Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Good for the Economy, Bad for People

A recent article in the New York Times about rapid economic growth in the third quarter provides a perfect example of the upside-down way that we think about the economy:
"After the shock dissipates, the recovery from an extreme weather event can help the economy by creating new reasons for consumer spending, which represents roughly 70 percent of national output. After the damage is done, people must often rebuild their homes or replace their cars, an effect that began to show up in the third quarter and will most likely continue through the end of the year."
Destruction is supposedly a good thing, because people have to spend more to rebuild and that spending is good for the economy. Of course, the people are not better off after their old house is destroyed and they spend much of their money to build a new house - after hardship and displacement, they end up with a house that is no better than the one they always had - but the economy is better off because of the increased consumer spending. 
Rather than thinking about what is good for the economy, we should think about what the economy is good for.  The goal of the economy is to provide people with products that they need or want, so people are comfortable and well off. Rebuilding after a hurricane leaves people no better off than they were before.  Even if it is good for the economy, it is not good for the people whose well-being is supposedly the goal of the economy. 
The Times quotation is here.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

My New Book - Trumpery: Lies and Alternative Facts of Donald Trump

Do you know that Donald Trump once said that the United States' Gross Domestic Product was less than zero? Yet anyone who understands elementary economics realizes that the total value of everything the United States produces cannot possibly be less than zero.

Do you know that Donald Trump once retweeted an image that said, "Whites killed by blacks--81%"?  The actual figure is 15%, not 81%. It turned out that the image originated with a neo-Nazi whose Twitter account said he admired Hitler and used the name "Non dildo'd goyim."

Do you know that Donald Trump claimed to be 6-foot-3, though his driver's license says he is 6-foot-2? At 6-foot-2 and 236 pounds, he is obese. At 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds, he just barely qualifies as overweight rather than obese.

My book, Trumpery: Lies and Alternative Facts of Donald Trump, tells the stories of Trump's fifty most blatant falsehoods. It retells the story of Trump’s plunge into politics from a different perspective, as a series of falsehoods with the factual background for each - from early statements, such as his support for the claim that Obama was born in Kenya, to recent self-contradictory statements about his contacts with Russia.

You can read selections at http://www.omopress.com/Trumpery/
Preview or buy the book on amazon at this page.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Greenhouse Gases Coming Home to Roost

The media is reporting on the devastation that Hurricane Harvey is causing in Texas, but they do not mention that global warming has made the disaster worse.

Hurricanes get their energy from the heat of the ocean, and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are about 5 degrees warmer than usual because of global warming.  In addition, warmer air can hold more water, which means heavier rains. So, global warming has given us a fiercer, more destructive storm, with higher winds and more rain.

Texas does much more than its share to cause global warming.  The average Texan emits 26.29 tons of carbon dioxide per year.  The average Californian emits 9.26 tons, less than half as much.  And the average person worldwide emits 4 tons.

Texas has always resisted attempts to control global warming and has voted for climate deniers.  Fossil fuels are a mainstay of its economy, and the hurricane is headed for Houston, a center of America's oil and gas industry.

The chickens are coming home to roost. There will be much more destructive storms in a few decades unless we wake up and make an intense effort to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Pedal-Powered UPS Truck

Here is a UPS delivery bicycle that we saw in Rome, looking like a UPS truck but better able to get through Rome's narrow streets.

Notice the driver to the right, getting a package out of the back of the truck and wearing the usual brown UPS uniform with the short pants needed to bicycle during the Roman summer. 

This is the last post about Italy - at least for this year.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Naples - Napoli

We are staying in the Centro Antico (historic center) of Naples.  To get a sense of what the typical streets are like, imagine the Lower East Side of Manhattan 60 years ago, and then imagine that the streets are narrowed to less than 15 feet wide, so six-story tenements loom over streets so narrow that they never get sunshine.  Finally, imagine buildings covered with graffiti and old posters, and buildings and streets covered with centuries of accumulated grime.

There are some main streets that are wide enough for two lanes of traffic and sidewalks (no parking lanes), and there are many alleys as narrow as six feet, but those 15-foot streets give the neighborhood its feel. They are just barely wide enough for a car to pass a pedestrian or a parked motorcycle. In fact, the taxi driver who took us from the station hit a parked motorcycle on the way, everyone standing around it grabbed it before it hit the ground and stood it up again, and the driver went on as if nothing had happened.

To top it off, motorcycles go the wrong way on these streets; you can imagine how tight it gets when a motorcycle going the wrong way passes cars going the right way.  Motorcycles and scooters routinely disobey the law: they treat red lights to mean yield right of way rather than stop, and they weave in and out among cars and pedestrians at high speeds.

But occasionally the narrow streets open up into little plazas with monuments or magnificent churches. The best one is Santa Chiara monastery, which has a large courtyard surrounded by murals of biblical scenes and tiles showing rural scenes; the courtyard itself is filled with orange trees, benches with tiles showing rural scenes, and columns with tiles of decorative foliage.

There is also one excellent restaurant after another with outdoor seating wherever there is room to fit it in.

There are tiny stores, only about fifteen feet wide by twenty feet deep, with very limited selections. We shop at a couple of local grocery stores with just a deli counter with cold cuts and cheese, one small refrigerator case, and about 15 shelves of packaged groceries, and there are equally small stores selling limited selections of clothing, books, meat, dark glasses, pizza, pastries, and so on

There are local pastries that cannot be found anywhere but Naples, and the souvenir stores sell endless variations on Pulcinello, whom we haven't seen anywhere else.

Walk a short distance to the waterfront, and things change completely.  The Gulf of Naples is beautiful, with a view of Mount Vesuvius. There are well maintained old Italianate buildings that look freshly painted (they paint masonry buildings here), clean streets, and even normal size grocery stores.

In the park next to the waterfront, individuals sell amusements to the children. One person brings a pony, and sits on a bench waiting for parents to buy their children pony rides.  Two people bring coin-operated bumper cars (actually bumper motorcycles) and the children insert coins and ride around on the sidewalk bumping each other.

There is a lot here that is very appealing, but it is still hard for me to see past the grime, graffiti, and aggressive motorcyclists.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Modernized Poverty in Sicily

We are staying in Palermo's historic center, and I have never seen such widespread poverty in a developed nation. Most buildings are badly in need of patching and painting. There is lots of cheap fried food for sale, including fried pizza and a panino (sandwich) with fried chicken and French fries on the bread.

The staple food is sfinchione, which is a sort of poor man's pizza.  It's  crust is like a pizza crust but one inch thick, topped with tomato-onion sauce and oil - no cheese or other toppings and lots of white bread under a small amount of sauce.

At noon, a little three-wheeled tuk-tuk truck passes through our neighborhood selling sfinchione. To get him to stop, people yell down from their windows: "Luigi." The people two balconies over from us lower a plastic bucket on a rope down from the third floor balcony, Luigi cuts four slices for the couple and their two children, wraps them, and puts them in the bucket to be hauled up. Another couple with two children drive up in a car and buy four slices for themselves and a few more slices to put in a bucket lowered from a third-floor balcony a bit further down the street; then they yell from the street to the balcony for a while, talking to the people up there. Apparently, they buy their parents lunch and talk with them without walking up two flights.

Children playing on the street also yell up to their parents, and occasionally there is a loud argument between a husband on the street and a wife on the balcony. People hang out laundry on the balconies to dry.

So far, it sounds very much like the behavior you would expect in a typical slum of a century ago, which has its own sort of charm, even though life is hard and the food is not healthy. But new technologies developed in the last century make it very different:
  • The wide part of the street near us, which obviously was a piazza a century ago, is now parking lot, where the city rents out spaces and people double-park, blocking other cars parked there.
  • The side street are narrow, and most do not have sidewalks. Cars and motorcycycles drive down them at high speed, so it feels unsafe to walk on them.
  • There are almost as many motorcycles as cars, so there is continuous roaring noise in the streets. People ride motorcycles everywhere, even in the narrow, crowded pedestrian streets.
  • There is a motorcycle repair business just down the street from us, and they use a power saw to cut metal into the late evening hours - making enough noise to drown out conversation in our apartment.
  • People blast music at high volume. Most of them are far enough away that the noise is not bad, but there is also someone just one balcony over and one floor down from us who plays rock music so loud that, even with all our widows closed, it is louder in our apartment than the volume I would normally play music at. Fortunately, he only plays it for an hour or two each day; if he played it all the time, it would be intolerable to live here. 
This is modernized poverty: traditional poverty plus modern technology. If it is used sensibly, technology makes life better, but when it is abused, it can make life worse.

For example, recorded music can make life much more enjoyable if people play it at a reasonable volume or used headphones, but here, they play it so loudly that, for each person enjoying the music, a dozen people are bothered by the noise.

There are some hopeful signs. The two main streets in the historical center of Pallermo, Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emanuele, have both been narrowed from two car lanes to one by placing benches and planters in the roadway, to create more space for pedestrians and bicycles, and parts of them are closed to cars completely on most days.

There are some bicyclists around, but there is no way that that there will be more bicycles than motorcycycles any time soon.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Bret Stephens' Global Warming Disinformation

The New York Times has inexplicably hired Bret Stephens, known for calling climate change an "imaginary enemy," as a new columnist. His first column packed two pieces of disinformation in this one sentence:
"Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the Northern Hemisphere since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities."
First, it is not true that .85 degrees Centigrade is a modest amount of warming. This change  has been enough to cause more frequent extreme weather events, with what used to be hundred year storms occurring as frequently as every ten years, enough to cause melting of ice that makes the arctic ocean navigable during summer, enough to cause species to move north and to higher elevations in order to escape the heat, and enough to cause many other well known effects.

Second, it is not true that the uncertainty of predictions is an excuse for inaction on climate.  Stephens' main point in this column is that people who claim certainty (including climate advocates) are fanatics, but in reality, one of the most powerful arguments for climate action is based on the uncertainty of predictions.

Harvard economist Martin Weitzman points out that predictions of future warming have a fat-tailed distribution curve, as shown in this graph:

The graph shows that it is most likely that doubling CO2 levels from 350 parts per million to 700 parts per million would increase temperatures by less than 3 degrees centigrade, but that there is 10% chance that it will increase temperatures by 6 degrees centigrade or more, and a tiny chance that it will increase temperatures by 10 degrees centigrade.

The potential damage done in the higher ranges is so disastrous, including ocean rise, desertification and famine that would kill or displace billions of people, that Weitzman says it makes sense economically to reduce CO2 emissions as insurance against this worst case.

People spend money on fire insurance even though there is less than a 10% chance of their homes being destroyed by fire, because a fire would wipe them out economically if they did not have insurance. Likewise, Weitzman says, we should spend money reducing emissions as insurance against the worst case, even if there is less than a 10% chance of global warming wiping out billions of people.

Even more than these two false claims, the oddest thing about Stephens' column is that he spends almost half the column arguing that Hillary Clinton's campaign was based on data, and she could have won if she allowed for the possibility that the data underestimated Trump's strength - and he thinks this means that we should doubt and even dismiss the data about global warming.

The lesson is actually just the opposite. Clinton would not have lost if she had admitted that she might have been doing worse than data-predictions. Likewise, humanity will not lose if we admit that global warming might be worse than the most likely data-based prediction.

The point of Stephens' first column is about as rational as saying that uncertainty is a reason for not buying an insurance policy. Nothing can be further from the truth.

See Stephens' column here.