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We are now four years past the Occupy Wall St. movement. What is its lasting legacy? You might argue it has manifested itself in this way. I suggest that the movement is ultimately not going to be worthy of even an historical footnote. How much of today’s activism and even commentary on financial matters has to do with financial sector regulation?

On a somewhat related note – holding an unpopular or popular view does not mean you are anti- or pro-science. The only view that one can hold that is “pro-science” is having an extreme respect for the process of human reason in the search for an objective truth. I have always had the darndest time getting my mind around the fact that so many of the folks calling people “anti-science” for holding various positions also tend to have a relativistic philosophic position. I do not think these are views that are compatible, but certainly do welcome arguments to the contrary.

I hate to use the word anti-science or pro-science, I think for obvious reasons, but nonethless I use it.

Here are some random findings:

We could of course populate this with thousands and thousands of entries. For some particularly interesting historical illustrations, I really recommend two math history books I’ve just finished, one on the history of pi and the other on the history of zero.

Fun Facts

The annual operating budget of my university is about double the size of the annual operating budget of my county.

My former professor from graduate school is coming to U of R tomorrow:

Speaker to Address Carbon Emission Reduction
“Robert Frank, the H.J. Louis Professor of Management and professor of economics at Cornell, will present “Reducing Carbon Emissions Will Be Easier Than Many People Think” at 5 p.m. Tuesday, April 7, in Morey Hall, Room 321. A reception will follow.”

Now, I am pretty sure that given the available research, there are going to be continued benefits from reducing our reliance on carbon, and that these benefits are almost exclusively going to be on the health side of things, as the combustion of carbon-based fuels is still, at this time, not an extremely clean process (think particulate pollution). Whatever climate benefits may come from reducing CO2 (which by the way is not the same as reducing global warming) would pale in comparison. My prediction is that if we do get CO2 reductions in the future, they will produce net health benefits, and that the carbon activists will claim “victory” because the reduction of carbon passes a benefit cost test on the grounds that our health is improved – meanwhile the way the carbon reductions get passed is through their impact on global warming.

In any case, note the title of the talk from Professor Frank – it sort of assumes the conclusion, no? Ignoring that, I suppose one would want to distinguish between reducing carbon emissions and then what the transitions to other energy sources would entail. I won’t bore you with a lot of calculations right now, but suffice it to say that it is an hilariously unlikely thing to expect us to be able to transition any significant portion of our power grid in the US to “clean” sources in the next 40 years.

While I am on the topic, note that when we talk about “optimal” carbon taxes, or how much carbon to reduce, we are making pretty gross assumptions that the level of carbon emitted today is not already optimal. In other words, when we write down that the “external costs of carbon” are ___, and that we should therefore set a tax equal to these external costs, then we have to first ask the question, “how much are we taxing or otherwise regulating carbon already?”

Please show me a single article by someone who is talking about global warming policy that asks this question? For example, we have very large taxes on gasoline at both the state and federal level in the US (I can’t show you these amounts and how close they come to the measured “social cost of carbon” because my students have become accustomed to googling my website for answers to problem set questions). Furthermore, beyond the taxes already imposed on fossil fuels (and there are plenty), have we stopped to ask just how much current regulations already restrict the output of carbon based fuels? For example, we have banned fracking in New York State. In other words, NO fracked gas is coming out of the ground. This is more than a 100% tax, and there is no question that since the NET benefits of drilling for and burning natural gas are positive, an outright ban reduces social welfare. Do we permit drilling in the ANWR? How much oil is not coming out of the ground there that would have come out otherwise? And how does this compare to how much less oil would be drilled in the US were we to first institute a carbon tax? And what does the current tax and regulatory climate do to how much companies are already investing in oil and other fossil fuel exploration? It is not at all entirely clear that we are not producing “too little” fossil fuels. However, that is really not what is on the mind of folks when they talk about the problems with fossil fuels – it’s not about “optimal” policy at all, else these questions would be on the table.

Note that James Hansen is coming to campus in a couple of weeks.

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias, while reflecting on parenthood, delivers this one: “but only the federal government can make electrical utilities spew less mercury into the atmosphere.” Of course, that depends on what we mean by the word “Make.” I am very interested in starting an electrical utility that burns natural gas to generate electricity. Such combustion does not emit any mercury into the atmosphere. So, would we conclude by the logic above that “only” the federal government can “make” electric utilities spew less mercury? Hardly. Of course, there are not well defined property rights to the air, and given that the price of mercury is not well established, it would seem Yglesias’ logic is sound. On the other hand, it is the very federal government that does not step in to stop states from banning fracking, and it is quite clear that if you ban fracking you are going to endorse coal burning, which produces mercury. So can I then logically say that only the federal government can MAKE utilities spew more mercury? I don’t think either claim is accurate, but it sure does make people feel good to read one or the other.

“Let us mark this Holy Week by declaring the death to the unholy trinity of white supremacist, capitalist, heteropatriarchy. And once these systems die, may they die once and for all, never to be resurrected.”

More here.

Friday Fun Fact

Sunlight is classified as a group 1 carcinogen. Also included in that group are things like asbestos.

By the way, all you can know from this fact is that sunlight exposure poses non-zero risks of disease contraction – it does not mean that exposure to sunlight is going to cause the same or as damaging a cancer as exposure to asbestos. That said, we all seem pretty comfortable not only taking appropriate and sensible precautions when encountering sunlight (such as hiking with a long sleeve shirt, wearing sunscreen, or living in Rochester), and we seem to be able to manage our exposure to sun without the force of law. Most important of course is that we are all pretty well educated that sunlight can indeed cause cancer yet nonetheless we happily seek it out because we understand in moderation exposure to sunlight can be helpful (it is a disinfectant, we absorb valuable nutrients from it) but that even when we know we are absorbing it in doses that are probably not healthful, we appreciate that it provides considerable benefits, even if they are only aesthetic.

What would be fun is to see a list of known carcinogens not by the “group” they are in, but rather the likely risks of contracting cancer and reduction in quality adjusted life years from typical exposures. How does sunlight rank? Exposure to various known pesticides and herbicides? And more.

On Ad Hominems

The obvious conclusion to draw from a repeated stream of ad hominem attacks and observations against a person, group or perhaps even an idea, is that those casting the aspersions have little logic, theory or evidence to actually engage with the ideas (and people) that they seem to find so repulsive. We shall not go through the litany of illustrations here. For the sake of today’s post, I’d like to ask a question about the consistency of the ad homimen-ers.

While it may seem like an obvious “attack” to question the motivations and influences of people who make arguments you disagree with, why is it the case that “where do you get your money” takes center stage in the arguments over other plausible influences? We explored a few posts ago the obvious inconsistency of folks not questioning the major sources of funding for all of our livelihoods, and we know of course that few ad hominem-ers care enough to ask, “what research have you done and have you carefully considered the various logical and empirical arguments?”, no, I refer to something else. Why, for example, do we think that even large amounts of money are the primary motivators and shapers of the views we hold and make public? Are the ad hominer-ers so much on board with science denial that they forget the very deep impact that parental ideology has on child ideology? To keep this a little light, do we think that my daughter’s current passion for hockey emerged spontaneously after first a careful consideration of the benefits of athletic development versus a less active lifestyle and second after considering the benefits and costs (including injury risks, probability of making lifetime relationships, etc.) of playing hockey as opposed to some other sport? OK, so in the world of ad hominem attacks, why then do we privilege monetary influences over, say, parental influences?

As a teacher, and one who has been influenced (and repelled) by many a teacher myself, I can’t help by think that a more useful “attack” would be to ask, “what teachers did you have in high school and college?” Maybe you could even impugn the financial payments made to them too? Or perhaps a better ad hominem approach would be to ask, “what group of people are you trying to be friends with, find acceptance by, and curry favor with?” Surely the answers to those questions, while still being anti-reason and anti-science and dodging the real issues, have nonetheless more information in them than the, “you’re a paid shill of the Kochtopus, so we don’t have to consider anything you say?”

Finally, I’ll ask two rhetorical questions. First, how many of the views you hold (on all sides of the various spectra) are actually held after a careful, scientific examination of the ideas and arguments and studies that comprise the field? Second, how much evidence for competing ideas and views have you read? I suggest that a healthy exercise is not to get into Facebook or Twitter wars with people whom you disagree with, I do not think you will learn anything that way. No, I think the best course of action is to “put the little devil on your shoulder” and have a deep conversation with her or him. Test yourself, see if you would pass an ideological Turing Test, see what things you would want to know if you disagreed with the positions you currently hold, and then, on occassion, perhaps go public with your own skepticism of yourself. It is healthier and more productive.

Disclaimer: I was not paid, directly at least, to post this blog post.

Processed

Exactly what is “wrong” with processed foods? At the same time, what is “right” about something that is “hand-crafted?” Now, as a home brewer and a craft beer enthusiast, I am certainly “guilty” of favoring brewers that “hand-craft” their beer and whose ingredients, I am told, are lightly or not “processed” …

Note that “processed” does not mean, “we added nasty chemicals to it.” Indeed, when you prepare your meal at home, unless you are eating raw foods picked from your garden, you yourself are “processing” food. I am pretty sure there are as many dangerous and unhealthy “natural” and unprocessed foods just as there are surely plenty of healthful and safe processed foods. If that is in fact the case, then why is there such a fear of “processed” foods and what is the agenda of folks that use the term in a derogatory manner?

For example, I am starting a new sourdough starter today, from scratch, made with freshly ground organic rye flour. By the end, when I am ready to start baking it, the starter will have been heavily “processed” but I am sure that I would be able to get away with selling this as “made from scratch, organic, hand-made” sourdough bread.

My wife’s car took about 800 gallons of gasoline last year. My own car took about 400 gallons. Our family probably consumed another 30 gallons directly via snowblowers and lawnmowers and innumerable gallons indirectly due to the presence of gasoline in producing and shipping the many products and services we presently consume. At $4 per gallon, we are in the hole about $5,000 gasoline just to power our lives. You better bet your bacon that we are beholden to gasoline and oil companies. At $2.50 gasoline, we have about $2,000 more in our pocket every year. Think about that, in addition to being able to move ourselves around freely, we can, on top of that, afford a full gym membership, new winter boots, and a paint job in two rooms of our house every single year. Ignoring the real developmental benefits of cheap gas, from a purely selfish standpoint this is great, and I will support anything that continues to make the use of energy so incredibly affordable today,

The simple point, or 2 points, that I intend to make here should be obvious.

(1) How come any time I see the slanderous and ad hominem, “she is in the pay of XYZ!” used to dismiss the legitimacy of an argument or research effort by someone you disagree with, how come the immediate claim is that people are actually being paid by someone? In every real way, we are ALL in the pay of all of the things we consume if we like them. How come when I teach environmental economics and I argue for policies that promote a land ethic or conservation ethic, no one has ever accused me of teaching that simply because I love hiking and have an interest in expanding the largely “free” playground that my dearest hobby takes place in? Never. Or generally, if someone wants to accuse me of being in the pay of Big Oil, I much prefer the intellectually honest (and factually correct) point that I have a huge interest in seeing cheap coal and gas because I am a heavy user of both and cherish the convenience of both, and indeed the consumer surplus I enjoy from these products is hard to measure, over the intellectually cowardly point that the only reason I might ever post something about the benefits of fracking or coal or gas or the problems with biofuels or wind or solar or CCS is that some energy company paid me to do it? And how come if I happened to come out and change my mind about the efficacy of rolling out massive quantities of solar panels in the future, I would not be condemned for being in the pay of “Big Solar?”

(2) Why have I never been accused of being beholden to my employer the U of R? When I speak, I am accused of being in the pay of, say, Exxon, or Koch. Now anyone who knows me knows that I have not only not earned a penny directly from them, but that if one were to do a balance of my work, I am probably a creditor to them. Second, anyone who knows small time teaching and consulting knows that even if I am in the pay of Big Oil, they are not going to be paying me more than a few thousand dollars, certainly not the hundreds of thousands or even millions that scientists tend to secure from their federal and non-profit funding sources. But back to the basic point. Suppose my salary at the U of R is $80,000 plus consider the benefits of being able to be employed in such a nice setting to work (e.g. a HUGE library that I get to use, it seems, all by myself at times!). Further, my family depends on me keeping myself in the good graces of my employer. How come, should I argue that there are benefits to fracked gas, it is believed that I would say such a thing because some gas company managed to first pick me out of a pack of thousands of academics who might have some thoughts on the issue (how would they even know me, I am a nobody economist?), and second they managed to advance me a few thousand dollars to write a paper or make a public comment or something. That few thousand dollars, most likely a one-shot payment, is simply nothing as compared to what my employer means to me. If I am going to be the mouthpiece of anyone, it sure as heck is going to be the people and ideas that really butter my bread. You would think that not only would I be in support of the orthodoxy, but that should I happen to have even the tiniest thoughts that were outside of the orthodox views that either I had a VERY good reason to have them, or I was either provably wrong. Rarely are those possibilities embraced.

 

My university launches a new “Center for Renewable Energy.” Among my favorites:

The new center will also focus on the health impacts of changing energy resources. For example, researchers from the University’s sciences, engineering, and humanities departments will work closely with its Medical Center on inhalation, exposure, and toxicology studies to understand the health effects of both existing and new energy technologies.

Until the press release today I was not even remotely aware that such an institute was being created. Not that I am a serious scholar, but I do happen to teach the course on Environmental Economics here, so I may have a middling interest in something like this, and certainly our students might. Further, unless they are rolling economics under “sciences” departments, economists are almost uniquely capable of evaluating the impacts of existing of new and energy technologies. Why do I say that? Because by training we are ingrained to focus on ALL of the effects of various policy choices, not just the narrow impacts of particular aspects of such policies. And while I myself enjoy the humanities, I am having a hard time seeing how training in those areas is going to be particularly effective at analyzing the impacts of various energy sources on human health outcomes and economic outcomes.

And I am sure our new center is going to be a hotbed of research and seminars and lectures of this sort. And I am sure there will be myriad seminars on the potential health benefits of things like fracking.

By the way, the entire term “Renewable Energy” is close to being a chimera, perhaps we’ll dedicate a future post to it.

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