Feed on

Yummy Russian Apples

The joy of reading things like a history of Apples often comes in the surprising twists and turns and the connections between seemingly unrelated other things you may be reading. I had in fact just finished reading a biography of Stalin (classy guy I tell ya) and serendipitously my book on apples contains a chapter on the Russian experience with apples. Here is, pardon the pun, a slice:

The peculiar state of Russian plant research is itself a remnant of the troubled history of Soviet science, a recurring echo of the “Vavilov affair” …

As Joseph Stalin tightened his grip on all the institutions of Soviet life, he grew to rely more and more on Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, his brilliant but possessed science adviser. At first Vavilov had been intrigued by Lysenko’s propositions concerning genetic variation and microclimates, but closer examination showed Lysenko to be more an ambitious crackpot than a man of science. Unfortunately, the more that serious biologists rejected Lysenko as an ideologue, the more Lysenko genetics as contrary to Communist thought and the more Stalin began to rely on him. At the height of the national terror surrounding Stalin’s purge trials, scholars and scientists were disappearing from their posts almost daily. Vavilov began to lose his budget. His colleagues, worried for their own survival, began to shun him. A prominent member of Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society, Vavilov ceased to attend international conferences. Throughout, he refused to trim his research, his papers, or his lectures to the Stalinist pattern. Eventually, he was stripped of all positions and imprisoned. In 1943 Vavilov starved to death.


Been reading a book on … apples. Early in the book there is a brief section on the history of good-tasting apples. What the author tells us is that most wild and old-time apples are called “quick spitters” because they taste so bad you spit them out quick. The good fruit, whether originally an accident of nature or man-made hybrid, have always been the grafter’s product. Greeks as early as the sixth or seventh century BC relied on vegetative surgery and in the 9th century the French discovered a dwarf tree that they grafted nearly all of their apples too.

In other words, the iconic apple, probably like most fruits, is nowhere near native to the US (it seems to be from a very hilly region of Kazakhstan), and anything remotely edible has been the product of centuries of breeding, and the good ones are propogated by grafting wood from the desired apple tree onto reliable stock. Exactly like Frankenstein,

I look forward to the protests and the tearing up of experimental plots of ALL apples.

By the way, I recommend books like Emma Maris’ Rambunctious Garden for more detailed discussions on the meaning of “natural” and “untrammeled” and “steady state” ecosystems.

Not a surprising source:

it (local food) requires less vehicle emissions to be transported from the farm to the consumer compared to food transported from other states and countries.

Note that I write this as I just finished a massive Blueberry picking saturnalia at Green Acres. Tomorrow we are heading out to Singer Farms for a cherry party (that’s over  200 local miles driven by the way).

So again, “where’s the evidence?”

(1) Just saying it because it sounds right, well, that is now very common in academia, former home of scientific inquiry.

(2) While I used to accept the basic premise since it is totally obvious (because the bigger economic point is more important), now I am not even sure about the basic data. Are there really less vehicle emissions in getting lettuce from a farm in Williamson, NY to a farmers’ market at the U of R than in getting that same lettuce on a train and truck from California to NY?

(2a) Remember that when produce is grown in large industrial areas connected to major shipping lines, the stuff gets sent in tremendous bulk. Take this stylized example. A typical farm in “Faraway, USA” may be 3,000 miles from Rochester while a local farm is 30 miles away in “Close, USA.” It is almost surely the case that the farm in Faraway is shipping 100 times more produce than the local farm and it is almost surely the case that the method of transporting the broccoli from Faraway is more fuel efficient and emits less than the farm from Close. Consider the importance of interstate commercial rail shipping in the US and barge shipping across the world – both fantastically fuel efficient operations.

(2b) I am almost sure that if one were to measure the fuel consumed and emissions burned by we locals getting to farmers markets, that would exceed the emissions produced by getting the food to market. Go do the calculations.

(3) And here is the usual economic point – there is absolutely nothing at all important about the emissions from transporting food. The total amount of emissions and resources used to produce food are all that matter. Worrying about the emissions from farm to market is akin to worrying about the emissions generated by producing the button on your pair of jeans. It is certainly possible that growing food close to home for particular products are certain times of year is in fact the most resource efficient, but just citing that something comes from Close doesn’t tell us anything.

So, go to the farmer’s markets this week, enjoy them, but don’t think that you are doing the world any particular favors by going – go because you like it.

Research Roundup

1. The mortgage crisis seems to have been due to borrowers at ALL income levels expecting house prices to rise. Google the term “predatory borrowing” … not quite consistent with the prevailing narrative.

2. This paper may in fact be carefully done, but the result suggesting more government spending even when output multipliers are tiny is exactly what you’d predict they’d find based on the little we know of them. In other words, “Houston, we have an epistemological problem.”

3. You say potato

Overall, agency concerns appear modest. Around 80% of the eligible receive the subsidy as intended

4. Retirement is good for you.

5. This is sure to make headlines … NOT.  Home weatherization programs deliver a negative 10% return, and that’s not due to people keeping their houses warmer in response. This is in fact about what I calculated when we considered doing our own home here in Rochester.

The findings suggest that the upfront investment costs are about twice the actual energy savings. Further, the model-projected savings are roughly 2.5 times the actual savings. While this might be attributed to the “rebound” effect – when demand for energy end uses increases as a result of greater efficiency – the paper fails to find evidence of significantly higher indoor temperatures at weatherized homes. Even when accounting for the broader societal benefits of energy efficiency investments, the costs still substantially outweigh the benefits; the average rate of return is approximately -9.5% annually.

6. The authors suggest that risk taking behavior comes more from nurture than from nature. Their measure of risk? Investing in stocks.

7. An interesting finding on the history of corporations: it seems they may not be originated in government privilege and monopoly. This, too, is sure to be widely cited and popularized.

8. A model of “civil” disobedience by Glaeser and Sunstein.

9. Another finding sure to be a key point made, especially on the left, during the next election cycle: the EITC appears to be very well targeted and have a high unemployment reduction elasticity. This is not surprising.

10. Who takes advantage of solar subsidies? I think we should create a bumper sticker that says something like, “Going Green … for Those With Green.”

11. This paper is sure to be widely relied upon by the right during the next election cycle.

Our findings suggest that providing broader access to medical marijuana may have the potential benefit of reducing abuse of highly addictive painkillers.

12. Another hidden cost of war.

13. A Latin American financial crisis Nostradamus?

14. The importance of networking. Note to my students – this is not at all unrelated to grade inflation on campus and why I’ve chosen to reduce the number of recommendations I write.

15. Finally, another paper sure to get lots of airplay, fracking benefits those with low skills. My prediction is that if this one does in fact get picked up, it will be something like, “fracking contributes to degradation of education.” And I’m sure in the next breath the writer will go on to lament how in the golden days of the 50s, you used to be able to just get a good job and support a family by …


Tim Taylor talks about Keynes’ view on secular stagnation, investment and the government’s role in managing aggregate demand:

Keynes begins by stating: “It seems to be agreed to-day that the maintenance of a satisfactory level of employment depends on keeping total expenditure (consumption plus investment) at the optimum figure … The problem of maintaining full employment is, therefore, the problem of ensuring that the scale of investment should be equal to the saving which may be expected to emerge ….”

Writing in 1943, Keynes then predicted “three phases” that would appear after the end of World War II. In the first phase after the war, there would be an investment boom, which in his view the government should act to tamp down:

The government should also handle phases two and three as well.

Final exam question to any and all Eco 101 students: what is entirely missing from this analysis of how to “manage” or “balance” the supply and demand of savings and investment funds? It’s almost too shocking to realize it.

Big Oil Subsidies

In today’s edition of “show me” … inspired by a question from a friend last night:

Has there ever been a traditional fossil fuel electricity producer that has received a direct subsidy payment like that which wind gets under the PTC?

I did not have an answer. The closest I can think of is the Carter Administration’s push for coal as a national security measure but am not sure of those details. I am certainly sure that no current fossil fuel is directly subsidized despite what you read in the popular press and alarmist sites – what they are calling subsidies are arcane attributes of tax accounting that are available to all companies who qualify.

So remember my weekend advice, if you want to be unwelcome at a party this weekend, keep asking for evidence.

I sat down with a homebrew last night (a moderately hopped Amber Ale, brewed with house yeast obtained from a local brewery) and watched Food, Inc. There is much to say of course about it. Two quick points for now, I took 6 pages of notes while watching.

First is that the documentary starts early and often with the idea that, “corporations put a deliberate curtain between our food (at the retail stage) and where it is coming from.” This is such a common theme throughout the movie that by the end you start repeating the cantations to song in your sleep. But think about this for a few minutes. One idea is that there is some giant coordinated cabal of big corporations who get together to keep information about sourcing and production from consumers. This is, to put it mildly, extremely unlikely. If any company saw a competitive advantage in getting information out there, there is nothing to prevent them from doing so. Bubbling beneath this sentiment and many others in the film (and elsewhere) is the idea that the outcomes that you see around you are the result of conscious design. But of course this is an illusion that order presents us with. The conscious actions are taken by individuals with varying incentives, pieces of information, ethical standards, and so on. But the pattern we see before us is hardly the result of explicit design. Such anthropomorphizing of the extended order leads us to think we actually have more control of outcomes than we do, it lends us to thinking in terms of “them vs. us” and a host of other harmful mindsets.

But think about the claim above and instead of arguing it as I did above, accept it. While watching a documentary on Food, I know it is hard to get yourself to ask the question about, “what about other items?” but it is encouraged. Whether or not putting a veil up between the retail side of food and the horrible ways (it is asserted, more on that later) it is produced is good or bad is not to be ascertained merely by asserting that the veil exists. Yet this is a strategy the documentary takes repeatedly. But even ignore that. Can you tell me very many goods or services you consume on the retail end where there ISN’T a veil put up between the end user and how it is produced? Take my teaching. I tend to be as transparent as is reasonable with my students about my preparation, but were they sitting with me while watching the movie last night? Do they read every article, book, paper, etc. that I read? Or consider your laptop or iPhone that you are reading this post on. Do you have even the slightest clue how it was made, its environmental impact or the working conditions of the people involved? Of course you don’t, and that is the case for nearly anything that you consume, and mind you this is particularly true for most things the government does. It’s hard to take the stance of, “OMG! The food “industry” is so secretive” when that describes almost any decentralized process in the extended order and that again such secretness, should it exist, provides opportunities for entrepreneurs to make it less secret and profit, and it also does not prove the secretness is “good” or “bad.”

Second, and I’ll have to stop here at the risk of writing a 30 page blog post, is that the documentary is virtually devoid of any data or real information viewers can use to evaluate how serious the problems are. Remember that in any large population of any activity, there are always going to be horror stories, and simply showing them proves nothing aside from the simple human interest story (which of course is not to be neglected, but that does not mean they prove the larger point). Coyote makes this point regularly – with media (and us) taking events that occur normally in the distribution and raising alarm about them or trying to prove their point about them. But in the case of Food, Inc. the documentary goes much further than just pointing out a few scary and sad episodes – they have chosen some that are so far out in the tail and spun an entire documentary about it as to make the entire production less credible. About midway through the film, the writers focus on a now activist mother who had the horrible misfortune of losing her three-year old child to an e Coli infection thought to be from food contamination. Now, not much background is given about it, but this episode takes up a good 10+ minutes of the film, and is accompanied by the expected images of cows standing ankle deep in their manure and images of sickly cows being poked and prodded as they are marched to their deaths. This is not to say that it does not happen.

But as I watched I decided to take the very easy step of going to the CDC to check just how bad our foodborne illness problem is in the United States. And while I certainly do not wish to die from eating my food, I was absolutely shocked to see how little of a problem it is. In the latest year that data is available, a total of 4,200 cases of people being hospitalized are recorded, and a total of … 80 people died from contaminated food. Mind you, we don’t learn from this how or why they were contaminated, so let’s assume that all of this is because of bad practices by food producers. If you look in the report on e Coli, you will find that in the last year data in available, a total of FOUR people died from e Coli contamination. You read that right.

There are about 320 million people in America eating three meals a day for a year – which comes to something like 350 billion meals eaten in the United States every year, wholly aside from all of the snacking we do. And out of 350 billion meals we see that only 4 cases of e Coli deaths were recorded – for a death rate of something on the order of 1 in a 100 billion. This is such an extremely low risk that I can’t easily find anything that is safer than eating American food. It’s certainly not anywhere in the ballpark of almost anything you can do with yourself, including just rocking back and forth in a chair on your front porch. Yet here we have a “change the world” documentary that really is focused on this particular risk. This is not to say that we cannot treat animals better or think about agricultural practices, but it is to say that by watching the film the viewed is given not even the slightest idea of the relative risks we are talking about, and this is really only one particular problem with the film.

A post from Lawrence Mishel of the EPI repeats the very often-cited idea that the typical worker is not doing much better today:

The issue of wage stagnation, however, should focus on what the vast majority of workers have been experiencing for most of the post-1979 period. Hourly wages, inflation-adjusted, grew only 0.2 percent annually from 1979 to 2014 and did not grow at all if we exclude the 1995-2000 period.

I do not actually want to debate or dispute the big picture behind what this data is intending to portray – that in a broad scale we do not seem to see the middle class surging ahead in living standards as rapidly as they had in previous generations. Now, again, that is arguable, but leave that. What I want to know of course is whether the statement above can even be factually confirmed? I will emphasize what I am asking:

for the VAST MAJORITY OF WORKERS … real wages grew only 0.2% per year from 1979 to 2014.

Show me. What is your evidence? He says, “for the vast majority of workers.” This means that (a) it must mean more than 50%, and considerably more. To be conservative, let’s assume he means 2/3 of workers and (b) that we are talking about workers. So, can anyone show me data that supports the idea that for 67% of people who were working in 1979, their real wages increased more slowly than 0.2% per year over the past 35 years? I find it hard to believe that 67% of the people who were employed in 1979 are even working today. If that is not what is meant by the figure, then what is? In reality, it can mean whatever people want it to mean irrespective of your political stripes. But what I am asking is for someone to show evidence on the actual wage experience of workers over that time and now survey sample data of repeated cross-sections of people. I may even settle for a series of repeated cross-sections with an average age increasing by one year each year. But as anyone can easily show you, you can have an aggregate workforce with no change at all in average earnings over time that still has every single employee seeing dramatic improvements in their living condition year after year after year.

To think of a highly stylized example, consider a firm with 30 workers. Worker 1 is in her first year, worker 2 iu her second, and worker 30 in her thirtieth and final year. Each year, the worker moves up one in the pay scale, with the 30th worker retiring and being replaced by a new worker. If the youngest worker earns $10 per hour, and there is a 5% pay bump at every level, the oldest worker will earn $41.16 per hour. The firm’s total salary bill would be $664.39. The median wage would be $20.29 while the average would be $22.15. If you revisit the firm every year (assume these are all already inflation adjusted), the total salary bill would be $664.39 next year and the year after and 28 years after that, and the median and average wage would stagnate. Meanwhile the “typical” worker would see her wage increase by a healthy 5% every single year. There is no way that aggregate data that does not follow the experience of each and every worker can capture this.

Before you use this simple thought experiment as an “aha” remember that it works in the other direction too – so that the real experience of workers can in fact be far worse than the aggregate data indicate. Now, I don’t think that is likely happening, but the point remains.

So, if you want to be scientific in the field of economics, go track down a panel of workers and tell us what actually happened to their real wages over time. Even if you find that they have not changed much, don’t get too excited, that is only one small step of the many required to illustrate just what has happened to their well-being. As I will not tire of saying, my real wage today is lower than it was when I was two years out of college, and that does not in any way reflect how “good” the labor market has been for me or how well off I am.

So, when we encounter people making very strong claims from aggregate data, I encourage us to ask, “how do you know?” It’s a healthy practice and I suggest it should be viewed as shameful to be making strong claims when it is not possible to do so. The more likely outcome is that you will be viewed as hostile, uncooperative or anti-science. Strange.

This is in the news today:

The attorneys general of Alabama, Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi settled “in principle” with the fallen oil giant British Petroleum on Thursday, agreeing to accept $18.7 billion in damages after the company was deemed “grossly negligent” in the costliest offshore environmental accident in U.S. history

I’m sure this will make a lot of people feel good. But read the article and look around the web for a bit – while you will see a lot of information about how reckless BP was and how clearly this was a huge disaster, what you will have trouble finding is how much actual damage was known that have come from the spill. Note that I am not saying that BP ought not pay huge fines, after all, there are obviously legal reasons to pay penalties beyond just for damages done, but you’d think that with so much ink spilled (pardon the pun) on this sort of disaster at least some enterprising journalist would take the time to find out how much real damage actually occurred.

Without getting into the weeds on the particulars, this episode brings to mind two things for me, related:

(1) This paper that I stumbled upon last year is highly relevant. Here is part of the abstract:

… I examine the introduction of an insurance mandate that reduced firms’ ability to avoid liability through bankruptcy. …Finally, environmental outcomes, including those related to groundwater contamination, also improved sharply. These results suggest that incomplete internalization of environmental and safety costs due to bankruptcy protection is an important determinant of industry structure and safety effort in hazardous industries, with significant welfare consequences.

Now there are important reasons to have bankruptcy protection in place, but I’ve long since believed that modern bankruptcy law exists as much to provide work for lawyers as it does economic protection.

(2) This result should provide some guidance on financial regulation, no? For all that has been done since the onset of the crisis, has ANYONE proposed ensuring that financial firms have more skin in the game? And when I say more skin in the game, I don’t just mean capital requirements, I mean changes to ownership liability structures? Maybe going back to the days of full-blown partnerships and double liability can never happen, but surely there were some advantages of that system.



To feel anger when looking at this:

It’s an Adelie Penguin from Antarctica.

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »