Posts tagged ‘US’

New Scam Received Today -- Your Social Security Number is Being Cancelled Due To Suspicious Activity

This is a new one on me, but very similar to the IRS call scams of the last year or two (right down to the odd colloquial language which is entirely inconsistent with how the government speaks in official pronouncements).  Apparently there is suspicious activity on my social security number and it has been suspended and may soon be cancelled along with all my assets unless I call them right away and give them all sorts of private information (starting with my social security number, of course).  Consistent with past observations here that the entire US caller ID system is totally f*cked, the caller ID said it was from a US Government Office in my local area code but the number I was supposed to call was somewhere else entirely.  I forgot to take it down and check it out.

As always, beware.

Knowledge and Certainty "Laundering" Via Computer Models

Today I want to come back to a topic I have not covered for a while, which is what I call knowledge or certainty "laundering" via computer models.  I will explain this term more in a moment, but I use it to describe the use of computer models (by scientists and economists but with strong media/government/activist collusion) to magically convert an imperfect understanding of a complex process into apparently certain results and predictions to two-decimal place precision.

The initial impetus to revisit this topic was reading "Chameleons: The Misuse of Theoretical Models in Finance and Economics" by Paul Pfleiderer of Stanford University (which I found referenced in a paper by Anat R. Admati on dangers in the banking system).  I will except this paper in a moment, and though he is talking more generically about theoretical models (whether embodied in code or not), I think a lot of his paper is relevant to this topic.

Before we dig into it, let's look at the other impetus for this post, which was my seeing this chart in the "Southwest" section of the recent Fourth National Climate Assessment.

The labelling of the chart actually understates the heroic feat the authors achieved as their conclusion actually models wildfire with and without anthropogenic climate change.  This means that first they had to model the counterfactual of what the climate could have been like without the 30ppm (0.003% of the atmosphere) CO2 added in the period.  Then, they had to model the counterfactual of what the wildfire burn acreage would have been under the counter-factual climate vs. what actually occurred.   All while teasing out the effects of climate change from other variables like forest management and fuel reduction policy (which --oddly enough -- despite substantial changes in this period apparently goes entirely unmentioned in the underlying study and does not seem to be a variable in their model).  And they do all this for every year back to the mid-1980's.

Don't get me wrong -- this is a perfectly reasonable analysis to attempt, even if I believe they did it poorly and am skeptical you can get good results in any case (and even given the obvious fact that the conclusions are absolutely not testable in any way).  But any critique I might have is a normal part of the scientific process.  I critique, then if folks think it is valid they redo the analysis fixing the critique, and the findings might hold or be changed.  The problem comes further down the food chain:

  1. When the media, and in this case the US government, uses this analysis completely uncritically and without any error bars to pretend at certainty -- in this case that half of the recent wildfire damage is due to climate change -- that simply does not exist
  2. And when anything that supports the general theory that man-made climate change is catastrophic immediately becomes -- without challenge or further analysis -- part of the "consensus" and therefore immune from criticism.

I like to compare climate models to economic models, because economics is the one other major field of study where I think the underlying system is as nearly complex as the climate.  Readers know I accept that man is causing some warming via CO2 -- I am a lukewarmer who has proposed a carbon tax.  However, as an engineer whose undergraduate work focused on the dynamics of complex systems, I go nuts with anti-scientific statements like "Co2 is the control knob for the Earth's climate."  It is simply absurd to say that an entire complex system like climate is controlled by a single variable, particularly one that is 0.04% of the atmosphere.  If a sugar farmer looking for a higher tariff told you that sugar production was the single control knob for the US climate, you would call BS on them in a second (sugar being just 0.015% by dollars of a tremendously complex economy).

But in fact, economists play at these same sorts of counterfactuals.  I wrote about economic analysis of the effects of the stimulus way back in 2010.  It is very similar to the wildfire analysis above in that it posits a counter-factual and then asserts the difference between the modeled counterfactual and reality is due to one variable.

Last week the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) released its congressionally commissioned study on the effects of the 2009 stimulus. The panel concluded that the stimulus had created as many as 3.6 million jobs, an odd result given the economy as a whole actually lost something like 1.5 million jobs in the same period. To reach its conclusions, the panel ran a series of complex macroeconomic models to estimate economic growth assuming the stimulus had not been passed. Their results showed employment falling by over 5 million jobs in this hypothetical scenario, an eyebrow-raising result that is impossible to verify with actual observations.

Most of us are familiar with using computer models to predict the future, but this use of complex models to write history is relatively new. Researchers have begun to use computer models for this sort of retrospective analysis because they struggle to isolate the effect of a single variable (like stimulus spending) in their observational data. Unless we are willing to, say, give stimulus to South Dakota but not North Dakota, controlled experiments are difficult in the macro-economic realm.

But the efficacy of conducting experiments within computer models, rather than with real-world observation, is open to debate. After all, anyone can mine data and tweak coefficients to create a model that accurately depicts history. One is reminded of algorithms based on skirt lengths that correlated with stock market performance, or on Washington Redskins victories that predicted past presidential election results.

But the real test of such models is to accurately predict future events, and the same complex economic models that are being used to demonstrate the supposed potency of the stimulus program perform miserably on this critical test. We only have to remember that the Obama administration originally used these same models barely a year ago to predict that unemployment would remain under 8% with the stimulus, when in reality it peaked over 10%. As it turns out, the experts' hugely imperfect understanding of our complex economy is not improved merely by coding it into a computer model. Garbage in, garbage out.

Thus we get to my concept I call knowledge laundering or certainty laundering.  I described what I mean by this back in the blogging dinosaur days (note this is from 2007 so my thoughts on climate have likely evolved since then).

Remember what I said earlier: The models produce the result that there will be a lot of anthropogenic global warming in the future because they are programmed to reach this result. In the media, the models are used as a sort of scientific money laundering scheme. In money laundering, cash from illegal origins (such as smuggling narcotics) is fed into a business that then repays the money back to the criminal as a salary or consulting fee or some other type of seemingly legitimate transaction. The money he gets
back is exactly the same money, but instead of just appearing out of nowhere, it now has a paper-trail and appears more legitimate. The money has been laundered.

In the same way, assumptions of dubious quality or certainty that presuppose AGW beyond the bounds of anything we have see historically are plugged into the models, and, shazam, the models say that there will be a lot of anthropogenic global warming. These dubious assumptions, which are pulled out of thin air, are laundered by being passed through these complex black boxes we call climate models and suddenly the results are somehow scientific proof of AGW. The quality hasn't changed, but the paper trail looks better, at least in the press. The assumptions begin as guesses of dubious quality and come out laundered at "settled science."

Back in 2011, I highlighted a climate study that virtually admitted to this laundering via model by saying:

These question cannot be answered using observations alone, as the available time series are too short and the data not accurate enough. We therefore used climate model output generated in the ESSENCE project, a collaboration of KNMI and Utrecht University that generated 17 simulations of the climate with the ECHAM5/MPI-OM model to sample the natural variability of the climate system. When compared to the available observations, the model describes the ocean temperature rise and variability well.”

I wrote in response:

[Note the first and last sentences of this paragraph]  First, that there is not sufficiently extensive and accurate observational data to test a hypothesis. BUT, then we will create a model, and this model is validated against this same observational data. Then the model is used to draw all kinds of conclusions about the problem being studied.

This is the clearest, simplest example of certainty laundering I have ever seen. If there is not sufficient data to draw conclusions about how a system operates, then how can there be enough data to validate a computer model which, in code, just embodies a series of hypotheses about how a system operates?

A model is no different than a hypothesis embodied in code. If I have a hypothesis that the average width of neckties in this year’s Armani collection drives stock market prices, creating a computer program that predicts stock market prices falling as ties get thinner does nothing to increase my certainty of this hypothesis (though it may be enough to get me media attention). The model is merely a software implementation of my original hypothesis. In fact, the model likely has to embody even more unproven assumptions than my hypothesis, because in addition to assuming a causal relationship, it also has to be programmed with specific values for this correlation.

This brings me to the paper by Paul Pfleiderer of Stanford University.  I don't want to overstate the congruence between his paper and my thoughts on this, but it is the first work I have seen to discuss this kind of certainty laundering (there may be a ton of literature on this but if so I am not familiar with it).  His abstract begins:

In this essay I discuss how theoretical models in finance and economics are used in ways that make them “chameleons” and how chameleons devalue the intellectual currency and muddy policy debates. A model becomes a chameleon when it is built on assumptions with dubious connections to the real world but nevertheless has conclusions that are uncritically (or not critically enough) applied to understanding our economy.

The paper is long and nuanced but let me try to summarize his thinking:

In this essay I discuss how theoretical models in finance and economics are used in ways that make them “chameleons” and how chameleons devalue the intellectual currency and muddy policy debates. A model becomes a chameleon when it is built on assumptions with dubious connections to the real world but nevertheless has conclusions that are uncritically (or not critically enough) applied to understanding our economy....

My reason for introducing the notion of theoretical cherry picking is to emphasize that since a given result can almost always be supported by a theoretical model, the existence of a theoretical model that leads to a given result in and of itself tells us nothing definitive about the real world. Though this is obvious when stated baldly like this, in practice various claims are often given credence — certainly more than they deserve — simply because there are theoretical models in the literature that “back up” these claims. In other words, the results of theoretical models are given an ontological status they do not deserve. In my view this occurs because models and specifically their assumptions are not always subjected to the critical evaluation necessary to see whether and how they apply to the real world...

As discussed above one can develop theoretical models supporting all kinds of results, but many of these models will be based on dubious assumptions. This means that when we take a bookshelf model off of the bookshelf and consider applying it to the real world, we need to pass it through a filter, asking straightforward questions about the reasonableness of the assumptions and whether the model ignores or fails to capture forces that we know or have good reason to believe are important.

I know we see a lot of this in climate:

A chameleon model asserts that it has implications for policy, but when challenged about the reasonableness of its assumptions and its connection with the real world, it changes its color and retreats to being a simply a theoretical (bookshelf) model that has diplomatic immunity when it comes to questioning its assumptions....

Chameleons arise and are often nurtured by the following dynamic. First a bookshelf model is constructed that involves terms and elements that seem to have some relation to the real world and assumptions that are not so unrealistic that they would be dismissed out of hand. The intention of the author, let’s call him or her “Q,” in developing the model may be to say something about the real world or the goal may simply be to explore the implications of making a certain set of assumptions. Once Q’s model and results become known, references are made to it, with statements such as “Q shows that X.” This should be taken as short-hand way of saying “Q shows that under a certain set of assumptions it follows (deductively) that X,” but some people start taking X as a plausible statement about the real world. If someone skeptical about X challenges the assumptions made by Q, some will say that a model shouldn’t be judged by the realism of its assumptions, since all models have assumptions that are unrealistic. Another rejoinder made by those supporting X as something plausibly applying to the real world might be that the truth or falsity of X is an empirical matter and until the appropriate empirical tests or analyses have been conducted and have rejected X, X must be taken seriously. In other words, X is innocent until proven guilty. Now these statements may not be made in quite the stark manner that I have made them here, but the underlying notion still prevails that because there is a model for X, because questioning the assumptions behind X is not appropriate, and because the testable implications of the model supporting X have not been empirically rejected, we must take X seriously. Q’s model (with X as a result) becomes a chameleon that avoids the real world filters.

Check it out if you are interested.  I seldom trust a computer model I did not build and I NEVER trust a model I did build (because I know the flaws and assumptions and plug variables all too well).

By the way, the mention of plug variables reminds me of one of the most interesting studies I have seen on climate modeling, by Kiel in 2007.  It was so damning that I haven't seen anyone do it since (at least get published doing it).  I wrote about it in 2011 at Forbes:

My skepticism was increased when several skeptics pointed out a problem that should have been obvious. The ten or twelve IPCC climate models all had very different climate sensitivities -- how, if they have different climate sensitivities, do they all nearly exactly model past temperatures? If each embodies a correct model of the climate, and each has a different climate sensitivity, only one (at most) should replicate observed data. But they all do. It is like someone saying she has ten clocks all showing a different time but asserting that all are correct (or worse, as the IPCC does, claiming that the average must be the right time).

The answer to this paradox came in a 2007 study by climate modeler Jeffrey Kiehl. To understand his findings, we need to understand a bit of background on aerosols. Aerosols are man-made pollutants, mainly combustion products, that are thought to have the effect of cooling the Earth's climate.

What Kiehl demonstrated was that these aerosols are likely the answer to my old question about how models with high sensitivities are able to accurately model historic temperatures. When simulating history, scientists add aerosols to their high-sensitivity models in sufficient quantities to cool them to match historic temperatures. Then, since such aerosols are much easier to eliminate as combustion products than is CO2, they assume these aerosols go away in the future, allowing their models to produce enormous amounts of future warming.

Specifically, when he looked at the climate models used by the IPCC, Kiehl found they all used very different assumptions for aerosol cooling and, most significantly, he found that each of these varying assumptions were exactly what was required to combine with that model's unique sensitivity assumptions to reproduce historical temperatures. In my terminology, aerosol cooling was the plug variable.

When I was active doing computer models for markets and economics, we used the term "plug variable."  Now, I think "goal-seeking" is the hip word, but it is all the same phenomenon.

Postscript, An example with the partisans reversed:  It strikes me that in our tribalized political culture my having criticised models by a) climate alarmists and b) the Obama Administration might cause the point to be lost on the more defensive members of the Left side of the political spectrum.  So let's discuss a hypothetical with the parties reversed.  Let's say that a group of economists working for the Trump Administration came out and said that half of the 4% economic growth we were experiencing (or whatever the exact number was) was due to actions taken by the Trump Administration and the Republican Congress.  I can assure you they would have a sophisticated computer model that would spit out this result -- there would be a counterfactual model of "with Hillary" that had 2% growth compared to the actual 4% actual under Trump.

Would you believe this?  After all, its science.  There is a model.  Made by experts ("top men" as they say in Raiders of the Lost Ark).  Do would you buy it?  NO!  I sure would not.  No way.  For the same reasons that we shouldn't uncritically buy into any of the other model results discussed -- they are building counterfactuals of a complex process we do not fully understand and which cannot be tested or verified in any way.  Just because someone has embodied their imperfect understanding, or worse their pre-existing pet answer, into code does not make it science.  But I guarantee you have nodded your head or even quoted the results from models that likely were not a bit better than the imaginary Trump model above.

Relocation Subsidies, Short-Term Thinking, And Why Bezos is Smarter than Musk

I will begin by saying that few things in government aggravate me more than corporate relocation subsidies.  They are an entirely negative sum game.  I believe that subsidies are misguided and lead to a misallocation of capital, but at least things like EV subsidies create an EV industry, even if it is uneconomic.  But relocation subsidies are payments to create nothing -- their entire purpose is to move economic activity that would happen anyway across some imaginary line on a map.  Locally, we had a $100 million subsidy to a developer to move a mall approximately 1 mile.  Pure insanity.

However, it is hard for me to blame the managers of public companies who seek these subsidies.  I own my own company and can easily eschew such pork (if it were ever offered to me) but the CEO of a public company would be failing in their fiduciary duty to their shareholders to not accept government money that the drunken sailors in government are so gleefully trying to stuff in corporate g-strings.

With this money so available, it is important that corporate management make location decisions considering these subsidies but not solely focused on them.  The contrast between Amazon and Tesla (including the former SolarCity) helps explain my point.

In finding new headquarters locations, Amazon's most important considerations were likely

  • Ability to attract great management and developer talent who seem to be more attracted to hipster areas with lots of Starbucks and sushi more than to areas with low cost housing.
  • As they incur regulatory scrutiny, closeness to national government
  • Access to domestic and international partners
  • Access to capital

Note these criteria do not include access to low cost labor and real estate.  These do not really matter much for its headquarters offices.  These DO matter for distribution centers and warehouses, which is why these are located not in the center of high cost cities but in low cost suburban or rural areas.  In this context, then, splitting its headquarters between New York and Washington DC make a ton of sense.

Now let's think about Tesla.  Tesla was looking for manufacturing locations for solar panels and cars.  This is in an era when few even consider anywhere in the US a viable long-term option, but Tesla selected New York state and southern California.  I can tell you from sad personal experience that both these places are among the most expensive and hardest places to do business in the country.  Seriously, in SoCal Tesla took over a facility that Toyota couldn't make work.  These make absolutely no sense as long-term locations for manufacturing, but Tesla came here none-the-less in part for big fat subsidies and in part to ingratiate two powerful sets of state governments (in addition to subsidies, California reciprocated by giving Tesla a special sweetheart deal upping its zero emission vehicle credits).

I am reminded of this because Bloomberg has the whole, sad tale of Tesla in New York here.

I am not much on memes but I thought I would try my hand just this once...

 

Looking At Causes of Recent Wildfires and Resultant Property Damage, It's Hard To Point The Finger Solely or Even Mostly at CO2

Today I want to talk a bit about trends in wildfires in the US.  And as regular readers know, I have a real pet peeve about declaring a trend without actual, you know, trend data.  The media may be willing to jump from "most devastating fire in California history" to a trend just based on this one data point, but I am not going to play.

It turns out, though, that we don't have to play the one data point extrapolation game because there actually does seem to be a trend in wildfire.  Here is the national chart:

You might be saying:  Hey Coyote, you are cherry picking -- I have seen this same data but with a huge hump in the early part of the century.  Here is the chart you saw:

(source for both)  The problem with this chart is a huge definitional change in the data between the first and second half of the century.  In short, the early half of the century included controlled burns and other purposeful manmade actions (mostly in the southeast) and the latter half does not.  I described this here -- skeptics who use this chart are in serious danger of committing the same sloppy data errors we accuse warmists of (confession:  I made this mistake for a number of years).

To complete our proof there is indeed a trend in wildfire and not just in wildfire news stories, here is the chart for California, though I cannot vet the source.  I will say its not a slam dunk trend but I will take it on faith, at least for now, that the recent years would be high and make the trend more obvious

OK, so there seems to be a wildfire trend in the West.  I will focus on California because that has been the area in the news.  Let's consider 4 possible causes:

  1. Temperature.  The state of California has seen a 0.02C per decade, or 0.2C per century increase in temperatures.  This is a very tiny increase and well below the increase thought to have occurred in other parts of the world.  The rise has been faster over the last 10 years or so but it is unclear if this is a long-term trend or a near-term weather effect (e.g. tied to the PDO)
  2. Precipitation.   Total precipitation has decreased by ever so slightly over the last 100 years.  A half inch per century is about a 2% reduction
  3. Forest management.  The amount of wood harvested, and thus fuel removed, from forests has dropped by 80% since the 1950s
  4. Urbanization.  This does not necessarily increase fire acreage but it does substantially increase the probability a given fire will impinge on man-made structures.  Also, given the enormous almost exponential increase in total CA real estate value, the likely cost of fires of the same size and intensity has risen dramatically.  Much of the developed area affected by fires the last several years have been in the red and purple parts of the map that were developed most recently.  Fifty years ago they would have just burned trees (source).  More CA urbanization trends here.

So, what is causing the large fires?  Well, probably a lot of things.  I am a big believer that changes in outputs from complex systems can have complex causes (which is why I think the whole meme that "CO2 is the Earth's thermostat" is an embarrassing joke).  But given that over the last 50 years temperatures have risen by a fraction of a degree, precipitation has dropped by a fraction of an inch, but fuel removal has dropped by 80% and urbanization has skyrocketed, it is really hard for me to pin all or even most of the blame on manmade CO2.

Postscript:  One other point -- California is less than 0.1% of the total land area of the Earth.  I have a hard time extrapolating global climate trends from a few big events in 1/1000th of the world.

Postscript #2:  I missed this, that hotbed of climate denial called Mother Jones had an article a year ago blaming California fires on forest management policy, specifically preventing lots of little fires leading to one big fire.

How I Am Getting Driven Towards Being A Single Issue Voter

I confess that historically, I have always had a bit of disdain for folks who say they are single issue voters.  "Really?" I would ask, "You are going to ignore everything else going on and only vote based on X?"  I thought it was a narrow-minded and shallow way to vote.

My apologies.  I may have become a single issue voter myself.  Here is why:

Two years ago, when the Republicans manage to elect Trump, I was sure I was going to vote straight-ticket Democrat in reaction.  I find Trump's entire style distasteful in the extreme.  And while I think there has been some good news on the regulatory front in various Departments under him, on his signature issues of immigration and trade I am 100% opposed to his goals and his approach.  And while I have always believed Trump is probably a social liberal himself, he has a lot of advisors and cabinet members who are pretty hard-core opposed to a variety of freedoms, from gay marriage to marijuana use.

But that was two years ago, before the Democrats decided that their future was in a hard left turn into Marxism.   I am not sure how a serious person can really entertain socialism  given its pathetic history, but it seems to be a product of several cardinal sins of the modern generation (e.g. ignorance of history, evaluating policy based on its intentions rather than its logical consequences, and categorizing all perceived problems as resulting from white male European hetereosexual priviledge).  At first I thought perhaps people were just using "democratic socialism" as a synonym for more redistributive taxes and greater welfare spending within an otherwise capitalist society.  But over time I see proposals like one in Congress with fully 100+ Democratic sponsors calling for banning health care companies of all sorts from making a profit.  This is straight-on socialism and ignorant in the extreme of any consequences beyond good intentions.  By the way, I actually don't think we will end up with socialism under the Democrats but a form of European-style corporatism.  This will mean that large companies like Google and Amazon with political influence will be ok, maybe even better.  But small companies like mine with no hope of political access will get hammered.

So here is my voting problem.  Republicans suck on many issues -- gay rights, drug law liberalization, immigration, trade -- that I am extremely passionate about (I briefly ran an Arizona initiative to legalize gay marriage) but that don't directly affect me.  Yes, they affect many of my friends -- I have friends with potential immigration issues, I have friends with businesses getting hammered by tariffs, I have friends who are gay and married, I have friends that smoke rope and would rather not go to jail for it -- but not me directly.  On the other hand, Democrats suck on most business regulatory issues, trying in the near term to turn the US into California and in the long-term into Venezuela.  These are issues that DO affect me directly and greatly as a business owner.   Already I have had to red line states such as California, Oregon, Illinois, New York, and Rhode Island where I formerly did business but backed out because the business climate was impossible.  If this spreads to more states, I will be wiped out.

All of this is being made worse as both parties have started to get worse in the areas where they were traditionally more sensible.  Republicans have abandoned whatever free market credentials they had by pursuing trade protectionism and increased restrictions on companies trying to hire foreign workers.  Democrats are in the process of turning against free speech and have started sticking their nose in the bedroom (for example, by shifting the discussion of sex work to "trafficking," Republicans have successfully gotten Democrats to turn against a number of sorts of sexual freedom).

For years I have voted against my personal interests in elections, because my interests did not seem as weighty as other issues in play.  Folks are being denied basic civil rights, so am I really going to vote for the folks enabling that just to avoid (admittedly costly and loony) California meal break laws to be applied in Arizona? Now, though, I am starting to rethink this position.  In part because threats to businesses like me are more existential, and part because I am exhausted spending time defending other people's rights who in turn actively work to take away mine.  For certain offices like sheriff, that don't affect my business, I will still be voting as I always have -- which person is least likely to harass the sh*t out of certain marginalized groups.  But for others, and particularly the national offices, I am thinking about voting a straight "it's all about me" ticket (I am reminded, ironically, of the old "Me, Al Franken" SNL news bit he used to do.)

By the way, you might ask, "Coyote, you are a libertarian, why not just vote for the Libertarian candidate."  Good question.  Well, it turns out that the Arizona state legislature changed the rules for third parties explicitly to get the libertarian party off the ballot and prevent libertarians from "taking" votes from Republicans.  Seriously, they were not even subtle about it.  Instead of having to get a certain percentage of libertarians to sign a petition to get on the ballot, libertarian candidates now have to get a certain percentage of all independents to sign a petitions to get on the ballot.  This is an very high bar and one that most libertarians could not clear this year (cynically, somehow the rules allowed green candidates to get on easier as Republicans want them on the ballot to "steal" votes from Democrats.)  This is the #1 reason I may not vote tomorrow at all -- I cannot vote for our Marxist Democratic candidate for Senator, but I refuse to be forced to vote for the Republican.  Ugh.

A Request To Send Me Graphs of Negative Climate Trends

For years I have been mocking attempts to "prove" negative climate trends from a single data point. Too often a single event (e.g. strong hurricane landfall) is treated as "proof" of a trend, though how anyone who styles themself as "scientific" can claim a trend from a single data point is beyond me.  Every time someone claims a trend in, say, hurricane strength or drought or crop yields, I never can see any trend in the actual archived data for those phenomena.

So I am soliciting real medium and long-term trend data that points to some sort of negative climate trend.  To save folks time, I know of and have the data for several already:

  • Increasing worldwide average temperatures, as measured both on the ground and in the lower troposphere by satellites
  • Increasing number of record high nighttime low temperatures (yes, I know, this is always confusing)
  • Arctic (but not Antarctic) sea ice extent, at least over the last 50 years
  • US heavy rainfall events
  • Sea level rise

Note that at this point I do not care if the trend is natural or manmade or if you can really specify a difference (which I would argue you likely cannot).  For example the sea level rise trend of 2-3mm a year goes all the way back to before 1850, and thus is hard to ascribe totally to man-made CO2 which has mostly been produced in the latter half of the 20th century.

Here are some rules:

  • Must have a link to original data source or at least the original chart source (some groups are terrible about archiving the actual data), which can be a study or a group that actively measures the phenomenon.
  • It can't just be for a limited geography.  North Carolina is too small.  The Antarctic Peninsula is too small.  The US is really too small but I will accept it because the US temperature data is some of the most complete in the world.  But don't send me a limited geography when the same data is available for a larger geography (ie only hurricanes in the Indian Ocean when we have hurricane data for the whole globe).
  • It needs to be for as long of a time period as possible, and if you cut off early or late data there has to be a reason.  large changes in measurement approach can be a valid reason for leaving out data -- for example, small tornadoes before the advent of doppler radar and moder tornado tracking are likely undercounted.  Ditto hurricanes.
  • It can't be based on a model.  It has to be actual readings, not model estimates.  Have a care on this -- many pieces of historical data that are presented as actual measurements are actually model results.
  • It needs to be a weather or climate metric.  If you want, you can send me potentially derivative variables and I might present these in another section, but they tend to be suspect because the causality extends beyond climate.  An example of this is forest fire acreage burned, which can relate to climate but also can relate to forest management, forest health and insect threats, and firefighting philosophy as well.  Other similar metrics include crop yields, disease rates, refugees, wars, and a zillion other things that get attributed in some study to climate change.

Anything that passes these rules will get posted, though I reserve the right to comment.

Update:  Comments section is OK, but email is better.  Click the contact link up at the top.

Media Selection Bias is One Reason Many People Have a False Impression of Increasing Extreme Weather

The media will breathlessly promote stories about any weather event in tail of the distribution curve.  I have written many times that this creates a false impression that these events are becoming more common.  Another element of this selection bias is what gets left out.  Does anyone doubt that if we were having a record-heavy tornado season, this would be leading every newscast?  If but if a record-heavy year is newsworthy, shouldn't a record-light year be newsworthy as well?  Apparently not:

source

Which reminds me of this chart Kevin Drum had the other day as "proof" of man-made climate change

I am not going to bother to go to their data source and pick it apart, though my guess is that I could.  But without even looking at the data sources I know this is garbage.  Think about places where there are large natural disasters in the US -- two places that come to mind are California fires and coastal hurricanes.  Do you really think that the total property value in California or on the US coastline has grown only at inflation?  You not only have real estate price increases, but you have the value of new construction.  The combination of these two is WAY over the 2-3% inflation rate.  This effect is magnified by the nature of the metric, which is not total losses but losses over some threshold.  This sort of threshold metric is easy to game, and says nothing for the total losses which would be a better measurement.

By the way, I am wondering how he automatically blames all of these natural disasters on manmade climate change.  Take the most recent, disastrous fires that hit the Redding, California area this year.  That fire started on BLM (federal) land.  When it was small, California State Fire (CalFire) personnel showed up to put it out.  The BLM told them to go away.  The chance to put the fire out when it was small was lost.  How do you blame a fire that was really due to moronic intergovernmental rivalry and bad forest management policy on climate change?

I won't repeat the charts but this post has charts on many extreme weather events and shows that, with the exception of large rainfall events, there is no trend in any of them.

Being Skeptical of Data, Even When It Supports Your Position - Fire Edition

This is the, uh, whateverth installment in a series on using your common sense to fact check data, even when the data is tantalizingly useful for the point one is trying to make.

For the last decade or so, global warming activists have used major fires as further "proof" that there is a global warming trend.  Often these analyses are flawed, for a variety of reasons that will be familiar to readers, e.g.

  • A single bad fire is just one data point and does not prove a trend, you need a series of data to prove a trend
  • There is no upward trend in US acreage in fires over the last 10 years, but there is in the last 20 years, which gives lots of nice opportunities for cherry-picking on both sides
  • Acres burned is a TERRIBLE measure of global warming, because it is trying to draw global trends from a tiny fraction of the world land mass (western US); and because it is dependent on many non-climate variables such as forest management policies and firefighting policy.
  • The better more direct metric of possible warming harm is drought, such as the Palmer drought severity index, which shows no trend (click to enlarge below)

 

  • An even better metric, of course, is that there IS an actual upward trend in temperatures.  There is not, however, much of an upward trend in bad weather like drought, hurricanes, or tornadoes.  In this context fire is a third order variable (temp--->drought---> fire) which makes it a bad proxy, particularly when the first order variable is telling the tale.

AAAAaaaand then, there is this chart, much loved by skeptics, for long-term US fire history:

I am pretty sure that I have avoided ever using this piece of skeptic catnip (though I could be wrong, I can have moments of weakness).  The reason is that nothing about this chart passes the smell test.  While it is true that the 1930's were super hot and dry, likely hotter in the US than it has been this decade, there is absolutely no reason to believe the entire period of 1926-1952 were so much higher than today.  Was there a different fire management policy (e.g. did they just let all fires burn themselves out)?  Was there a change in how the data was recorded?

Here is my rule of thumb -- when you see a discontinuity like this (e.g. before and after 1955) you better have a good explanation and understanding of the discontinuity.  This is not just to be a good person and be true to good scientific process (though we all should) but also from the practical and selfish desire to avoid having someone come along who DOES know why the discontinuity exists and embarrass you for your naivete.

I have never trusted this chart, because I have not really understood it.  This week, the Antiplanner (who before he focused on transit focused most of his writing on the Forest Service and forest policy) has an explanation.

The story begins in 1908, when Congress passed the Forest Fires Emergency Funds Act, authorizing the Forest Service to use whatever funds were available from any part of its budget to put out wildfires, with the promise that Congress would reimburse those funds. As far as I know, this is the only time any democratically elected government has given a blank check to any government agency; even in wartime, the Defense Department has to live within a budget set by Congress.

This law was tested just two years later with the Big Burn of 1910, which killed 87 people as it burned 3 million acres in the northern Rocky Mountains. Congress reimbursed the funds the Forest Service spent trying (with little success) to put out the fires, but — more important — a whole generation of Forest Service leaders learned from this fire that all forest fires were bad....

This led to a conflict over the science of fire that is well documented in a 1962 book titled Fire and Water: Scientific Heresy in the Forest Service. Owners of southern pine forests believed that they needed to burn the underbrush in their forests every few years or the brush would build up, creating the fuels for uncontrollable wildfires. But the mulish Forest Service insisted that all fires were bad, so it refused to fund fire protection districts in any state that allowed prescribed burning.

The Forest Service’s stubborn attitude may have come about because most national forests were in the West, where fuel build-up was slower and in many forests didn’t lead to serious wildfire problems. But it was also a public relations problem: after convincing Congress that fire was so threatening that it deserved a blank check, the Forest Service didn’t want to dilute the message by setting fires itself.

When a state refused to ban prescribed fire, the Forest Service responded by counting all fires in that state, prescribed or wild, as wildfires. Many southern landowners believed they needed to burn their forests every four or five years, so perhaps 20 percent of forests would be burned each year, compared with less than 1 percent of forests burned through actual wildfires. Thus, counting the prescribed fires greatly inflated the total number of acres burned.

The Forest Service reluctantly and with little publicity began to reverse its anti-prescribed-fire policy in the late 1930s. After the war, the agency publicly agreed to provide fire funding to states that allowed prescribed burning. As southern states joined the cooperative program one by one, the Forest Service stopped counting prescribed burns in those states as wildfires. This explains the steady decline in acres burned from about 1946 to 1956.

There were some big fires in the West in the 1930s that were not prescribed fires. I’m pretty sure that if someone made a chart like the one shown above for just the eleven contiguous western states, it would still show a lot more acres burned in real wildfires in the 1930s than any decade since — though not by as big a margin as when southern prescribed fires are counted. The above chart should not be used to show that fires were worse in the 1930s than today, however, because it is based on a lie derived from the Forest Service’s long refusal to accept the science behind prescribed burning.

There you go, the discontinuity seems to be from a change in the way the measurement is calculated.

By the way, I work closely with the Forest Service every day and mostly this partnership is rewarding.  But I can tell you that the blank check still exists for fire suppression costs and results in exactly the sort of inefficient spending that you would imagine.   Every summer, much Forest Service work comes to a halt as nearly every manager and professional gets temporarily assigned to fire -- something FS employees love because they get out of the grind of their day job and essentially get to go camping.

The Failure of Technocratic Government Economic and Energy Policy

The news came out the other day that Porsche will stop making diesel-engine cars.  This is the beginning of the end of significant diesel car production in Europe, and is the ultimate proof that the diesel engine is a dead-end technology choice for Europeans concerned with the environment.

The story is a long one and I will leave you with some links in a moment, but the basic story flow is:

  • European governments are concerned about CO2 production, want to "do something"
  • European car-makers have a lead over the rest of the world in diesel technology, urge governments to choose diesel as the technology of the future, since at the time it was more efficient than gasoline engines.
  • European governments, hot to "do something" and also keen to do it in a way that seems to advantage domestic producers in the high profile automobile trade, promote diesel in a number of ways (including lowering taxes on diesel fuel and diesel car purchases).
  • As Europeans adopt diesel, problems emerge as air quality degrades -- diesels may be more efficient, but have a number of harmful emissions that are far worse than with gasoline engines.  There are tests and standards for these emissions but it is discovered that most manufacturers are cheating on emissions tests.
  • Too late, it is realized that other technologies (electric hybrids, all electric) are pushing well past diesel in terms of efficiency.  Diesel is a dead-end in terms of CO2 reduction, and increases harmful emissions.
  • Emissions tests are tightened, but it is clear manufacturers cheated because they do not have the technology to produce cars people will buy that meet the standards.  Companies like Porsche start to exit the business.

One of the best articles I have found about this history is actually at Vox, that bastion of free market economics and government non-interventionism.

The failure here is entirely predictable and is subsumed in the general criticism of "government picking winners."  As with many such failures, they boil down to information and incentives.  In terms of information, folks in government have no idea of the range of technology choices now and in the future, and how these technology choices might or might not make sense in a broad range of applications.  In terms of incentives, government officials usually have very different true incentives from their publicly stated ones (in this case CO2 reduction).  In the US, the Feds continue to support insanely stupid ethanol subsidies and mandates in part because the first Presidential primary is in corn state Iowa.  In Europe, it may well have been that officials were more ready to support diesel, which Europeans were good at, over hybrids, which Asian companies were good at, no matter what the relative merits were.

If you think that is cynical, even the folks at Vox noticed:

At the time, there were lots of different paths Europe's automakers could have taken to green itself. They could've pursued direct injection technology for gasoline vehicles, making those engines more fuel-efficient. They could've ramped up development of hybrid-electric cars, as Toyota was doing in Japan. But European companies like Peugeot and Volkswagen and BMW had already been making big investments in diesel, and they wanted a climate policy that would help those bets to pay off.

Europe's policymakers obliged. The EU agreed to a voluntary CO2 target for vehicles that was largely in line with what diesel technology could meet. As researcher Sarah Keay-Bright later noted, these standards were crafted so as not to force Europe's automakers to develop hybrids, electric vehicles, or other advanced powertrains.

The result?

Although overall pollution in Europe has gone down over time, diesel vehicle emissions remain stubbornly high. Today, Paris sometimes has smoggy days comparable to those in Beijing. London is struggling with unhealthy levels of nitrogen dioxide. Germany, Austria, and Ireland have NOx pollution well above the legal limits, with vehicles accounting for roughly 40 percent of that output.

The health toll is likely considerable. One recent study estimated that diesel pollution from cars, buses, and trucks in Britain caused 9,400 premature deaths in 2010 alone. It's difficult to pinpoint what fraction of those deaths might have been avoided if emission rules on cars had been strictly enforced all along, but that gives a sense of the stakes.

Even Vox is willing to call for some technocratic humility:

Which brings us to the third takeaway. The future is hard to predict. Diesel cars seemed like a reasonable idea in the 1990s and a disaster today. That suggests that policymakers should have a lot more humility when crafting energy policy. Maybe battery-electric cars will win out, or maybe it'll be hydrogen, or maybe it'll be something else entirely. (Heck, perhaps diesel cars that are genuinely clean could play a role in reducing CO2 emissions.) No one knows for sure.

So one approach here might be to pursue technology-neutral policies focused on preferred outcomes — say, tightly enforced standards that require lower emissions — rather than favoring specific industries and technologies just because they happen to seem promising at that moment in time.

This conundrum is likely to come up again and again. For years, governments have been laying down big bets on emerging clean energy technologies. France did it with nuclear power in the 1970s and '80s. Germany did it with wind and solar power in the 2000s, through feed-in tariffs. The United States has done it with corn ethanol in the past decade.

Done right, this sort of government support can be valuable, helping useful new energy options break into the mainstream against entrenched competition. But there's also a huge risk that governments will end up gambling on badly flawed technologies that then becomethe entrenched competition — and prove impossible to get rid of. The US arguably made that mistake with ethanol, which has had unintended ripple effects on the food supply and deforestation that are proving politically difficult to untangle. The drive for diesel looks like it belongs in that category, too. It's not a story we'd like to keep repeating.

Thus we get to my plan, which eliminates all these political interventions in favor of a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

Extrapolating Trends from A Single Data Point: The Once In A Lifetime Event

Most of you know I agree there is man-made global warming but am skeptical the extent will be anywhere near most forecasts you see in the media.  For some reason, this earns me the title of "denier."  However, I find that the climate discussion has become boring in the extreme, and I have mostly moved on from it.  But I am still interested in analytical abuses in the media, and long-time readers will know that my favorite is the positing of a trend using but a single data point.  My example today happens to be from climate.

It starts with this tweet:

Obviously he is reacting to the recent hurricane in North Carolina, which turns out to be pretty run of the mill but the media has portrayed as some sort of armageddon.  I could have pulled roughly similar quotes from all kinds of sources.  Several networks did long pieces over the weekend claiming an upward trend in hurricanes without any trend data, but merely from the fact that one made landfall recently.  But anyone who claims be defending science should be held, I think, to a higher standard in making scientific claims.

As I asked the March for Science tweeter:  If, say, there is a trend towards more or stronger hurricanes, why does no one ever show a trend chart? They just declare the trend from one data point, like a single hurricane landfall. Every long-term hurricane & cyclonic energy trend chart I have seen is flat to down.  (This is not primarily a climate post but I will post some hurricane trend charts at the end).

There is certainly an upwards trend in the media labelling storms as "once in a lifetime" but it is doubtful that there is actually an underlying trend in storm severity. Even the slightly more meaningful term "100-year _____" is abused.

Consider a 100-year flood in North Carolina, almost certainly a once in a lifetime event for someone in that state unless they live really long.  Since North Carolina is .027% of the world's landmass, there will be, on average, 37 hundred-year floods over land areas the size of North Carolina every single year.   That's 37 once-in-a-lifetime North-Carolina-sized floods somewhere in the world every single year.  Heck, there should be 3-4 thousand-year floods of North Carolina size somewhere in the world every year -- that's three or four once in a millenium floods!  And this same math applies to 100-year heat waves, droughts, snow storms -- you name it.

We can learn a couple of things from this.  First, living through "once in a lifetime" storms every year, somewhere in the world, is not abnormal -- it is expected.  Second, one can see how choices in media coverage could drive an apparent trend.  If the media covered maybe 3 or 4 of these 37 floods when I was young, but covers every one today, it will appear that there is a trend since I hear so much more about them.  But in fact, nothing will have changed except the media.  I will remind you what I wrote on this topic waaaay back in 2012.

Let's take a step back to 2001 and the "Summer of the Shark." The media hysteria began in early July, when a young boy was bitten by a shark on a beach in Florida. Subsequent attacks received breathless media coverage, up to and including near-nightly footage from TV helicopters of swimming sharks. Until the 9/11 attacks, sharks were the third biggest story of the year as measured by the time dedicated to it on the three major broadcast networks' news shows.

Through this coverage, Americans were left with a strong impression that something unusual was happening -- that an unprecedented number of shark attacks were occurring in that year, and the media dedicated endless coverage to speculation by various "experts" as to the cause of this sharp increase in attacks.

Except there was one problem -- there was no sharp increase in attacks.  In the year 2001, five people died in 76 shark attacks.  However, just a year earlier, 12 people had died in 85 attacks.  The data showed that 2001 actually was  a down year for shark attacks.

Once you start looking for this type of thing, the extrapolation of a trend from at most one data point, you will see it everywhere.

For those still hanging around to the end, here are a couple of actual trend charts on hurricanes (the adjusted line attempts to correct for the fact that earlier eras with no satellites or radar tended to miss some hurricanes) (source at NOAA):

Below are two charts that look beyond just the Atlantic at global cyclones, both from this source.  The first is frequency:

The second looks at accumulated cyclonic energy, which is a sort of time integral of the energy in all active cyclonic storms around the world

Later in the tweetstorm, the same tweeter mentioned as a fact, again without data, "Climate change is increasing drought frequency, impacting everything from agriculture to health. Some studies suggest the consequences of droughts include increased violence and war."  There has been no upward trend in US droughts (negative is more drought-y.

Finally, in the spirit of full disclosure, of all the zillions of things (not directly related to temperature) in weather effects that are blamed on global warming, this is the only one I have found that shows an upward trend recently and could logically be attributed to warming.  Whether this is related to warming or independent or a data measurement issue is (if folks were honest) not well understood

Trans-partisan Plan #1: Addressing Man-Made Global Warming With A Plan That Could Be Supported By Both Democrats and Republicans

While I am not deeply worried about man-made climate change, I am appalled at all the absolutely stupid, counter-productive things the government has implemented in the name of climate change, all of which have costly distorting effects on the economy while doing extremely little to affect man-made greenhouse gas production.  For example:

Even when government programs do likely have an impact of CO2, they are seldom managed intelligently.  For example, the government subsidizes solar panel installations, presumably to reduce their cost to consumers, but then imposes duties on imported panels to raise their price (indicating that the program has become more of a crony subsidy for US solar panel makers, which is typical of these types of government interventions).  Obama's coal power plan, also known as his war on coal, will certainly reduce some CO2 from electricity generation but at a very high cost to consumers and industries.  Steps like this are taken without any idea of whether this is the lowest cost approach to reducing CO2 production -- likely it is not given the arbitrary aspects of the program.

These policy mess is also an opportunity -- it affords us the ability to substantially reduce CO2 production at almost no cost.

The Plan

Point 1: Impose a Federal carbon tax on fuel.

I am open to a range of actual tax amounts, as long as point #2 below is also part of the plan.  Something that prices CO2 between $25 and $45 a ton seems to match the mainstream estimates of the social costs of CO2.  I think methane's greenhouse effects are exaggerated, but one could make an adjustment to the natural gas tax numbers to take into account methane leakage in the production chain.   I am even open to making the tax=0 on biofuels given these fuels are recycling carbon from the atmosphere.

So what is the best way to reduce CO2 -- by substituting gas for coal?   By more conservation?  By solar, or wind?  With biofuels?  With a carbon tax, we don't have to figure it out or have politicians picking winners.  This is why a Pigovian tax on carbon in fuels is going to be the most efficient possible way to reduce CO2 production.   Different approaches will be tested in the marketplace.  Cap and trade could theoretically do the same thing, but while this worked well in some niche markets (like SO2 emissions), it has not worked at all in European markets for CO2.   There has just been too many opportunities for cronyism, too much weird accounting for things like offsets that is hard to do well, and too much temptation to pick winners and losers.

When I first crafted early drafts of this plan several years ago, I had assumed that Progressives championed a carbon tax for the reasons I listed above, ie that it is the most efficient means to allow markets to reduce emissions.  However, the referendum a couple of years ago in Washington State demonstrated that many Progressives may not understand this at all.  You can read a lot more about this debate here.  I fail the ideological Turing test on this one, because I don't know if the Progressives who were strongly for CO2 reduction but opposed the Washington State carbon tax did so because they did not understand economics or because they cared less about global warming than funding other Progressive causes.

Point 2:  Offset 100% of carbon tax proceeds against the payroll tax

Yes, there are likely many politicians, given their incentives, that would love a big new pool of money they could use to send largess, from more health care spending to more aircraft carriers, to their favored constituent groups.  But we simply are not going to get Conservatives (and libertarians) on board for a net tax increase, particularly one to address an issue folks on the Right may not agree is an issue at all.  So our plan will use carbon tax revenues to reduce other Federal taxes.

I think the best choice would be to reduce the payroll tax.  Why?  Because, the carbon tax will necessarily be regressive (as are most consumption taxes) and the most regressive other major Federal tax we have are payroll taxes.  Offsetting income taxes would likely be a non-starter on the Left, as no matter how one structures the tax reduction the rich would get most of it since they pay most of the income taxes.

There is another benefit of reducing the payroll tax -- it would mean that we are replacing a consumption tax on labor with a consumption tax on fuel. It is always dangerous to make gut-feel assessments of complex systems like the economy, but my sense is that this swap might even have net benefits for the economy -- so much so that we might want to do it even if there was no such thing as greenhouse gas warming.  In theory, labor and fuel are economically equivalent in that they are both production raw materials. But in practice, they are treated entirely differently by the public.   Few people care about the full productive employment of our underground fuel reserves, but nearly everybody cares about the full productive employment of our labor force.   After all, for most people, the primary single metric of economic health is the unemployment rate.  So replacing a disincentive to hire with a disincentive to use fuel could well be popular.

Point 3:  Eliminate all the stupid stuff

Oddly enough, this might be the hardest part politically because every subsidy, no matter how idiotic, has a hard core of beneficiaries who will defend it to the death -- this the the concentrated benefits, dispersed cost phenomena that makes it hard to change many government programs.  But never-the-less I propose that we eliminate all the current Federal subsidies, mandates, and prohibitions that have been justified by climate change. Ethanol rules and mandates, solar subsidies, wind subsidies, EV subsidies, targeted technology investments, coal plant bans, pipeline bans, drilling bans -- it all should go.  The carbon tax does the work.

States can continue to do whatever they want -- we don't need the Feds to step on states any more than they do already, and I continue to like the 50 state laboratory concept.  If California wants to continue to subsidize wind generators, let them do it.  That is between the state and its taxpayers (and for those who think the California legislature is crazy or that the Texas legislature is in thrall to oil companies, that is what U-Haul is for).

Point 4:  Revamp our nuclear regulatory regime

As much as alternative energy enthusiasts would like to deny it, the world needs reliable, 24-hour baseload power -- and wind and solar are not going to do it (without a change in storage technology of at least 2 orders of magnitude in cost).  The only carbon-free baseload power technology that is currently viable is nuclear.

I will observe that nuclear power suffers under some of the same problems as commercial space flight -- the government helped force the technology faster than it might have grown organically on its own, which paradoxically has slowed its long-term development.  Early nuclear power probably was not ready for prime time, and the hangover from problems and perceptions of this era have made it hard to proceed even when better technologies now exist.   We are at least 2 generations of technology past what is in most US nuclear plants.  Small air-cooled thorium reactors and other technologies exist that could provide reliable safe power for over 100 years.  I am not an expert on nuclear regulation, but it strikes me that a regime similar to aircraft safety, where a few designs are approved and used over and over makes sense.  France, which has the strongest nuclear base in the world, followed this strategy.  Using thorium could also have the advantage of making the technology more exportable, since its utility in weapons production would be limited.

Point 5: Help clean up Chinese, and Asian, coal production

One of the hard parts about fighting CO2 emissions, vs. all the other emissions we have tackled in the past (NOx, SOx, soot/particulates, unburned hydrocarbons, etc), is that we simply don't know how to combust fossil fuels without creating CO2 -- CO2 is inherent to the base chemical reaction of the combustion.  But we do know how to burn coal without tons of particulates and smog and acid rain -- and we know how to do it economically enough to support a growing, prosperous modern economy.

In my mind it is utterly pointless to ask China to limit their CO2 growth.  China has seen the miracle over the last 30 years of having almost a billion people exit poverty.  This is an event unprecedented in human history, and they have achieved it in part by burning every molecule of fossil fuels they can get their hands on, and they are unlikely to accept limitations on fossil fuel consumption that will derail this economic progress.  But I think it is reasonable to help China stop making their air unbreathable, a goal that is entirely compatible with continued economic growth.  In 20 years, when we have figured out and started to build some modern nuclear designs, I am sure the Chinese will be happy to copy these and start working on their CO2 output, but for now their Maslov hierarchy of needs should point more towards breathable air.

As a bonus, this would pay one immediate climate change benefit that likely would dwarf the near-term effect of CO2 reduction.  Right now, much of this soot from Asian coal plants lands on the ice in the Arctic and Greenland.  This black carbon changes the albedo of the ice, causing it to reflect less sunlight and absorb more heat.  The net effect is more melting ice and higher Arctic temperatures.  A lot of folks, including myself, think that the recent melting of Arctic sea ice and rising Arctic temperatures is more attributable to Asian black carbon pollution than to CO2 and greenhouse gas warming (particularly since similar warming and sea ice melting is not seen in the Antarctic, where there is not a problem with soot pollution).

Final Thoughts

At its core, this is a very low cost, even negative cost, climate insurance policy.  I am convinced this policy, taken as a whole, would still make sense even if CO2 turns out to be as harmless as nitrogen.  The carbon tax combined with a market economy does the work of identifying the most efficient ways to reduce CO2 production.   The economy benefits from the removal of a myriad of distortions and crony give-aways, while also potentially benefiting from the replacement of a consumption tax on labor with a consumption tax on fuel.  The near-term effect on CO2 is small (since the US is only a small part of the global emissions picture), but actually larger than the near-term effect of all the haphazard current programs, and almost certainly cheaper to obtain.  As an added benefit, if you can help China with its soot problem, we could see immediate improvements in probably the most visible front of man-made climate change:  in the Arctic.

Postscript

Perhaps the hardest thing to overcome in reaching a compromise here is the tribalism of modern politics.  I believe this is  a perfectly sensible plan that even those folks who believe man-made global warming is  a total myth ( a group to which I do not belong) could sign up for.  The barrier, though, is tribal.  I consider myself to be pretty free of team politics but my first reaction when thinking about this kind of plan was, "What? We can't let those guys win.  They are totally full of sh*t.  In the past they have even threatened to throw me in jail for my opinions."  Since I first published this plan I have had very prominent skeptics contact me to criticize me for "giving in to the warmists."

Media Extrapolating a Trend From A Single Data Point: 2018 Heat Wave Edition

This article in something called Inside Climate News seems to be typical of many I have seen this year:  Because we have had much attention in the media on heat waves this year, there must be an upward trend in heat waves and that is a warning signal that man-made global warming is destroying the planet.  Typical of these articles are a couple of features

  1. Declaration of a trend without any actual trend data, but just a single data point of events this year
  2. Unstated implication that there must be a trend because the author can't remember another year when heat wave stories were so prevalent in the media
  3. Unproven link to man-made global warming, because I guess both involve warmth.

I have no idea if well-publicized heat waves this year are a harbinger of an accelerating global warming trend.  But since we are discussing "trends" it struck me as useful to actually liven up the discussion with some actual trend data, ie data for more than one summer.  There is a real danger to extrapolating trends from volume of media coverage, as I discussed here.  If you don't want to click through, I have a funny story in the postscript.

First, our most reliable temperature trend data does not really show a spike in temperatures this summer.  Remember, a heat wave that covered the entire US would only affect 6% of the world's landmass and <2% of the world's total area (source).  You can easily see the trend upwards several tenths of a degree over the last 40 years, but it is impossible to see much unique about the last 3 months of summer.

Second, there really is no substantial upward trend in US heat wave index (from right off the EPA's web site, as are all of the following charts.  Look at the source for yourself to make sure I am not playing games).  Note that all of the following charts are through 2016 and do NOT include the recent summer but are pretty meaningful none-the-less.

Third, in most of the country, there is actually a downward trend rather than upward trend in extreme heat days.

Pretty much everyone agrees, skeptics included, that the world and the US has warmed.  So why are extreme heat days down in many locations, and certain down from the 1930's?  This defies our intuition.  The explanation is in part due to a feature of global warming that is seldom explained well by the media, that much of the warming we see and as predicted in climate models is in the night.  We are seeing some increase in hot daytime highs, but really not at an unprecedented level over the last century.  BUT, we see MUCH more of a trend in hot daily lows, which basically means warming evenings.

I spoke at Amherst College a while back and here was their temperature trends, broken up between daily highs and nighttime lows.  All of Amherst's temperature trend since 1950 has not been in increased daytime highs but higher nighttime lows.  This is a pattern you see repeated over and over at nearly every temperature station.

This is why I consider media reports of heat waves, at least of the scope we have seen to date, absolutely irrelevant to "proving" the world is warming.

Postscript:  Here is the story everyone should keep in mind when extrapolating from media coverage volume to underlying trends:

let's take a step back to 2001 and the "Summer of the Shark." The media hysteria began in early July, when a young boy was bitten by a shark on a beach in Florida. Subsequent attacks received breathless media coverage, up to and including near-nightly footage from TV helicopters of swimming sharks. Until the 9/11 attacks, sharks were the third biggest story of the year as measured by the time dedicated to it on the three major broadcast networks' news shows.

Through this coverage, Americans were left with a strong impression that something unusual was happening -- that an unprecedented number of shark attacks were occurring in that year, and the media dedicated endless coverage to speculation by various "experts" as to the cause of this sharp increase in attacks.

Except there was one problem -- there was no sharp increase in attacks. In the year 2001, five people died in 76 shark attacks. However, just a year earlier, 12 people had died in 85 attacks. The data showed that 2001 actually was a down year for shark attacks.

Update:  I am not really an active participant in the climate scene any more, particularly when positions hardened and it was impossible to really have an interesting discussion any more.  The implicit plea in this post goes beyond climate -- if you are claiming a trend, show me the trend data.  I can be convinced.  There is clear trend data that temperatures are increasing so I believe there is an upward trend in temperatures.  Show me the same for droughts or heat waves or hurricanes and I will believe the trend about those as well, but so often the actual data never matches the arm-waving in these media sources.

Life in the Trump Era: Conservatives Now Define Raising Taxes as "Progress"

John Hinderaker of Powerline writes approvingly of Trump's apparent trade deal with Mexico.  First, he quotes the New York Times celebrating the higher taxes:

Under the changes agreed to by Mexico and the United States, car companies would be required to manufacture at least 75 percent of an automobile’s value in North America under the new rules, up from 62.5 percent, to qualify for Nafta’s zero tariffs. They will also be required to use more local steel, aluminum and auto parts, and have 40 to 45 percent of the car made by workers earning at least $16 an hour, a boon to both the United States and Canada and a win for labor unions, which have been among Nafta’s biggest critics.

I am not sure how narrowing the scope of products subject to lower taxes is a "boon" to this country, though I suppose labor unions might be happy and one is suspicious that this is sufficient reason for the NYT to support it.  My suspicion is that these numbers are incredibly carefully tailored by Ford and GM lobbyists to hit a couple of their competitors while missing themselves -- this has all the fingerprints of a classic crony deal that benefits very few powerful groups to the detriment of most consumers.

So the NYT can be expected to cheer for bad crony economics that helps a few unions, but what about Conservatives, who are supposed to understand markets and trade.  Hinderaker writes:

So, from 62.5% to 75% to qualify for zero tariffs. Not exactly radical, but positive.

So broadening a US government tax on US consumers is "positive."  Powerline in the past has rightfully chided Paul Krugman for abandoning his understanding of economics in favor of cheerleading the Democratic team.  Now Powerline is doing the same for Trump.

What I Am Wondering About Inflation

Tyler Cowen asks, "Why isn’t inflation higher?"  I have wondered that for a while, but monetary policy and related topics in macro are one of the areas I admit that I simply do not understand so I don't write about it.  So rather than offering any hypotheses to Cowen's question, I will ask my own:

  1. Is it possible that inflation exists but it shows up mainly in financial assets (stocks, bonds, perhaps real estate) that don't really factor into standard inflation metrics?  Every step the Fed has taken, as well as other western central banks, appears to me to be crafted to pump money into securities markets rather than into main street.  Certainly we have seen a huge inflation in the value of financial assets and real estate over the past several years.
  2. Expansion of the economy above the rate of productivity improvement should drive inflation, unless there was a lot of excess capacity to soak up.   That may have been partly the case in the US since 2008, but surely that is gone.  Does the still greatly underutilized Chinese and Indian labor force act as excess capacity that prevents inflation from heating up here?  If so, might Trump's trade restrictions interfere with this going forward?

Your In-Office Entertainment This Week

UPDATE:  I had the wrong link.  The call is Wednesday but at 2:30 Pacific after the market closes, which makes more sense.  Like many companies, Tesla likes to dump the quarterly financials, dozens of pages in 8 point font, just seconds before the conference call.

If you are sitting in your office this week and need to be entertained in a way that looks like you are working, consider the Tesla investor conference call Wednesday at 2:30 PDT.  I can't guarantee anything but past conference calls have been a circus.  Normally I would expect the Tesla Board or the corporate counsel (who is Musk's divorce lawyer, lol) to bring adult supervision to the party, but so far that has not happened in any Tesla communications to date.  Expect potential discussion around:

  • Tesla's immediate external capital needs, given that they are burning cash faster than you could actually physically burn it (Musk claims zero is needed but everyone else in the free world thinks its >$2 billion, with a huge part of Tesla's existing debt also expiring and needing to be rolled over soon)
  • Model 3 order blacklog (this was the question in the last call that caused Musk to tell the experienced Wall Street analyst to shut up and then he switched to taking questions from a Youtube fanboy
  • Model 3 production rates and quality issues
  • Gross margins.  They HAVE to get higher for survival.  Particularly since Telsa has chosen to eschew traditional dealer networks so corporate bears all the cost of service and support.  This demands Tesla not only get its gross margins as high as other auto makers, they need to be higher.
  • Expiration of tax subsidies -- the $6500 government tax credit for Tesla customers slowly disappears once their 200,000th EV has been sold in the US, which has happened.
  • The disappearance of the $35,000 Model 3 from the web site (this is the promised car that generated a lot of the Telsa hype in the first place)
  • Disappearance of all those other teased products (coupe, semi) that were released to great fanfare and have not ever been mentioned again
  • ZEV credits (these are credits it gets from states like CA that other car makers have to buy to do business in those states with gasoline vehicles).  These are odd ducks as they have a lot of value but for some reasons do not show up anywhere on the balance sheet, so one doesn't know they even exist until Tesla chooses to sell them for a LOT of money.   They can flip a single quarter positive by saving these and exercising them at the same time.  Most folks see this happening in a bid to make Q3 profitable.  (By the way, anyone out there that understands by what accounting rules these valuable assets don't get put on the balance sheet are encouraged to email me the answer).
  • Introduction of competitive products (Jaguar, Volvo, and pretty much everyone else soon)
  • Pending lawsuits from both shareholders and whistle-blowing employees
  • Implosion of SolarCity (now part of Telsa) such that new installations are on a trend line towards zero
  • (unlikely but someone should really ask) Musk's silencing of critics
  • (unlikely but someone should really ask) Musk's social media demeanor, including calling the Thai rescue hero a pedophile because he did not use Musk's goofy submarine

Tesla is a train wreck I cannot take my eyes off.  Unlike Theranos, which combined a product that didn't work with a screwed up management, and which operated in the dark, Tesla combines what has been a really good product with a screwed-up management, and operates in an absolute blaze of publicity.  I have never seen any stock where sentiment was so polarized between bears and fan-boy bulls (Herbalife, maybe?)

I have a personal metric of sentiment and volatility I invented but I am pretty sure has been used since before I was born.  Anyway, I look at the sum of the price of an at-the-market put and at-the-market call for the stock about 6 months out.  I then divide this combined price by the share price.  For Tesla January options, this comes to 31%.    This is really a huge number.  Take ExxonMobil, which has a lot of split sentiment right now (a historically fabulous company that keeps screwing up its quarters recently) this metric sits at 9%.

Disclosure:  I am in and out of short positions on TSLA, typically selling around 350+ (usually after Musk has honeytrapped the fan boys) and covering in the 290-300 range (usually after real news or a Musk meltdown).  This strategy has been profitable for 2 years but I think that is coming to an end.  TSLA is either going to fall more or stay high based on what it does in the 3rd quarter.

How Does This New Trade Deal Offset My Higher Costs If I Don't Grow Soybeans?

Trump supporters are saying "I told you so" as Trump and European officials reached an agreement to dial back tariffs and pursue some efforts at free-er trade.  Trump supporters have argued, and I was skeptical, that Trump really wanted free trade but was engaging in brinkmanship as part of the opening phases of negotiation.  First, let's see exactly what this agreement included:

– They will work towards “zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, and zero subsidies” on non-auto industrial products. That’s not a huge category of goods, as it excludes agriculture and raw materials, among other things, and zero non-tariff barriers and subsidies seems really unlikely. But still, it would be great if we made progress here.

– The EU will buy more U.S. soybeans and liquid natural gas. This was probably going to happen anyway because of market shifts and other factors.

– They will have a dialogue about conflicting regulatory standards in the U.S. and EU. This is a long-time goal of U.S. and EU trade policy-makers. It sounds easier than it really is.

– They will work together on reform of the WTO, and to address problems to the trading system caused by China.

In addition, the agreement effectively included:

  • Current Trump tariffs on steel and metals, and the European retaliation, will remain in place
  • Trump will not currently put in place his threatened $200 billion in auto tariffs on European vehicles

So the basic agreement is 1) leave all new tariffs in place; 2) sell more soybeans and natural gas to Europe; and 3) talk about tariff and non-tariff barriers that typically consume years and years of discussion.

This is basically a big zero.  Even beyond the fact that the agreement avoids most of the major trade categories, the act of negotiating towards lower tariffs, lower non-tariff barriers, and reconciling conflicting regulator standards has been done before -- its called NAFTA and the TPP, both of which Trump has sh*t on.  Sure, they can have flaws (especially the TPP), but these compromises are the only way these trade deals get made, as country leaders each are in thrall to their own influential crony industry.  The US's own high tariffs on SUV imports is a great example.  This is all not to mention the time -- TPP negotiations took 8 years -- through which we consumers apparently will still suffer under Trump's tariffs.

So for most US consumers, the end result of all of this is that we still are paying higher prices for any product that contains metal, from soda cans to automobiles.  This is great for soybean farmers, I suppose, but sucks for the rest of us.   This is all about politicians balancing one crony against another and in this calculus, consumers always lose.

Trump says he is for free trade, but he still spouts all this fairness BS.  Things that he considers "unfair" are actually just "unfair" to a few people in a few industries, but are eminently "fair" for 300 million consumers in the US.  Here is the true test of a free trader:

Consider two trade regimes.  In Regime #1, the US charges 0% tariffs on German steel and Germany charges 0% tariffs on US steel.  In Regime #2, the US is able to charge 10% tariffs on German steel while Germany still charges 0% tariffs on US steel.   I would bet quite a bit of money that Trump would say that Regime #2 is a better deal for the US, while free traders like myself and most economists would say that Regime #1 is not only better for the world as a whole, it is better for the US.  Zero tariffs allows the division of labor and comparative advantage to all work their magic to make sure capital and productive effort in this country are employed for the highest return.

I Know Congress Hates To Challenge A President of Its Own Party, But...

...Congress simply has to pare back the tariff authority it has delegated the President.  It is simply insane that Trump can just unilaterally impose 20% tariffs on foreign automobiles, a $200 billion new tax on US consumers.

It is appalling to see Trump following the usual blue model of economic regulation, imposing one intervention after another, each meant to fix the unintended consequences of the last intervention.  Steel tariffs increased costs to domestic auto makers, so Trump proposes tariffs on foreign autos.  When tariffs result (inevitably) in counter-tariffs on US agricultural exports, Trump proposes more agricultural subsidies.   People (not me) lament gridlock in government and want more fluid lawmaking -- well here it is.  And it sucks.  It is mindless and reactive and emotional and totally ignorant of economics.

These tariffs, when combined with earlier actions, will result in tax increases on consumers that swamp the tax cuts Trump and the Republicans were so proud of last year.

I tend to be a pessimist so I have probably accurately called 5 or the last 2 recessions, but i have started to shift my investments around to get ready for a slowing economy and a market correction.

Update (source)

While both careful not to specifically cite the politically unwise 'tariffs', Boeing, GM, and Fiat Chrysler stocks are plunging in the pre-market after trade war-related impacts caused missed earnings or lowered outlooks.

General Motors Co. cut its forecast for profit this year as surging prices for steel and aluminum combine with swings in South American currencies to burden the largest U.S. automaker. Specifically, Bloomberg reports that raw material costs probably will be a $1 billion headwind to GM’s profit this year - roughly double its previous expectation - while the Argentine peso and Brazilian real are likely to drag on results through the remainder of 2018.

Modern Guide to Analyzing Complex Multivariate Systems

  1.  Choose a complex and chaotic system that is characterized by thousands or millions of variables changing simultaneously (e.g. climate, the US economy)
  2. Pick one single output variable to summarize the workings of that system (e.g. temperature, GDP)
  3. Blame (or credit) any changes to your selected output variable on one single pet variable (e.g. capitalism, a President from the other party)
  4. Pick a news outlet aligned with your political tribe and send them a press release
  5. Done!  You are now a famous scientist.  Congratulations.

What Tesla Is Doing This Week

I do not have any insider knowledge, so this is pure speculation, but I have worked in a lot of organizations that did insane things to try to reach milestones or goals, and so I think it is educated speculation.

A lot of Tesla's market valuation comes from the prospects of getting a lot of volume with their mid-priced (sort of) Model 3.  They need to get production rates up both to reduce costs and to try to get ahead of a huge oncoming rush of competitors entering the BEV space.  Last year, they promised to have Model 3 production at 5000 a week by the first of this year, a goal they missed by a mile.  So now they have set the expectation that they will be at 5,000 a week production by the end of the second quarter, which is basically this week.

One of the weird things about Tesla is the difficulty in getting good information about its operations, particularly since it is a public company.  So many investors, for example, were trying to figure out Model 3 production numbers that an entire cottage industry of VIN analytics and delivery reporting has arisen.   But the basic story is that they are not there yet and that's not going to change by the end of the week.

But that does not mean they won't be trying to achieve something that looks like 5,000.  In the past Tesla has resorted to the "run-rate" claim, that their run rate for a day or an hour was at such and such much higher number.  So that is, I think, what is going to happen this week.  Parts and subassemblies are likely being stored up so that in a great burst 714 can be completed in one day or if not that, 30 or so can be completed in an hour so that the company can claim a 5,000 unit weekly run rate was achieved.  This is obviously BS -- any bottlenecked process can usually be juiced for a short period of time (examples:  Transcontinental Railroad track laying record, Liberty ship build time record) -- but I predict we will see it.  I also wouldn't be surprised if you found the numbers for last week were actually below trend due to Tesla hoarding sub-assemblies and parts for huge one-off production push this week.

As an aside, we are coming up to June 30, which for taxpayers can be considered Tesla subsidy day.   I have written about this before, but if Tesla can manage its deliveries down a bit in the second quarter, it can extend the taxpayer subsidy of its vehicles another 3 months (the subsidy starts winding down after the 200,000th electric vehicle sold in the US and Telsa is right about there, so much so that rumors are it is sending all its output to Canada this week so it doesn't put them over the US number.  Bloomberg estimates that pushing the 200,000th sale from June 30 to July 1 will cost US taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars:

In my previous post I wrote about Tesla's attempt to prolong the $7,500 U.S. incentive for electric cars by pushing sales into the next quarter. A reader on Twitter who goes by the handle @Smack_Check did the math on how much such an effort would be worth to Tesla's customers: $366 million.

That's the value of additional credits available if Tesla waits just one day (July 1, instead of June 30) to record its 200,000th sale in the U.S. Here are @Smack_Check's fairly conservative assumptions:

Tesla will produce an average of 5,000 cars a week in the third quarter, all models combined (that means about 3,000 Model 3s/week, on average).
Each quarter after that, total weekly production will rise by 1,000.
U.S. sales will account for half of all Tesla sales worldwide during the subsidy period.

Disclosure:  I am short Tesla via the ownership of one (1) put option which in my mind constitutes more of a bar bet than an investment.  Shorting fan-boy stocks is risky, as is shorting companies the CA legislature is probably scheming right now to bail out somehow with their taxpayer money.  If it were not for these two problems I would be all-in on the short like James Bond at the end of Casino Royale holding a straight flush.   The odds that Tesla will really be worth $60 billion * (1+i)^10 in ten years is pretty much zero.  Also, it's amazing how many of Elizabeth Holme's behaviors at Theranos as documented in Bad Blood one can observe in Musk.

Update:   Fixed Tesla current market value, which is closer to $60 billion today.

Are You (or Trump) Really for Free Trade? Here is a Hypothetical to Test You

A few days back, we had a debate in the comments about whether Trump really wants free trade.   In my view, Trump looks at tariff rates and trade deficits like a simple scorecard of winning or losing without really understanding trade and its benefits.  Sure, Trump proposed a zero tariff rate agreement in passing with our European trading partners.  I think he did this because it made him look good and he knew they would never go for it.

But no matter the case, even if he is sincere, he still is judging this proposal by a very different standard than economists would.  Take European tariffs on passenger cars.  My understanding is that they are about 10% on US cars vs. our 2.5% on theirs  (this ignores the absolute hypocrisy in this whole thing that our light truck tariff on imports is like 25%, but put that aside).  Trump sees taking these two passenger car tariff rates to zero as a win NOT because it would be a benefit to consumers but because in his thinking the US gets a 10% concession out of Europe and only gives up a 2.5% concession in exchange.  Winning!

I tried to think of the best way to highlight the difference between Trump's thinking and good economic thinking on trade, and I came up with this hypothetical:

Consider two trade regimes.  In Regime #1, the US charges 0% tariffs on German steel and Germany charges 0% tariffs on US steel.  In Regime #2, the US is able to charge 10% tariffs on German steel while Germany still charges 0% tariffs on US steel.   I would bet quite a bit of money that Trump would say that Regime #2 is a better deal for the US, while free traders like myself and most economists would say that Regime #1 is not only better for the world as a whole, it is better for the US.  Zero tariffs allows the division of labor and comparative advantage to all work their magic to make sure capital and productive effort in this country are employed for the highest return.  I believe from reading the comment section of this blog that there are many many people who call themselves a free trader but who would say that Regime #2 is a better deal for the US.  If you believe that, you better have done a lot of work educating yourself on the issue because the great mass of economic theory and practice is against you.

I am not an economist and I am too busy today to give the whole explanation today, but here is one hint at part of the answer:

As of mid-2017, there were 29,288 steel-consuming firms, employing more than 900,000 workers who face higher prices versus just 916 steel-producing firms with 80,000 employees who benefit from those higher prices and reduced competition.

Trade Wars Are Weird

Trump:  I'm going to raise taxes on the consumers and businesses in the US that buy things from overseas.

China: Oh yeah?  I will show you, I will raise taxes on my citizens even more!

 

From the vaults:  Our sister publication in China complains about Chinese tariffs.  Note the date, way back in 2006.  If history doesn't repeat itself, it at least rhymes.

Gerrymandering, Proposals to Split California, And Why Odd and Even Matter

Over the last several years, there have been several proposals to split California into more than one state (I know what you are thinking:  Good God, more Californias?)  There was a proposal last year to split it into 6 states.  This election, there is a proposal on the ballot to split it into 3 states.  I am not sure what the entire process would be, but as a minimum either proposal would have to be approved by Congress.  For that latter to happen, the 3 state plan is probably more likely to get approved than the 6 state plan because it is an odd number.  Seriously.

For the rest of us, the main effect of a California split is that its current citizens would get more US Senators.  Each state gets 2 Senators so California would go from 2 to 6 Senators in a three-state proposal and 2 to 12 Senators in a 6-state proposal.  This also means that California would get some extra Electoral College votes, since a state's votes is the sum of its Representatives and Senators.

To some extent, this debate will be a flashback to the mid-19th Century when statehood decisions were made based on the north-south balance in the Senate.   This time around, it will be about shifting, or perhaps more accurately not shifting, the Republican-Democrat balance.  Right now CA is perceived by all to be +2 Senate seats for the Democrats for most of the foreseeable future.  The problem with even-number splits such as 2 or 4 or 6 states from CA is that they are almost guaranteed to shift the CA contribution away from +2D.  Take the two state solution.  If they were split north and south, you would likely get two blue states and the +2D from CA in the Senate would become +4D.  Republicans would barf.  If you split the state east-west, you might be able to create a red state and a blue state such that CA would shift from +2D to neutral, an effective gain for R's.  Democrats would hate this.  Neither party in Congress is going to agree on a solution here.  There is no way to gerrymander the thing without some party making a gain.  This is generally true for all even number state solutions.

Odd number state solutions could also be problematic, but they could also work depending on how the lines are drawn (making this probably the most watched gerrymander in US history).  A three state solution that creates two blue states and a red state would keep CA's total effect on the Senate as +2D.  I am not sure any split would clear Congress but this is probably the only possibility that might do so.   Two coastal states and one inland state would probably achieve this result, but I believe the current proposal is for three states split north to south, so a large heavily blue coastal city or two is in each state, which could push the thing into being +6D which the Senate would never buy short of a Democratic majority and elimination of the filibuster (which for a generation of +4 votes in the Senate they might consider).

All of this glosses over huge local problems in CA itself, like

  • How do you split up state debts, such as Calpers obligations and assets
  • Will current state officeholders (e.g. the governor and AG) who are incredibly powerful and have historically used these positions as springboards for national office (e.g. Kamala Harris, Jerry Brown, Ronald Reagan) accept a huge reduction in their power and budget
  • If there is a red state created, how will blue urban areas put into this red state react?  (the opposite issue already exists with red rural areas already used to living in a blue state).

A Little Bit of Model Railroad Progress

It has been a while since I blogged on my model railroad but unfortunately real life intervened and cruelly prevented me from working on my hobby for a while.  I have been making progress recently and thought I would post what I have been working on.  Believe it or not, there are one or two readers who actually write me for updates.

One thing I can do even when I am busy is make progress hand building turnouts.  These are some small #5 turnouts built with code 40 rail (perfect for eyesight destruction).  No way I could to this without the fabulous Fast Tracks construction jigs.

I built the main line out of code 55 flex track and am hand-building all the sidings and branch lines with code 40.  This lets me get the main line up and running fast while still being able to hand build some track, often the track closest to the front of the layout.  Below is the code 55 flex track main line after some test painting.  The one thing I do not like about flex track is that it always looks so uniform.  Even on good mainline track the rail and ties vary a lot in color, so I spray paint a base coat and use brushes to hand paint individual tiles and rail sections different colors to get some variation.

The switch in the foreground below is the first code 40 hand built track I have put on the layout.  It is a bit of a pain to join code 55 to code 40, so I wanted to experiment some.  Eventually I inserted a code 55 rail joiner in the mainline track, and the crushed the other end flat and soldered the code 40 rail to the top.  With some trial and error, this got both the rail tops at the same height.  I really love the look of real wood ties and the color variation you get naturally, which I accentuate some.

The biggest recent progress was I painted the back drop.  Since this is Phoenix I wanted some low haze but no clouds, so I used the tried and true method of blue at the top of the background and white and the bottom and blending them in between.  Came out pretty well, though this picture does not really do it justice because the lighting is not quite right yet.  I need to try it with a better camera.   The biggest problem I had was a classic Phoenix problem where the paint was drying too fast.  One of the hardest problems is that the Phoenix sky on certain days is so deep, deep blue that it looks unrealistic, even in real life, so I did not use the actual color for the top of sky that I see from my front yard, I backed it down a bit.

 

Oh, you can also see that I have put in the lighting.  As an experiment I used led light strings.  This avoids the directional shadow problem but I am not totally convinced I am happy with it yet.  I also have fluorescent lights installed for night effects, though I still struggle with the OBA / fluorescent paper problem here.  Anyone who has a source for matte (not gloss) OBA-free photo paper that is not too think (I often have to bend and shape the paper for projects) can certainly email me.   Paper models like these are more popular in the UK than in the US, but I have come to really like them in certain applications.  They just don't look good in night scenes when brick walls glow under black light.

In the plan I have locations vaguely blocked out for industries but I had not yet tested the sites against actual buildings I have in inventory or would like to put in.  Below I have a half-built grain elevator I was testing locations for.

That's it for now.  I am starting my big building project which is a scale refinery.  We actually don't have a refinery in Phoenix (closest is Yuma I think) but I worked in one years ago and love the look of them, especially lighted at night, so dammit I am going to have one.

The Historical Reason I Am Skeptical About Trump's G7 Free Trade Proposal

After hammering various members of the G7 with new tariffs and threats of even more tariffs, Trump proposed that everyone eliminate all their tariff's and subsidies:

Q Mr. President, you said that this was a positive meeting, but from the outside, it seemed quite contentious. Did you get any indication from your interlocutors that they were going to make any concessions to you? And I believe that you raised the idea of a tariff-free G7. Is that —

THE PRESIDENT: I did. Oh, I did. That’s the way it should be. No tariffs, no barriers. That’s the way it should be.

Q How did it go down?

THE PRESIDENT: And no subsidies. I even said no tariffs. In other words, let’s say Canada — where we have tremendous tariffs — the United States pays tremendous tariffs on dairy. As an example, 270 percent. Nobody knows that. We pay nothing. We don’t want to pay anything. Why should we pay?

We have to — ultimately, that’s what you want. You want a tariff-free, you want no barriers, and you want no subsidies, because you have some cases where countries are subsidizing industries, and that’s not fair. So you go tariff-free, you go barrier-free, you go subsidy-free.

Awesome, sign me up. But is this serious?  I want to get to that in a minute but first let me offer two practical observations

  • Trump belabored the 270 percent Canadian dairy tariffs on US products, but at the same time the US tariff rate on Canadian dairy products is effectively infinite, because we simply don't let any in.  This is the kind of complexity he is glossing over.  Forget Canada, his proposal for no tariffs or subsidies would cause a major freakout among US dairy farmers, a business absolutely chock-full of crazy quilt of progressive state regulation on prices and subsidies and quotas.  (and by the way, congrats to Trump for getting progressives like Drum into the free trade, anti-price-control camp).
  • Simple statements like "no subsidies" are easy to make, but is a lower corporate tax rate a subsidy?  How about lower minimum wages?  What about really long copyright lives?  What about when a governor or mayor gives out relocation incentives and tax abatements?  What about the whole Amazon HQ2 deal that is coming?   The list of complexities are endless.  That is why long and complicated negotiations are necessary to reduce tariffs and subsidies.  Fortunately we have actually done this, in deals like NAFTA and the TPP.  Unfortunately, Trump has given both of these the boot.  So is he really serious?

I have a love for history and like to make comparisons of modern events to history, and in this case I believe there is a very parallel case we can learn from.   Here is the problem:  It involves Hitler's Germany.  Hitler is obviously the third rail of Internet discourse, but the example is so parallel I am still going to go ahead, with the following proviso:  I am not saying Trump is Hitler, or making any such analogy or statement.  I am merely attempting to learn from a very similar international negotiation that occurred in the 1930's.

If  you can put aside all the emotional baggage of Hitler being either the worst mass murderer in history or at least in the top 3, he was (at least for a while until it all blew up on him) very successful in getting wins in diplomatic face-offs of the type Trump seems to want (by this I mean gains for his own country in zero-sum or even negative-sum games made by repudiating past international settlements).  Hitler's brashness essentially won out with the reoccupation of the Rhineland, Germany's remilitarization, the annexation of Austria, and even led to the western powers basically handing the Sudetenland over to him.

But the example I have in mind is with the disarmament conferences of the the early 1930's.  Major western powers were looking for some sort of agreement to head off an expensive and destabilizing arms race of the type that occurred in the run-up to WWI (and which by the way was way too expensive for countries bogged down in the Great Depression).  As the powers discussed incremental limits or reductions, one world leader jumped into the fray and proposed that all the powers agree to total disarmament  -- no more militaries at all.  Can you guess who made this radical proposal that would be the envy of any 1960's hippie?**

Hitler had [President Roosevelt's] message before him when he prepared the final draft of his speech to the Reichstag. Contrary to expectation, his speech, when delivered, made no threat of immediate rearmament. Germany was ready at any time, Hitler said, to renounce the aggressive weapons forbidden to her by the Treaty of Versailles “if the whole world also bans them.” Without further ado, Germany would dissolve her whole military establishment “if neighboring nations unreservedly did the same.” For President Roosevelt's proposal the German government was “indebted with warm thanks.” Germany was ready to join in “any solemn non-aggression pact because she thinks not of attack but of her security.”

In making this speech, Hitler said that he above everyone else wanted peace.  He was a soldier, he had been in the trenches, and no soldier wanted war.

Given his past actions, we suspect Hitler was not a total peacenik, so what was going on here?  The Treaty of Versailles had essentially disarmed Germany, reduced its army to 100,000 men and banned it from having an air force and submarines, among other things.  Germany chaffed at these limits, considering them grossly unfair, and wanted limits at parity with those on, say, France.

Hitler always liked to turn other nations' values against them in his international statements.  Later, when he justified potential annexations in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, he would say that he was just interested in "self-determination of peoples" and that other powers were inconsistent and unfair when they refused to allow this principle they themselves had established to be applied to ethnic Germans in these countries.  Hitler clearly didn't care one bit about free self-determination of peoples, but he was happy to throw US and British and French rhetoric back in their faces.

So in this case Hitler grabbed at the other major powers' pious pronouncements about their commitment to disarmament and again threw it back in their faces.  You want disarmament?  OK, let's do it -- total disarmament.  Hitler knew that they would never do it -- France in particular did not trust Germany at all.  Hitler waited until it was clear the other countries were not going to go for this proposal and said something like, "see, those other countries were never serious, they never wanted peace.  All they want to do is keep Germany down."  He proceeded to resign from the conference,  renounce the military limits of the Versailles treaty, and started building Germany's army and air force.   Which was what he had intended to do all along.

I know from the comments that there are folks reading my blog who honestly don't seem to understand trade and the trade deficit, and I am at my limit in explaining any more clearly.  I know there are also folks who honestly think Trump is following a brinksmanship path to get to a net better set of trade rules in the future.  I wrote the other day that I doubted this, but folks have emailed me the quotes about Trump proposing full free trade as proof of his intentions.  Sorry, while I would love to believe this is true, and will happily admit my error later if needed, I don't believe it for a minute.  It just looks too much like Germany's actions at the disarmament conference.  People who truly want and understand free trade do not say things like "there are too many German cars in the United States."***

 

** This link is squirrelly and sometimes is gated and sometimes not.  The full citation is Boeckel, R. M. (1933). The Disarmament Conference, 1933. Editorial research reports 1933 (Vol. II). Washington, DC: CQ Press. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre1933100900

*** Anyone older than about 45 can tell you how badly US cars sucked before foreign competition, and how much better they are today only because we allowed this competition.  Even if you don't own a German car (and I do), your American car is better and less expensive than it would be without German and Japanese and Korean competition.

 

Trump Likely to Impose New Tariffs Today: Is This Bad Economics or Madman Theory?

Frankly, I do not know how folks like Mark Perry and Don Boudreaux do it.  They are able to keep going, day after day, year after year, refuting the same stupid anti-trade arguments over and over again.  I don't have the patience or endurance.  Long-time readers will remember I used to spend a lot of time on climate.  But the debate never went anywhere.  It was like Groundhog Day.  At some point I just thought "I've said what I have to say, and now I am done"  (though I actually do have a climate update in the works).

Anyway, Trump has put tariffs on Mexican and Canadian steel and aluminum and is poised to do so for European products soon, a tax that will ultimately be paid by every American consumer.  Sigh.  This is just so economically ignorant it is hard to take it seriously, yet here it is.  In the name of 150,000 or so US steelworkers and a bare handful of obviously politically well-connected corporations, we are going to raise prices on essential raw materials that are consumed in one way or another by a huge number of American businesses and hundreds of millions of US consumers.   Two or three years ago when US manufacturers are moving oversees for lower raw material costs, you will know why.

Republicans are really supposed to know better on this sort of thing, which to me is just proof #12,465 that our political parties represent tribal rather than consistent ideological differences.  Republicans have twisted themselves in so many knots trying to support Trump while knowing better on tariffs that some have actually brought back a version of madman theory.

I am not entirely sure of the intellectual and historical origins of madman theory, but I have always ascribed it to Nixon and Kissinger.

President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger believed they could compel "the other side" to back down during crises in the Middle East and Vietnam by "push[ing] so many chips into the pot" that Nixon would seem 'crazy' enough to "go much further," according to newly declassified documents published today by the National Security Archive.

The documents include a 1972 Kissinger memorandum of conversation published today for the first time in which Kissinger explains to Defense Department official Gardner Tucker that Nixon's strategy was to make "the other side ... think we might be 'crazy' and might really go much further" — Nixon's Madman Theory notion of intimidating adversaries such as North Vietnam and the Soviet Union to bend them to Washington's will in diplomatic negotiations

Speaking of Kissinger, the new Conservative explanation of Trump trade (and foreign) policy also includes an element of old-time brinksmanship.  I remember reading something in college from Kissinger, which I can't find now so maybe I have it wrong, but I would paraphrase it as, "it is very dangerous to go to the brink over an issue, but one can never make progress without going to the brink."

Some Conservatives are now arguing that Trump's protectionism is "good" protectionism because it is an opening move in a bargaining game where the US can make headway and perhaps get better rules all around.  As such, Trump's seeming irrationality and willingness to ignore basic economics is a feature, not a bug, supporting the madman model of negotiation.

Ugh.  This might perhaps all be reasonable strategy in a zero-sum game such as, say, negotiating shares of the assets in a bankruptcy settlement (something Trump is actually super experienced at).  Trade, though, is not a zero-sum game.  By definition, trades that are executed voluntarily have to help both parties, or else they would not be agreed to.  As such, anything that reduces the amount of trade between people in two countries is guaranteed to be a net loss for BOTH groups of people.  There are no winners.