Archive for August 2008

"All of America's Problems"

I am starting to discover that I am an exception in the blogosphere, which seems to turn its collective noses up at the Olympics.  Well, my family loves to watch the Olympics together, and it is a real event in our house these two weeks.

Anyway, I was watching Bob Costas interview President Bush last night, and he asked a question I would paraphrase as "how is the US going to exercise influence on China given China's increasing strength and all the problems we have in the US."

Now, I am the first one to criticize the US and its government on any number of dimensions, but when one pulls back to an international view, one has to have some perspective.  What are these overwhelming problems we face when compared to the struggle for freedom and/or economic sufficiency in much of the world?  The US media has developed a bedrock assumption that the US is some kind of wasteland in need of total overhaul, when in fact we are the example all the world emulates.  Just look at the images from China -- sure there are a lot of unique cultural differences, but in many ways you see a people trying to be like us.

Settled Science

I always find it fascinating to observe how the same folks who criticize the US for not taking drastic action based on the "settled science" of global warming are often the first to ignore hundreds of years of study in the science of economics.  While the full breadth of economics is far from settled science, one thing that is far better understood than the effect of CO2 on global temperatures is the effect of higher prices on demand:  (via Market Power)

This chart confirms that for teenagers, those between the ages of 16
and 19 years old, all of the jobs that disappeared in 2007 were minimum
wage jobs. In essence, a total of 94,000 hourly jobs disappeared for
this age group overall. This figure is the net change of this age group
losing some 118,000 minimum wage earning jobs and gaining some 24,000
jobs paying above this level.

This represents what we believe to be the effect of the higher
minimum wage level increasing the barriers to entry for young people
into the U.S. workforce. Since the minimum wage jobs that once were
held by individuals in each age group have disappeared, total
employment levels have declined as those who held them have been forced
to pursue other activities.

Now consider this: The minimum wage was just reset on 24 July 2008
to $6.55 per hour, a 27.2% increase from where it was in early July
2007. Our best guess is that a lot of additional teenagers will be pursuing those other activities

Meanwhile, the lack of employment opportunities for the least
educated, least skilled and least experienced segment of the U.S.
workforce will likely have costs far beyond the benefits gained by
those who earn the higher minimum wage. The government might be able to
make the minimum wage earning teenage worker disappear, but they didn't
do anything to make the teenagers themselves disappear.

Numberminwagebyagegroup20052007

The increase in minimum wage earners in some of the middle brackets is likely due to a sweeping effect -- if the minimum wage is increase from $6 to $7, people making $6.50 before are swept into the "minimum wage" characterization.   

Light Rail and CO2

The other day, I posted an update to my light rail bet saying that not only was light rail incredibly expensive for the amount of transportation it provides, it is not even clear that it provides any "green" benefits  (with "green" today meaning only the potential to reduce CO2, since the global warming hysteria has sucked all of the oxygen out of other environmental goals).

The Antiplanner has more information, this time from the transportation planners in Denver.  Normally, transportation planners grossly exaggerate the benefits of their proposed systems, so it is interesting that even they so no net CO2 savings from their proposed rail lines:

The Antiplanner's review
of rail transit and greenhouse gases found that Denver's light-rail
lines produce more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than a typical
SUV. The Gold Line DEIS agrees, admitting that the rail alternative
will result in a regional CO2 increase of 0.034% (see page 3.7-10).

By the way, the Denver system does not do so great on the financial part either:

Now, RTD says the line will cost more than $600 million, which is a
lot for a mere 11 route miles. Moreover, RTD has changed the proposed
technology to something it calls "electric multiple-unit commuter
rail," which sounds something like the Chicago Electroliners or some of
the Philadelphia commuter trains.

For this high price, the DEIS reports incredibly trivial benefits.
The proposed rail line is projected to take 0.0085 percent of cars off
the road. Of course, that's for the region as a whole, but in the
corridor it will take a whopping 0.227 percent of cars off the road. A
handful of buses could do as well.

While that might seem terrible, it actually outdistances our guys here in Phoenix, who are projecting that the next 3.2 mile line here will cost $306 million.  While the Denver line is projected to cost $10,300 per foot, the Phoenix line will cost at least $18,000 per foot.

Wow

What are the London Olympic organizers thinking right now?  In the immortal words of Bill Paxton,"That's it man, game over man, game over." 

I was amazed by the opening ceremonies last night.  I am not sure how that will ever be topped, particularly since most democracies cannot reasonably pour several billion dollars into a single three or four hour show.  I guess one could make some Triumph of the Will allusions, but it was really the most amazing meld of technology and showmanship I have ever seen.

Democracy and Unions

George McGovern has an editorial in the WSJ urging the Democratic party to abandon the idea of stripping secret balloting from union organizing elections:

The key provision of EFCA is a change in the mechanism
by which unions are formed and recognized. Instead of a private
election with a secret ballot overseen by an impartial federal board,
union organizers would simply need to gather signatures from more than
50% of the employees in a workplace or bargaining unit, a system known
as "card-check." There are many documented cases where workers have
been pressured, harassed, tricked and intimidated into signing cards
that have led to mandatory payment of dues.

Under EFCA, workers could lose the freedom to express
their will in private, the right to make a decision without anyone
peering over their shoulder, free from fear of reprisal.

There's no question that unions have done much good
for this country. Their tenacious efforts have benefited millions of
workers and helped build a strong middle class. They gave workers a new
voice and pushed for laws that protect individuals from unfair
treatment. They have been a friend to the Democratic Party, and so I
oppose this legislation respectfully and with care.

To my friends supporting EFCA I say this: We cannot be
a party that strips working Americans of the right to a secret-ballot
election. We are the party that has always defended the rights of the
working class. To fail to ensure the right to vote free of intimidation
and coercion from all sides would be a betrayal of what we have always
championed.

I have always been a bit torn on this issue.  I don't in general think the government needs to get involved in how private organizations do their business.  However, by force of law, unions are not a normal private organization. They have special rights, including ones that mimic taxation, other groups do not have:

Unfortunately, we don't live in a free society, and the term "union"
comes with a lot of legal baggage.  Recognized unions are granted
certain legal powers and rights that an average group of self-organized
folks don't.  For example, they are the only private organizations in
this country that I know of that have taxation power, and the power to
demand absolutely that certain monies be withheld from employee
paychecks (even of employees not in the union) and given to them.
Perhaps more importantly, companies can't ignore them - they have
to negotiate with a recognized union.  Unions also have informal
powers.  For example, the legal system tends to tolerate a lot of
violence and physical intimidation by union members (in strikes and
such) that it does not tolerate in other contexts  (seventy-five years
ago, the situation was reversed and the system tolerated a lot of
company violence against workers).

Some Thoughts on Peer Review

Some thoughts on the obsession with peer review as the gold standard guarantee of climate science goodness, from Climate Skeptic:

One of the weird aspects of climate science is the over-emphasis on peer
review as the ne plus ultra guarantor of believable results.  This is absurd. 
At best, peer review is a screen for whether a study is worthy of occupying
limited publication space, not for whether it is correct.  Peer review, again at
best, focuses on whether a study has some minimum level of rigor and coherence
and whether it offers up findings that are new or somehow advance the ball on an
important topic. 

In "big
boy sciences
" like physics, study findings are not considered vetted simply
because they are peer-reviewed.  They are vetted only after numerous other
scientists have been able to replicate the results, or have at least failed to
tear the original results down.  Often, this vetting process is undertaken by
people who may even be openly hostile to the original study group.  For some
reason, climate scientists cry foul when this occurs in their profession, but
mathematicians and physicists accept it, because they know that findings need to
be able to survive the scrutiny of enemies, not just of friends.  To this end,
an important part of peer review is to make sure the publication of the study
includes all the detail on methodology and data that others might need to
replicate the results  (which is something climate reviewers are particularly bad at).

In fact, there are good arguments to be made that strong peer review may even
be counter-productive to scientific advancement.  The reason is that peer
review, by the nature of human beings and the incentives they tend to have, is
often inherently conservative.  Studies that produce results the community
expects often receive only cursory scrutiny doled out by insiders chummy with
the authors.  Studies that show wildly unexpected results sometimes have trouble
getting published at all.

 As I read this, it strikes me that one way to describe
climate is that it acts like a social science, like sociology or gender studies,
rather than like a physical science.  I will ahve to think about this -- it
would be an interesting hypothesis to expand on in more depth.  Some quick
parallels of why I think it is more like a social science:

  • Bad statistical methodology  (a hallmark, unfortunately, of much of social
    science)
  • Emphasis on peer review over replication
  • Reliance on computer models rather than observation
  • Belief there is a "right" answer for society with subsequent bias to study
    results towards that answer  (example,
    and another
    example
    )

More Attacks of Free Speech

This is cross-posted from Climate-Skeptic, but it is very much in the spirit of the Canadian tribunals and University speech codes.  There are increasing efforts, mainly on the left, to make the world a better place by limiting speech of those who don't agree with them.

 

I am not sure this even needs comment:  (HT:  Maggies Farm)

I'm
preparing a paper for an upcoming conference on this, so please comment
if you can! Thanks. Many people have urged for there to be some legal
or moral consequence for denying climate change. This urge generally
comes from a number of places. Foremost is the belief that the science
of anthropogenic climate change is proven beyond reasonable doubt and
that climate change is an ethical issue. Those quotes from Mahorasy's
blog are interesting. I'll include one here:

Perhaps
there is a case for making climate change denial an offence. It is a
crime against humanity, after all. "“Margo Kingston, 21 November 2005

The
urge also comes from frustration with a "˜denial' lobby: the furthest
and more extreme talkers on the subject who call global warming a
"˜hoax' (following James Inhofe's now infamous quote). Of course there
would be frustration with this position"“a "˜hoax' is purposeful and
immoral. And those who either conduct the science or trust the science
do not enjoy being told they are perpetrating a "˜hoax', generating a myth, or committing a fraud....

I'm an advocate for something stronger. Call it regulation, law, or
influence. Whatever name we give it, it should not be seen as
regulation vs. freedom, but as a balancing of different freedoms. In
the same way that to enjoy the freedom of a car you need insurance to
protect the freedom of other drivers and pedestrians; in the same way
that you enjoy the freedom to publish your views, you need a regulatory
code to ensure the freedoms of those who can either disagree with or
disprove your views. Either way. While I dislike Brendan O'Neill and
know he's wrong, I can't stop him. But we need a body with teeth to be
able to say, "actually Brendan, you can't publish that unless you can
prove it." A body which can also say to me, and to James Hansen, and to
the IPCC, the same....

What do you think? Perhaps a starting point is a draft point in the
codes for governing how the media represent climate change, and a
method for enforcing that code. And that code needs to extend out to
cover new media, including blogs. And perhaps taking a lesson from the Obama campaign's micro-response strategy:
a team empowered with responding to complaints specifically dealing
with online inaccuracy, to which all press and blogs have to respond.
And so whatever Jennifer Mahorasy, or Wattsupwiththat, or Tom Nelson, or Climate Sceptic, or OnEarth, or La Marguerite, or the Sans Pretence, or DeSmog Blog, or Monckton or me, say, then we're all bound by the same freedoms of publishing.

He asked for comments.  I really did not have much energy to refute something so wrong-headed, but I left a few thoughts:

Wow,
as proprietor of Climate-Skeptic.com, I am sure flattered to be listed
as one of the first up against the wall come the great green-fascist
revolution.  I found it particularly ironic that you linked my post
skewering a climate alarmist for claiming that heavier objects fall
faster than lighter objects.  Gee, I thought the fact that objects of
different masses fall at the same rate had been "settled science" since
the late 1500s.

But I don't think you need a lecture on science, you need
a lecture on civics.  Everyone always wants free speech for
themselves.  The tough part is to support free speech for others, even
if they are horribly, terribly wrong-headed.  That is the miracle of
the first amendment, that we have stuck by this principle for over 200
years.

You see, technocrats like yourself are always assuming the
perfect government official with perfect knowledge and perfect
incentives to administer your little censorship body.  But the fact is,
such groups are populated with real people, and eventually, the odds
are they will be populated by knaves.  And even if folks are
well-intentioned, incentives kill such government efforts every time.
What if, for example, your speech regulation bureaucrats felt that
their job security depended on a continued climate crisis, and evidence
of no crisis might cause their job to go away?  Would they really be
unbiased with such an incentive?

Here is a parallel example to consider.  It strikes me
that the laws of economics are better understood than the activity of
greenhouse gasses.  I wonder if the author would support limits on
speech for supporters of such things like minimum wages and trade
protectionism that economists routinely say make no sense in the
science of economics.  Should Barack Obama be enjoined from discussing
his gasoline rebate plan because most all economists say that it won't
work the way he says?  There is an economist consensus, should that be
enough to silence Obama?

Update:  His proposed system is sort of a government mandated peer-review backed with prison terms.  For some reason, climate science is obsessed with peer review.  A few thoughts:

At best, peer review is a screen for whether a study is worthy of occupying
limited publication space, not for whether it is correct.  Peer review, again at
best, focuses on whether a study has some minimum level of rigor and coherence
and whether it offers up findings that are new or somehow advance the ball on an
important topic. 

In "big
boy sciences
" like physics, study findings are not considered vetted simply
because they are peer-reviewed.  They are vetted only after numerous other
scientists have been able to replicate the results, or have at least failed to
tear the original results down.

More here.

The Real Reason Why ExxonMobil Profits Suck

Because they are too freaking low!  ExxonMobil (XOM) is a cyclical company that is following on 20 years of middling prices for their commodity and finally have a price spike, and they only manage to make 8.5% return on sales  ($11.68 billion profit on $138 billion of revenues).  At the top of their cycle they are barely making the same profit margin as the average industrial company.  This is not good.   Sure, the absolute dollars are large, but it is a large company, and the absolute dollars of revenues, expenses, and taxes are also large.

While this outcome may be confusing to many  (since the press and politicians insist on calling these mediocre profits "windfall"), they are in effect the reflection of a new reality for western oil companies.  Less and less do companies like XOM operate their own oil fields.  They are increasingly concession operators or really glorified service companies and middle men to state producers. 

Disclosure:  I am an XOM stockholder, and I am not happy.

Postscript:  This from Mark Perry is kind of interesting:

Exxon has already paid $19.828 billion in income taxes for 2008 (data here),
and will probably pay almost $40 billion in income taxes this year (see
graph above, income tax data for 1999-2007 taken from Exxon's annual
reports).

To
put $40 billion of income taxes in perspective, it can be reasonably
estimated that Exxon will pay more in income taxes this year (both here
and outside the U.S.) than the entire bottom 50% of American individual
taxpayers (about 67 million) will pay in income taxes this year.

Perry has a number of notes and updates in response to questions about how he got these figures at the bottom of his post.

Update:  Yahoo Finance data and ranking on profitability by industry.  Integrated oil companies come in around #60.

Update on My Light Rail Bet: The Energy Issue

I generally have a bet I make for new light (and heavy) commuter rail systems.  I bet that for the amount the system cost to build, every single daily rider could have instead been given a Prius to drive for the same money; and, with the operating losses and/or subsidy the system requires each year, every one of those Prius drivers could be given enough gas to make their daily commute.  And still have money left over.  I have tested this bet for the systems in Los Angeles and Albuquerque.

Well, it turns out I left something out.  Many people are interested in commuter rail because it is perceived to be greener, which nowadays generally means narrowly that it uses less energy and thus produces less CO2.  But in fact, it may not.  Blogger John Moore sent me a link to this article by Brad Templeton analyzing energy usage in various transportation modes.  While a full train can be fairly efficient (just as a full SUV could be if 7 passengers were in it), cars and trains and busses are seldom full.  When you look at their average load factors, trains are seldom better than cars:
Transenergy

In fact, a car at its average load factor (1.57 pax) has about the same energy use as busses or light rail per passenger mile.  The analysis is difficult to do well, but even with errors, its clear that rail projects do not dominate over car travel in terms of energy use  (One must be careful to differentiate rail project construction decisions from individual choice of mode decisions -- an individual at the margin shifting from car to train saves a lot of energy;  a city choosing to invest in a large new rail system to entice drivers off the road does not).

In fact, relevent to my bet, Mr. Templeton says this:

My first conclusion is that we would get more efficient by pushing
small, fuel efficient vehicles instead of pushing transit, and at
a lower cost.

He explains his results, which are counter-intuitive to many

A full bus or trainload of people is more efficient than private cars,
sometimes quite a bit more so.   But transit systems never consist
of nothing but full vehicles.   They run most of their day with light
loads.  The above calculations came from figures citing the
average city bus holding 9 passengers, and the average train (light
or heavy) holds 22.   If that seems low, remember that every packed
train at rush hour tends to mean a near empty train returning down
the track.

Transit vehicles also tend to stop and start a lot, which eats
a lot of energy, even with regenerative braking.   And most
transit vehicles are just plain heavy, and not very aerodynamic.
Indeed, you'll see tables in the DoE reports that show that over the past 30 years,
private cars have gotten 30% more efficient, while buses have
gotten 60% less efficient and trains about 25% worse.   The
market and government regulations have driven efforts to make cars
more efficient, while transit vehicles have actually worsened.

In order to get people to ride transit, you must offer frequent
service, all day long.  They want to know they have the freedom to leave at
different times.  But that means emptier vehicles outside of
rush hour.   You've all seen those huge empty vehicles go by, you just
haven't thought of how anti-green they were.    It would be better
if off-hours transit was done by much smaller vehicles, but that
implies too much capital cost -- no transit agency will buy enough
equipment for peak times and then buy a second set of equipment for
light demand periods.

A lot of his data can be checked at the US Department of Energy data book here.  In particular, you can see the key numbers in table 2.12.  After perusing this data for a bit, I had a few other reactions:

  • Commercial air travel gets a bad rap.  On a passenger mile basis, it is really not worse than driving and only about 20% worse than Amtrack  (and probably the same as Amtrak or better if you leave out the Northeast Corridor). (table 2.14)
  • Busses have really gotten way more inefficient over the years, at the same time cars have become substantially more efficient.  While the government criticizes its citizens for not practicing enough energy conservation, in fact its citizens have been buying more and more fuel efficient vehicles while the government has been buying less efficient vehicles.  (table 2.13)
  • While passenger cars have increased substantially in efficiency, over the road trucks have seen no progress, and have actually gotten less efficient over the last 10 years (table 2-18)

Make sure to read the whole article.  I think the author is pretty fair at achnowleging where the uncertainties are in the analysis.  He also has comparisons of mass transit energy numbers between cities.  A few individual cities seem to beat even the most efficient cars -- most, including places like New York, do not.

Postscript:  I don't think numbers for New York include taxis.  If they did, New York would likely look terrible.  From an energy standpoint, taxis are a horrible transportation option, perhaps the worst possible.  It would be interesting to know how many New Yorkers who look down on SUV's routinely get around town using taxis.

Goodbye, Astroworld

I had the same reaction as Dale Franks when I drove through Houston a while back and found that Astroworld was gone.  When I grew up in Houston, there was absolutely nothing that would get me as excited as the prospect of a trip there.  Another piece of trivia, for years the nearby Astroworld hotel had a penthouse suite that was listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive hotel room in the world.  Hard to believe when you see what a pit it is now.