Quotulatiousness

January 10, 2018

Tipping toward a new Ice Age

Filed under: Environment, History, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Matt Ridley on the possibility that our current interglacial period — the time period during which all of human history has played out from before the start of agricultural civilization down to today — may be coming to an end:

In 1976 Nicholas Shackleton, a Cambridge physicist, and his colleagues published evidence from deep-sea cores of cycles in the warming and cooling of the Earth over the past half million years which fitted Milankovich’s orbital wobbles. Precession, which decides whether the Earth is closer to the sun in July or in January, is on a 23,000-year cycle; obliquity, which decides how tilted the axis of the Earth is and therefore how warm the summer is, is on a 41,000-year cycle; and eccentricity, which decides how rounded or elongated the Earth’s orbit is and therefore how close to the sun the planet gets, is on a 100,000-year cycle. When these combine to make a “great summer” in the north, the ice caps shrink.

Game, set and match to Milankovich? Not quite. The Antarctic ice cores, going back 800,000 years, then revealed that there were some great summers when the Milankovich wobbles should have produced an interglacial warming, but did not. To explain these “missing interglacials”, a recent paper in Geoscience Frontiers by Ralph Ellis and Michael Palmer argues we need carbon dioxide back on the stage, not as a greenhouse gas but as plant food.

The argument goes like this. Colder oceans evaporate less moisture and rainfall decreases. At the depth of the last ice age, Africa suffered long mega-droughts; only small pockets of rainforest remained. Crucially, the longer an ice age lasts, the more carbon dioxide is dissolved in the cold oceans. When the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere drops below 200 parts per million (0.02 per cent), plants struggle to grow at all, especially at high altitudes. Deserts expand. Dust storms grow more frequent and larger. In the Antarctic ice cores, dust increased markedly whenever carbon dioxide levels got below 200 ppm. The dust would have begun to accumulate on the ice caps, especially those of Eurasia and North America, which were close to deserts. Next time a Milankovich great summer came along, and the ice caps began to melt, the ice would have grown dirtier and dirtier, years of deposited dust coming together as the ice shrank. The darker ice would have absorbed more heat from the sun and a runaway process of collapsing ice caps would have begun.

All of human civilisation happened in an interglacial period, with a relatively stable climate, plentiful rainfall and high enough levels of carbon dioxide to allow the vigorous growth of plants. Agriculture was probably impossible before then, and without its hugely expanded energy supply, none of the subsequent flowering of human culture would have happened.

That interglacial will end. Today the northern summer sunshine is again slightly weaker than the southern. In a few tens of thousands of years, our descendants will probably be struggling with volatile weather, dust storms and air that cannot support many crops. But that is a very long way off, and by then technology should be more advanced, unless we prevent it developing. The key will be energy. With plentiful and cheap energy our successors could thrive even in a future ice age, growing crops, watering deserts, maintaining rainforests and even melting ice caps.

January 8, 2018

Forests in the olden days

Filed under: Britain, Environment, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Lindybeige
Published on 20 Apr 2016

Forests and woodland in the ancient and medieval worlds didn’t look the way they show in the movies.
Support me on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/Lindybeige

More archaeology videos here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list…

I visited a local wildlife sanctuary based in a wood. In order to attract birds, they left the woods unmanaged, so that the undergrowth and rotting falling trees afforded good habitat for insects and ground-nesting birds. I talk about a few things, including climax vegetation, the burning of woods by hunter-gatherers, the medieval practices of coppicing and pollarding, and the way a modern managed woodland (the sort that you almost always see in the movies) looks neither like a heavily-managed medieval wood nor a wilderness unmanaged wood.

Lindybeige: a channel of archaeology, ancient and medieval warfare, rants, swing dance, travelogues, evolution, and whatever else occurs to me to make.

December 17, 2017

QotD: Modern eco-paganism

Filed under: Environment, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… consider the emergence of a Nature-worshipping environmentalism that would have been viewed as a crazy luxury in the hardscrabble times of 1800 or even of 1933. The economist and student of theology Robert Nelson calls environmentalism the new religion of the West (a West that nonetheless, outside of places like Poland or the United States, imagines itself to be irreligious) […] The economist and think-tank maven Fred L. Smith, Jr. speaks of “eco-paganism”: “Most environmentalists do not, of course, see themselves as pagans,” he writes. “Yet many do espouse a watered-down form of pantheism which elevates nature to near the status of a deity.” By now the good people of rich and secular places such as Sweden, though contemptuous of the childish absurdity (as most Swedes believe it to be) of their ancestors’ worship of a Lutheran God, have found their transcendent in the worship of Nature, and spend their Sunday mornings devoutly gathering mushrooms and lingonberries in Nature’s forest.

Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Equality, 2016.

November 30, 2017

QotD: Nuclear winter

Filed under: Environment, Media, Politics, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In 1975, the National Academy of Sciences reported on “Long-Term Worldwide Effects of Multiple Nuclear Weapons Detonations” but the report estimated the effect of dust from nuclear blasts to be relatively minor. In 1979, the Office of Technology Assessment issued a report on “The Effects of Nuclear War” and stated that nuclear war could perhaps produce irreversible adverse consequences on the environment. However, because the scientific processes involved were poorly understood, the report stated it was not possible to estimate the probable magnitude of such damage.

Three years later, in 1982, the Swedish Academy of Sciences commissioned a report entitled “The Atmosphere after a Nuclear War: Twilight at Noon,” which attempted to quantify the effect of smoke from burning forests and cities. The authors speculated that there would be so much smoke that a large cloud over the northern hemisphere would reduce incoming sunlight below the level required for photosynthesis, and that this would last for weeks or even longer.

The following year, five scientists including Richard Turco and Carl Sagan published a paper in Science called “Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions.” This was the so-called TTAPS report, which attempted to quantify more rigorously the atmospheric effects, with the added credibility to be gained from an actual computer model of climate. At the heart of the TTAPS undertaking was another equation, never specifically expressed, but one that could be paraphrased as follows:

Ds = Wn Ws Wh Tf Tb Pt Pr Pe etc

(The amount of tropospheric dust = # warheads × size warheads × warhead detonation height × flammability of targets × Target burn duration × Particles entering the Troposphere × Particle reflectivity × Particle endurance, and so on.)

The similarity to the Drake equation is striking. As with the Drake equation, none of the variables can be determined. None at all. The TTAPS study addressed this problem in part by mapping out different wartime scenarios and assigning numbers to some of the variables, but even so, the remaining variables were — and are — simply unknowable. Nobody knows how much smoke will be generated when cities burn, creating particles of what kind, and for how long. No one knows the effect of local weather conditions on the amount of particles that will be injected into the troposphere. No one knows how long the particles will remain in the troposphere. And so on.

And remember, this is only four years after the OTA study concluded that the underlying scientific processes were so poorly known that no estimates could be reliably made. Nevertheless, the TTAPS study not only made those estimates, but concluded they were catastrophic.

According to Sagan and his coworkers, even a limited 5,000 megaton nuclear exchange would cause a global temperature drop of more than 35 degrees Centigrade, and this change would last for three months. The greatest volcanic eruptions that we know of changed world temperatures somewhere between 0.5 and 2 degrees Centigrade. Ice ages changed global temperatures by 10 degrees. Here we have an estimated change three times greater than any ice age. One might expect it to be the subject of some dispute.

But Sagan and his coworkers were prepared, for nuclear winter was from the outset the subject of a well-orchestrated media campaign. The first announcement of nuclear winter appeared in an article by Sagan in the Sunday supplement, Parade. The very next day, a highly-publicized, high-profile conference on the long-term consequences of nuclear war was held in Washington, chaired by Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich, the most famous and media-savvy scientists of their generation. Sagan appeared on the Johnny Carson show 40 times. Ehrlich was on 25 times. Following the conference, there were press conferences, meetings with congressmen, and so on. The formal papers in Science came months later.

This is not the way science is done, it is the way products are sold.

Michael Crichton, “Aliens Cause Global Warming”: the Caltech Michelin Lecture, 2003-01-17.

November 2, 2017

QotD: Free trade versus modern “Free Trade” agreements

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Once upon a time, free-trade agreements were about just that: free trade. You abolish your tariffs and import restrictions, I’ll abolish mine. Trade increases, countries specialize in what they’re best equipped to do, efficiency increases, price levels drop, everybody wins.

Then environmentalists began honking about exporting pollution and demanded what amounted to imposing First World regulation on Third World countries who – in general – wanted the jobs and the economic stimulus from trade more than they wanted to make environmentalists happy. But the priorities of poor brown people didn’t matter to rich white environmentalists who already had theirs, and the environmentalists had political clout in the First World, so they won. Free-trade agreements started to include “environmental safeguards”.

Next, the labor unions, frightened because foreign workers might compete down domestic wages, began honking about abusive Third World labor conditions about which they didn’t really give a damn. They won, and “free trade” agreements began to include yet more impositions of First World pet causes on Third World countries. The precedent firmed up: free trade agreements were no longer to be about “free” trade, but rather about managing trade in the interests of wealthy First Worlders.

Eric S. Raymond, “TPP and the Law of Unintended Consequences”, Armed and Dangerous, 2016-04-12.

October 18, 2017

Wheel of Future History

Filed under: Environment, History, Humour, Space — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

exurb1a
Published on 16 Oct 2017

It’s 2017. No jet packs yet, but 3D printed beer will be here soon so just shhhhhhhhh.
The poem near the end is ripped off from Rudyard Kipling’s “If”. It’s a good one. Check it out ► https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46473/if—

October 15, 2017

David Suzuki’s (incomplete) economic understanding

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Environment — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Several years ago in the Literary Review of Canada, Joseph Heath explained how he tried “being green” and in the process discovered that Canada’s secular environmental saint David Suzuki literally didn’t have a clue about economics:

David Suzuki’s most recent, The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future, is billed as an attempt by “one of the planet’s preeminent elders” to “sum up in one last lecture all that he has learned over his lifetime.” Suzuki is, of course, one of the most influential public intellectuals in this country. Like most Canadians of my generation, I grew up watching The Nature of Things, and so tend to think of Suzuki as a constant in the universe.

Suzuki was also an environmentalist long before it was cool to be an environmentalist. Perhaps because of this passionate commitment to the cause, it is startling to discover that Suzuki is oblivious to the logic of collective action. What’s worse, he does not even know what an externality is, and seems unwilling to learn. In The Legacy, he repeats the same incorrect definition that he has been using for years (he equates externalities with anything that is not part of, and hence external to, an economic model, and then claims, on that basis, that economists ignore them). Elsewhere, he even provides a detailed account of where the misunderstanding arose. It was apparently based upon something that the instructor said to him, on the first day of an economics class, which he evidently misinterpreted and never bothered to double check.

It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect upon this. It means that Suzuki does not know the first thing about environmental economics. It means that in 38 years as a university professor, public intellectual and environmental activist, he did not once take the time to find out what social scientists have to say about the problem of global warming. It means that he has never even glanced at the Wikipedia page on environmental economics.

Because of this, Suzuki winds up committing the core fallacy of environmental activism. He thinks that if people only understood the consequences that their actions were having on the environment, they would each be motivated to change their behaviour. And so, to the extent that we are not changing our behaviour, it must be because we do not understand, or that we have not been telling ourselves the right “story.” Yet this is manifestly not the case. My wife understands the science of global warming perfectly well. But she also does not like dandelions growing by the side of the road. And when push comes to shove, the desire to kill dandelions wins over environmental peccadilloes. It is not particularly mysterious. It is called free riding; people do it all the time.

Thus when Suzuki writes “we say we are intelligent, but what intelligent creature, knowing that water is a sacred, life-giving element, would use water as a toxic dump?” he seems genuinely not to know. The answer is easy: we are intelligent creatures who care just slightly more about ourselves than we do about other people. For example, like most residents of Toronto I do not use the water on my land as a toxic dump; I use Lake Ontario for that purpose. Saying that “we are water, and whatever we do to water, we do to ourselves” sounds very nice, but all the “we” talk actually encourages a very serious confusion. What I do to water, I primarily do to other people, not to myself, which is why I care about it just ever-so-slightly less.

In the end, and somewhat contrary to all expectations, Suzuki winds up coming off as a science chauvinist. There are basically two bodies of knowledge that he respects. There is physical science — genetics, biology, the stuff that he studies — and there is what he calls “traditional knowledge” — by which he means the wisdom of aboriginal and indigenous peoples. Conspicuously absent is any interest in what social scientists might have to say about how human beings work, about the political process, about the economy and about how societies mobilize to address collective action problems. As a result, he knows a lot more about the nature of things than he does about the nature of people.

H/T to Andrew Potter, via Stephen Gordon for the link.

October 3, 2017

Primitive Technology: Mud Bricks

Filed under: Environment, History, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Primitive Technology
Published on 22 Sep 2017

(Turn on captions [CC] in the lower right corner for more information while viewing.)
I made a brick mold that makes bricks 25 x 12.5 x 7.5 cm from wood. A log was split and mortise and tenon joints were carved using a stone chisel and sharp rocks. The mold was lashed together with cane to prevent it from coming apart when used.

Next, I made a mixture of mud and palm fiber to make the bricks. This was then placed into the mold to be shaped and taken to a drying area. 140 bricks were made.

When dry, the bricks were then assembled into a kiln. 32 roof tiles were then made of mud and fired in the kiln. It only took 3 hours to fire the tiles sufficiently. The mud bricks and tiles were a bit weaker than objects made from my regular clay source because of the silt, sand and gravel content of the soil. Because of this, I will look at refining mud into clay in future projects instead of just using mud.

Interestingly, the kiln got hot enough so that iron oxide containing stones began to melt out of the tiles. This is not metallic iron, but only slag (iron oxide and silica) and the temperature was probably not very high, but only enough to slowly melt or soften the stones when heated for 3 hours.

The kiln performed as well as the monolithic ones I’ve built in the past and has a good volume. It can also be taken down and transported to other areas. But the bricks are very brittle and next time I’d use better clay devoid of sand/silt, and use grog instead of temper made of plant fiber which burns out in firing. The mold works satisfactorily. I aim to make better quality bricks for use in furnaces and buildings in future.

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September 15, 2017

“Assemble the squad”

Filed under: Environment, Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Severe weather is coming, and the media know their role. Joe Bob Briggs has been there, and speaks from his own experience:

News executives love disasters. They get to act like Chuck Norris and Assemble the Squad.

“Maginnis, you cover first responders.”

“Wilson, get over to NOAA and stay on those maps.”

“Kelly, official press briefings. Work with Yurozawski to keep tabs on every emergency room within a 300-mile radius.”

“Bergram, you’re Cop Shop, but we’ll keep the aperiodic radio tracking the locals.”

“Ramstein, find that German guy who gets a hard-on for global warming.”

By the time a managing editor or a news director gets finished “covering this mother like blubber on a seal,” you’ve got thirty people who feel like they’re crammed into a D-day troop carrier, waiting for somebody to throw open the landing door and engage the Nazis. They have lust in their eyes. They’re hopped up like nekkid trance drummers at Burning Man.

You know those reporters clinging to lampposts in 120-mile-per-hour winds on the pier at Sanibel Island?

Same thing. They’re pumped. They’re wild. They’re getting all orgasmic from the needle burns on their cheeks as the gooey red juice of the hurricane danger zones envelop them in delirious wet convulsions.

I know. I was one of those guys.

September 11, 2017

Harvey, Irma, and Frédéric – the “Broken Window Fallacy” returns

Jon Gabriel tries to set the record straight on what a natural disaster means for the economy (hint, ignore anyone who says the GDP will rise due to the recovery efforts):

Ever since Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas two weeks ago, we’ve seen countless images of heroic rescues, flooded interstates and damaged buildings.

As awful as the human toll was, it was not as bad as many of us feared. But it will take months to repair the homes, businesses and infrastructure of Houston and the surrounding area. The same will be true in Florida after Hurricane Irma.

The economic impact could be felt for years, but many economists and financial experts think there’s a silver lining.

The Los Angeles Times crowed that Harvey’s destruction is expected to boost auto sales. CNBC reported that Harvey “could be a slight negative for U.S. growth in the third quarter, but economists say it may ultimately provide a tiny boost to the national economy because of the rebuilding in the Houston area.”

Even Goldman Sachs is looking at the bright side, noting that there could be an increase in economic activity, “reflecting a boost from rebuilding efforts and a catchup in economic activity displaced during the hurricane.”

Economically speaking, it’s great news that all this damage in Texas and Florida needs to be fixed, right? Not only does this mean big bucks for cleanup crews, but think of all the money that street sweepers, construction workers and Home Depots will rake in.

And what about all those windows broken by the high winds? This will be the Golden Age of Texas Glaziery!

Not so fast.

All of this is based on a misunderstanding of what the GDP actually measures. It’s a statistic that often gets mentioned in the newspapers and on TV, but it is almost always used in a way that misleads people about what is happening in the economy. GDP — Gross Domestic Product — is intended to show the approximate total of goods and services produced in a national economy. Thus, when the GDP goes up, it means that the current period being measured recorded more goods and services produced than in the previous period.

When a natural disaster like a hurricane, earthquake, flood, or tornado strikes a city, state or region, all the work required to fix the damage will artificially boost the recorded GDP for that year. But the affected area isn’t that much richer than it was before, despite the GDP going up, because the GDP does not measure the losses suffered during the natural disaster.

This is where Frédéric comes in. I’m referring to the French economist and author Frédéric Bastiat, who brilliantly illustrated the GDP misunderstanding in his essay “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen“:

In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.

The GDP problem I identified at the start of this post is a general case of what Bastiat called the “Broken Window Fallacy”:

Have you ever been witness to the fury of that solid citizen, James Goodfellow, when his incorrigible son has happened to break a pane of glass? If you have been present at this spectacle, certainly you must also have observed that the onlookers, even if there are as many as thirty of them, seem with one accord to offer the unfortunate owner the selfsame consolation: “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody some good. Such accidents keep industry going. Everybody has to make a living. What would become of the glaziers if no one ever broke a window?”

Now, this formula of condolence contains a whole theory that it is a good idea for us to expose, flagrante delicto, in this very simple case, since it is exactly the same as that which, unfortunately, underlies most of our economic institutions.

Suppose that it will cost six francs to repair the damage. If you mean that the accident gives six francs’ worth of encouragement to the aforesaid industry, I agree. I do not contest it in any way; your reasoning is correct. The glazier will come, do his job, receive six francs, congratulate himself, and bless in his heart the careless child. That is what is seen.

But if, by way of deduction, you conclude, as happens only too often, that it is good to break windows, that it helps to circulate money, that it results in encouraging industry in general, I am obliged to cry out: That will never do! Your theory stops at what is seen. It does not take account of what is not seen.

It is not seen that, since our citizen has spent six francs for one thing, he will not be able to spend them for another. It is not seen that if he had not had a windowpane to replace, he would have replaced, for example, his worn-out shoes or added another book to his library. In brief, he would have put his six francs to some use or other for which he will not now have them.

Let us next consider industry in general. The window having been broken, the glass industry gets six francs’ worth of encouragement; that is what is seen.

If the window had not been broken, the shoe industry (or some other) would have received six francs’ worth of encouragement; that is what is not seen.

And if we were to take into consideration what is not seen, because it is a negative factor, as well as what is seen, because it is a positive factor, we should understand that there is no benefit to industry in general or to national employment as a whole, whether windows are broken or not broken.

Now let us consider James Goodfellow.

On the first hypothesis, that of the broken window, he spends six francs and has, neither more nor less than before, the enjoyment of one window.

On the second, that in which the accident did not happen, he would have spent six francs for new shoes and would have had the enjoyment of a pair of shoes as well as of a window.

Now, if James Goodfellow is part of society, we must conclude that society, considering its labors and its enjoyments, has lost the value of the broken window.

From which, by generalizing, we arrive at this unexpected conclusion: “Society loses the value of objects unnecessarily destroyed,” and at this aphorism, which will make the hair of the protectionists stand on end: “To break, to destroy, to dissipate is not to encourage national employment,” or more briefly: “Destruction is not profitable.”

Related: Shared by Thomas Forsyth on Facebook:

September 10, 2017

In search of silphium, the lost herb of the Roman empire

Filed under: Africa, Environment, History, Middle East — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Zaria Gorvett recounts the story of a Roman-era herb that was at one point literally worth its weight in gold:

Long ago, in the ancient city of Cyrene, there was a herb called silphium. It didn’t look like much – with stout roots, stumpy leaves and bunches of small yellow flowers – but it oozed with an odiferous sap that was so delicious and useful, the plant was eventually worth its weight in gold.

To list its uses would be an endless task. Its crunchable stalks were roasted, sauteed or boiled and eaten as a vegetable. Its roots were eaten fresh, dipped in vinegar. It was an excellent preservative for lentils and when it was fed to sheep, their flesh became delectably tender.

Perfume was coaxed from its delicate blooms, while its sap was dried and grated liberally over dishes from brains to braised flamingo. Known as “laser”, the condiment was as fundamental to Roman haute cuisine as eating your food horizontally in a toga.

[…]

A coin of Cyrene depicting the stalk of a Silphium plant. (Source: 1889 edition of Principal Coins of the Ancients, plate 35, via Wikimedia)

Indeed, the Romans loved it so much, they referenced their darling herb in poems and songs, and wrote it into great works of literature. For centuries, local kings held a monopoly on the plant, which made the city of Cyrene, at modern Shahhat, Libya, the richest in Africa. Before they gave it away to the Romans, the Greek inhabitants even put it on their money. Julius Caesar went so far as to store a cache (1,500lbs or 680kg) in the official treasury.

But today, silphium has vanished – possibly just from the region, possibly from our planet altogether. Pliny wrote that within his lifetime, only a single stalk was discovered. It was plucked and sent to the emperor Nero as a curiosity sometime around 54-68AD.
With just a handful of stylised images and the accounts of ancient naturalists to go on, the true identity of the Romans’ favourite herb is a mystery. Some think it was driven to extinction, others that it’s still hiding in plain sight as a Mediterranean weed. How did this happen? And could we bring it back?

September 5, 2017

The 100 Year Flood Is Not What You Think It Is (Maybe)

Filed under: Environment, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:21

Published on 6 Mar 2016

Today on Practical Engineering we’re talking about hydrology, and I took a little walk through my neighborhood to show you some infrastructure you may have never noticed before.

Almost everyone agrees that flooding is bad. Most years it’s the number one natural disaster in the US by dollars of damage. So being able to characterize flood risks is a crucial job of civil engineers. Engineering hydrology has equal parts statistics and understanding how society treats risks. Water is incredibly important to us, and it shapes almost every facet of our lives, but it’s almost never in the right place at the right time. Sometimes there’s not enough, like in a drought or just an arid region, but we also need to be prepared for the times when there’s too much water, a flood. Rainfall and streamflow have tremendous variability and it’s the engineer’s job to characterize that so that we can make rational and intelligent decisions about how we develop the world around us. Thanks for watching!

FEMA Floodplain Maps: https://msc.fema.gov/portal
USGS Stream Gages: http://maps.waterdata.usgs.gov/mapper

“So, let’s consider the concept of a ‘500-year flood'”

Filed under: Environment, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Charlie Martin explains how it’s possible to have two “500-year floods” in less than 500 years:

There have been a lot of people suggesting that Harvey the Hurricane shows that “really and truly climate change is happening, see, in-your-face deniers!”

Of course, it’s possible, even though the actual evidence — including the 12-year drought in major hurricanes — is against it. But hurricanes are a perfect opportunity for stupid math tricks. Hurricanes also provide great opportunities to explain concepts that are unclear to people. So, let’s consider the concept of a “500-year flood.”

Most people hear this and think it means “one flood this size in 500 years.” The real definition is subtly different: saying “a 500-year flood” actually means “there is one chance in 500 of a flood this size happening in any year.”

It’s called a “500-year flood” because statistically, over a long enough time, we would expect to have roughly one such flood on average every 500 years. So, if we had 100,000 years of weather data (and things stayed the same otherwise, which is an unrealistic assumption) then we’d expect to have seen 100,000/500- or 200 500-year floods [Ed. typo fixed] at that level.

The trouble is, we’ve only got about 100 years of good weather data for the Houston area.

September 1, 2017

The complex dance of supply, demand, scarcity, and price

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Government, Law — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Tim Worstall explains why laws against “price gouging” are denials of economic fact and actually work against getting urgently needed items to the people who require them:

Those little diagrams at the start of the Econ 101 class (supply, demand, price) are not optional extras to our universe, they are instead accurate descriptions of how we humans interact with it. If and when demand rises then price rises, this in turn encouraging an expansion of supply. Thus why we desire to have price flexibility in the face of either changes in supply or demand.

Consider Houston right now in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. It seems a good bet that the tapwater supply is disrupted — flooding has a tendency to do that. We would therefore assume the demand for bottled water has risen – the sensible who normally hydrate from that wondrous invention, the municipal water supply, will not be able to do so, thus increasing the demand for the bottled stuff. Equally, on the other side, there’s going to be a certain difficulty with supply at present — roads 5 feet underwater don’t exactly help trucking.

We thus desire to do two things simultaneously. We want to restrain demand to only the really important things and we want to incentivize greater supply.

Which is exactly what a price rise does for us.

With water at (just to make up a price) $99 a case, people are only going to buy it for drinking water, perhaps only in sippy cups. Which is excellent — we want whatever limited supply of potable water (we’ve really plenty of non-potable around, that’s the basic problem) there is in place to be used for that most valuable use, being potable. We’ve achieved one of our goals therefore, by allocating that scarce resource to its most valuable use: keeping people alive.

We also want to increase supply, though, and being able to sell in Houston for $99 something bought for $9.99 in Beaumont (again, just to invent an example) might well get a few boats carrying loads in – although quite possibly not from Beaumont. Thus, by allowing prices to rise, we’ve at least potentially increased supply.

Our price system, operating without constraint, is thus achieving the two things we desire, a curtailing of demand through rationing to only truly important uses, and a rise in supply.

“But,” goes the cry, “this isn’t fair!”

Indeed it isn’t, and ain’t that a shame, fairness not being a notable feature of this universe we’re struggling to inhabit. All we can do is the best we can. Which is, again, why I insist that there should be variable prices, why there should be no laws against price-gouging. Because this really is a disaster, there really are significant shortages in Houston right now, we really do want to solve them. Which means that we should be using all of the tools at our disposal.

August 31, 2017

“Harvey is not Katrina”

Nicole Gelinas on the crucial differences between the situation faced by New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and that currently faced by Houston after being inundated by Hurricane Harvey:

The Houston region has received record rain, more falling in less than a week than it usually does in a year, and at least 30 people, including a Houston police officer, have died. Harvey, however, is not Katrina. One measure of this difference is in electricity provision. After Katrina, New Orleans was almost entirely without power for weeks. In Houston, by contrast, 94 percent of customers still had power as of early Wednesday.

Though we won’t know for sure for a while, the fact that Houston has kept the power on is likely in part a legacy of infrastructure investment after previous storms. Five years ago, Hurricane Ike actually cut power to 95 percent of Houston. But, as NPR reported after the storm, the city’s power company, CenterPoint, took steps after Ike, as well as after Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, to upgrade the grid, spending $400 million. Houston, helped by $50 million in federal money, cut down tens of thousands of trees along power lines and outfitted poles with the ability to re-route electricity away from damaged routes toward undamaged ones.

With power, hospitals can continue to operate; even Ben Taub Hospital, surrounded by water, kept the power on. Stores, too, have quickly begun to reopen. Power also means that people whose homes didn’t flood can stay put, lessening the burden on police to keep neighborhoods safe from looters. If the power stays on — as it should, now that worst of the storm is over — Houston should do well. If it goes out, the city will have far more serious problems.

[…]

Empty neighborhoods and business districts invite looting. Houston had already arrested 15 people as of late Tuesday for allegedly trying to steal everything from liquor to an ATM, and for attempted robbery, as well. These arrests, plus a nighttime curfew, are a good sign; after Katrina, New Orleans police officers failed to keep control over the city, both because of the severity of the damage, which left most of the city empty and dark, but also due to their longstanding poor performance. Harris County district attorney Kim Ogg and Houston police chief Art Acevado have already set the right tone to deter wrongdoing. Ogg said Tuesday that thieves “are going to feel the full weight of the law,” and Acevedo said he would push for tough sentences for people convicted. In New Orleans, by contrast, state and local officials’ apocalyptic invocation of “martial law,” rather than calm reliance on the rule of normal law, only exacerbated the sense of chaos.

With some, though not most, Houston neighborhoods now deserted, state law enforcement have a role to play here, as well, with federal support. A competent local police force will be busy, after a storm, in helping still-populated areas. In turn, state police and the National Guard, who have less experience interacting with people on a neighborhood level, can help by patrolling and securing empty areas. To that end, Texas has already activated the National Guard, adding 12,000 people to safety efforts, as well as for rescue and food distribution.

Oh, and as Caroline Baum points out, don’t be misled by idiotic claims that hurricane damage is somehow good for the economy:

You will no doubt hear assertions that the rebuilding effort will provide a boost to contractors, manufacturers and GDP in general. But before these claims turn into predictable nonsense about all the good that comes from natural disasters, I thought it might be useful to provide some context for these sorts of events.

The destruction wrought by a hurricane and flooding qualifies as a negative supply shock. Normal production and distribution channels are destroyed or disrupted. Producers have to find less-efficient (i.e. more expensive) ways to transport their goods. The net effect is lost output and income, and higher prices.

Over the years, I’ve observed a tendency among economists and traders to view such events through a demand-side prism. They see lost income translating into reduced spending on goods and services, which might even warrant some largesse from the central bank.

Of course, that is precisely the wrong medicine. Supply shocks reduce output and raise prices. The Federal Reserve’s interest-rate medicine affects demand. Lower interest rates will increase the demand for gasoline, among other goods and services, but they have no effect on supply. An easing of monetary policy under such circumstances would increase demand for already curtailed supply, raising prices even more.

But wait. What about all the new construction and investment necessitated by the devastation? Homeowners will have to rebuild. Businesses will have to replace destroyed or damaged plants and equipment. Pretty soon, we should start to hear about a boost to GDP growth.

In the short run, yes. But focus on the prefix, “re,” as in re-building and re-placing. After a natural disaster, housing starts are bound to increase, but there will be no net addition to the supply of homes. Capital spending will increase as well, but it will not expand the nation’s capital stock.

She also provides a link to this very topical essay by Frédéric Bastiat: That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen. In short, we see the spending caused by the need to repair damages (in this case from the flooding), but we don’t see what might have been done if the money hadn’t needed to be spent just to replace existing stock.

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