 2007 a new law took effect which basically gutted Russia's national forest fire corps as a gift to logging companies.

Dyer believes that geoengineering is the next step--out of necessity, not efficacy. I don't think we'll even get that much.

I have been doing this too long

So I have, fitfully, found semi-regular employment where I get to write online in an informal fashion. I would normally call it blogging, except that other people keep calling it different things. Anyway, I had to explain to one of my editors what it meant when I used the phrase "shorter [other writer]", and realized that joke dates back to the early years of the blogosphere when we were all busy arguing over the impending war in Iraq.

And now I feel very, very old.

All you need to know

NY Times writer Ross Douthat on the proposed City Hall mosque:
By global standards, Rauf may be the model of a “moderate Muslim.” But global standards and American standards are different.
Of course they are. I do love how the proponents of universal moral constants suddenly discover exceptions when brown-skinned people offend them.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Somedays, "war looming in the Middle East" isn't even news

So Jeff Goldberg has a new article out in the Atlantic about how Israel is going to attack Iran next spring.

Except, no, that's not really what it's about. It's actually about saying Israel will attack Iran--if the US doesn't attack first. But the Israelis would clearly like the US to attack, and not them.
And some Israeli generals, like their American colleagues, questioned the very idea of an attack. “Our time would be better spent lobbying Barack Obama to do this, rather than trying this ourselves,” one general told me. “We are very good at this kind of operation, but it is a big stretch for us. The Americans can do this with a minimum of difficulty, by comparison. This is too big for us.”
Part of the point here is that Israel would only get one shot at an attack on Iran, whereas the US could sustain days, or even weeks, of bombing without serious concern. The other point is that, of course, small countries like to get big countries to do the heavy lifting here for them.

Why, exactly, western readers are supposed to view Israel as a plucky country just sticking up for itself when it won't, um, stick up for itself is a mystery left to the reader.

What really annoys me about the Atlantic piece is the sheer craven dishonesty of the author. In 2002, Goldberg believed that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and he warned specifically that the failure of Israel's raid on the Osirak reactor should be a warning to liberals who thought Iraq had been effectively disarmed. In 2010, Goldberg instead writes:
Israel has twice before successfully attacked and destroyed an enemy’s nuclear program. In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, halting—forever, as it turned out—Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions; and in 2007, Israeli planes destroyed a North Korean–built reactor in Syria. An attack on Iran, then, would be unprecedented only in scope and complexity.
In a way, accusations of dishonesty are beside the point: at no point does it occur to a propagandist that the two contradictory things they've put to print can't both be true. Both are true as necessary. In 2003, Osirak was a failure because Iraq simply redoubled its efforts to get a nuclear bomb. In 2010, Osirak is a success and shows the invincibilty of air power to get the job done.

So the story we've got so far is that a) certain American writers play fast and loose with the truth, and b) Israel is nervous enough about launching a raid on Iran that they're using prominent American periodicals to ask Uncle Sam to do it instead.

Meanwhile, the article does actually capture the list of potential downsides for an Israeli or US raid on Iran: basically, lighting the Middle East on fire (again) for at best a temporary reprieve. Indeed, the Osirak raid is instructive here because many Iraqis have come forward to say that the Israeli attack actually convinced the Iraqi leadership to massively accelerate their nuclear program, which they did and was only interrupted by the Iraqi defeat during the Gulf War.

So you've got an Israeli leadership that is convinced, utterly convinced that for next to zero benefit (indeed, probably making their strategic situation worse) they'll launch a raid that will have the secondary effect of almost certainly setting off a wave of terrorist attacks, at the very least. It would also dramatically strengthen the role of countries like China and Russia in Iran, and weaken America's ability to give any kind of security guarantee to Israel.

It would, in short, be a clusterfuck pursued only by the insane or the insipid. But Israelis and Americans of all stripes are convinced that Iran is run by madmen.

Monday, August 09, 2010

21st century liberals

There's a common thread that runs through politicians as varied as Paul Martin, Jean Chretien, Dalton McGuinty, and yes Barack Obama. Maybe as far as liberalism is concerned, we should start the clock of the 21st century a bit early--the way historians talk about a "long 19th century" that started in 1789 and ends in 1914. That way we could integrate Bill Clinton, by far the most important liberal leader of the 21st century--both because he was the American President, and because he set the path that we seem to be following.

The common thread that runs from Clinton to Chretien to McGuinty to Obama, is basically an inverse Leninism: if the early Soviets believed that the state needed to control the "commanding heights" of the economy, your modern liberals seem to believe the commanding heights of the economy need to control the state. One implication from this is that they basically reject the idea of a serious political argument, in the original sense of the word: the idea that there are serious disputes between parties of different levels of power and autonomy is basically dismissed. Instead, there are just problems that need to be managed. The capital-c Correct solution is one in which the needs of everyone can be satisfied.

Except that, of course, no solution actually satisfies everyone, so you get some really bizarre redefinitions of "satisfaction". You end up with emergency actions to rescue bankers but a sense of resignation, and even apathy, at tens of millions of people unnecessarily out of work.
Obama may have entered the White House with the intention of assembling a Lincolnesque “team of rivals,” but Summers subverted that notion by making himself chief packager and gatekeeper for any dissenting arguments about economic policy—all, he claimed, to spare the President from meeting with “long-winded people.” Lincoln’s “team of rivals” reported directly to Lincoln, but, as one source told Alter, Summers so skewed the process in this White House that it was like “a team of rivals reporting to Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s prideful secretary of war.” Even Warren Buffett, a supporter who had spoken to Obama weekly during the fall of 2008, “found himself mysteriously out of touch with the new president” once he took office.

Obama was now imprisoned within the cozy Summers-Geithner group “and it would be increasingly difficult for him to see beyond its borders.” This “disconnection from the world,” Alter concludes, was not due to ideology or the clout of special interests but was instead “the malign consequence of the American love of expertise, which, with the help of citadels of the meritocracy, had moved from a mere culture to something approaching a cult.” For all Obama’s skepticism of cant, he was “in thrall to the idea that with enough analysis, there was a ‘right answer’ to everything. But a right answer for whom?”
Of course, you've got to love how Alter tries to reassure us that the extraordinarily wealthy people in the Obama administration mobilized truly massive amounts of capital to rescue their extraordinarily wealthy comrades--but not because of ideology, you understand.

There's a similar thing happening in Ontario right now, as the McGuinty government introduces any number of changes -- tax shifts from business to individuals, changes to post-secondary education funding, and now changes to labour law: if your boss has screwed you out of wages you're owed, you now have to prove to the government you've confronted your boss before they'll intervene on your behalf.

Leave aside the question of fairness--lord knows if I steal from my employer, the law doesn't require them to confront me before they call the police--is the law of the Province of Ontario going to say, in effect, that unless a taxpayer has tried to resolve a problem themselves, they don't want to hear about it? That the government doesn't consider it a crime to leave your workers unpaid, so long as you get around to it eventually?

It's worth noting that the Liberals in Ontario have managed to be so incompetent and malicious lately that even the Toronto Star editorial board has managed to timidly, gently tip toe towards actually criticizing the Liberals on this. But the larger problems is that basically the leftmost span of the political spectrum--leftmost acceptable span, of course--is basically still lemon socialism.

Christ almight, Paul bleedin' Krugman--a neoliberal deity, or at least a major saint--is considered the outer fringe of acceptable American leftism. Not that I don't think he's great, especially lately, but there's got to be more than this, right?

Saturday, August 07, 2010

No positive social changes allowed

via Dave Roberts at Grist, there's a debate that I think encapsulates a lot of our current problems. Basically, a number of conservatives at The American Scene were arguing over carbon taxes. Jim Manzi, a conservative who basically gets way too much credit from polite liberals, responded with a number of arguments against a carbon tax.
1. Europe is a huge, advanced market that has had these taxes for decades while internal combustion has remained a very stable technology, and people have continued to make choices from among broadly pre-existing technologies such as mass transit, bicycles, walking and so forth.

2. Even if other conditions mean that we can now create qualitatively different technical innovation in the near future, Europe provides a big enough market to induce this, and there is no obvious reason why the incremental market that would be provided by the U.S. would make much difference.
Argument 1 is true, but irrelevant as for all but the last six years really, fuel taxes have been in the context of a market where oil was still, by a very very far margin, the cheapest source of energy around. (With the obvious exception of the oil shocks which preceded Europe's regime of fuel taxes.)

Argument 2 is kind of funny for a conservative, because it basically casts the US as a free rider on European innovation--or, to put it another way, America is an environmental welfare bum, and Manzi doesn't mind.

Now, people responded by saying that despite Manzi, Europe has responded to higher fuel taxes in a variety of ways, largely summed up by "doing things in less fuel-intense ways". (Smaller vehicles, more transit and bike use, etc.)

Manzi's response really has to be seen to be believed:
This strikes me as, at best, a word game. I understand that innovation is not identical to invention. But this is like saying that in response to an increase in the price of peanut butter, I “innovated” by making smaller sandwiches and eating ham-and-cheese more often (while noting that I designed these new sandwiches very well, and am probably healthier anyway with less peanut butter in my diet). If by “innovation” in response to higher gas prices, we mean switching to smaller cars and taking the bus and riding bicycles more often, then I agree entirely that higher gas prices in the U.S. will induce innovation.
First of all, I think Manzi's grasp of basic nutrition is about as bad as his grasp of climate change: he thinks switching to a meat-and-cheese diet from peanut butter would be better for him?

That aside, Manzi--who, sadly, is one of the few US conservatives who doesn't dismiss climate change outright--is basically saying here that the easiest, cheapest, most reliable way of reducing carbon pollution (doing the same or more with less carbon) doesn't count as far as he's concerned. These are forms of innovation, but for a US conservative, if it doesn't involve nuclear-powered fuel cell Hummers, it's just hippie socialism.

This isn't just a doctrinaire conservative viewpoint, either. I always think of this as the "Wired fallacy"--after their truly horrible article on nuclear power a few years back. It's basically the bog standard popular US view on science and technology: don't bother changing behaviours--technology will do it for us.

Of course, we change our behaviours all the time in response to new technologies, so why we shouldn't anticipate that has always boggled me.

A discussion on the Middle Class

A friend emailed me this a few days ago. It's basically a psychiatrist giving his own explanation for why the "American dream" is out of reach--he blames an infantilizing culture in parenting and academia, and I particularly liked this bit:
They're not better educated, they just have more degrees. Were you smarter at 21 post college than your Dad was at 21? And whatever the difference, was it worth the $50k-$200k he paid to get you it? No, but every parent of a high school kid I've talked to about this says the same thing: "I know, I know, but I just want her to get that piece of paper." So work this out in your head: either this parent is a solitary genius who is the sole possessor of the knowledge that the college degree is merely a brand and not a mark of knowledge; or every employer in the world already knows this. So if we all agree the degree doesn't mean anything close to what we are pretending it means, then what's the point of piling on? Isn't this technically a Ponzi scheme?
I've used the phrase "paperwork arms race" before to discuss exactly this phenomenon, but calling it a Ponzi scheme is pithier. In my field, I've taken a master's degree to get exactly where my father was with 2 bachelors degrees, and where someone in his father's generation could have been with a high school diploma. In the industry I'm discussing, one more generation back would take you to the point where high school dropouts were doing the work.

Yes, some tasks have gotten more complicated because of new technology--but the people who have problems with new technology are definitely not the young people entering the workforce, ergo much of this academic training is deadweight.

That said, I'm always wary of "cultural" explanations for things that can be explained more directly. For example, from the Financial Times:
Unsurprisingly, a growing majority of Americans have been telling pollsters that they expect their children to be worse off than they are. During the three postwar decades, which many now look back on as the golden era of the ­American middle class, the rising tide really did lift most boats – as John F. Kennedy put it. Incomes grew in real terms by almost 2 per cent a year – almost doubling each generation.

And although the golden years were driven by the rise of mass higher education, you did not need to have graduated from high school to make ends meet. Like her husband, Connie Freeman was raised in a “working-class” home in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. Her father, who left school aged 14 following the Great Depression of the 1930s, worked in the iron mines all his life. Towards the end of his working life he was earning $15 an hour – more than $40 in today’s prices.

Thirty years later, Connie, who is far better qualified than her father, having graduated from high school and done one year of further education, makes $17 an hour. The pace of life has also changed: “We used to sit around the dinner table every evening when I was growing up,” says Connie, who speaks with prolonged vowels of the Midwest. “Nowadays that’s sooooo rare.”
The Last Psychiatrist spent much of his post spanking a relatively privileged kids who was offered a starting salary of $40k a year, and said no because he thought he deserved something better, recession notwithstanding. So yeah, we can all laugh at him (anyone want to pay me 40K? I'll take it!) but we could laugh at the stupidity of the privileged, melanin-deficient classes till the cows come home--it wouldn't change the fact that for the much larger number of people, the middle-class dream is actually, objectively out of reach.

Asking everyone to take 3 years of school after high school before they can even expect to start making a liveable wage--much less a comfortable one--is actually an imposition, especially when there's so little evidence it's necessary. Yes, the wage premium for a post-secondary education has increased dramatically in the last 30 years, but for what? So the middle class can work at 1/3 of the wages their lesser-educated parents did?

What we've seen in North America is not an expansion of middle-wage jobs that one can secure with, say, a 3-year post-secondary program. Instead, we've seen a vast expansion of low-wage jobs and a smaller expansion of high-skill, high-wage jobs--the middle class dream is disappearing because there are less middle-class jobs. Talking about "culture" and "infantilized adults" can illuminate some thing--indeed, I do think I am probably less "adult" than my father (and I'm sure he didn't think he was ready at all for 3 kids by 31! But that's only two years away for me.) But I think the objective facts of the economy are far more powerful.

Indeed, when there are fewer middle-class jobs that one can get with a realistic skill set coming out of high school, you would expect people to take longer to "grow up", if we define growing up as job, marriage, house, etc. Nothing matures you like actually having to do something.