Posts tagged ‘Commons Blog’

I Don't Get Light Rail

Phoenix is in the process of tearing up half the city to put in its first light rail line.  There seems to be a hard core of people out there who get a huge hard-on for light rail, and I just don't get it.  Some random observations:

  • We are building light rail that is essentially a "trolley."  This means it runs at street levels, often down the median strips of roads, and has to stop at stoplights just like cars and buses.  My question is, in this configuration, how is light rail any different than a bus?  Except for the fact, of course, that it is far more expensive and far less operationally flexible. 
  • The system is not up and running yet, so I have not seen ridership numbers, but I will make a bet:  If we take the entire cost of the system's construction, plus its annual operating losses/subsides, I will bet that we could have bought every regular rider of the rail system a nice car instead and gas for life cheaper than the cost of the rail system.
  • It looks to me like the rail system will actually increase congestion.  For most of its route, it is removing lanes from busy roads, and by running down the middle it will make left turns more difficult and complex. 
  • Supporters of these systems point to NY or London as examples of what we can achieve.  Bullshit.  No city that has embarked on this light rail stuff has had the success or the political will or the money to build out a network with the critical mass that these larger cities have.  Most end up with orphaned routes (see LA, for example) that don't tie into anything. 
  • Phoenix is the last city on the planet that a rail based system should work for.  I don't have the book in front of me, I will have to get it from home, but I remember a book on urban development that showed Phoenix had the flattest population density distribution of any city studied.  What this means is that we don't have a city center and suburbs - it means that we are basically all one big suburb.  So there are no single routes (for example in Chicago from the northern suburbs into downtown) that have any critical mass of traffic.  People are driving from everywhere to everywhere.  In fact, my suspicion has been that there are a group of politicians and business people who want to try to create a downtown area, and are using massive public funds in the form of light rail lines converging on the city center to try to jump-start such development.
  • The Commons Blog has a link-rich post on the failure of the Portland light rail system, supposedly the model all light-rail promoters point to.

Update:  Jackalope Pursuivant has more on Phoenix light rail

From the Correlation does not Equal Causation Files

On this blog, I have often felt the need to point out that correlation does not equal causation.  For example, if X increases at the same time Y increases, it is not necessarily true that X causes Y or Y causes X.  The correlation could be a coincidence, or it could be that both X and Y are related to a third variable Z that drives their movement.

Anyway, I see this mistake all the time.  What I did NOT expect to see was that someone would have to explain that non-correlation does not equal causation.  But that seems to be the wacky world that environmental science has descended into, via the Commons Blog:

EPA's new report "America's Children and the Environment" notes that
air pollution declined, but asthma prevalence continues to rise. One
possible conclusion from this is that air pollution is not actually a
cause of asthma. In fact, that's the most plausible conclusion. Every
pollutant we measure has been dropping for decades pretty much
everywhere, while asthma prevalence has been rising pretty much
everywhere. This is true throughout the entire western world, not just
the U.S. In fact, asthma incidence is highest in countries with the
lowest levels of air pollution. Asthma is rare in developing countries
with much more polluted air. Asthma incidence is simply unrelated to
air pollution. Asthma attacks are probably unrelated as well. But even
if air pollution can cause asthma attacks, it is a minor cause,
responsible for less than 1% of all asthma attacks.

Despite these two trends going in the opposite direction, environmental activists still insist that large increases in asthma rates are driven by pollution:

A report by E&E News
(subscription required) makes it clear that what's in EPA health
reports doesn't actually matter. The story opens with "While the number
of children living in areas violating ozone and particulate matter (PM)
standards has declined in recent years, adolescent asthma that results
from exposure to such pollutants continues to rise, according to new
U.S. EPA statistics." The journalistic goal is to raise health alarms,
whether warranted or not. Thus, the news story itself says air
pollution, the presumptive cause of asthma, went down and yet asthma
prevalence went up. However, the reporter claims air pollution is
responsible for rising asthma just the same.

Wow.  These guys could be the poster-children for refusing to adjust their beliefs in the face of actual facts.  They even acknowledge that pollution and asthma are going in opposite directions and still they insist on their causation theory.

ostscript:  I am willing to believe, maybe, that there is some unknown, unmeasured and unregulated pollutant out there that is increasing and is causing increases in asthma.  However, that is not the argument these folks are making - they are using asthma increases to lobby for tougher standards on known pollutants.

Update:  The best guess I have for the increase in asthma in this country, and the strong positive correlation between asthma and economic development, is that it has something to do with indoor pollution.  The spike in asthma cases seems to parallel the rise in energy prices.  Beginning in the 1970's, we began sealing up houses tighter and tighter to conserve energy.  Increasing penetration of air conditioning simultaneously caused people to close the windows.  I am convinced its something inside, not outside.

Richer and Warmer vs. Poorer and Cooler

For quite a while, I have wanted to see that someone address the question of comparing a richer and warmer world with a poorer and cooler world, and not just assuming that the latter is superior.  As I wrote here, this is one of the most important questions ignored to date by Kyoto supporters.  Supporters of immediate climate change action shout warnings about the dangers of raising the earth's temperature a degree or two.  But what if that comes at the cost of reducing world economic growth a percentage or two?  There is still a lot of work to be done to understand the impacts of a 1-2 degree temperature rise, but it is very, very well understood what 1-2 extra points of economic growth can do, especially in developing countries.  Economic growth reduces starvation, increases life expectancy, improves health care and sanitation, and increases the ability to survive natural disasters.

The Commons Blog links to this study by Indur Goklany on just this topic.  I have not had time to get through it all -- I am just happy someone is even asking the question -- but the Commons Blog folks have:

If global warming is real and its effects will one day be as devastating as
some believe is likely, then greater economic growth would, by increasing
greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, sooner or later lead to greater damages from
climate change. On the other hand, by increasing wealth, technological
development and human capital, economic growth would broadly increase human
well-being, and society's capacity to reduce climate change damages via
adaptation or mitigation. Hence, the conundrum: at what point in the future
would the benefits of a richer and more technologically advanced world be
canceled out by the costs of a warmer world?

Indur Goklany attempted to shed light on this conundrum in a recent paper
presented at the 25th Annual North American Conference of the US Association for
Energy Economics, in Denver (Sept. 21, 2005). His paper "” "Is a
richer-but-warmer world better than poorer-but-cooler worlds?"
"” which can
be found here, draws
upon the results of a series of UK Government-sponsored studies which employed
the IPCC's emissions scenarios to project future climate change between 1990 and
2100 and its global impacts on various climate-sensitive determinants of human
and environmental well-being (such as malaria, hunger, water shortage, coastal
flooding, and habitat loss). The results indicate that notwithstanding climate
change, through much of this century, human well-being is likely to be highest
in the richest-but-warmest world and lower in poorer-but-cooler worlds. With
respect to environmental well-being, matters may be best under the former world
for some critical environmental indicators through 2085-2100, but not
necessarily for others.

This conclusion casts doubt on a key premise implicit in all calls to take
actions now that would go beyond "no-regret" policies in order to reduce GHG
emissions in the near term, namely, a richer-but-warmer world will, before too
long, necessarily be worse for the globe than a poorer-but-cooler world. But the
above analysis suggests this is unlikely to happen, at least until after the
2085-2100 period.

It is particularly important to do the economic work using the same assumptions that the climatologists use. As I posted before, climate studies tilt the playing field in the favor of warming by assuming huge economic growth rates in developing nations.  This ups CO2 emissions estimates, because it is also assumed that these countries remain inefficient energy consumers.  I have criticized this approach in the past, since it yields ridiculous outcomes (many of these smaller nations end up with economies larger than the US in 2050).  However, if they are going to insist on these assumptions, that should also be the backdrop for estimating economic impact of reductions. Presumably, since in their model CO2 comes disproportionately from developing country growth, then the costs will be seen disproportionately in terms of reduced developing country growth.  Which will have predictable results in terms of malnutrition, starvation, disease, and shorter lifespans.

Technorati Tags:  ,

And I Thought OUR Governor Was an Idiot

Cafe Hayek has a fabulous fisking of Missouri governor Matt Blunt's letter to the editor explaining why his call for price controls on gasoline is consistent with his free market principals.  Its all good, I can't pick out any one quote.  Read it all.

But wait!  This just in!  Maybe our governor IS this dumb.

Our great benevolent leader, Janet Napolitano, has stated in press conference
the she is going to investigate these fuel prices of ours. Mostly she was
ruffling her feathers right after Hurricane Katrina shutdown a good 30% of the
domestic supply source. So of course prices increased slightly to account for
the lack of supply. This trend that followed exactly what even very simple
supply and demand theory would predict was not enough to convince miss Gov. J.No
not to call for yet another investigation. No way! She was not going to be
swayed by facts, reality or "assurances from the oil industry" that these were
fair market prices. Nope. An investigation was needed.

A little over a year ago, a pipeline broke and the only source of gasoline into Phoenix was stopped.  Due to EPA regulations, Phoenix requires a special gas blend made in only one refinery coming to us through one pipeline, so it is not surprising that if that source is interrupted, gas might be short here for a while and prices might spike up.  Which they did.  Governor Napolitano at that time blamed the whole situation on the oil industry and called for investigations.  Tellingly, she took only three policy actions:

  • Temporarily waived regulations for a special blend of gas in Phoenix
  • Temporarily waived regulations on truckers that were preventing them from filling in for the broken pipeline
  • Considered circumventing regulations that were preventing a local refinery to serve the Phoenix market from being built.

So the rhetoric at the time was "its all the oil companies faults" but the solution was "repeal government regulations".  Hmmmmm.  By the way, the Commons Blog created a nice chart showing how those filthy rich oil companies are making, uh, ahem, lower profits than average for US industry (click to enlarge).  I wish they were more profitable- we would probably have a lot more oil.


Smart Growth and the Housing "Bubble"

The other day, I wrote fairly tongue-in-cheek about dentists, their investment choices, and the housing "bubble".  In that article I linked to several much weightier analyses, if you are interested in the topic.  The Commons Blog has chimed in today with an interesting point about "smart growth" policies (which I have derided in many other posts):

But few reporters have bothered to ask why some markets have a bubble while
other fast-growing markets do not. The usual answer is that the bubbles are on
the coast because everyone is moving there, but many fast-growing regions in the
West and South do not appear to have a bubble.

The answer appears to be that "smart growth" and other growth-management
policies restrict housing supply. Since housing is an inelastic good, a small
restriction on supply leads to rapid increases in prices. This brings
speculators into the market -- and a large percentage of homes today are being
purchased with no-down-payment, interest-only loans by people who don't plan to
live in the homes; in other words, speculators.

A list of regions that are suffering bubbles reveals that a very high
percentage have implemented some form of growth management such as urban-growth
boundaries, greenbelts, or restrictions on building permits.

More on smart growth and housing bubbles here.  More smart growth resources via Cato.


More on Eminent Domain

I criticized the use of eminent domain to advance private commercial interests here.  The Commons Blog has more:

On February 22, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Kelo v. New London, a case challenging the use of eminent domain for economic development. Those interested in Kelo may also be interested in today's conference on "Eminent Domain, Urban Renewal & The Constitution." The conference considers both the constitutional and policy aspects of eminent domain, particularly the use of eminent domain for economic development.

New Forest Service Rules

My company operates campgrounds and other recreational facilities on government lands, and the US Forest Service is our most important partner.  We work day-to-day with about 20 or so district rangers, who are the front-line general managers of the Forest.

My observation over time is that USFS district rangers have a nearly impossible job.  By their enabling legislation, the USFS is tasked with balancing logging, mining, ranching, recreation, forest health and environmental stewardship in running the forest.  In our modern day age of uncompromising special interests and conflict resolution by lawsuit, it is absolutely impossible to make any decision  without sending some party scurrying to the courts.  In particular, environmental groups have become expert at tying up any decision in court, and attempting to block any of the other competing interests.

The current Administration has introduced new rules intended to make this job easier.  As reported in the New York Times via the Commons Blog,

Forest Service officials said the rules were intended to give local foresters more flexibility to respond to scientific advances and threats like intensifying wildfires and invasive species. They say the regulations will also speed up decisions, ending what some public and private foresters see as a legal and regulatory gridlock that has delayed forest plans for years because of litigation and requirements for time-consuming studies.

I hope this is true, because I feel for front line forestry personnel who joined the service mostly because of their love of the outdoors and the environment, and have been forced instead to become amateur lawyers.  However,  I doubt much will change.  I think that intelligent planning and negotiation may be gone forever in working on environmental issues in favor of litigation.