March 31, 2010

D.C. bag tax collects $150,000 in January for river cleanup

And bag usage went down from 22.5 million to 3 million in a month. A good time, I think, to read Daniel Ariely on the psychological power of zero.

"This sh*t is terrible, even by the low standards of booze that gets you drunk quickly."

The AV Club taste tests Buckfast, the fortified wine that's all the rage (no pun intended) over in Knifecrime Island. Sounds like it would give Mad Dog 20-20, the king of sickly sweet cheap booze in America, a run for its money.

March 29, 2010

Compulsive eating shares addictive biochemical mechanism with cocaine, heroin abuse, study shows

The study goes significantly further than the abstract, however, demonstrating clearly that in rat models the development of obesity coincides with a progressively deteriorating chemical balance in reward brain circuitries. As these pleasure centers in the brain become less and less responsive, rats quickly develop compulsive overeating habits, consuming larger quantities of high-calorie, high-fat foods until they become obese. The very same changes occur in the brains of rats that overconsume cocaine or heroin, and are thought to play an important role in the development of compulsive drug use.

Who Killed Cap-and-Trade?

Robert Stavins:
But the most important factor—by far—which led to the change from politically correct to politically anathema was the simple fact that cap-and-trade was the approach that was receiving the most serious consideration, indeed the approach that had been passed by one of the houses of Congress. This brought not only great scrutiny of the approach, but—more important—it meant that all of the hostility to action on climate change, mainly but not exclusively from Republicans and coal-state Democrats, was targeted at the policy du jour—cap-and-trade.

The same fate would have befallen any front-running climate policy.
Unfortunately, I think he's right. There's a weird kabuki quality to policy debates in Washington, in that they must follow certain formal conventions, divorced from actual content. The health care battle was a classic example: Democrats propose A; Republicans denounce A as socialism; conservative Democrats say they'll will only support a bipartisan, watered-down version of A -- call it A* -- which the Republicans also denounce as socialism; lather, rinse, repeat. And never mind that A, A**, A***, &c., were once supported by Republicans back in the day. Things turned out well in the end, of course, (about which more later) but this is no way to discuss public policy.

March 14, 2010

Energy and the Next Big Economic Thing

Geoff Styles makes a common point that usually comes up when talking about the clean energy "race":
While we shouldn't be shocked if another country leads in some aspects of energy technology, we also shouldn't lose sight of the larger context, because energy isn't an end in itself. Even if clean technology turned out to be the computer industry of this decade--in reality and not just hype--and we didn't come in first in the cleantech race--a result I'm not prepared to concede, yet--energy remains the servant of the rest of the economy. That's where the race that matters most will be won or lost.
Megan McArdle says something similar when talking about green jobs. I've always been puzzled by this argument, though, which can be restated thus: Staking an economic boom on energy is misguided because our focus should be on lowering the proportion of our economy devoted to energy production, not raising it; we could, after all, solve our employment problems by putting people to work on farms, but that wouldn't be a net gain for our economy.

What's puzzling to me about this is, couldn't you say this about any sector or industry? The health care sector, for example, grew from being a trivial part of the economy to a massive part in the last century; and while getting health care costs under control is necessary, no one, I think, would deny that at least some of that past growth has been a good thing. You don't, of course, want growth in one sector to choke off others: Rather, you want all of your sectors to become more efficient. Thus, for example, farming used to take up the majority of the US economy, and now its share is very tiny. That's not because it was "choked off" by manufacturing or whatever, but because the US economy grew, developed new markets, and saw enormous productivity gains, along with the rest of what is now the developed world. Even farming has benefited from these changes: Modern farms yield far more crops than those in the 19th century, even though there were far fewer people and much more available land.

The question, then, with respect to building out green energy, is: Does making large-scale investments in renewables, efficiency, etc. entail putting people and capital to less productive uses? In other words, is the analogy between green energy and the computer industry that Styles mentions not valid? I have my doubts about that assertion: If there were another potential source of major economic growth in the offing, at least in the developed world, that would be reason to have some pause about the green economy as the next big thing. On the other hand, the last two economic booms in the US have turned out to be based on speculative bubbles; and unlike the tech boom, the last one didn't have much in the way of side benefits -- just a lot of exurban houses that no one can afford. So making energy the focus of our economic labors doesn't strike me as a bad idea. And that's not even considering the moral case for greening our energy supplies, which is the topic for another blog post.

The Strange Death of Emissions Trading

A few data points:
  • The EU is kicking around the idea of a carbon tax in addition to their cap-and-trade system. An earlier version had set the tax at €10 per ton of CO2, but that was nixed; the new proposal is likely to be lower.

  • The Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate bill still isn't in writing yet, but what we do know is that there'll be some kind of cap-and-trade program for utilities, a phased-in cap for the industrial sector, and a carbon tax on transportation fuels, the latter put at the apparent request of the oil industry.

  • India is looking at a tax on coal, as well as increasing duties on transportation fuels.

  • Australia, like the US, has also gotten bogged down on passing a cap-and-trade bill, and Kevin Rudd's government could well switch to a carbon tax in order to win support from the Green Party, though that seems unlikely.
So does this mean that cap-and-trade is out, and carbon taxes are in? Eh, probably not. For one thing, the oil industry's interest in a carbon tax appears to be motivated mainly by a desire to demonize climate legislation; and so far, the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman team is walking right into their trap. And all the other carbon tax proposals I mentioned are speculative, to put it charitably.

But I wanted to mention them because it seems connected to the slow decline in the prospects of emissions trading, which for a long time was viewed as the linchpin to any global effort to combat the effects of global warming. Ever since Kyoto, emissions trading, whether the EU ETS or the Clean Development Mechanism or the voluntary carbon market, has given birth to a whole industry, from climate desks at major financial firms to all the measurement and verification companies you need in order to ensure that the carbon offsets you're selling or buying are leading to real emissions reductions. And now there's a good chance that the carbon market industry might go kaput, or at least become much smaller than many had hoped. A national cap-and-trade system isn't looking likely, either in the US, Japan, or Australia; the current functioning cap-and-trade systems -- the EU ETS and RGGI -- are underperforming, though part of that is due to the flagging economy; and the CDM, which has endured a multitude of scandals, could disappear after 2012 if no successor to the Kyoto Protocol emerges. Indeed, carbon traders on Wall Street are now afraid of losing their jobs.

So why is this happening? I doubt it's simply a matter of the problems with emissions trading: Yes, Wall Street's reputation is in the gutter, and emissions trading may be suffering by association; but it's hard to disaggregate cap-and-trade's problems from the sorry state of international climate policy today. Given how intractable the divisions between the developed and the developing world still are, and how feckless and schlerotic the US Congress has become with respect to the climate crisis, fixating on the technical problems of emissions trading seems inadequate, at best.

March 5, 2010

The Urban Hellhole Vision

Ed Glaeser's op-ed on the anti-urban bias in transportation policy is worth your time to read. In particular, I'd like to highlight this paragraph:
It is a mistake to think that spending on trains balances the scales. Cities will always benefit far less than exurbs from transportation because dense areas already have good means of getting around, like walking. Urban advocates would do better to either reduce highway subsidies or to balance that spending with more funding for urban schools.
This dovetails with the argument David Owen makes in his excellent book Green Metropolis: To fight climate change, or to make our economy more sustainable generally, it matters less what new inventions we come up with or whether we're "greening" our current consumption patterns, and more whether we can make cities -- dense, walkable cities in particular -- more attractive to the bulk of the population. And that means overcoming not only the policy biases against cities that Glaeser describes, but the social biases many Americans hold against cities as well. In other words, it means dispelling what Atrios would call the "urban hellhole" mythology.

It may not be so easy to break down that mythology, however. Part of it reflects our current political divides: It's no secret, for example, that the US leans Democratic in its urban centers, but Republican everywhere else:

Thus, trying to shift the balance of transportation spending from highways to transit, or from favoring suburbs to favoring cities, becomes a partisan struggle for existence; e.g., Michelle Bachmann's remarks about liberals wanting to force people into "tenements" so they can "take light rail to their government jobs."

But distaste for city living isn't a recent phenomenon, not in this country anyway. Owen describes in his book how generation after generation of Americans, from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Ford, has been drawn to the utopian "back to the land" vision of cityless living. So urbanists have a lot to go up against. A good place to start would be showing that raising kids without a car is not only possible, but desirable as well.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons