Quotulatiousness

March 18, 2017

Don’t just “fix” CAFE … eliminate it

Filed under: Business, Environment, Government, Technology, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Virginia Postrel on the best idea for fixing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations:

Although Congress originally established the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards to conserve gasoline in 1975, the Obama administration justified its sharp hike as a way to curb greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. A reversal will almost certainly trigger legal challenges.

Fighting over the right level for fuel-economy mandates obscures the fundamental problem, however. The CAFE standards are lousy environmental policy. Instead of targeting the real issue — burning less gasoline — the mandates meddle in corporate strategy, impose enormous hidden costs, and encourage drivers to hang on to their old gas guzzlers. Republicans should scrap the standards altogether while they control the White House and Congress. The CAFE rules are a terrible way to achieve either fuel savings or lower carbon emissions.

For starters, measuring miles per gallon is a misleading way to think about fuel efficiency. What we need is the reverse: gallons per mile. That more clearly shows how much fuel a given improvement might save. Going from 3.3 gallons per 100 miles (better known as 30 mpg) to 2 gallons per 100 miles (50 mpg) presents a much tougher design challenge than getting from 6.7 gallons per 100 miles (15 mpg) to 4 gallons per 100 miles (25 mpg). Yet the more modest improvement saves more than twice as much gasoline. And that’s without considering the relative popularity of gas guzzlers or how better gas mileage can encourage people to drive more.

And, of course, CAFE standards affect only new vehicles, a tiny percentage of the total. Higher mandates don’t get old ones off the road and, in fact, they may very likely keep gas guzzlers driving longer. Research by economists Mark Jacobsen of the University of California-San Diego and Arthur van Benthem at the Wharton School finds that among vehicles more than nine years old, the least fuel-efficient ones stay on the road the longest. By raising the prices of new vehicles, tighter fuel regulations encourage drivers to buy used ones or simply keep what they already have.

March 5, 2017

The political Trojan Horse of “Pigouvian taxes”

Filed under: Business, Economics, Government, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Warren Meyer used to be quite positive about the introduction of Pigouvian taxes, but recently his opinion has changed:

Here is the Wikipedia definition of a Pigovian tax:

    A Pigovian tax (also spelled Pigouvian tax) is a tax levied on any market activity that generates negative externalities (costs not internalized in the market price). The tax is intended to correct an inefficient market outcome, and does so by being set equal to the social cost of the negative externalities. In the presence of negative externalities, the social cost of a market activity is not covered by the private cost of the activity. In such a case, the market outcome is not efficient and may lead to over-consumption of the product. An often-cited example of such an externality is environmental pollution.

The Left often tries to justify new taxes based on their being Pigovian taxes. The classic example is a carbon tax — it is claimed there is a social cost to carbon-based fuel combustion (e.g. CO2 production and resulting global warming) that is not taken into account by market prices. By adding the tax, these other costs can be taken into account, likely raising the price of these fuels and thus both reducing their use and providing a higher price umbrella for alternatives.

For years, I accepted these arguments at face value. I might argue with them (for example, I think that the Left has tended to spot 10 of the last 2 true negative externalities), but I accepted that they really believed in the logic of the Pigovian tax. I am now becoming convinced that I was wrong, that the Left’s support of Pigovian taxes is frequently a front, a way of putting a more palatable face on what is really a naked grab for more taxpayer money by public officials.

Soon after discovering the concept of Pigouvian taxes, I suspected that — even if the economics were sound — no human government was going to implement such a tax in the pure form: there would always be “good reasons” to make the new tax non-revenue-neutral, because once a revenue stream has been established, it’s unlikely the government will actually shut it down afterwards. I have yet to be disappointed in this expectation.

January 26, 2017

QotD: Why government intervention usually fails

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

We saw in an earlier story that the government is trying to tighten regulations on private company cyber security practices at the same time its own network security practices have been shown to be a joke. In finance, it can never balance a budget and uses accounting techniques that would get most companies thrown in jail. It almost never fully funds its pensions. Anything it does is generally done more expensively than would be the same task undertaken privately. Its various sites are among the worst superfund environmental messes. Almost all the current threats to water quality in rivers and oceans comes from municipal sewage plants. The government’s Philadelphia naval yard single-handedly accounts for a huge number of the worst asbestos exposure cases to date.

By what alchemy does such a failing organization suddenly become such a good regulator?

Warren Meyer, “Question: Name An Activity The Government is Better At Than the Private Actors It Purports to Regulate”, Coyote Blog, 2015-06-12.

October 7, 2015

A Deeper Look at Tradeable Allowances

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

Published on 18 Mar 2015

Since the passage of the Clean Air Act, SO2 emissions have decreased by 35%. Part of this is due to tradable allowances, which created a market solution to the external costs of SO2 emissions. In this video, we look at the lessons of tradable allowances for SO2 and see if a similar market-based solution could work to decrease other pollutants, such as CO2.

October 5, 2015

Trading Pollution: How Pollution Permits Paradoxically Reduce Emissions

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

Published on 18 Mar 2015

In an effort to reduce pollution, the government tried two policy prescriptions under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. The first — command and control—mandated that each power plant lower its pollution by a determined amount. However, different firms face different cost curves and, because information is dispersed, policymakers don’t always know those costs. The second policy prescription — tradable pollution permits — empowered firms to use knowledge of their cost curves to buy or sell pollution permits as needed. Under this policy, the invisible hand of the market helped discover the lowest cost way of reducing pollution.

September 30, 2015

The Coase Theorem

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 18 Mar 2015

In this video, we show how bees and pollination demonstrate the Coase Theorem in action: when transaction costs are low and property rights are clearly defined, private arrangements ensure that the market works even when there are externalities. Under these conditions, the market properly manages externalities.

September 22, 2015

Volkswagen’s software DRM enabled the scam to fake emission data

Filed under: Business, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow points the finger of blame at VW’s DRM in their automobile software suite:

The EPA has accused Volkswagen of rigging its software to cheat the agency’s diesel emissions standards so that its cars could be on the road while spewing 40 times the legal limit for diesel emissions.

Volkswagen, like most auto manufacturers, uses digital rights management in its informatic systems. Under section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it is a felony to tamper with that DRM, punishable by five years in prison and a $500,000 fine for a first offense. The company uses this legal regime to limit which mechanics can service its cars, ensuring that only “official” mechanics, who are bound by nondisclosure agreements — and covenants to only buy their parts from VW and not an aftermarket competitor — can effectively service their cars.

This year, the US Copyright Office held its triennial hearings into possible exceptions to this rule, and one petition asked it to grant an exemption for jailbreaking cars. The car manufacturers intervened to oppose this, but so did the EPA, fearing that drivers would modify their firmware in ways that increased emissions.

But by banning independent scrutiny of cars, the EPA and the Copyright Office have made possible for terrible, criminal frauds like this one to go undetected for long periods, turning cars into long-lived reservoirs of dirty secrets that can’t be reported without risking criminal sanction.

Jazz Shaw has more:

This isn’t a case of any sort of trick carburetor or jury rigged catalytic converter. The vehicle’s onboard computer could sense when it was hooked up to a diagnostics machine for an emissions test and would conveniently turn on all of its emission control features. (It’s being referred to as a “defeat device.”) Then, when the test was completed and it was unhooked from the computer it would simply shut them off again, boosting performance but also increasing emissions. You almost have to admire the sheer audacity assuming this is true. And given the initial responses from the company they don’t seem to be claiming that they didn’t do it.

[…]

So far Volkswagen seems to be taking the line of assuring everyone that they will work to recall the cars and “fix” them to eliminate this problem. It likely won’t bankrupt a company that size, but it’s one heck of an expensive piece of humble pie to eat. If they contest the fines and go to court, however, I’m wondering if they will actually lose. This was some mischief designed to short sheet the system no doubt, but would they have an out if the case goes before a judge? I was looking over some of the state level requirements for the testing of vehicles and the boundaries to be followed are rather bare bones at best. Each vehicle in the qualifying categories which was manufactured after 1996 has to be equipped with an On-Board Diagnostics Generation II (OBDII) system. The emissions portion of this is heavily tied into your annoying “check engine” light.

The way most of the regulations are written seems to indicate that the vehicle must have a functional system of this type which is accurately monitoring system performance and meets the maximum emissions requirements at the time of testing. Obviously the VW vehicles in question were doing just that. But cars today have all sorts of bells and whistles which drivers can use to customize their driving experience. They can switch from “performance” mode to “economy” mode with the push of a button. Things like that obviously affect the vehicle’s emissions. Other such options are available. And when you think about it, the “disable device” was really just putting the car into a different mode of operation which includes heavy emissions control. When it was disconnected and ready to head back out on the road it was switching back to a different mode with a bit more performance. None of that changes the fact that the emissions were within the required limits at the time of testing.

September 12, 2015

QotD: “Carbon offsets are dumb”

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

“Well if you want to be greener perhaps we could look at carbon offsets.”

“Carbon Offsets,” I say, working up a head of steam, “are dumb. I could word it better than that but it’s so dumb that the people that support it wouldn’t understand those words.”

“What’s wrong with carbon offsets?”

“Analogy-wise, paying someone in South America to grow trees so that I can burn trees is a bit like me paying someone in Uganda 10 quid to be good to someone else so that the PFY can punch you and the Boss here in the face.”

“I think that’s being rather simplistic — carbon offsets will negate the harm you do in the shorter term while you look for better alternatives,” says the Architect.

“Yes, but it doesn’t cancel it out geographically. If that were the case I could pay someone in Africa to filter water while I pee in your bathtub!”

“They could pay me to do their carbon offsets,” the PFY suggests.

“You don’t have sustainable forestry plantations,” the Architect blurts.

“Yes I do, I have acres of them in Scotland,” the PFY lies.

“Are they CDM approved?”

“Of course.”

“So I could actually go and see them?”

“Absolutely. In fact I would insist upon it. You, me, possibly the Boss, a shovel, some lime — it would make a great day out!”

It appears stupidity does know some bounds as our greenie takes on a little of the colour after doing some mental arithmetic.

“I think we’ll just stick to the original plan.”

“Well, have at it, maestro!” I say, gesturing for the PFY that it’s time to be moving on.

“Nutters!” the PFY says as we exit the meeting room.

“No,” the Boss says. “It’s very important to the board. They want to be carbon-neutral by 2040.”

“You mean after they’re all dead — with some token greenification stuff to happen in the next 20 years and all the major changes left till the last few years?” I suggest. “I’m surprised they even stumped up the cash for the consultation.”

“Oh, they didn’t,” the Boss says. “Our director put up 70k of our equipment budget, given that IT is one of the highest power consumers.”

“70k — of OUR budget you mean.”

“It’s not really your money, it’s the company’s!”

. . .

Ten minutes later I’m sending 100 quid to Uganda and the PFY to the Director’s office…

Simon Travaglia, “BOFH: On the PFY’s Scottish estate, no one can hear you scream…”, The Register, 2014-03-21.

August 11, 2015

QotD: The Environmentalist religion

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

Environmentalism does indeed tell its adherents “what to eat” (pesticide-free organic food, preferably grown nearby to cut down on trucking) and “how to travel” (by public transportation or, better yet, bicycle). But it also lays down rules on nearly every aspect of life in a consumer economy: how to wash your clothes (seldom); how to wash yourself (take a shower, not a bath, and use a low-flow showerhead); how to light your house (with fluorescent bulbs); how to choose your TV (look for the Energy Star logo!); how to go to the bathroom (with high-efficiency toilets and recycled paper); how to invest, clean, sleep, and dress (in environmentally friendly companies, with nontoxic chemicals, on sheets made of “sustainable fibers,” and in clothes made of the same); and even how to procreate (Greenpeace has issued a guide to “environmentally friendly sex”).

Think about the life that a truly conscientious environmentalist must lead! Compared with it, the devout Muslim’s five daily prayers and the pious Jew’s carefully regulated diet are a cakewalk. What the British historian Alfred Cobban wrote about totalitarianism — that it “takes the spiritual discipline of a religious order and imposes it on forty or sixty or a hundred million people” — applies perfectly to environmentalism, except for the part about imposition. And there, one might give Jonah Goldberg’s answer in Liberal Fascism: “You may trust that environmentalists have no desire to translate these voluntary suggestions into law, but I have no such confidence given the track record of similar campaigns in the past.” Recycling mandates come to mind, as does the federal law that will impose silly-looking spiral lightbulbs on us all by 2014.

There’s also a close resemblance between the environmental and biblical views of history, as the late novelist Michael Crichton pointed out in a widely reprinted speech. “Environmentalism is in fact a perfect twenty-first-century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths,” Crichton said. “There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all.” That judgment day currently assumes the form of various global-warming disasters that will happen unless we immediately perform still more rituals. Never mind that the science so urgently instructing us to reduce carbon emissions — thus hobbling economic growth and prosperity around the world — is so young, and so poorly understood, that it can’t explain why global warming seems to have stalled over the last decade. Far more persuasive is the argument from faith: we’d better repent, because the End is nigh.

Barack Obama doubtless tapped into environmentalists’ spiritual longings when he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination. “Generations from now,” he proclaimed, “we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.” Italics mine; grandiloquent prophecy his.

Benjamin A. Plotinsky, “The Varieties of Liberal Enthusiasm: The Left’s political zealotry increasingly resembles religious experience”, City Journal, 2010-02-20.

May 20, 2015

Scuttled Soviet submarines in the Arctic

Filed under: Environment, Europe, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

The Soviet Union had a remarkably casual approach to disposing of nuclear-powered submarines that were no longer useful in active service:

Russian scientists have made a worst-case scenario map for possible spreading of radionuclides from the wreck of the K-159 nuclear-powered submarine that sank twelve years ago in one of the best fishing areas of the Barents Sea.

Mikhail Kobrinsky with the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Science says the sunken November-class submarine can’t stay at the seabed. The two reactors contain 800 kilos of spent uranium fuel.

The map shows expected spreading of radioactive Cs-137 from potential releases from the K-159 that still lays on the seabed northeast of Murmansk in the Barents Sea.

The map shows expected spreading of radioactive Cs-137 from potential releases from the K-159 that still lays on the seabed northeast of Murmansk in the Barents Sea.

At a recent seminar in Murmansk organized jointly by Russia’s nuclear agency Rosatom and the Norwegian environmental group Bellona, Kobrinsky presented the scenario map most fishermen in the Barents Sea would get nightmares by seeing.

Some areas could be sealed off for commercial fisheries for up to two years, Mikhail Kobrinsky explained.

Ocean currents would bring the radioactivity eastwards in the Barents Sea towards the inlet to the White Sea in the south and towards the Pechora Sea and Novaya Zemlya in the northeast.

March 30, 2015

About that giant island of plastic out in the ocean…

Filed under: Environment, Pacific — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

it’s a myth.

Have you heard of the giant plastic island in the Pacific Ocean? Several times in casual conversation, I’ve been told that mankind is ruining the oceans to such an extent that there are now entire islands of plastic waste. Daily Kos tells us that this “island” is twice the size of Texas!

This struck me as incredible, in the most literal sense of the word, so I decided to look into the claim.

First, we can do a quick feasibility calculation. The mass of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the plastic from which most water bottles are made, required to create a two-Texas-sized island just one foot thick is 9 trillion pounds. That’s 15 times more [PDF] than the world’s annual production of plastic. Even if a year’s worth of the world’s spent plastic bottles could be airlifted out over the ocean and directly dropped in one spot, this island could not be made.

[…]

So, here are the facts. Much of the ocean contains little to no plastic at all. In the smaller ocean gyres, there is roughly one bottle cap of plastic per 50 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water. In the worst spot on earth, there is about two plastic caps’ worth of plastic per swimming pool of ocean. The majority of the plastic is ground into tiny grains or small thin films, interspersed with occasional fishing debris such as monofilament line or netting. Nothing remotely like a large island exists.

Clearly, the scale and magnitude of this problem is vastly exaggerated by environmental groups and media reports. Some researchers in the field agree, explicitly pointing out that these scare-stories “undermine the credibility of scientists.”

March 2, 2015

QotD: The environmental sins of ethanol

Filed under: Business, Government, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Ethanol, produced by corn, “biomass,” cane sugar or other plant matter, is considered by many to be a great alternative to fossil fuels. They consider the origin to be more renewable (plants grow rapidly), the fuel to produce less pollution, the production to release fear “carbon emissions,” and as a bonus, it costs more so people might drive less.

Ethanol is so beloved by some that legislation to subsidize farmers who grew crops for biofuels was pushed through in many countries including Germany and the United States. It would save us from dependence on foreign oil, it would reduce pollution, and cars can run on plants, won’t that be wonderful? Some even argue that it would reduce gas prices because we could shake that oil addiction from the middle east and produce it here cheaply and efficiently!

The truth is, ethanol has its advantages. When burned, it pollutes less than straight gasoline, and it actually has a higher octane rating, making it produce more horsepower per weight than gasoline. It also burns somewhat cooler than straight gasoline.

These days ethanol is less popular, and you don’t hear so much about how great it is. BP isn’t running bright green ads with happy cars driving around on corn any more. But the legislation is still in place, the farmers are still growing corn to turn into fuel, and any attempt to stop this or repeal the legislation is met with exactly the same environmental claims and protests.
So what about these fuels, are they really that great? Are people who oppose ethanol just oil company stooges?

Greg Giraldo is dead now, but he was a very brilliant, very funny comedian. He was one of those comedians that all other comedians loved and thought was so hilarious but for some reason never really caught on or broke big.

He had a bit on biofuels in which he pointed out that for every gallon of corn ethanol, it requires two gallons of gasoline to produce. He noted the only reason corn ethanol is even pushed is because corn farmers want that sweet subsidy money. Al Gore not long ago admitted it wasn’t about the environment, but about kickbacks to farmers for political gain:

    First generation ethanol I think was a mistake. The energy conversion ratios are at best very small. […] One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president.

Every so often a politician will be honest.

The truth is, ethanol is not just a failure in every single category it was supposed to succeed, but a disaster. From food shortages to riots, to slavery and beyond, ethanol in all its forms is a horrific failure. Let us count the ways.

Christopher Taylor, “COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Ethanol and Biofuels “, Word Around the Net, 2014-04-25.

February 9, 2015

QotD: The hyper-rich are not like you and I

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

Convening to ring the alarm about global warming, our putative betters and would-be rulers gathered in Davos, Switzerland, filling the local general-aviation hangars with some 1,700 private jets. Taking an international commercial flight is one of the most carbon-intensive things the typical person does in his life, but if you’re comparing carbon footprints between your average traveler squeezed into coach on American and Davos Man quaffing Pol Roger in his cashmere-carpeted intercontinental air limousine, you’re talking Smurfette vs. Sasquatch. The Bombardier’s Global 6000 may be a technical marvel, but it still runs on antique plankton juice. The emissions from heating all those sprawling hotel suites in the Alps in winter surely makes baby polar bears weep bitter and copious baby-polar-bear tears.

The stories add up: Jeff Greene brings multiple nannies on his private jet to Davos, and the rest of the guys gathered to talk past each other about the plight of the working man scarf down couture hot-dogs that cost forty bucks. Bill Clinton makes the case for wealth-redistribution while sporting a $60,000 platinum Rolex.

The hypocrisy of our literally (literally, Mr. Vice President!) high-flying crusaders against fossil fuels — who overlap considerably with our high-living crusaders against economic inequality — is endlessly annoying if frequently entertaining. And there is something unseemly about enduring puritanical little homilies on how we need to learn to live with less from guys wearing shoes that cost more than the typical American family earns in a quarter. When that obnoxious Alec Baldwin character from Glengarry Glen Ross informs that sad-sack real-estate salesman that his watch costs more than that guy’s car, he was trying to provoke him into getting richer, to the tune of a Cadillac Eldorado or, if not that, at least the second-prize set of steak knives. But our modern progressive versions of that guy are even more obnoxious: They demand that we lower our expectations while they live lives of opulence that would have embarrassed the Count of Monte Cristo.

Out-obnoxious-ing a guy with Alec Baldwin’s smirking mug takes a lot of brass.

Kevin Williamson, “Davos’s Destructive Elites: ‘None of us is as dumb as all of us'”, National Review, 2015-01-25.

January 17, 2015

If anything, Blade Runner was too optimistic

Filed under: China, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:20

Joey DeVilla posted a few images comparing the dystopian future envisioned in Blade Runner with the modern cityscape of Beijing:

Click to embiggenate

Click to embiggenate

The crowded, dirty Los Angeles of 2019 featured in the 1982 film Blade Runner looks rather pristine compared to the real-life Beijing of 2015.

November 15, 2014

Another hidden ecological disaster from the Cold War

Filed under: Europe — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

I’d heard that the Soviet navy had dumped some potentially hazardous nuclear wastes in the Arctic, but I didn’t realize just how much they’d dumped:

While Russia’s nuclear bombers have recently set the West abuzz by probing NATO’s air defenses, a far more certain danger currently lurks beneath the frigid Arctic waters off Russia’s northern coast — a toxic boneyard for Soviet nuclear ships and reactors whose containment systems are gradually wearing out.

Left to decay at the bottom of the ocean, the world is facing a worst case scenario described as “an Arctic underwater Chernobyl, played out in slow motion,” according to Thomas Nilsen, an editor at the Barents Observer newspaper and a member of a Norwegian watchdog group that monitors the situation.

According to a joint Russian-Norwegian report issued in 2012, there are 17,000 containers of nuclear waste, 19 rusting Soviet nuclear ships and 14 nuclear reactors cut out of atomic vessels at the bottom of the Kara Sea.

Soviet nuclear waste in the Arctic

The K-159 went down in 2003 while it was being towed to the town of Polyarny — home of Russia’s primary shipyard used for servicing and decommissioning nuclear powered vessels — for dismantling. Nine sailors died trying to keep it afloat when a storm hit, ripping off makeshift pontoons welded to the side to ensure the porous rusting hull didn’t sink en route. Estimates place around 800 kilograms of spent uranium fuel aboard the K-159, according to Bellona.

Soviet nuclear submarine K-159 before she sank

“Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there are currently no concrete plans to raise [radioactive] objects, and potentially raising the submarine is a Russian responsibility,” said Ingar Amundsen, head of the section for international nuclear issues at the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA), a governmental body tasked with keeping watch over the nuclear threats in the Arctic.

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