Posts tagged ‘Julian Simon’

State of the Union: Apparently, Hugh Hefner is Responsible for Abstinence

My column for this week is up at Forbes, and inevitably, deals with the State of the Union address last night.

But the portion that really floored me was Obama’s taking credit for the increase in US oil and gas production over the last several years.  It is certainly true that, against all predictions of peak oil, new technologies have helped drive a surge in US hydrocarbon production.  Combined with a recession-driven drop in demand, America’s oil imports as a percentage of its total use has dropped to 45.6%, the lowest level in over 15 years.

This surge in energy production is a fabulous reminder of how markets work.  For years I have written that the peak oil folks were missing something fundamental by performing an overly static analysis.  They looked at current “proven” reserves of oil and gas and projected forward how many years it would take for these to run out.  But oil and gas reserve numbers only make sense in the context of a particular set of technologies and pricing levels.  As hydrocarbons run short, rising prices tend to spur both innovation and new, more expensive exploration activity.  Oil and gas companies are once again proving Julian Simon’s addage that the only true scarcity is human brain power, and they should be given a lot of credit for the recent production boom.

The one person who deserves no credit for this boom is Barack Obama....

Read it all.

Interesting Fellowship

From PERC, a group focused on free-market environmentalism

The Julian Simon Fellowship has an open application process, so applications are always welcome. Review of applications will begin as soon as they are received.

The Julian Simon Fellowship is one of the nation's most prestigious opportunities for scholars to develop policy-oriented research on natural resource and environmental conservation. The in-residence fellowship is intended to continue the legacy of the late Julian Simon, whose research led to a massive re-evaluation by scholars and policy makers of their views on the interplay between population, natural resources, and the environment.

The ideal candidate for this fellowship is someone like Julian; an excellent scholar with a focus on empirical work and an imaginative research agenda that emphasizes natural resource and environmental issues.

Each Julian Simon Fellow is expected to spend at least two months in residence at PERC developing a paper of publishable quality, one that has significant policy implications. During their stay at PERC, Julian Simon Fellows are expected to present a seminar on their work.

Each Julian Simon Fellow will receive an honorarium of $20,000 plus office space, office support, and a congenial, stimulating work environment. Fellows will be responsible for their accommodations in Bozeman, but PERC is happy to assist with arrangements.

Repeating the Same Mistake, Over and Over

Flowing Data draws my attention to this nutty chart in the New Scientist  (I have never read the New Scientist, but my experience is that in periodicals one can generally substitute "Socialist" for the word "New").  Click to enlarge.

minerals-running-out-lol

Will the world really run out of Indium in 5 years?  Of course not.  New sources will be found.  If they are not, then prices will rise and a) demand with be reduced and b) efforts to find new sources will be redoubled.  Push come to shove, as prices rise too much, substitutes will be found (which is why John D. Rockefeller probably saved the whales).  Uranium is a great example -- sure, proved reserves are low right now, but companies that mine the stuff know that there is tons out there.  That is why they are going out of business, there is too much supply for the demand.  Any spike in price would immediately generate tons of new developed resources.  And even if we run out, there are enormous quantities of thorium which is a potential substitute in reactors.

Absolutely no one who was old enough to be paying attention to the news in the 1970s could have missed charts very similar to this.  I remember very clearly mainstream articles that we would run out of oil, titanium, tungsten, etc. by the early 1990's.  Seriously, name one commodity we have plain run out of (*cough* Julian Simon *cough*).

People say, well, the resources have to be finite and I would answer, "I suppose, but given that we have explored and mined about 0.000001% of the Earth's crust and none of the floating mineral reservoirs in space (called asteroids), I think we are a long, long way from running out."

You would think that the guys running this analysis would get tired of being so wrong so consistently for so many decades, but in fact their real point is not about resources but about the US and capitalism.  The point of the chart is not really to say that the world will credibly run out of tungsten, but to tell the world that it is time to get out their pitchforks because the US is stealing all their wealth and resources.  It is an age-old zero-sum wealth fallacy that has never held any water, but remains a powerful talking point among socialists none-the-less.

For socialists, wealth is not created by man's mind and his effort -- it is a spring in the desert with a fixed flow rate.  It just exists to be taken or fought over.  The wealthy, by this theory, have not earned their wealth, they are just the piggy ones who crowd to the front of the line and take more than their share from the spring.  Unfortunately, socialists have never been able to explain why the spring, which flowed so constantly (and so slowly) for thousands of years, suddenly burst forth with a veritable torrent in lockstep with the growth of capitalism in the west.  And why it seems to dry up in countries that adopt socialism.

Postscript: A while back I posted on the New Economics Foundation  (remember what I said about "New") and their claim the world had just gone into ecological debt.

Other Thoughts on Oil Prices and "Speculation"

As a followup to my point on oil prices, here are a selection of posts on oil prices and speculation that have caught my eye of late:

McQ writes about the charge of "inactive" oil leases, which Democrats attempted to use as an excuse for not opening up new lease areas for drilling

Tyler Cowen has a big roundup on the topic, with many links, and Alex Tabarrok has a follow-up.  Cowen discusses rising oil prices in the context of Julian Simon here.

Michael Giberson also addresses speculation, while observing that non-industrial buyers have not increased their position in the futures market as oil prices have risen

Finally, via Scrappleface:

When the U.S. Supreme Court reconvenes on the first Monday in
October, the nine Justices may consider whether the Constitutional
preamble clause "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity" guarantees an individual right to drill for oil.

Now that the court, in a 5-4 ruling on the Heller case, has upheld
the Second Amendment right of "the people," not just state-run
militias, to keep and bear arms, some scholars say the court may be
willing to go the next logical step and recognize the peoples' right to
acquire their own fuel.

I am Going to Break Every Window in Chris Plummer's House to Stimulate the Economy

We all know that the media is perfectly capable of ignoring even the most basic precepts of economics, but I thought Chris Plummer's article was especially heroic in doing so.  Even more so, it is absolutely stunning in its arrogance.  In his article, he writes on all the great ways that $8 a gallon gasoline will help make the world a better place.  I will stay away from the global warming related issues -- I have a whole other blog dedicated to that -- but here are a couple of the most egregious parts:

They may contain computer chips, but the power source
for today's cars is little different than that which drove the first
Model T 100 years ago. That we're still harnessed to this antiquated
technology is testament to Big Oil's influence in Washington and
success in squelching advances in fuel efficiency and alternative
energy.

   
       

Given our achievement
in getting a giant mainframe's computing power into a handheld device
in just a few decades, we should be able to do likewise with these
dirty, little rolling power plants that served us well but are overdue
for the scrap heap of history.

OK, this first one is a science problem and not an engineering problem.  Here is the problem:  Gasoline contains more potential energy by weight and volume than any power storage source we have been able to invent (OK, its actually second, nuclear fuel is first, but I presume Plummer is not going there).  That is the problem with electric cars, for example.  Electric traction motors are demonstrably better sources of motive power than internal combustion engines.  Even Diesel railroad engines are actually driven by electric traction motors.  The problem is energy storage.  Batteries store much less energy per pound and per cubit foot than gasoline.  Ditto natural gas and hydrogen (except at very high pressures).

This claim that only the political power of oil companies keeps no-brainer alternative technologies at bay is absurd, though it is one that never dies in the lunatic fringes.  Mr. Plummer is more than welcome to make himself a billion dollars by selling one of these mystery technologies he fails to disclose.  I will be first in line to buy.

Necessity being the mother of invention, $8 gas would trigger all
manner of investment sure to lead to groundbreaking advances. Job
creation wouldn't be limited to research labs; it would rapidly spill
over into lucrative manufacturing jobs that could help restore
America's industrial base and make us a world leader in a critical
realm.

This is the broken window fallacy on steroids.  I am a HUGE optimist about the limitless capabilities of the human mind, probably more so than Mr. Plummer (by the way, if he is such an optimist, he should read some Julian Simon).  But the best that humanity can probably do any time soon is offset a goodly percentage of the damage from $8 gas.  There is no net win here.  If there were, he should also be advocating $10 bread, $2,000,000 starter home prices, and $200 a month internet service.  Just think about all the innovation that would be required to react to these!

On a similar note, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Iran's Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad recently gained a platform on the world stage because of
their nations' sudden oil wealth. Without it, they would face the
difficult task of building fair and just economies and societies on
some other basis.

Yes sir.  Chavez would be much worse off if he was getting $8 for his gas rather than $3.  What is this guy thinking?  Well, he says this:

In the near term, breaking our dependence on Middle Eastern oil may
well require the acceptance of drilling in the Alaskan wilderness

OK, but that can be done at $3 gas,and should have been allowed at $2 gas.  This oil could have been developed in an environmentally friendly way years ago.  Only Congressional stupidity stands in the way  (probably with the past support of Mr. Plummer).

The recent housing boom sparked further development of
antiseptic, strip-mall communities in distant outlying areas. Making
100-mile-plus roundtrip commutes costlier will spur construction of
more space-efficient housing closer to city centers, including cluster
developments to accommodate the millions of baby boomers who will no
longer need their big empty-nest suburban homes.

   
       

Sure, there's plenty of
land left to develop across our fruited plains, but building more
housing around city and town centers will enhance the sense of
community lacking in cookie-cutter developments slapped up in the
hinterlands.
This is an aesthetic and taste argument (note the "antiseptic") - the author thinks that suburbs are un-aesthetic and he thinks that urban life is superior.  Not surprising, as he chooses to live in San Francisco, and people there have self-selected for that kind of life.  Fine.  But I don't want it.  And the idea that it is good to pay $8 for gas to conform to his aesthetics is sickening.  (By the way, the opposite of antiseptic is germ-ridden.  Why don't people ever therefore use that as a modifier for urban communities?)

OK, I can't really get to all his points, but I have saved perhaps the best for last.  Here is one of the most incredibly condescending, authoritarian, and insensitive arguments I have ever seen.  He thinks it is better for poor and middle class Americans to pay $8 a gallon for gas because:

Far too many Americans live beyond their means and
nowhere is that more apparent than with our car payments. Enabled by
eager lenders, many middle-income families carry two monthly payments
of $400 or more on $20,000-plus vehicles that consume upwards of
$15,000 of their annual take-home pay factoring in insurance,
maintenance and gas.

   
       

The sting of forking
over $100 per fill-up would force all of us to look hard at how much of
our precious income we blow on a transport vehicle that sits idle most
of the time, and spur demand for the less-costly and more
fuel-efficient small sedans and hatchbacks that Europeans have been
driving for decades.

So, doubling the cost of necessities for the average American will make them financially healthier?  His argument is that people do all kinds of dumb things financially that a smart person like he would never do, and if gas prices drained everyone's wallet, they would not have any money left to make dumb purchases he does not approve of.  If this is such a great idea, shouldn't we all just move to North Korea and have done with it?

The anti-planner, where I got the link, has his own response.

Wealth Creation and the Zero-Sum Fallacy

This is an update of an article I post every year or two around tax day.  I was going to skip this year, but tomorrow is the premiere of a show (which I have not seen yet) called the Ultimate Resource which seems to be named after Julian Simon's great book, and looks to be focused on many of the same issues I address in this post.

One of the worst ideas that affect public policy around the world is that wealth is somehow zero sum - that it can be stolen or taken or moved or looted but not created.  G8 protesters who claim that poor nations are poor because wealthy nations have made them that way;  the NY Times, which for years has flogged the idea that the fact of the rich getting richer in this country somehow is a threat to the rest of us; Paul Krugman, who fears that economic advances in China will make the US poorer:  All of these positions rest on the notion that wealth is fixed, so that increases in one area must be accompanied by decreases in others.  Mercantilism, Marxism, protectionism, and many other destructive -isms have all rested on zero-sum economic thinking.

The (Incorrect) Physics Analogy

My guess is that this zero-sum thinking comes from our training and intuition about the physical world.  As we all learned back in high school, nature generally works in zero sums.  For example, in any bounded environment, no matter what goes on inside (short of nuclear fission) mass and energy are both conserved, as outlined by the first law of thermodynamics. Energy may change form, like the potential energy from chemical bonds in gasoline being converted to heat and work via combustion, but its
all still there somewhere.

In fact, given the second law of thermodynamics, the only change that will occur is that elements will end in a more disorganized, less useful form than when they started.  This notion of entropic decay also has a strong effect on economic thinking, as you will hear many of the same zero sum economics folks using the language of decay on human society.  Take folks like Paul Ehrlich (please).  All of their work is about decay:  Pollution getting worse, raw materials getting scarce, prices going up, economies crashing. They see human society driven by entropic decline.

Wealth Is Demonstrably Not Zero-Sum

So are they wrong?  Are economics and society driven by something similar to the first and second laws of thermodynamics?  I will answer this in a couple of ways.

First, lets ask the related question:  Is wealth zero sum and is society, or at least the material portions of society, always in decline?  The answer is so obviously no to both that it is hard to believe that these concepts are still believed by anyone, much less by a large number of people.  However, since so many people do cling to these false notions, we will spend a moment or two with it.

The following analysis relies on data gathered by Julian Simon and Stephen Moore in Its Getting Better all the Time:  100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years. In fact, there is probably little in this post that Julian Simon has not said more articulately, but if all we bloggers waited for a new and fresh idea before we blogged, well, there would not be much blogging going on.

Lets compare the life of an average American in 1900 and today.  On every dimension you can think of, we all are orders of magnitude wealthier today (by wealth, I mean the term broadly.  I mean not just cash, like Scrooge McDuck's big vault, but also lifespan, healthiness, leisure time, quality of life, etc).

  • Life expectancy has increase from 47 to 77 years
  • Infant mortality rates have fallen from one in ten to one in 150.
  • Average income - in real dollars - has risen from $4,748 to $32,444

In 1900, the average person started their working life at 13, worked 10 hours a day, six days a week with no real vacation right up to the day they died in their mid-forties.  Today, the average person works 8 hours a day for five days a week and gets 2-3 weeks of vacation.  They work from the age of 18, and sometimes start work as late as 25, and typically take at least 10 years of retirement before they die.

But what about the poor?  Well, the poor are certainly wealthier today than the poor were in 1900.  But in many ways, the poor are wealthier even than the "robber barons" of the 19th century:  Just check out this comparison!  Today, even people below the poverty line have a good chance to live past 70.  99% of those below the poverty line in the US have electricity, running water, flush toilets, and a refrigerator.  95% have a TV, 88% have a phone, 71% have a car, and 70%have air conditioning.  Cornelius Vanderbilt had none of these, and his children only got running water and electricity later in life.

To anticipate the zero-summer's response, I presume they would argue that the US somehow did this by "exploiting" other countries.  Its hard to imagine the mechanism for this, especially since the US did not have a colonial empire like France or Britain, and in fact the US net gave away more wealth to other nations in the last century (in the form of outright grants as well as money and lives spent in their defense) than every other nation on earth combined.  I won't go into the detailed proof here, but you can do the same analysis we did for the US for every country in the world:  Virtually no one has gotten worse, and 99.9% of the people of the world are at least as wealthy (again in the broad sense) or wealthier than in 1900.  Yes, some have slipped in relative terms vs. the richest nations, but everyone is up on an absolute basis.

The (Correct) Physics Analogy

Which leads to the obvious conclusion, that I shouldn't have had to take so much time to prove:  The world, as a whole and in most of its individual parts, is wealthier than in was in 1900.  Vastly more wealthy.  Which I recognize can be disturbing to our intuition honed on the physical world.  I mean, where did the wealth come from?  Out of thin air?  How can that be?

Interestingly, in the 19th century, scientists faced a similar problem in the physical world in dating the age of the Earth. There was evidence all around them (from fossils, rocks, etc) that the earth had to be hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of years old. The processes of evolution Darwin described had to occur over untold millions of years.  Yet no one could accept an age over a few million for the solar system, because they couldn't figure out what could fuel the Sun for longer than that.  Every calculation they made showed that by any form of combustion they understood, the sun would burn out in, at most, a few tens of millions of years.  If the sun and earth was so old, where was all that energy coming from?  Out of thin air?

It was Einstein that solved the problem.  E=mc2 meant that there were new processes (e.g. fusion) where very tiny amounts of mass were converted to unreasonably large amounts of energy.  Amounts of energy so large that it tends to defy human intuition.  Here was an enormous, really huge source of potential energy that no one before even suspected.

The Human Mind Has Huge Potential Energy

Which gets me back to wealth.  To balance the wealth equation, there must be a huge reservoir out there of potential energy, or I guess you would call it potential wealth.  This source is the human mind.  All wealth flows from the human mind, and that source of energy is also unreasonably large, much larger than most people imagine.

But you might say - that can't be right.  What about gold, that's wealth isn't it, and it just comes out of the ground.  Yes, it comes out of the ground, but how?  And where?   If you have ever traveled around the western US, say in Colorado, you will have seen certain hills covered in old mines.  It has always fascinated me, how those hills riddled with shafts looked, to me, exactly the same as the 20 other hills around it that were untouched.  How did miners know to look in that one hill?  Don Boudroux at Cafe Hayek expounded on this theme:

I seldom use the term "natural resource." With the possible exception of water, no resource is natural. Usefulness is not an objective and timeless feature ordained by nature for those scarce things that we regard as resources. That is, all things that are resources become resources only after individual human beings creatively figure out how these things can be used in worthwhile ways for human betterment.

Consider, for example, crude oil. A natural resource? Not at all. I suspect that to the pre-Columbian peoples who lived in what is now Pennsylvania, the inky, smelly, black matter that oozed into creeks and streams was a nuisance. To them, oil certainly was no resource.

Petroleum's usefulness to humans "“ hence, its value to humans "“ is built upon a series of countless creative human insights about how oil can be used and how it can be cost-effectively extracted from the earth. Without this human creativity, oil would objectively exist but it would be either useless or a nuisance.

A while back, I published this anecdote which I think applies here:

Hanging out at the beach one day with a distant family member, we got into a discussion about capitalism and socialism.  In particular, we were arguing about whether brute labor, as socialism teaches, is the source of all wealth (which, socialism further argues, is in turn stolen by the capitalist masters).  The young woman, as were most people her age, was taught mainly by the socialists who dominate college academia nowadays.  I was trying to find a way to connect with her, to get her to question her assumptions, but was struggling because she really had not been taught many of the fundamental building blocks of either philosophy or economics, but rather a mish-mash of politically correct points of view that seem to substitute nowadays for both.

I picked up a handful of sand, and said "this is almost pure silicon, virtually identical to what powers a computer.  Take as much labor as you want, and build me a computer with it -- the only limitation is you can only have true manual laborers - no engineers or  managers or other capitalist lackeys".

She replied that my request was BS, that it took a lot of money to build an electronics plant, and her group of laborers didn't have any and bankers would never lend them any.

I told her - assume for our discussion that I have tons of money, and I will give you and your laborers as much as you need.  The only restriction I put on it is that you may only buy raw materials - steel, land, silicon - in their crudest forms.  It is up to you to assemble these raw materials, with your laborers, to build the factory and make me my computer.

She thought for a few seconds, and responded "but I can't - I don't know how.  I need someone to tell me how to do it"

The only real difference between beach sand, worth $0, and a microchip, worth thousands of dollars a gram, is what the human mind has added.

The economist Julian Simon is famous for his rebuttals of the zero summers and the pessimists and doom sayers, arguing that the human mind has unlimited ability to bring plenty our of scarcity.

"The ultimate resource is people - especially skilled, spirited, and hopeful young people endowed with liberty- who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and so inevitably benefit not only themselves but the rest of us as well."

A Framework For Wealth Creation

As a final note, it is worth mentioning that the world still has only harnessed a fraction of this potential.  To understand this, it is useful to look back at history.

From the year 1000 to the year 1700, the world's wealth, measured as GDP per capita, was virtually unchanged. Since 1700, the GDP per capita in places like the US has risen, in real terms, over 40 fold.  This is a real increase in total wealth, created by the human mind.  And it was unleashed because the world began to change in some fundamental ways around 1700 that allowed the human mind to truly flourish.  Among these changes, I will focus on two:

  1. There was a philosophical and intellectual change where questioning established beliefs and social patterns went from being heresy and unthinkable to being acceptable, and even in vogue.  In other words, men, at first just the elite but soon everyone, were urged to use their mind rather than just relying on established beliefs.  In this formulation, I use "beliefs" in its broadest possible meaning, encompassing everything from the belief that the earth is the center of the universe to the belief that music has to be sold in stores on physical media There were social and political changes that greatly increased the number of people capable of entrepreneurship.  Before this time, the vast vast majority of people were locked into social positions that allowed them no flexibility to act on a good idea, even if they had one.  By starting to create a large and free middle class, first in the Netherlands and England and then in the US, more people had the ability to use their mind to create new wealth without the encumbrance of artificial state-imposed class limits or mind-numbing regulatory barriers.  Whereas before, perhaps 1% or less of any population really had the freedom to truly act on their ideas, after 1700 many more people began to have this freedom.
  2. So today's wealth, and everything that goes with it (from shorter work hours to longer life spans) is the result of more people using their minds more freely.

The problem (and the ultimate potential) comes from the fact that in many, many nations of the world, these two changes have not yet been allowed to occur.  Look around the world - for any country, ask yourself if the average person in that country has the open intellectual climate that encourages people to think for themselves, and the open political and economic climate that allows people to act on the insights their minds provide and to keep the fruits of their effort.  Where you can answer yes to both, you will find wealth and growth.  Where you answer no to both, you will find poverty and misery.

Even in the US, regulation and the inherent conservatism of the bureaucracy slow our potential improvement.  Republicans block stem cell research, Democrats block genetically modified foods, protectionists block free trade, the FDA slows drug innovation, regulatory bodies of all stripes try to block new business models.

All over the world, governments shackle the human mind and limit the potential of humanity.

Postscript: From the press release for the Ultimate Resource, showing why the show has me interested:

Free Market incentives are spectacularly changing lives over much of the world. In the last 25 years, hundreds of millions of people-- 400 million in China alone-- have climbed out of the dire poverty of living on less than $1 per day. It is the largest movement out of poverty in human history.

Yet, two thirds of the world's population-- four billion people-- still does not have the tools to thrive in free markets. Forced to operate outside the rule of law, they have little education, no legal identity, no fungible property, no credit, no capital, and thus few ways to prosper.

This documentary is the story of what can happen when ordinary people around the world are given the tools to help themselves. "The Ultimate Resource" is people-- skilled, spirited and hopeful people, who are using their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and, inevitably, they will benefit the rest of the world, as well.

The Peak Whale Theory

After reading this article on the earth running out of resources,  I discovered another article from the archives of the Coyote Broadsheet, a predecessor of this blog written by one of my distant relatives, dated April 17, 1870:

As the US Population reaches toward the astronomical total of 40 million persons, we are reaching the limits of the number of people this earth can support.    If one were to extrapolate current population growth rates, this country in a hundred years could have over 250 million people in it!  Now of course, that figure is impossible - the farmland of this country couldn't possibly support even half this number.  But it is interesting to consider the environmental consequences.

Take the issue of transportation.  Currently there are over 11 million horses in this country, the feeding and care of which constitute a significant part of our economy.  A population of 250 million would imply the need for nearly 70 million horses in this country, and this is even before one considers the fact that "horse intensity", or the average number of horses per family, has been increasing steadily over the last several decades.  It is not unreasonable, therefore, to assume that so many people might need 100 million horses to fulfill all their transportation needs.  There is just no way this admittedly bountiful nation could support 100 million horses.  The disposal of their manure alone would create an environmental problem of unprecedented magnitude.

Or, take the case of illuminant.  As the population grows, the demand for illuminant should grow at least as quickly.  However, whale catches and therefore whale oil supply has leveled off of late, such that many are talking about the "peak whale" phenomena, which refers to the theory that whale oil production may have already passed its peak.  250 million people would use up the entire supply of the world's whales four or five times over, leaving none for poorer nations of the world.

Too bad Julian Simon wasn't around to make a bet on whale oil prices.

Great Moments in Muddled Thinking: I

I was excited this week to find a copy of the original 1968 version of Paul Ehrlich's "The Population Bomb."  I have been itching to find such a copy so I can demonstrate just how wrong and wrong-headed his zero-sum limits-to-growth thinking is. 

Now, one may ask, why even bother?  You could argue that thoughtful folks have dismissed Paul Ehrlich and his ilk for years, particularly after Julian Simon owned him in their famous bet.  However, I find two compelling reasons to take the time to fisk a forty-year-old book:

  • Paul Ehrlich and his brethren actually have not been disowned by much of the intelligentsia.  The media still breathlessly reprints Ehrlich's and his cohorts' predictions of disaster, despite the fact that all their past predictions have utterly failed to come true.
  • The fundamental mistakes he makes in his analysis are constantly repeated today.  These mistakes include:
    • Static analysis - blind projection of trendlines without any allowance for individuals actually doing something to alter those trends, particularly in response to pricing signals.  This leads not only to predictions of disaster, but to the consistent conclusion that only governments coercing individuals on a massive scale can avert dire consequences for humanity
    • Zero confidence in humanity - every analysis implicitly contains the assumption that we will never know how to do more than we know how to do today.  Kind of an anti-Kurzweil mentality
    • Zero-sum economics - the common misconception that wealth can only come at the expense of poverty elsewhere.

I have not had a chance to dig into it, but I will leave you with this tasty teaser from the back cover:

MANKIND'S INALIENABLE RIGHTS

  1. The right to eat well
  2. The right to drink pure water
  3. The right to breathe clean air
  4. The right to decent, uncrowded shelter
  5. The right to enjoy natural beauty
  6. The right to avoid regimentation
  7. The right to avoid pesticide poisoning
  8. The right to freedom from thermonuclear war
  9. The right to limit families
  10. The right to educate our children
  11. The right to have grandchildren

Well, that seems to cover it.  Anyone want to bet I don't find anything about property rights in this book?  Gotta go read the book now, since I have so many questions now:  Is it OK if someone kills me with a conventional bomb rather than a nuclear one?  Can I sue McDonald's on the basis that yesterday's lunch was a violation of my right to eat well?  And just how do I force my kids to have sex and procreate?  I can't wait to find out.

Let's Tax These Bubble-Driven Windfall Profits

A number of politicians are calling for taxing "windfall profits" driven by the "price bubble" in gasoline and oil.  Previously, I narrow-mindedly opposed this, arguing that the whole point of the pricing signal being sent is to call for new supplies, which won't happen if the government takes the money away from suppliers.

I say narrow-mindedly, because I have had an epiphany.  I realize now that it is indeed unfair for sellers to benefit from such a pricing bubble.  However, I think the politicians are wrong for looking at oil, since that bubble is only small potatoes.  I propose we start with the much bigger bubble:  In housing prices.  In a time of housing shortages, it pains my heart to Americans profiteering from artificially high prices.  Besides, oil companies actually do something useful with their windfall profits, like finding more oil; home sellers will just blow their proceeds on a big screen TV or something.

My proposal is that the government set a "fair price" for housing, based on a standard rate of appreciation.  The price of the house in a base year, such as 1970, adjusted for the CPI is a good starting point, but a process can be created modeled after Hawaiian gas pricing regulation to set up the exact standard.   Every house in the country then will be appraised.  Any house selling for or appraised for an amount above the 1970 price+CPI adjustment will be deemed as having reaped windfall profits.  The government is authorized to seize 100% of these windfall profits.  When this program is a success, we should then consider a retroactive program to seize windfall profits from the Internet stock bubble.

So, for all you who were supporting government intervention into gasoline pricing and profits, this must make you feel even better, since it is a much, much bigger bubble.  Right?  Or was it somehow more fun when Exxon was a target instead of, say, you?

Update:  I thought it was obvious, but I guess not from the email I have gotten:  I am being sarcastic here.  I would oppose a "windfall" profits tax on oil, houses, Internet Stocks, Pokeman cards, or whatever. 

The WSJ ($?) had this editorial on Saturday:

We keep hearing the word "bubble" to describe
industries with rapid and unsustainable rising prices. Hence, the
Internet bubble, the telecom bubble, stock market bubble, and now, some
analysts believe, a housing bubble. Yet for some mysterious reason no
one speaks of the oil bubble -- though prices have tripled in two years
to as high as $70 a barrel.

Reviewing the history of oil-market boom and bust
confirms that we are in the midst of a classic oil bubble and that
prices will eventually fall, perhaps dramatically. Despite apocalyptic
warnings, the world is not running out of oil and the pumps are not
going to run dry in our lifetimes -- or ever. What's more, the
mechanism that will surely prevent any long-term catastrophic shortages
in energy is precisely the free-market incentive to make profits that
many politicians in Washington seem to regard as an evil pursuit and
wish to short circuit.

The best evidence for an oil bubble comes from the
lessons of America's last six energy crises dating back to the late
19th century, when there was a great scare about the industrial age
grinding to a halt because of impending shortages of coal. (Today coal
is superabundant, with about 500 years of supply.) Each one of these
crises has run almost an identical course.

First, the crisis begins with a spike in energy prices
as a result of a short-term supply shock. Next, higher prices bring
doomsday claims of energy shortages, which in turn prompts government
to intervene ineffectually into the marketplace. In the end, the advent
of new technologies and new energy discoveries -- all inspired by the
profit motive -- brings the crisis to an abrupt end, enabling oil and
electricity markets to resume their virtuous longterm downward price
trend.

The limits-to-growth crowd has predicted the end of
oil since the days when this black gold was first discovered as an
energy source in the mid-19th century. In the 1860s the U.S. Geological
Survey forecast that there was "little or no chance" that oil would be
found in Texas or California. In 1914 the Interior Department forecast
that there was only a 10-year supply of oil left; in 1939 it calculated
there was only a 13-year supply left, and in 1951 Interior warned that
by the mid-1960s the oil wells would certainly run dry. In the 1970s,
Jimmy Carter somberly told the nation that "we could use up all of the
proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next
decade."

We can ridicule these doom and gloom predictions
today, but at the time they were taken seriously by scholars and
politicians, just as the energy alarmists are gaining intellectual
traction today. But as the late economist Julian Simon taught, by any
meaningful measure oil (and all natural resources) has gotten steadily
cheaper and far more bountiful in supply over time, despite periodic
and even wild fluctuations in the market.

Technorati Tags:  ,

Julian Simon Would Have Loved This

When I read this article on waste disposal, via Instapundit, all I could think of was Julian Simon.  For those who may be too young to remember, back in the 80's, after the panic that we were running out of oil was over, but before the current panic that we are producing too much carbon dioxide, there was a panic that we were running out of garbage dump space.  Uh, never mind:

Simply put, operators of garbage dumps are stuffing more waste than
anyone expected into the giant plastic-lined holes, keeping disposal
prices down and making the construction of new landfills largely
unnecessary....

The
productivity leap is the second major economic surprise from the trash
business in the last 20 years. First, it became clear in the early
1990's that there was a glut of disposal space, not the widely believed
shortage that had drawn headlines in the 1980's. Although many town
dumps had closed, they were replaced by fewer, but huge, regional ones.
That sent dumping prices plunging in many areas in the early 1990's and
led to a long slump in the waste industry.

Since then, the
industry and its followers have been relying on time - about 330
million tons of trash went into landfills in the United States last
year alone, according to Solid Waste Digest, a trade publication - to
fill up some of those holes, erase the glut and send disposal prices
skyward again. Instead, dump capacity has kept growing, and rapidly,
even as only a few new dumps were built.

Shortages seldom persist where the human mind is left free to attack the problem, and economic incentives are allowed to operate freely.  I wrote my own post attacking the zero-sum mentality that causes certain people to jump from one shortage-panic to the next. 

My prediction:  Five years from now, we will be seeing the same article on oil and natural gas.  "This oil field in west Texas is over 80 years old, and was thought to be depleted, until $60 oil prices and some new technology...."   You get the idea.

Physics, Wealth Creation, and Zero Sum Economics

You will have to forgive this post if it gets a little long or theoretical.  Yesterday I made the mistake of going jogging when it was still 114 degrees outside, and I guess I discovered why biblical prophets seem to always get their visions out in the desert.

One of the worst ideas that affect public policy around the world is that wealth is somehow zero sum - that it can be stolen or taken or moved or looted but not created.  G8 protesters who claim that poor nations are poor because wealthy nations have made them that way;  the NY Times, which for a number of weeks actively flogged the idea that the fact of the rich getting richer in this country somehow is a threat to the rest of us; Paul Krugman, who fears that economic advances in China will make the US poorer:  All of these positions rest on the notion that wealth is fixed, so that increases in one area must be accompanied by decreases in others.  Mercantilism, Marxism, protectionism, and many other destructive -isms have all rested on zero sum economic thinking.

My guess is that this zero-sum thinking comes from our training and intuition about the physical world.  As we all learned back in high school, nature generally works in zero sums.  For example, in any bounded environment, no matter what goes on inside (short of nuclear fission) mass and energy are both conserved, as outlined by the first law of thermodynamics.  Energy may change form, like the potential energy from chemical bonds in gasoline being converted to heat and work via combustion, but its all still there somewhere. 

In fact, given the second law of thermodynamics, the only change that will occur is that elements will end in a more disorganized, less useful form than when they started.  This notion of entropic decay also has a strong effect on economic thinking, as you will hear many of the same zero sum economics folks using the language of decay on human society.  Take folks like Paul Ehrlich (please).  All of there work is about decay:  Pollution getting worse, raw materials getting scarce, prices going up, economies crashing.  They see human society driven by entropic decline.

So are they wrong?  Are economics and society driven by something similar to the first and second laws of thermodynamics?  I will answer this in a couple of ways.

First, lets ask the related question:  Is wealth zero sum and is society, or at least the material portions of society, always in decline?  The answer is so obviously no to both that it is hard to believe that these concepts are still believed by anyone, much less a large number of people.  However, since so many people do cling to it, we will spend a moment or two with it.

The following analysis relies on data gathered by Julian Simon and Stephen Moore in Its Getting Better all the Time:  100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years.  In fact, there is probably little in this post that Julian Simon has not said more articulately, but if all we bloggers waited for a new and fresh idea before we blogged, well, there would not be much blogging going on. 

Lets compare the life of an average American in 1900 and today.  On every dimension you can think of, we all are orders of magnitude wealthier today (by wealth, I mean the term broadly.  I mean not just cash, like Scrooge McDuck's big vault, but also lifespan, healthiness, leisure time, quality of life, etc).

  • Life expectancy has increase from 47 to 77 years
  • Infant mortality rates have fallen from one in ten to one in 150.
  • Average income - in real dollars - has risen from $4,748 to $32,444

In 1900, the average person started their working life at 13, worked 10 hours a day, six days a week with no real vacation right up to the day they died in their mid-forties.  Today, the average person works 8 hours a day for five days a week and gets 2-3 weeks of vacation.  They work from the age of 18, and sometimes start work as late as 25, and typically take at least 10 years of retirement before they die. 

But what about the poor?  Well, the poor are certainly wealthier today than the poor were in 1900.  But in many ways, the poor are wealthier even than the "robber barons" of the 19th century.  Today, even people below the poverty line have a good chance to live past 70.  99% of those below the poverty line in the US have electricity, running water, flush toilets, and a refrigerator.  95% have a TV, 88% have a phone, 71% have a car, and 70% have air conditioning.  Cornelius Vanderbilt had none of these, and his children only got running water and electricity later in life.

To anticipate the zero-summer's response, I presume they would argue that the US somehow did this by "exploiting" other countries.  Its hard to imagine the mechanism for this, especially since the US did not have a colonial empire like France or Britain, and in fact the US net gave away more wealth to other nations in the last century (in the form of outright grants as well as money and lives spent in their defense) than every other nation on earth combined.  I won't go into the detailed proof here, but you can do the same analysis we did for the US for every country in the world:  Virtually no one has gotten worse, and 99.9% of the people of the world are at least as wealthy (again in the broad sense) or wealthier than in 1900.  Yes, some have slipped in relative terms vs. the richest nations, but everyone is up on an absolute basis.

Which leads to the obvious conclusion, that I shouldn't have had to take so much time to prove:  The world, as a whole and in most of its individual parts, is wealthier than in was in 1900.  Vastly more wealthy.  Which I recognize can be disturbing to our intuition honed on the physical world.  I mean, where did the wealth come from?  Out of thin air?  How can that be?

Interestingly, in the 19th century, scientists faced a similar problem in the physical world in dating the age of the Earth.  There was evidence all around them (from fossils, rocks, etc) that the earth had to be hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of years old.  The processes of evolution Darwin described had to occur over untold millions of years.  Yet no one could accept an age over a few million for the solar system, because they couldn't figure out what could fuel the Sun for longer than that.  Every calculation they made showed that by any form of combustion they understood, the sun would burn out in, at most, a few tens of millions of years.  If the sun and earth was so old, where was all that energy coming from?  Out of thin air?

It was Einstein that solved the problem.  E=mc2 meant that there were new processes (e.g. fusion) where very tiny amounts of mass were converted to unreasonably large amounts of energy.  Amounts of energy so large that it tends to defy human intuition.  Here was an enormous, really huge source of potential energy that no one before even suspected.

Which gets me back to wealth.  To balance the wealth equation, there must be a huge reservoir out there of potential energy, or I guess you would call it potential wealth.  This source is the human mind.  All wealth flows from the human mind, and that source of energy is also unreasonably large, much larger than most people imagine.

But you might say - that can't be right.  What about gold, that's wealth isn't it, and it just comes out of the ground.  Yes, it comes out of the ground, but how?  And where?   If you have ever traveled around the western US, say in Colorado, you will have seen certain hills covered in old mines.  It always fascinated me, how those hills riddled with shafts looked, to me, exactly the same as the 20 other hills around it that were untouched.  How did they know to look in that one hill?  Don Boudroux at Cafe Hayek expounded on this theme:

I seldom use the term "natural resource." With the possible
exception of water, no resource is natural. Usefulness is not an
objective and timeless feature ordained by nature for those scarce
things that we regard as resources. That is, all things that are
resources become resources only after individual human beings
creatively figure out how these things can be used in worthwhile ways
for human betterment.

Consider, for example, crude oil. A natural resource? Not at all. I
suspect that to the pre-Columbian peoples who lived in what is now
Pennsylvania, the inky, smelly, black matter that oozed into creeks and
streams was a nuisance. To them, oil certainly was no resource.

Petroleum's usefulness to humans "“ hence, its value to humans "“ is
built upon a series of countless creative human insights about how oil
can be used and how it can be cost-effectively extracted from the
earth. Without this human creativity, oil would objectively exist but
it would be either useless or a nuisance.

A while back, I published this anecdote which I think applies here:

Hanging out at
the beach one day with a distant family member, we got into a
discussion about capitalism and socialism.  In particular, we were
arguing about whether brute labor, as socialism teaches, is the source
of all wealth (which, socialism further argues, is in turn stolen by
the capitalist masters).  The young woman, as were most people her age,
was taught mainly by the socialists who dominate college academia
nowadays.  I was trying to find a way to connect with her, to get her
to question her assumptions, but was struggling because she really had
not been taught many of the fundamental building blocks of either
philosophy or economics, but rather a mish-mash of politically correct
points of view that seem to substitute nowadays for both.

I
picked up a handful of sand, and said "this is almost pure silicon,
virtually identical to what powers a computer.  Take as much labor as
you want, and build me a computer with it -- the only limitation is you
can only have true manual laborers - no engineers or managers or other
capitalist lackeys".

She
replied that my request was BS, that it took a lot of money to build an
electronics plant, and her group of laborers didn't have any and
bankers would never lend them any.

I
told her - assume for our discussion that I have tons of money, and I
will give you and your laborers as much as you need.  The only
restriction I put on it is that you may only buy raw materials - steel,
land, silicon - in their crudest forms.  It is up to you to assemble
these raw materials, with your laborers, to build the factory and make
me my computer.

She thought for a few seconds, and responded "but I can't - I don't know how.  I need someone to tell me how to do it"

The only real difference between beach sand, worth $0, and a microchip, worth thousands of dollars a gram, is what the human mind has added.

The economist Julian Simon is famous for his rebuttals of the zero summers and the pessimists and doom sayers, arguing that the human mind has unlimited ability to bring plenty our of scarcity.

"The ultimate resource is people - especially skilled, spirited, and hopeful young people endowed with liberty- who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and so inevitably benefit not only themselves but

the rest of us as well."

As a final note, it is worth mentioning that the world still has only harnessed a fraction of this potential.  To understand this, it is useful to look back at history.

From the year 1000 to the year 1700, the world's wealth, measured as GDP per capita, was virtually unchanged.
Since 1700, the GDP per capita in places like the US has risen, in real
terms, over 40 fold.  This is a real increase in total wealth, created by the human mind.  And it was unleashed because the world began to change in some fundamental ways around 1700 that allowed the human mind to truly flourish.  Among these changes, I will focus on two:

  1. There was a philosophical and intellectual
    change where questioning established beliefs and social patterns went
    from being heresy and unthinkable to being acceptable, and even in
    vogue.  In other words, men, at first just the elite but soon everyone,
    were urged to use their mind rather than just relying on established
    beliefs
  2. There were social and political changes that greatly increased
    the number of people capable of entrepreneurship.  Before this time,
    the vast vast majority of people were locked into social positions that
    allowed them no flexibility to act on a good idea, even if they had
    one.  By starting to create a large and free middle class, first in the
    Netherlands and England and then in the US, more people had the ability
    to use their mind to create new wealth.  Whereas before, perhaps 1% or
    less of any population really had the freedom to truly act on their
    ideas, after 1700 many more people began to have this freedom. 

So today's wealth, and everything that goes with it (from shorter
work hours to longer life spans) is the result of more people using
their minds more freely.

The problem (and the ultimate potential) comes from the fact that in many, many nations of the world, these two changes have not yet been allowed to occur.  Look around the world - for any country, ask yourself if the average
person in that country has the open intellectual climate that
encourages people to think for themselves, and the open political and
economic climate that allows people to act on the insights their minds
provide and to keep the fruits of their effort.  Where you can answer
yes to both, you will find wealth and growth.  Where you answer no to
both, you will find poverty and misery.

Even in the US, regulation and the inherent conservatism of the bureaucracy slow our potential improvement.  Republicans block stem cell research, Democrats block genetically modified foods, protectionists block free trade, the FDA slows drug innovation, regulatory bodies of all stripes try to block new business models.

All over the world, governments shackle the human mind and limit the potnetial of humanity.

Myth of Peak Oil

Note:  I have posted a more recent article with updated data here.

Mises Blog has a good article on the "Peak Oil" meme.  You may have gotten investment solicitations urging you to invest in oil because production is supposedly going to peak in 2006.

Oil production will peak some day.  I do not know when.  I do know that when I was in high school debate in the late 1970's, the topic one year was on resource policies.  I read everything there was at the time on oil supply as well as other critical mineral supplies.  Most "experts" at the time were predicting that oil would "run out" in about 1985 or 1990.  As you can see below, folks who invested in oil in 1980, after a price run-up similar to the one we have seen lately, got slaughtered.

Usgasoilprices19181999_1

Think twice or maybe three times about this graph before you invest.  Notice that there is no long term trend in real oil prices, even over one hundred years!  To make money buying oil, you have to do it on timing, buying ahead of sharp temporary increases.  And given that we are at the top of one of those sharp increases, can now really be the time to buy?

You can never get all the oil out of a field, and the exact amount of oil you can recover is dependent on how much you want to spend to do it, which in turn is related to oil prices (or expectations of oil prices).  The first 20% of the oil in a field might just squirt out under its own pressure.  The next 20% might have to be pumped.  The next 20% might need high pressure water injection to help it.  The next 20% might need expensive CO2 injection to help it.  If you ask the field manager how much oil was left, he would give you different answers at $20 and $45 a barrel, because he would make different assumptions about how far along this investment curve he would go.

If you are still thinking about investing, do one more thing: Study the famous bet between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon:

In 1980, economist |Julian Simon| and biologist Paul Ehrlich decided to put their money where their predictions were. Ehrlich had been predicting massive shortages in various natural resources for decades, while Simon claimed natural resources were infinite.

Simon offered Ehrlich a bet centered on the market price of metals. Ehrlich would pick a quantity of any five metals he liked worth $1,000 in 1980. If the 1990 price of the metals, after adjusting for inflation, was more than $1,000 (i.e. the metals became more scarce), Ehrlich would win. If, however, the value of the metals after inflation was less than $1,000 (i.e. the metals became less scare), Simon would win. The loser would mail the winner a check for the change in price.

Ehrlich agreed to the bet, and chose copper, chrome, nickel, tin and tungsten.

By 1990, all five metal were below their inflation-adjusted price level in 1980. Ehrlich lost the bet and sent Simon a check for $576.07. Prices of the metals chosen by Ehrlich fell so much that Simon would have won the bet even if the prices hadn't been adjusted for inflation. (1) Here's how each of the metals performed from 1980-1990.