December 24, 2008

Unemployment Blogging, Day 3

Christmas Eve, so of course there's nothing times nothing to do re: job hunting, so I am going to enjoy the holiday as best I can. May you do the same.

But of course I couldn't write a Christmas post without including this timeless holiday classic:

Why Chinese Food Is Like Linux

Fascinating talk by Jennifer 8. Lee about the origins of Chinese food in America -- and around the world:

December 23, 2008

Unemployment Blogging, Day 2

Part of the problem with being laid off just before Christmas -- besides the massive crimp it puts into your celebration of the holiday -- is that conducting the normal activities of a job search is stymied. First, you have parties to attend, food to prepare, last-minute gifts to buy, etc.; and second, pretty much every business is taking the next two weeks off or else operating on a severely pared-down schedule. Thus, my efforts to get back to working have taken on a "hurry up and wait" character.

December 22, 2008

Unemployment Blogging, Day 1

Or: What it feels like to be a statistic.

Being laid off, to paraphrase John Updike, is a sacred state; it clarifies the mind and pulls you out of the often stultifying routines of everyday living and working. It is also, as is the case with any contact with the divine, rather terrifying.

A synopsis: After graduating from the University of Maryland, I went to work, not at a government agency or a nonprofit (as you would expect for someone with a Master's in public policy), but at a grocery store. As a cashier. Granted, it was an organic grocery store, so it had some cachet, but that hardly helped to soften the blow of seeing all my job leads and interviews failing to pan out. It was, however, a living, something by which I could support myself until I got something better. This state of affairs persisted for seven months, during which I existed as if in stasis: neither moving on nor growing accustomed to my situation; wondering how long it would be until I would have a honest-to-god profession, not a job I could have done in high school; always chafing at the fact of never having enough money. Then, this past Saturday, I was let go. So much for my plans to turn my experience into a best-selling memoir; seven months isn't nearly enough time to establish the necessary street cred.

I take solace in the fact that I am young and well-educated, and supported by my family, my partner, and her family; that we are living through a world-historical economic crisis, which has afflicted the just and the unjust alike*; and that, as I've said, a drastic change in one's circumstances often forces you to respond more acutely than otherwise. For example, I seldom get as personal in my blogging as I am doing now; and perhaps making myself the subject of my own writing, alongside the old standbys of politics and culture, will be illuminating in some way.

Or not; I honestly have no way of knowing.

* I'll leave it to you to decide which of those categories I belong in.

November 29, 2008

The Apatovian Error

I saw Baby Mama for the first time over the Thanksgiving holiday; it was okay. There were some funny bits, particularly Steve Martin's "New Age guru by way of Steve Jobs" schtick, but the plot suffers from the same thing that has infected Judd Apatow's comedies and their imitators: We are given no reason why someone as educated and cultured as Tina Fey's character would ever associate with, much less choose to have a baby by, someone as completely the opposite as Amy Poehler's character. Much as Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen were paired off sort of inexplicably in Knocked Up, two people of opposite characters are thrown together, even though at least one of them can, and ought to, walk away. Yes, Baby Mama is a conventional buddy comedy, and you need something to get the laughs going, but it's still kind of hard to ignore, isn't it? If you're going to have smart people do stupid things, there should at least be some kind of story behind it.

Of course, this problem is an old one in comedy. Why, for example, does Alceste in The Misanthrope fall for Célimène? Is it because he really doesn't believe in his ideals? Is his hatred for society just a front? Is it just irrational? Alceste isn't a hypocrite, the way, say, Tartuffe is -- or is he? He at least struggles with his ideals, rather than cynically peddling them for personal gain. In any case, I think there's a lot of comedy to be had in exploring why people make choices they know full well aren't in their interests, but I haven't seen anything lately that goes in that direction.

Hopejacking, UK Style

To follow up on an older post, I see that the Gordon Brown and David Cameron's attempts to hopejack Barack Obama's election have not gone unnoticed by the British press:

The Battle of Obama is joined. Mr Brown and Mr Cameron, Labour and the Tories, are wrestling for the reflective boost that association with Mr Obama in the public mind could bring. Neither is likely to succeed.

First, consider the hope the Tories spy in Mr Obama’s hopemongering... It rests on a simple syllogism: Mr Obama offered change and Mr Cameron purports to; despite his lack of executive experience, Mr Obama won—so Mr Cameron is more likely to.


Mr Obama pledges to heal primeval rifts and repair the reputational damage done by a war he opposed. Mr Cameron is avowedly sceptical of grand plans. He often lurches from optimism into bitter moralising; his party supported the invasion of Iraq. His biggest problem has been to overcome toxic memories of previous Tory governments; Mr Obama’s has been to construct a public identity from scratch. Their political projects are radically dissimilar. Few Britons watching Mr Obama will instinctively think, fondly or otherwise, of Mr Cameron.

But nor is Mr Brown’s effort to co-opt Mr Obama likely to flourish... He implied that the American people had endorsed what is now his main contention: that parties of the centre-left are best qualified to cope with the downturn. America has morphed in his rhetoric from the source of economic evil to the fount of political wisdom.

The trouble with this analogy is not just that Mr Brown is a droning killjoy and Mr Obama is not. It is that Mr Brown is an incumbent where Mr Obama is an insurgent. Mr Brown has been at the apex of government through the years that incubated the economic woe. Few Britons listening to Mr Obama’s rhetoric will feel it vindicates their incriminated prime minister.

I find this whole process amusing; as if a light switch were flicked, America has gone from an object of near-universal disdain to one of near-universal aspiration, in the person of Barack Obama. It's a crude generalization, of course, but it's interesting to see how his election has, if only temporarily, short-circuited habits of mind concerning politics not just in the US, but worldwide.

November 25, 2008

Behavior and Energy Use

Interesting paper from ACEEE, giving a sociological perspective on how energy efficiency policies can be effectively implemented:
The United States can reap a wealth of cost-effective energy savings and reduce our contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions by providing the tools, technologies, education, information, and motivation needed to help all types of Americans change their energy consumption patterns and behaviors. Importantly, however, Americans are more likely to be successful in achieving these savings and in achieving them sooner if they are empowered by effective programs and policies that can help them to:
  1. see more clearly the size of our current energy service demands, how those demands are currently met, and the implications for ourselves, our neighbors, and our children,
  2. understand the range of energy options and choices from household to nation state,
  3. imagine what a different energy future might look like,
  4. prioritize social and governmental goals based on a long-term energy vision, and
  5. make smart energy choices for their own household, business, or industry.
This, I think, is key to building popular support for not just better energy efficiency, but the whole panoply of carbon-cutting tools -- from those that directly impact people's daily routine, e.g. increased mass transit ridership, to those that have a more diffuse effect, e.g. switching from coal to wind energy. It's all too easy to craft what seems like a perfect policy but not consider whether it will be a good fit for the affected populations. Transit-oriented development is great for New York, but maybe not for New Mexico. And even then, a lot depends on what regions you're looking at: Albany and Albuquerque may have more in common with each other than with the rural areas that surround both cities.

In any case, I would argue that climate policy can work in two directions: 1) change institutions, and 2) change behaviors, which is what the ACEEE paper is mainly concerned with. Changing institutions means adopting new mandates, technologies, taxes, etc., whereas changing behaviors means leading people to adopt new practices like, say, installing solar water heaters and finding housing close to transit. Both paths are necessary, but the latter may be a little dodgy, due to fears of engaging in social engineering. Of course, all public policy is social engineering when you get down to it; best, then, to do it in a way that meets broader goals while preserving individual autonomy. Libertarian paternalism, anyone?

November 6, 2008

They've Got a Crush on Obama

I've tried to express in my own way the meaning of Barack Obama winning the presidency, though I could easily spill several thousand words and still not get a definite hold of this strange moment we find ourselves in. I could try to describe what it means for this ultimate racial obstacle in America to be overcome, though others can and already have done it. I could discuss the prospect of a more liberal, more racially and religiously diverse America coming to prominence, or the end of conservative culture war politics, or any number of things. But for some reason, I think the meaning of Obama's victory is best embodied now in how even people an ocean away are reacting:

Gordon Brown and David Cameron have clashed in the Commons over the reasons for Barack Obama's US election victory.

The Conservative leader said the change offered by Mr Obama contrasted with Labour's offer of "more of the same".

The prime minister said Mr Obama had triumphed because he was a "serious man for serious times" and embodied "progressive" values shared by Labour.

Earlier both men and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg had united in praise of the Democrat Mr Obama's victory.

The BBC's political editor Nick Robinson said both Labour and the Conservatives wanted to associate themselves with the factors behind Mr Obama's success and absorb some of the political magic he displayed on the campaign trail.

(h/t hb123).

October 23, 2008

Fun with Webtools

So this is making the rounds today, which draws on a map of metropolitan areas with surplus single males or single females that garnered some attention a while back claimed to show that the East Coast was full of lonely single women and the West Coast full of lonely single men. However, that map may have painted with too broad a brush, as Ezra Klein notes:
The original map counted all singles between the ages of 20 and 64. The new map lets you screw with some sliders for a data range. And the results are fascinating. On the young end of the spectrum, single men outnumber single women just about everywhere. If you hold the ages to 20-34, DC, for instance, has 27 extra single men for every 1,000 people. Shift the slider so it tracks folks from age 45 to 60, and DC has 48 more single women for every 1,000 folks.
One can find a kind of proof of this in another webtool that's making the rounds, which is a mashup of Craigslist personal ads and Google Maps. You can filter the results according to sexual preference, and the thing that jumps out most when one look at the DC area, say, is that there are considerably more men seeking women and men seeking men than there are women seeking men or women seeking women. This assumes, of course, that most of the people who post Craigslist personals are in the 18-44 age bracket, so take it with a grain of salt.

The Unchained Goddess

Scientists have been aware of global warming for decades, it turns out (via Matt Stoller):

It is a bit eerie to see that the problem was known about so clearly way back then. It's also a reminder of the production values of educational movies in the 1950s, which really was the golden age of the genre. St. John's alumni reading this, for example, will recall the infamous frog video set to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." Sadly, I can't find it on YouTube.

October 10, 2008

"The Edsels of the world of moveable type"

Blog posts are well known for their invective, and I've indulged that impulse on occasion. But I would be hard pressed to write anything that let spill so much bile and reveled so much in schadenfreude as this poem by Clive James:
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy's much-prized effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.
Great, square stacks of rejected books and, between them, aisles
One passes down reflecting on life's vanities,
Pausing to remember all those thoughtful reviews
Lavished to no avail upon one's enemy's book --
For behold, here is that book
Among these ranks and banks of duds,
These ponderous and seeminly irreducible cairns
Of complete stiffs.

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I rejoice.
It has gone with bowed head like a defeated legion
Beneath the yoke.
What avail him now his awards and prizes,
The praise expended upon his meticulous technique,
His individual new voice?
Knocked into the middle of next week
His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys
The sinker, clinkers, dogs and dregs,
The Edsels of the world of moveable type,
The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,
The unbudgeable turkeys.

Yea, his slim volume with its understated wrapper
Bathes in the blare of the brightly jacketed Hitler's War Machine,
His unmistakably individual new voice
Shares the same scrapyart with a forlorn skyscraper
Of The Kung-Fu Cookbook,
His honesty, proclaimed by himself and believed by others,
His renowned abhorrence of all posturing and pretense,
Is there with Pertwee's Promenades and Pierrots--
One Hundred Years of Seaside Entertainment,
And (oh, this above all) his sensibility,
His sensibility and its hair-like filaments,
His delicate, quivering sensibility is now as one
With Barbara Windsor's Book of Boobs,
A volume graced by the descriptive rubric
"My boobs will give everyone hours of fun".

Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,
Though not to the monumental extent
In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error--
Nothing to do with merit.
But just supposing that such an event should hold
Some slight element of sadness, it will be offset
By the memory of this sweet moment.
Chill the champagne and polish the crystal goblets!
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am glad.

August 26, 2008

The Old Ball Game

When it comes to bone-crunching existential agony, nothing beats being a Chicago Cubs fan. Someday, though, maybe we Nationals fans will feel the same way:
As Nats fans are now discovering, baseball pain is different than football pain, as of course baseball is different than football. Yes, I remember Mel Gray's phantom catch in the St. Louis end zone 30-odd years ago and how the ache of that lasted -- why, it must have lasted at least until the following Sunday! Because football is so spectacular and overwrought and explosive and so weekly, you get a few days of recovery and then you're suckered into the buildup for next Sunday. Baseball just goes on and on and on and on, grinding you to nothingness.
The key, however, isn't simply that your baseball team is bad; it's that it arrives at the cusp of winning, and then blows it. This is what gives the Cubs, and until 2004 the Red Sox, their poignancy. The Nats have to pick themselves up off the doormat of the National League, get close to winning their division or the NL pennant or even the World Series, and then crumple and burn like a paper lantern. And they have to do it again. And again. And again. Then we fans will be hurtin'.

August 14, 2008

"Nous Sommes Tous Georgiens"?

After 9/11, the French newspaper Le Monde ran the headline, "Nous sommes tous Americains," or "We are all Americans." It was an appropriate thing to say at the time, I think, as it demonstrated that the French, along with most of the world then, were united in condemning al-Qaeda's butchery. It also alluded to the US and France's membership in NATO, and in particular to the clause in the North Atlantic Treaty that regards an attack on one member country as an attack on all. In other words, the French, along with the other NATO members, would back up their condemnation with armed force against those responsible. And sure enough, that clause was invoked to authorize the invasion of Afghanistan.

Suffice to say, John McCain's recent declaration, in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Georgia, that "We are all Georgians," does not have the same resonance. Indeed, by echoing that Le Monde headline, McCain seems to be trying to call up the same sense of solidarity that the West felt after 9/11. But in fact Georgia and the US do not share the bonds of mutual defense that the members of NATO do: there is no Georgian-American pact to this effect, and in fact there is little to connect Georgia and the US beyond a history of emnity with Russia. As shocking as Russia's actions have been (though Georgia is not innocent either), implying that Americans are bound in some sense to come to Georgia's aid against Russian agression would be to invent a new relationship between the two countries -- to say nothing of the potential of putting Russia and the US in direct conflict. This is not something, I think, a presidential candidate should be doing so blithely, as McCain seems to be.

August 8, 2008

Contrarian Thoughts on the Olympics

With the Beijing games now underway, I'd like to make my usual argument that the Olympics, for all its pomp and pretension, isn't terribly interesting and, more to the point, doesn't live up to its professed goal of fostering international cooperation through sport. Oh sure, there have been plenty of awesome moments in Olympic history, and I like seeing events like swimming as much as the next person, but I find the sheer volume of different events daunting; by the time we've gotten through all the events both major (gymnastics, track and field) and minor (kayaking, badminton) I don't really see any resolution or payoff, other than by looking at the medal count. And on that score, Megan McArdle is right: The United States' overwhelming numbers make it far more likely to win, and win in more events. (See this map for illustration.) Then of course there's the fact that the Olympics has for most of its history been a proxy for great power conflicts, from the rise of the Third Reich to the Cold War to the current contretemps between China and the West. Rather than present an ideal of international brotherhood, the Olympics has more often functioned as a mirror of international strife.

By contrast, the World Cup hits much closer to the mark: For starters, soccer is already the default pastime of most of the world, and perhaps the premiere example of globalization, in all senses of that word. By being focused on one rather than many events, there's not only greater continuity to the World Cup, there's also a more level playing field: smaller and less prosperous countries have the potential to knock off larger and wealthier rivals, and also have a more plausible shot at the championship, rather than a medal count they will almost certainly never win. A goal of international sports should be to upset the traditional concentrations of power in the world, and in that respect FIFA does a much better job than the IOC. (Though in practice, the World Cup has historically been dominated by just a few countries: France, England, Germany, Brazil, Italy, Uruguay, and Argentina. But hey, that's hardly your traditional mix of countries.) If nothing else, the conspicuous absence of the United States in most World Cups provides a vision of a flattened world that Thomas Friedman can only dream of. That, I think, will change: Soccer's popularity in the US has grown by leaps and bounds, which means the level of talent in American soccer teams will only improve, and American interest in soccer abroad will increase as well. After all, as Steve Gilliard used to say, it is the beautiful game.

July 4, 2008

Independence Day

I think the video for Feist's "I Feel It All" is appropriate for this holiday, fireworks safety warnings be damned:

Enjoy the Fourth!

June 21, 2008

Energy Prices and the Poor

To pick up on the social policy for climate change I talked about earlier:

One of the easiest ways to short-circuit discussion about climate change policy is to denounce it as a raw deal for low-income families that will jack up their electricity bills and gasoline costs in order to deal with some threat that may or may not happen several decades in the future. Mostly this is just faux-populism, often from quarters that couldn't give a damn about poverty in other circumstances. But there are more sophisticated versions of the argument that can't be dismissed -- for example, that the real beneficiaries of climate change legislation will be rent-seeking elites rather than ordinary citizens, and that the side deals and carve-outs will render the legislation worse than useless to boot. During the aborted debate in the Senate on the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill a few weeks ago, we got to see some of each type of argument.

There's been plenty of discussion elsewhere on the internets about the merits of Lieberman-Warner and other macro-level climate change mitigation policies, but what I want to ask right now, as a sort of prelude to my particular discussion, is whether climate change policy, most prominently the pricing of CO2 emissions, necessarily leads to higher energy prices. Depending on where you live, it could yield different results. If you live near a hydro or nuclear plant, or have reliable access to mass transit, the answer is probably not that much. However, given the integrated nature of the electricity system in the US, and given how few Americans have access to mass transit, that doesn't necessarily mean increased prices for coal, oil, and natural gas won't affect energy prices in those areas. Indeed, with coal making up half of the electricity supply in the US, carbon pricing will mean some increases in electricity prices in the aggregate. How much depends on the steepness of the pricing scheme, the particular mix of electricity sources in your part of the country, and the availability of mass transit in your metro area.*

If this is the case, how do you address the fact that low-income and even some middle-income households spend more of their income on energy than high-income households, and thus will be even more squeezed than they are already? Don't we have an obligation to make sure energy prices are affordable to those with the least amount of disposable income? This is where having revenue from either a carbon tax or auction of carbon emission credits tends to come into play: With that money you can in theory lessen the impact on low-income households; e.g., promote weatherization, offset other taxes, provide direct payments, etc. It then becomes a question of which batch of policy tools will cushion the blow of higher energy prices the most.

At the same time, the purpose of pricing carbon is, above all, to change behavior: Wasteful energy consumption should be curtailed, renewables should substitute for fossil fuels, and (perhaps most important) our current patterns of development should be altered: I agree with those who say a responsible climate change policy needs to promote high-density, transit-friendly living and discourage the car-dependent suburbanization that has prevailed in the US for most of the last century. What environmentalists and other people working on climate change should keep in mind, however, is that pricing carbon emissions could well entail negative changes in how low-income people live their lives that even carbon tax revenues can't ameliorate. For example, the continual climb in gasoline prices, combined with the subprime mortgage mess, has created the phenomenon of the suburban slum, something practically unheard of in this country. If denser development is higher in demand, then those without means are forced to move to the outskirts of metro areas, where mass transit is scarce and car transport of some kind is the main, or only, option. More generally, we need to think about whether our goal is return low-income households to a status quo ante with respect to energy prices, or whether, following Van Jones, we should use the occasion of climate change to address poverty and the shrinking middle class in a significant way. I don't have an answer, but I think trying to answer it would shape the climate change debate profoundly.

*Add to this also how many of the things you buy depend on truck vs. rail transport, which also affects prices generally.

June 12, 2008

Frank Eliason, Let's Talk

Regarding the screwed-up bill Comcast recently sent us, I recently got a tweet from Frank Eliason from Comcast's Customer Outreach, who offered to look at my case and see what the problem was. Impressive, really; it seems like Comcast is actually trying to repair its image and be more responsive to its customers. However, it's been about a week now since I sent him our information, but I've gotten no response. If you're out there, Frank, I'd like to hear from you.

June 2, 2008

Burn in Hell, Comcast

To the large and growing record of Comcast's continued demonstration of why monopolies* are evil, let me add this entry:

Our bill for next month arrives yesterday, and it is double what we usually pay; an scan of the billing details shows something called a "misapplied payment" is the culprit. Perplexed, we call Comcast customer service (our first mistake, I know). After calling twice and being put on hold for about 10 minutes each time, we finally get someone to explain to us the problem: Back in January, we got a bill for only less than a dollar, which at the time we assumed was related to credits we had heard Comcast had given to customers in response to a class action lawsuit. It turns out that another customer accidentally paid our bill for that month, and that Comcast only got around to fixing the matter recently.

The upshot is that, through no fault of our own, we owe two months' worth of service (January and June) by the middle of next month. But don't worry, says the Comcast representative, just let us know when you can pay off the balance, and there'll be no late fees or disruption of service. Uh-huh.

Perhaps I'm just nitpicking here, but does this seem ridiculous to you? I suppose the proper response, when getting the paid-off bill, was to call Comcast and see what was going on; and obviously if Comcast had overcharged us back in January, we would have (rightly) complained. But to complain about being undercharged would hardly be a rational response, no? I may show altruism to a cashier at a grocery store who gives me too much change, but not to a behemoth cable company (though perhaps there is no real difference).

* Technically, Comcast isn't a monopoly in the DC metro area, but my experience is that the introduction of Verizon into the cable TV market hasn't changed Comcast's monopolistic behavior all that much.

May 18, 2008

The Ways of Naysaying

A brief lesson, via Kevin Drum:
Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, told reporters, "What they're saying to us is" that "Saudi Arabia does not have customers that are making requests for oil that they are not able to satisfy," The Associated Press reported.
Which is another way of saying, Saudi Arabia is selling all the oil it cares to sell. No doubt if and when oil clears at $200 a barrel, the Saudis will sell as much as its customers demand, and nothing more. This isn't to say they're deliberately trying to jack up oil prices (the rise of the last few years is likely more due to fundamentals in supply rather than political or financial machinations), but it's clear Saudi Arabia isn't going to change its ways to suit the current desires of the US.

(Post title from a book by SJC grande dame Eva Brann, with whom I had the misfortune of never having a class.)

UPDATE: Hadley's comment should also considered in the light of King Abdullah's recent declaration that certain Saudi oil fields will go untapped for the sake of future generations -- a clear recognition that oil is on the way to becoming permanently scarce.

May 15, 2008

Towards a Social Policy for Climate Change

One thing blogging is good for is encouraging your inner autodidact, and so something I'd like to work out on this blog is what an equitable policy concerning climate change would look like. This is a matter not only of ethics but also of understanding how policy is currently made concerning low-income households, and what it means to add climate change to the mix there. I've studied aspects of this at MSPP, of course, but I think that getting a clearer idea of what it entails -- really fleshing it out -- would add enormously to the policy debate over climate change when it will likely begin in earnest in 2009. Right now, the outfit doing the best and the most work on this topic is the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities' new climate office, and I'll probably be turning to it a number of times going forward.

May 11, 2008

Tool Time, Now With Market-Based Mechanisms

I was watching an old episode of Home Improvement (don't ask), and in it one of Tim Allen's sons, per the conventions of late 80s/early 90s sitcoms, goes on an environmental crusade against Binford Tools, the company that underwrites Allen's fictional TV show. The son meets with the Binford CEO, who explains to him that the company is committed to being environmentally responsible. The son counters by saying that, in fact, all Binford's done is buy pollution credits -- an allusion, I presume, to the cap-and-trade system set up in the 90s to combat acid rain -- and that Binford's claim to environmental responsibility is a sham.

Two thoughts:
  1. Sitcom writers get a bad rap, but let this be said: They do their homework. Working in something like emissions trading -- an arcane topic now, and even more so 15 years ago -- into a sitcom plot takes some skills.
  2. It's important to remember that emissions trading has always been viewed askance by a certain cohort of environmentalists. A emissions credit, in effect, gives a company the right to pollute, and for some, that is profoundly immoral. Indeed, emissions trading has something of a center-right provenance to it: I believe Reagan's secretary of state George Schultz was an early proponent of emissions trading, Bush the Elder was a strong supporter of getting emissions trading into the 1990 Clean Air Act, and the US negotiators to Kyoto were pushing cap-and-trade for carbon emissions over the objections of the Europeans. (Of course, now the EU has gone all in.)
Perhaps the bipartisan enthusiasm for cap-and-trade now has to do with the rightward shift in American politics over the last few decades. You certainly don't see that many greens today deploring the immorality of allowing polluters to buy credits to comply with regulations. Certainly not in toto: carbon offsets routinely get raked through the coals (no pun intended), and cap-and-trade is often dismissed in whole or in part. But even then the preferred alternative is usually a carbon tax, which embodies the same principle as cap-and-trade: Pollution is OK, so long as you pay for it. I don't lament at all that the moral absolutism about pollution, as embodied by the kid in the Home Improvement episode, has largely fallen away among greens, but it's kind of interesting to see one example of how much attitudes about the environment have changed over the last 15 years.

One thing that hasn't changed, however: Tim Allen is still the douchebag's comedian.

May 6, 2008

Ivory Tank

I'm not sure if Matt's moniker for our shared institution -- a term for "a public policy school that feels like a Brookings franchise" -- is accurate, but it sure sounds cool.

April 29, 2008

The New Joke Going Around

A: We're really addicted to oil.

B: How addicted are we?

A: So addicted, even our alternative energy sources depend on it:
In the comment section of theoildrums coverage of the Grangemouth refinery shutdown, we find that a diesel shortage has caused construction to stop on a $300 million wind farm.


A wind-farm construction project brought to a standstill because of a lack of fossil fuel.
Read the whole post. As the author notes, transitioning away from fossil fuels means not just finding alternatives, but doing so intelligently:
A great concern of mine is the likelihood of falling into the "Tragedy of the Energy Investing Commons". As the energy crisis deepens, more money, expertise and resources will be thrown at any energy alternative that produces energy, irrespective of its quality, density, energy surplus or environmental impacts. Many of these technologies will be dead ends (energy sinks). Many will produce some energy. Some will procure new forms of energy valuable to future society, and at meaningful scale. However, all will drain resources, both liquid fuels and non-energy inputs away from non-energy society. If their energy contributions are marginal, or of differing quality than we depend on, this will accelerate the usage of our remaining high quality fossil stocks. If our energy consumption was well-diversified, and/or redundant, a shortage in diesel would not lead to problems with wind turbine construction.
Thinking about how to develop a really truly diversified energy regime is going to be a hard problem, not least because we're so used to having not just the energy punch of petroleum, but its portability as well. If our alternatives to oil (biodiesel, say) are subject to more constraints than we're used to, folks aren't going to be happy.


Michael O'Hare (emphasis mine):
The ease with which politicians say "gas prices are too high" combines their cowardice (or cynicism and irresponsibility, or maybe just ignorance) with a widespread confusion of price with cost in the public mind, one for which we educators probably have to answer though a supine and feckless press isn't helping at all. The distinction is no piece of technical arcana, but one of the most fundamental keys to getting policy right, and in this case, a very big batch of policy with enormous consequences. If you don't understand the difference, you do what Hugo Sanchez Chavez does and suppress the price by enormous public subsidies. Unfortunately, the cost of anything is quite independent of what we want it to be, or the price at which it is offered, because cost [is] a reality sort of thing, the value of the economic resources consumed in providing it.
Quite so, except for that last sentence. The confusion of price with cost is pernicious not just because it leads to bad economic policies, but because it assumes that the quantity we consume of something is constant. Such a belief precludes the possibility of increased efficiency, conservation, or other measures to reduce the quantity of that which we're consuming. High gas prices aren't fun, but they're especially not fun when you have an economy like ours that is A) built around the automobile, and B) has taken only cursory steps to increase the fuel efficiency of our automobile fleet. Cost is dependent on, if not what we want it to be, then on what we do, and there is much we can do, at least in the long run, to change our gasoline consumption patterns; likewise with (coal-based) electricity. (To be fair, O'Hare makes this point, more or less, in the next paragraph.)

The Future of Mass Transit

The LA Times had an op-ed this weekend about the problem with doing congestion pricing in southern California, and the reactions (from Ryan Avent and Josh Patashnik, inter alia) point to a major dilemma for both congestion pricing policy and climate change policy: You can't provide incentives for people to switch to mass transit, and thus reduce both traffic and CO2 emissions, if there are no mass transit alternatives -- something that's the case in much of the US, and particularly in the western states. Outside of New York City, the District, and a few other places, mass transit infrastructure is pitifully small, if not nonexistent. This will make carbon or congestion pricing harder on most people, low-income people in particular, and there won't be much in the way of immediate amelioration -- building new mass transit systems takes years, after all.

I agree with Ryan that new mass transit should start being built now -- and I would add that it should be build with the anticipation of receiving revenue from carbon/congestion pricing schemes. It would be a rather large bet on the likelihood that states and cities would adopt such schemes, but I don't think anyone can truthfully say they won't happen in the near future.

UPDATE: With the caveat, of course, that carbon pricing will likely be more widespread than congestion pricing, which will probably be limited to large cities.

April 23, 2008

Come On, Europe

Europe really needs to get over its nuclear power phobia, or else this is going to seriously undercut their efforts on climate change:
At a time when the world’s top climate experts agree that carbon emissions must be rapidly reduced to hold down global warming, Italy’s major electricity producer, Enel, is converting its massive power plant here from oil to coal, generally the dirtiest fuel on earth.

Over the next five years, Italy will increase its reliance on coal to 33 percent from 14 percent. Power generated by Enel from coal will rise to 50 percent.

And Italy is not alone in its return to coal. Driven by rising demand, record high oil and natural gas prices, concerns over energy security and an aversion to nuclear energy, European countries are expected to put into operation about 50 coal-fired plants over the next five years, plants that will be in use for the next five decades.

Of course, the EU's commitment to fighting climate change has always been rather overrated, although they have made enormous progress in a variety of areas, ranging from carbon markets to renewable energy to more sustainable development patterns. During the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, the EU added in a provision allowing the member countries to form a "bubble," or a blanket reduction target, instead of having to follow individual reduction requirements. Of course, since the UK had at the time made massive reductions in GHG emissions, and Germany had recently absorbed a collapsed East German economy, this meant that the EU could piggyback off those two countries, and not have to reduce emissions all that much, even under the modest requirements of Kyoto.

This I learned from a talk recently by Richard Benedick, one of the key negotiators for the Montreal Protocol and a renowned diplomat in environmental matters generally. His recent article about the failure of the Kyoto process and how a more decentralized approach to climate change might work better is worth a read. I've become more of a Kyoto skeptic myself, though the danger there is that nothing will replace it when it expires in 2012. I see the most promise in a G8+5 approach of getting the biggest polluters to agree on a reduction target; or perhaps something like a global carbon fund I talked about a while back.

April 8, 2008

Why Additionality Might In Fact Be Problematic

The World Bank is considering funding a coal-fired power plant in India through the Clean Development Mechanism, on the grounds that it would be more efficient than existing plants. It might be additional, perhaps, but it seems, to put it mildly, counterproductive.

April 7, 2008

Climate Change: Still a Political Issue

It looks like Al Gore and company have a long way to go when it comes to portraying climate change as being beyond partisanship (via Dayo Olopade):

The red line, showing Republicans' responses to the "We Can't Wait" ad by the Alliance for Climate Protection, takes a huge nosedive when the ad pivots from taking about World War II, civil rights, and the Apollo space program -- things all Americans view favorably -- and begins talking about taking action on climate change. It's unclear, as Dayo notes, whether this is conservative ideology or simple partisanship at work, but it's clear that any climate change policy, even a modest one like Lieberman-Warner, will only succeed over the fierce objections of the GOP. We should also keep in mind that moderate-conservative Democrats from industrial states may also be spooked from supporting taking action. It would be interesting to see the reactions to this ad broken down by region, then.

April 5, 2008

Movie Recommendation

Robin Hood. This is the 1991 version that was only shown as a miniseries in the US out of fear of competing with Kevin Costner's execrable Prince of Thieves, which came out that same year, but this is the far superior version. It's sort of weird to see Patrick Bergin, which I think most people know as the villain in Sleeping with the Enemy, as the hero, but it works, as does the rest of the cast. This includes a then 21-year-old Uma Thurman as Maid Marion, who plays her with a good deal more pluck and vitality than the role usually gets.

Another thing notable about the movie is that the usual villains -- the Sheriff of Nottingham, Guy of Guisborne, etc. -- are absent. Instead, the story is recast as a conflict between the Saxons, who had been living in England for centuries, and the recent conquerors the Normans. Robin is Sir Robert Hode, a Saxon landowner who gets tossed off his land by the Normans and becomes the outlaw of legend. The scenery is very naturalistic and plays up the semi-pagan nature of medieval England -- there's even a Green Man at one point. At the same time, there's still plenty of wit and humor, as a good Robin Hood movie should have.

March 31, 2008

Should We Subtract Additionality?

Sean Casten presents a thought-provoking case against the use of additionality in climate policy:
Suppose I have a million bucks. Should I invest that million bucks in something that saves 1,000 tons of GHG emissions per year and saves me $500,000/year in energy costs, or should I invest it in something that saves 100 tons of GHG emissions per year and costs me $500,000/year in operating costs with no associated savings? That should not be a hard question ... yet additionality tests make it so.

Why? Because additionality is a qualitative test. Too often it ends up being boiled down to financial metrics. Good investments, by virtue of being good, are judged to fall into the "you would have done that anyway" box, while bad investments, by virtue of being unable to attract sufficient capital, are deemed worthy of public incentive. Implicit is that public funds should only be put toward shoddy investments!

That's a bit of an unfair assessment: additionality is only important to the extent that carbon offset programs are important as part of one's larger climate policy. But I think it's clear that offset programs are not going to be, and should not be, the main vehicle by which we reduce carbon emissions. They are, however, important in terms of reducing emissions in areas where normal capital investment -- whether under current financial conditions or under a carbon pricing scheme -- is not a viable option.

Take, for example, the project I'm currently involved with, which intends to evaluate the potential of using carbon offsets to finance putting out coal mine fires, which are a significant contributor to carbon emissions worldwide. (People might remember the mine fires in Centralia, Pennsylvania in the 1980s, which led to the town being abandoned eventually.) Paying to put them out is often quite expensive, particularly for underground fires -- and that's in the US. In developing countries, China and India in particular, weak enforcement of mining regulations and lack of financial resources have resulted in fires burning on a massive scale, and generating a massive amount of carbon emission. (Things are so bad in India, for example, that a repeat of the Centralia disaster is happening as we speak.)

The upshot is that carbon offset programs could be an effective way to finance abatement in developing countries, in that it covers an area that lacks sufficient capital or regulatory mechanisms, even though in developed countries coal fires are restricted to the most intractable. Focusing on these hard-to-get-to areas should be the aim of carbon offset programs going forward.

March 29, 2008

At World's End

So Y. and I went to the Mall for today's Kite Festival, and we were very excited, because we had the coolest kite ever: A pirate ship. (Specifically, it was a Pirates of the Caribbean kite.) We got lots of compliments for it, but we were only able to get it in the air once; either we needed more wind, or the kite was about as well-made as the actual Pirates of the Caribbean movies. No pictures, then, but this video should give an idea of what the experience ought to have been like:

March 24, 2008

I Need to Wake Up

With the exception of An Inconvenient Truth -- a slide show! -- most environmentally-themed entertainment has been frankly rather lousy. The AV Club has a good rundown of some of the most cringe-inducing efforts.

March 10, 2008

A Sad Day for Quakers


The affidavit says that Client 9 met with the woman in hotel room 871 but does not identify the hotel. Mr. Spitzer stayed at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington on Feb. 13, according to a source who was told of his travel arrangements. Room 871 at the Mayflower Hotel that evening was registered under the name George Fox.

The law enforcement official said that several people running the prostitution ring knew Mr. Spitzer by the name of George Fox, though a few of the prostitutes came to realize he was the governor of New York.

Mr. Fox is a friend and donor to Mr. Spitzer. Asked in a telephone interview Monday whether he accompanied Mr. Spitzer to Washington on Feb. 13 and Feb. 14, Mr. Fox responded: "Why would you think that? I did not.”

Told that the Room 871 at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel was registered in Mr. Fox’s name but with Mr. Spitzer’s Fifth Avenue address, Mr. Fox said, "That is the first I have heard of it. Until I speak to the governor further, I have no comment."

George Fox is also the name of the founder of the Religious Society of Friends.

Two New Reports on Carbon Offsets

  • The Center for American Progress argues that carbon offsets can play a constructive role in covering areas not covered by a cap-and-trade system à la Lieberman-Warner.
  • The World Wildlife Fund, however, has a less positive take, saying there are still huge gaps in the monitoring of standards and large potential for unintended consequences in developing countries, where many of the offset projects take place.

The Star Wars Theme, Reinterpreted

March 9, 2008


If you're like me, a MacBook user who vastly prefers Firefox to Safari, you've been in a bind for a while: There's been no way to read PDFs in-browser without downloading them first, which is a bit of a hassle. Now the guys who brought you BugMeNot have the solution: PDFMeNot, which lets you, among other things, embed PDFs into web pages. But it's the Firefox extension which is really helpful: it sends every PDF link to their website, making is possible once more to read PDFs in-browser. Not the greatest discovery in the world, but the company behind both sites deserves praise.

Ideas to Be Hashed Out

So my energy policy class requires a research project, and I'm casting about for a worthwhile topic. Some ideas:
  • The effectiveness of renewable portfolio standards;
  • The relationship between liberalized electricity markets and things like renewable energy use and energy efficiency;
  • Barriers to moving to a distributed generation system of electricity;
  • Which states are the most energy efficient and why.
Basically, I want to do something with a heavy statistical analysis component; I'm teaching myself how to use R, a really awesome statistics program, and this project would a great opportunity to make use of it. I suppose my motivations are a little out of whack.

Kneecapping Your Way to the Nomination

The Barack Obama campaign took its lumps last week, losing the Ohio and Texas primaries (though not the Texas caucus), and then having foreign policy advisor Samantha Power fall on her sword after the "Hillary Clinton is a monster" remark. I still think, however, that the fundamentals of the primary campaign favor Obama, for reasons that Jonathan Chait makes clear:
Clinton's path to the nomination, then, involves the following steps: kneecap an eloquent, inspiring, reform-minded young leader who happens to be the first serious African American presidential candidate (meanwhile cementing her own reputation for Nixonian ruthlessness) and then win a contested convention by persuading party elites to override the results at the polls. The plan may also involve trying to seat the Michigan and Florida delegations, after having explicitly agreed that the results would not count toward delegate totals. Oh, and her campaign has periodically hinted that some of Obama's elected delegates might break off and support her. I don't think she'd be in a position to defeat Hitler's dog in November, let alone a popular war hero.

February 27, 2008

Deep Thought of the Day

The cell phone is the Swiss Army knife of the 21st century.

Quote of the Day

Tyler Cowen:
Your net carbon impact depends far more on the number of children you will have than any other variable; remember good environmentalism uses a zero rate of discount. So people with no biological children should be allowed to fly a lot and people with lots of biological children should not get to fly so much at all. Is that so far from the reality we observe?

February 24, 2008

Climate Change and Redistribution

A fascinating proposal for creating a global climate change policy:
  • Countries decide whether they want to join the GRS. A country can join the GRS if it accepts the rules and levies a minimal carbon emission tax. Industrial countries pay an initial fee.
  • In each period, every country belonging to the GRS independently determines its level of taxes on CO2 emissions. Emission taxes are the sole policy instrument a country is allowed to adopt. All tax revenues are collected in a global fund.
  • In each period, the GRS refunds a share of the accumulated wealth to the participating countries. Each participating country receives an annual refund in proportion to the share of total CO2 emission reductions it achieves in the period under consideration.
  • Non-refunded wealth of the GRS is invested in order to maintain funds for future refunding activities.
  • In each period a country is allowed to exit. If a country leaves the GRS, it loses its right to refund.
  • Decisions within the GRS are governed by majority rule.
Based on a first glance, the thing that jumps out at me is the proposal to distribute carbon tax revenue based on emissions reductions, rather than a per capita or historic emissions basis. This goes to one of the hardest questions in the climate change debate: Who is more deserving of consideration when it comes to providing assistance to adapt to climate change and (most likely) a carbon-constrained economy? Is it the developing world, whose people will likely be most harmed by climate change? Or is it the developed world, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels and therefore will find it hardest to make a transition away from that particular energy regime? Viewed from a global (transnational?) perspective, the per capita argument (or the emissions reductions argument, which could be heavily weighted in favor of developing countries) seems quite compelling, but the case against what would be, in effect, a massive transfer of wealth from the developed to the developing world has a lot of force as well.

February 18, 2008

What I'm Working On

1. A presentation I'm co-presenting Thursday on energy and electricity markets (I'm doing the electricity part). It's been easy to find stuff on American electricity markets, but European ones have been harder to find.

2. A memo on Indian coal fires, part of a larger project I'm collaborating on regarding potential ways to abate coal fires around the world, especially in developing countries. Great place to start: Anupma Prakash, the go-to expert on this issue.

February 16, 2008

New Man Toy

This Swiss wallet, which Y. gave me for Valentine's Day. It's more a money clip/credit card holder, but it holds more cards than the ones you find at Hecht's or wherever, and it certainly beats a bulky leather wallet. This is the sort of thing you whip out to impress colleagues -- hopefully it doesn't cause anyone to go insane, à la American Psycho:

January 30, 2008

More Fire

This time around, it's apparently the result of a boy playing with matches. (The last one was the result of a Christmas tree catching fire.) I would hope that Springhill Lake would take this opportunity, after so many fires in the last year, to do some outreach to the community about fire safety, or something. I'm not optimistic.

January 14, 2008


The contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is getting quite ugly, no? It turns out this parody from last year is becoming more and more prescient -- just substitute, say, John McCain for Rudy Giuliani: