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I’ve spent most of my “academic” time the past two summers studying and writing on the economics of climate change. It has become quite clear to me that were we to line up the honest economic and environmental experts and received their honest assessments about what the worst case scenarios look like, and where the most serious consequences are likely to occur, that we would hear a lot of talk about the oceans. It seems to me that the decreased pH levels of oceans due to the dissolving of carbon dioxide in the water, that the rising sea-levels due to thermal expansion, groundwater depletion (wait, that’s not from global warming), and melting glaciers (which have been melting for long before the emissions of CO2 picked up steam, though you may conclude that the rate of melting is sharper), and threats to ocean biodiversity are the things that most worry people.

What do these threats have in common? They are all ocean related. Now, this just may happen to be a coincidence, but my money is not on that horse. It should not be surprising that the biggest perceived threats are happening to the parts of the planet we know the least about, and have had the least experience tweaking and such. Contrast these threats to something we know a lot about – pests and disease. If you look back to earlier IPCC reports (3rd one and earlier) you will see ample space given in the reports that one of the hugest threats to humanity was that mosquito and other disease vector ranges were going to expand, and cause massive amounts of death. That has not only not happened as the planet has warmed, but the malaria threat is already 1/3 as serious as it was two-decades ago, and we may even be on the cusp of eradicating it.

This is not to imply that we will solve all of our ocean problems, but it is to suggest that we lack both experience and knowledge of ocean systems, and perhaps even an imagination. I recently read (and forgive me for not having a link, but it was an old article and I was on an elliptical machine reading it) that the EPA once estimated that it would cost on the order of $1,000 per mile to protect sea coasts from sea-level rise. And given the expected rise of seas over the next century of something like a foot-and-a-half, something like a fifth of one-percent of the planet’s land area is at risk. I do not expect these numbers to move north, per the points made above.


Richard Dawkins famously put all kinds of free-thinker signs all over the London bus system over 30 years ago. That’s a kind of advertising I like. One particularly interesting one was:

Since most people dismiss all religions except one, why not go the final step?

To which I would only add, since I can imagine a lot of people I know agreeing with that sentiment, but they are nonetheless fervently political:

Since most people dismiss all politicians (political parties, etc.) except one, why not go the final step?

Indeed, why not?



This finding, while not surprising, is hard for me to square with the Political Economy we live in:

On the Distribution of the Welfare Losses of Large Recessions
by Dirk Krueger, Kurt Mitman, Fabrizio Perri  –  NBER WP#22458

How big are the welfare losses from severe economic downturns, such
as the U.S. Great Recession? How are those losses distributed across
the population? In this paper we answer these questions using a
canonical business cycle model featuring household income and wealth
heterogeneity that matches micro data from the Panel Study of Income
Dynamics (PSID).  We document how these losses are distributed across
households and how they are affected by social insurance policies.
We find that the welfare cost of losing one’s job in a severe
recession ranges from 2% of lifetime consumption for the wealthiest
households to 5% for low-wealth households.  The cost increases to
approximately 8% for low-wealth households if unemployment insurance
benefits are cut from 50% to 10%.  The fact that welfare losses fall
with wealth, and that in our model (as in the data) a large fraction
of households has very low wealth, implies that the impact of a
severe recession, once aggregated across all households, is very
significant (2.2% of lifetime consumption).  We finally show that a
more generous unemployment insurance system unequivocally helps
low-wealth job losers, but hurts households that keep their job, even
in a version of the model in which output is partly demand
determined, and therefore unemployment insurance stabilizes aggregate
demand and output.

My point simply is this. If we are living in a plutocracy, and if we understand that lower-income families have little to no political power and influence, then can we explain why almost ALL of US monetary and fiscal policy is focused on avoiding recessions and getting out of them quickly? I suppose you can argue that this paper does show that recessions DO hurt the rich … but do they hurt the rich more than bad regulatory and trade policy, or other policies, for example?

The dark-colored peppered moth is on the verge of extinction. And it IS very likely because of human activity. Voila! Evidence that humans are bad for species and ecosystems!

Might I urge everyone to just take a deep breath and to think harder when information is presented to you?

It turns out that the dark colored peppered moth was likely a creation of human beings in the first place. Was its creation sustainable? Is its demise evidence of unsustainability? Well, this is why standard “definitions” of sustainability will lead us off into the vaguely phosphorescent recesses of the great grimpen mire. It turns out that the peppered moth is generally light colored. In the mid-19th century it began to turn black, and yes because of human activities coupled with the wonders of evolutionary processes. As cities in England got dirtier and dirtier, and the air and particulates coating all surfaces got darker and darker – the darker colored moths had an easier time hiding from predators, particularly when they were roosting in trees. Over time, evolutionary processes took over – being dark conferred an advantage and soon nearly all of the peppered moths in England were dark.

Not anymore. It is thought that the dark-colored strain of the moth is about to go extinct? Why?

The same human influences, this time running in reverse. We humans have managed to clean the air and particulate matter from London and many of our major cities. Things are lighter, brighter and healthier. As a result, the naturally lighter-colored moths now have an advantage in camouflage, and the darker ones now stand out in the clean skies and trees – so they are not very likely to have their genes passed onto the next generation.

Should we do the “sustainable” thing and ensure that future generations can enjoy what present generations enjoy? Should we dirty the air a bit so that this creature of dirty air can sustain itself? I don’t think many folks would suggest that. And in thinking more deeply about the meaning of sustainability, without being too moralistic here, I hope the story helps folks understand that the world and ecosystems are always changing, and adapting to hundreds and thousands of stimuli, some human created, some not – and that the very simplistic concept of sustainability is not well-suited to describing, and acting in, the very complex world we live in.


I am a fan of consensual capitalist acts. It would be wonderful if many more transactions people had a chance to engage with in their lives were ones where both parties had some agency about whether and how to enter such transactions. Sadly, and I am going to sound like some dour anti-capitalist nutcase now, I think that a larger and larger share of the engagements we have in this world are not consensual.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I feel like I am being “capitalistically molested.” The picture below gives yet one of many new examples:



This was taken at a Sunoco station near by home in Rochester. The pump is a new one (incidentally, the third new one since I moved here). Notice the brand new television screen blaring at me. I cannot silence the screen, lower the volume, pause it, etc. As I stand there pumping gas (of course, we have to hold the pump handle because our betters think that allowing those neat little clickly devices that hold the pump for us is too dangerous), now no longer am I forced to just look at some print advertisements for Kool cigarettes and some two day old Churros in the nearby shop, not only am I inundated with inducements to secure a Sunoco credit card or to join some such gasoline club … NOW … I have to deal with the bleating of NBC news. God knows what NBC news paid to the Sunoco stations to be able to have the ear of every single driver (and passenger, these things are LOUD) of an automobile in America.

But I did not ask for this. There are so few places in this world now where you are not inundated with noise, advertising, banter, and all manner of distractions. I used to actually like some gas stations because while filling my car it was a few minutes of peace and quiet to have thoughts to myself as I listen to the droning of cars along the nearby expressways. Now, not even that place is “sacred.” Sunoco did not advertise that they would be adding this television feature, I also did not tell them I wanted it. Yet here we have it. That does not, to me, seem like a consensual capitalist act.

For now, I have the option of finding other gas stations that merely allow me to quietly pump my gas. Some of those have more ads and radio noise than others, and I will choose the quiet ones. But how long until the “force of competition” requires that ALL gas stations have these distractions? (And let’s not talk about the quality of the content on NBC news). So long as there is some form of easy exit opportunity from an engagement I will consider the engagement sort-of consensual, but boy oh boy, there seem to be a decreasing number of time-places where a truly consensual act is taking place.

One of the nice parts of the modern TV and radio scene is that you can structure your life to be more consensual than in the past. I watch far less media today and listen to far less radio today than in the past – but almost everything I watch is what I select, and almost everything I do is devoid of commercial interruption. As soon as the media I am enjoying veers off into non-consensual land, or non-interesting land, I find something else to do and/or drop the media relationship entirely.

I wished it were as easy to structure our physical reality in the same way we do it for our media and online lives.

… you may get hit in the head.

A perspective here:

During student teaching, whenever my lessons were observed or critiqued, the criticisms leveled were not focused on my command of the material, my presence, or my ability to convey information, nor were they questions about my ability to engage students or plan lessons. The criticisms I received were almost always about some “implicit bias” or slip of the tongue, some unconscious stereotype or microaggression. One example will suffice: While teaching S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders to 8th graders, I introduced the class to the actor Paul Newman, a 1960s heart-throb and celebrity fixation for characters in the book. I then briefly mentioned his charity work with Newman’s Own. After the lesson, my professor told me that my comment may have referenced “privilege” and “alienated some of the students who were poor and likely could not afford to buy Newman’s Own products.” The irony is that the rural town in which I taught this lesson only has a few restaurants, the cheapest being McDonald’s–which exclusively serves Newman’s Own coffee and salad dressing. This punctilious language-policing was a daily regularity in our program, and our constant awareness of it produced a frustrated hesitancy in our teaching, as well as an Orwellian dullness in our verbal expression.

Now lest I sound like a disenfranchised conservative, I should add that I consider myself both a pluralist and a liberal democrat who is passionate about free speech and expression


The Origin of AIDS

Jacques Pepin’s Origin of AIDS is certainly a learning experience. While for many readers there is too much detail to make it worth plowing through, I really recommend it to anyone who appreciates the deep connections between social science, medical science, and human development. I won’t again comment on this book, just merely highlight a few interesting items from it.

  • There was once a man who conducted testicular transplants from chimpanzees to men. Read more here.
  • It was estimated that in the early 1980s in Nairobi (note, not the place where HIV first emerged or was transmitted from), sex workers had on average 1,400 paid intercourses per year.
  • On the treatment of women in Cameroon and Gabon: “The husband, especially if polygamous, could dispose of his property as he wished. One of the wives could be asked to have sex with a friend, a relative or visitor, often for payment to the husband in cash or in kind but sometimes for free, in what corresponded more to ‘sexual hospitality’ than prostitution. In the Belgian Congo … 20 young men might get together to hire a prostitute for up to two months and payment was made to the girl’s mother. The young woman would only do this once in her life, it was not considered dishonorable and would not decrease her chances of getting married later.
  • You’d be absolutely amazed at how much tropical diseases and viral disease transmission was likely due to poorly understood or hubristic medical practices.
  • On Belgian attitudes toward the Congolese: “Despite six years of post-secondary education, the highest level a Congolese could reach under Belgian rule was medical assistant. The Congolese were considered too primitive to become medical doctors, unable to understand the rules of professional conduct and ethics and the infinite value of human life. Strangely enough, at the same time there were already 600 Congolese priests, who had been through six years of university-level philosophy and theology. When the country became independent, only thirty or so Congolese held university degrees earned at home or abroad.”
  • I am sure you realized that while people, if they wish to give blood, must do it as a volunteer, if you wish to give up plasma, you can be paid. It is very well documented at how the sale of blood plasma likely was a key driver in the amplification of the disease once it made its way to the Caribbean and the rest of the West. One donation of plasma was often separated into thousands of treatments, so just one infected and untreated plasma donor could unleash a lot of HIV transmission on people, unknowingly.
  • “This is a reminder that the most dangerous threat to the long-term survival of the human species is the human race itself.”

Have a lovely weekend.

Begging the Question

In Nordhaus’s Climate Casino (recommended), in describing the problem when market prices do not fully capture all resource costs:

However, the unregulated invisible hand sets the prices incorrectly when there are important externalities. Therefore, governments must step in and regulate or tax activities with significant harmful externalities. Global warming is no different than other externalities; it requires affirmative governmental actions to reduce harmful spillovers.

As if other institutions “set” prices any better. The assumption of the Deus Ex Machina of government never ceases to amaze me, especially so given the sh!tstorms that have been in the news lately.

To proclaim that there is no truth, that there is not even a scintilla of objective reality, is to exercise a phenomenal degree of privilege, no? This is to suggest that there is no way to obtain more knowledge about a topic. So when it comes to the workings of the price system and a system of property rights, folks who claim to speak on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed do not seem to take the intellectual effort or physical effort to actually examine what abolishing prices and property actually does to the lives and fortunes of the poor, of the mentally afflicted, of the disaffected and “forgotten.” They have not walked in the shoes of someone who is excluded by the abolition of prices and property.


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