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.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The "Republic Not Democracy" Meme

If you complain on-line about the undemocratic result of the last election - with Trump getting a majority of electoral votes even though he lost the popular vote by 2.9 million - someone is likely to answer you with this right-wing meme: "The United States is not a democracy.  It is a constitutional republic."

People can use this meme only if they do not know the definitions of the words and think that a republic and a democracy are two different things.  Actually, a republic is a government where the citizens are sovereign, unlike a monarchy, where the king or queen is sovereign.  A republic can be more or less democratic.

The United States has always been a constitutional republic, but it has become more democratic over the centuries. Initially, only property owners could vote. In the early nineteenth century, the property qualification was removed and all free males could vote. Later in the nineteenth century, slavery was abolished and all males got the right to vote (in theory, though often not in practice).  In the early twentieth century, women got the right to vote. Later in the twentieth century, the Supreme Court adopted the doctrine of "one person, one vote," which required electoral districts to be roughly the same size, so state legislatures could no longer create unequal districts that give them the result they wanted.

The electoral college is the one remaining institution that does not follow the rule of "one person, one vote." Because a state's electoral votes is equal to its number of senators and representatives, voters in smaller, rural states (which are usually more conservative) have more say than voters in larger, urban states. In presidential elections, one voter in Wyoming has 3.6 times as much say as one voter in California. This is why we had elections in 2000 and 2016 where the Republican candidate won the electoral vote even though he lost the popular vote.

If the United States got rid of the electoral college, we would still be a constitutional republic, but we would be a more democratic one.

What the people who use this meme really mean is that they do not want presidential elections to become more democratic, because they would be more likely to lose.  They should say this outright, and they should carry it to its logical conclusion: they should say they want to take the vote away from women and from non-whites, so the United States would be more undemocratic and Republicans would be even more likely to win.

According to their reasoning, there is nothing wrong with this sort of anti-democratic change, because the United States is a constitutional republic, not a democracy.

Note: Actually abolishing the electoral college would require a constitutional amendment, but there is a much easier way of eliminating its influence in practice. State laws set the requirement for how electors vote.  Ten states and the District of Columbia, with a total of 30.7% of all electoral votes, have already joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.  When states with more than 50% of the electoral vote join this compact, all these states will change their laws so their electors vote for the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote, and then the winner of the popular vote will always win the electoral vote.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Berkeley Passes Right-To-Request Law

Berkeley's City Council finally passed a right-to-request law, more than two years after the passage of Measure Q, which called on the city to pass this sort of law. I wrote an op-ed for Berkeleyside explaining why I think this sort of law is so important. I also wrote the following summary of the campaign and passage of the law for

On January 24, the City Council of Berkeley, CA, passed a "right-to-request law."  This law gives employees the right to request part-time work, flexible working hours, predictable working hours, and flexible working arrangements (such as telecommuting). Employers can refuse the request by providing a business reason that they cannot accommodate the request. Employees cannot appeal the reason for the refusal.

Though it has no teeth, this sort of law has been very effective. The United Kingdom has had this sort of law since 2002, and the overwhelming majority of requests have been granted. Germany and the Netherlands have much stricter laws, which allow employees to appeal the reason for refusal and have the government make the final decision, but the percentage of requests that have been granted is about the same in the UK as in Germany and the Netherlands.  In 2013, right-to-request laws were passed in Vermont and San Francisco, and in 2014, President Obama issued an executive order giving federal employees the right to request.

In late 2013, I took the preliminary steps needed to put an advisory measure on the Berkeley ballot calling on the city to pass a right-to-request law. In the early months of 2014, we gathered signatures. Later in 2014, I got endorsements from organizations including the Sierra Club, the Berkeley Democratic Club, the National Women's Political Caucus - Alameda North, the Green Party of Alameda County, the Alameda County Democratic Party, and others.  I also got endorsements from Berkeley's mayor and from seven of the eight councilmembers; the other councilmember did not oppose the initiative but said that she did not have enough time to study it thoroughly.

No one submitted an argument against the initiative for the ballot pamphlet. With all of these endorsements and no opposition, the initiative (Measure Q on the November 2014 Berkeley ballot) won with more than 78% of the votes - an overwhelming margin.

Since this was an advisory initiative, I had to follow up the initiative victory by getting a law passed. After the election, I asked the mayor to refer the issue to the Labor Commission.

I produced a first draft of a law based on San Francisco's law. The main change I made was to remove provisions in the San Francisco law that limited the right-to-request to caregivers (such as parents of preschool children), since the initiative called on Berkeley to pass a law that applied to all employees.

The Labor Commission spent about a year working on this draft ordinance.  There was no opposition, but there were delays because this commission meets only every other month and because it was tied up with a very controversial minimum wage law at the same time.

After the Labor Commission produced a draft, city staff spent about a year reviewing and modifying it.  Staff members made some useful changes, such as replacing the penalties for noncompliance defined in the San Francisco law with the penalties that already existed in Berkeley's municipal code for noncompliance with similar ordinances.

The ordinance finally got to the city council on January 24, 2017, more than two years after the initiative passed.  It was on the Consent Calendar, which means that it is a non-controversial item to be passed without discussion.  But any councilmember can pull items from the Consent Calendar and put them on the Action Calendar for discussion, and items automatically move to the Action Calendar if four or more members of the public talk about them during the public comments on the Consent Calendar.

Before the meeting started, the vice-chair of the Labor Commission told me that he had heard the downtown merchants and Chamber of Commerce were telling people to come and speak against the ordinance - the sort of flurry of last-minute opposition that is common in Berkeley.  At worst, if large numbers spoke against it, the Council might refer the ordinance back to the Commission to deal with their concerns.

With some anxiety, we kept track of everyone who spoke about the Consent Calendar, and it turned out that only two business people spoke against our item. That meant that one of us could speak and still keep the number of speakers down to three, so it wouldn't automatically be pulled. I let the Labor Commissioner speak.

After public comments, the councilmembers can pull items from the Consent Calendar, and none of them mentioned our item.  It passed on the Consent Calendar item by unanimous consensus of the City Council.

The irony is that, after talking about this issue for two years, I did not get a chance to speak at the meeting where the ordinance was passed.

The two Labor Commission staff members who were there, the commissioner who spoke, and I all felt great that our work had finally borne fruit - and we felt great that it was passed on the Consent Calendar, both because that showed the strength of Council support and because it let us go home early rather than staying for an Action Item that they probably wouldn't have gotten to until midnight.

This appeared with minor edits on

Monday, December 19, 2016

Harder Living with Technology

If you want to see how badly America has misused technology, compare these two videos, one showing parents causing a massive traffic jam when they drop off their children at school in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the other showing children arriving at school in the Netherlands.

Notice that the parents in Charlotte start dropping off children before 7 AM. There are school buses, but most parents think they arrive too early, so they drop off their children on the way to work. Presumably, these children are on an early schedule, so most get home long before their parents get back from work and spend the afternoon alone.

The parents obviously have long work days, since they begin their commutes before 7 AM. So many parents line up to drop off children that they spill out of the school grounds and onto the highway, slowing down everyone's commute.

In the Dutch school, by contrast, the students arrive by bicycle, so they don't create traffic jams and don't have to wait in backed-up traffic. Parents don't have to do the extra work of chauffering children, because the children can get around on their own.

To the inconvenience shown in the Charlotte video, add the fact that American work hours are 25% longer than Dutch work hours, on the average. Dutch employees have the right to choose their own work hours, and about half of them choose to work part-time. They can afford to choose shorter hours partly because they bicycle and don't waste money on auto-dependency.

Americans don't have these choices. Most Americans do not have the option of walking and bicycling. Most Americans can't get a decent job unless they are willing to work full-time. And most Americans need to work full time to support a way of life of high consumption and low satisfaction. It is as if we were deliberately trying to make life harder and not giving people the choice of making it easier.

In the video of Charlotte, you can see that there are no sidewalks, no bike paths, and no neighborhood streets near the school where it is safe to walk. Whether you like it or not, the only way to get around is to drive.

Thanks to Angie Schmitt of for posting the video of Charlotte.  

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Trump Wins. The World Loses.

Our country is about to become a rogue state - the only major nation in the world that is not cooperating to avoid catastrophic global warming. 

Trump has promised to withdraw from the Paris Agreement to limit global warming.  Though he cannot withdraw legally, he will undoubtedly reverse the policies of Obama's EPA that were aimed at controlling greenhouse gas emissions.

The Paris agreement was the world's last chance to avoid the most destructive effects of global warming by limiting warming to 2 degrees. It would have to be strengthened to accomplish this, but it includes regular reviews that were likely to strengthen it.

Trump cannot stop the world's shift to clean energy, but he can slow it down - probably by five or ten years.  The most likely outcome is that global warming will be extreme enough to create hundreds of millions of climate refugees, fleeing from drought and flooding in their own countries - an ironic result coming from a president who is against immigration.

It is frightening that the majority of Americans could not see through Trump.

He is so thin-skinned that he lashes out at anyone who criticizes him. He wakes up at 4 AM, so angry that he goes straight to Twitter to abuse people who have gotten in his way, even when his advisors say it will hurt his campaign.  In fact, his advisors stopped him from using Twitter during the last few days of the campaign, so he wouldn't shoot himself in the foot with one of his angry outbursts.  This is not the temperament we want in a president, who is constantly criticized, who can lash out with the Dept. of Justice or with the armed forces rather than just with Twitter, and who has his finger on the nuclear trigger.

His campaign was based on bragging and personal attacks. His policies are the sort of thing you would expect of someone who is such a braggart that he is delusional.  He promises to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it - but he doesn't say how he will make Mexico pay.  He promises to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something better - but he doesn't say what he will replace it with.  Early in his campaign, he claimed he would make everyone rich - luring the suckers to back his campaign in the same way he lured the suckers into his gambling casinos.

He knows nothing about policy.  When a reporter asked him what he thought was the most important element of the nuclear triad, his response showed that he didn't know what the nuclear triad is. He wants to weaken our commitment to NATO, which would make the world less secure. His economic proposals focus on tax cuts for the rich, which will make the national debt balloon by trillions of dollars.

His core backers are working-class whites with little education, who are falling behind in the global economy and who apparently cannot see how implausible his policies are. They are trying to deal with their economic failures by scape-goating immigrants, so they love Trump's xenophobia. They don't realize that Trump's promised tax cuts will increase inequality and leave them even further behind.

The only comfort is that someone so ignorant and so emotionally unstable is bound to do something - or many things - during his first term that disgrace him and his party and turn the country against him. But he will do immense damage along the way. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Do Bicyclists Pay Their Own Way?

People who are anti-bicycle sometimes say that bicyclists use the roads but do not pay the gasoline taxes that help maintain the roads.

This idea is absurd on its face, because the local streets and roads that bicycles use are paid for primarily by cities' general funds, using property taxes, sales taxes, and other taxes that everyone pays. Gasoline taxes are used to pay part of the cost of freeways, which bicyclist cannot use and which are also subsidized by taxes that everyone pays.

For the first time, I have seen an analysis of how much cost bicyclists and cars impose, which provides another argument against the claim that bicyclists should pay their own way. It looks at the base cost of paving streets and providing signage plus the cost of the damage that different vehicles cause to pavement, and it looks at the three factors that determine the cost for a given mode of transportation: weight, size, and speed. It concludes that:
  • A car that weighs 3,000 pounds, is 15 feet long, and travels at 30 mph imposes a cost of $1.20 on a trip that is 10 miles long.
  • A bicycle imposes a cost of $0.05 on a trip that is 10 miles long.
  • A pedestrian imposes a cost of $0.02 on a trip that is 10 miles long. 
The costs for pedestrians and bicycles are so small that it would not make sense to tax them. If a bicyclist rides 1,000 miles per year, the total tax would be $2, so the revenue would not cover the cost of administering the tax.

Combine the lower cost that bicyclists impose with the fact that local streets are paid for by taxes that everyone pays, and it is clear that bicyclists already pay more than their fair share of street maintenance. The property taxes that bicyclists pay subsidize the costs that motor vehicles create.

See the calculations and more details here.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Adam Gopnik Is Wrong About Jane Jacobs - And About Our Cities

There is a lengthy article about Jane Jacobs in the current New Yorker, written by their regular contributor Adam Gopnik, which distorts what Jacobs said and which shows real ignorance about what we need to do to improve our cities.

Gopnik’s main point is that Jacobs relied on the market to produce diverse, intricate neighborhoods and she looked down on planners such as Ed Logue, who built large-scale urban developments such as New York’s Roosevelt Island. But, Gopnik says, now we can see that the market brings gentrification that destroys diversity, that Logue was egalitarian and idealistic, and that the only way to get the affordable housing we need is with big and ugly projects like Logue’s. Gopnik summarizes this point when he says:
“A cable-car visit to Roosevelt Island is sobering for those briefly inclined to abandon Jacobs for Logue. This is surely not anyone’s idea of successful urbanism. Who would not rather live in the West Village than on Roosevelt Island? If they could afford to. But almost no one can—and the reality is that good housing that will alleviate the San Francisco problem [of gentrification] will probably look more like Roosevelt Island than like the West Village, simply because more Roosevelt Islands can be built for many, and the West Village can be preserved for only a few.”
In reality, Jacobs did not have unlimited faith in the market. She knew that it could lead to what she called “the self-destruction of diversity,” which we now call gentrification. And, though Gopnik does not know it, we do have tools today that were not available when Jacobs wrote and that could let us create more affordable housing by building neighborhoods Jacobs would approve of, rather than settling for the ugliness of Roosevelt Island.
The New Urbanists have shown that we can use form-based codes rather than conventional zoning to create neighborhoods with the sort of “fine-grained diversity” that Jacobs admired. They are best known for suburbs, but they have also designed urban neighborhoods that are reminiscent of old neighborhoods in the style of Greenwich Village, such as Liberty Harbor in New Jersey (shown above).
Today, these New Urbanist neighborhoods are expensive, because zoning laws make it difficult to build them, but we could produce many more of them. In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States produced a huge amount of housing by building freeways to make the suburbs more accessible, by providing financial incentives such as FHA mortgages, and by adopting local zoning laws that made it easy to build suburban housing. Today, we need an effort that is just as massive but that does the inverse: build public transportation to make in-city locations more accessible, and provide financial incentives and adopt form-based codes that encourage developers to build walkable neighborhoods around the stations.
In the 1950s and 1960s, it was easy to find affordable housing. The new suburbs were aimed at the middle class, but the overall housing supply increased so dramatically that older housing became cheap - so cheap that entire neighborhoods, such as the South Bronx, were abandoned because the rents were not even high enough to support their maintenance costs and taxes. Likewise, we could harness the market today with government programs that get so much new housing built that prices of housing overall go down. And this new housing could be in neighborhoods that look more like Greenwich Village than like Roosevelt Island.
I think this new housing should be required to include affordable units, but there is a limit to how much affordable housing we can produce. A recent study in San Francisco found that the city could require new rentals to include 18% affordable housing but that a higher requirement would slow housing development.
Building units designated as affordable is a part of the solution to affordability, but a bigger part is encouraging developers to build so much market rate housing that the market price of existing housing goes down, as we did in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was cheap to live in New York's east Greenwich Village or in San Francisco's North Beach.
In addition, a big part of the solution to affordability is to spread prosperity more widely. In the 1950s and 1960s, incomes grew fairly equally all across the economic spectrum, which is why the middle class could afford those new suburban houses. But since the 1970s, most of the gains have gone to the very rich. We can use the income tax system to redistribute income: if we raise taxes on the very rich, lower taxes on the middle class, and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit for low and moderate incomes, we can spread the prosperity widely again.
Gopnik’s problem is that he is an “essayist” (as Wikipedia describes him) who writes about many different subjects – which means he is a jack of all trades but master of none. He apparently does not know that we are not stuck with neighborhoods like Roosevelt Island, because form-based codes can create new neighborhoods that are more like Greenwich Village. He does not talk about reducing economic inequality. He does not even seem to know that housing is not currently affordable because of overly stringent zoning laws that restrict the amount that can be built. As Paul Krugman has written:
"Upper-income Americans are moving into high-density areas, where they can benefit from city amenities; lower-income families are moving out of such areas, presumably because they can’t afford the real estate. … the shortage of urban dwellings is mainly artificial. Our big cities, even New York, could comfortably hold quite a few more families than they do. The reason they don’t is that rules and regulations block construction. ... Now, I’m not calling for an end to urban zoning. Cities are rife with spillovers, positive and negative. My tall building may cut off your sunlight; on the other hand, it may help sustain the density needed to support local stores, or for that matter a whole city’s economic base. There’s no reason to believe that completely unregulated building would get the balance right. But building policies in our major cities, especially on the coasts, are almost surely too restrictive."
Gopnik makes a simple contrast between the market and planning, but the world is more complex than that. It is often best for government to harness the market rather than to override it with planning.
The market is good at creating wealth but not necessarily good at distributing wealth. We can harness the market by using the tax system to redistribute income more fairly.
The market is good at building housing but not necessarily good at designing attractive cities. In the early nineteenth century, it built Greenwich Village, but today it is more likely to build Houston-style sprawl. We can harness the market by allowing development near transit, by using form-based codes to create attractive neighborhoods, by requiring developers to include affordable housing, and by providing low-interest financing or other incentives to get enough housing built to bring prices down.