Saturday, September 26, 2009

Rant on Glenn Beck

Note: This is a poorly-written stream of consciousness thing. Apologies.

Here is a three minute video of him being interviewed by Katie Couric. He spends the entire interview refusing to define "white culture" but standing by his assertion that President Obama is a racist.

Here is his nonsensical frog analogy.

The guy goes around ranting and raving on television, and the sad truth is that people listen to him. He can't substantiate anything that he says but nonetheless continues to be gainfully employed. Tell me any other industry where this kind of thing would be tolerated!

The Van Jones thing still bugs me, too. Beck - the former alcoholic and drug addict - gets Jones fired by bringing up things he's said/done in his past. Congratulations, Glenn, for cleaning up your life, but I think being a former alcoholic really limits how much you can justifiably say about someone else's past.

The thought that people actually listen to what this guy says just terrifies me.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Blogging

I definitely shouldn't be blogging on blogging, but sometimes it's nice to just express an idea. Frankly, I suppose that's what blogging - for me - is all about.

For the last couple of weeks, I have been faithfully reading Climate Progress, a climate change blog, as part of a class I am taking on Environmental Science and Policy. If you follow the link you'll see a tremendous amount of content, and simply by reading the blog you can end up with a high-quality education on current climate issues pretty quickly. The problem? Reading the blog literally takes an hour out of my day - each day - and if I take a day off it takes even longer to catch up.

Joe, the main blogger, admits to "dictating all of [his] posts using Dragon NaturallySpeaking software," which probably accounts for part of the length. However, I think this is a symptom of climate change advocates in general. They have a ton of information, and in trying to put all (or most) of it into the public realm, they overwhelm the layman. I will try to follow Climate Progress even after the class is over, simply because it is such a wonderful source of information, but in all likelihood I won't be able to maintain an hour/day dedication to only one blog.

This is one reason, I think, that I (and so many others) really love MR. Tyler does a nice job of keeping his posts fairly short and his main page clean (Joe's long headlines are distracting and by providing me a lot of info, they become uninformative). There is definitely an opportunity, in my opinion, for a climate advocate to write a blog with a little less content that would be more easily digestable for the average citizen - is there one that I simply don't know exists?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

ECOnomics and ECOsystems

I think the biggest failure on both sides of the aisle in this debate is the inability of each side to see the similarities in their arguments. Economists love to argue passionately for the market - allow what is essentially a "natural system" to control human actions. I hear a similar argument flowing from many environmentalists - we want to allow natural ecosystems to continue to exist and govern themselves.

It makes me smile to see this post, on WorldChanging, about a new toilet that uses microorganisms to break down human waste. What these engineers have done is captured the power of nature to improve upon an existing human invention (there's no need to clean these biotoilets). This is a good market solution to a problem we didn't even know we had, and on balance it looks like a net positive for the environment and our society.

Popular Opinion and Climate Change

Clearly at the moment, I am trying to tackle an issue that is far beyond my capabilities, but right now I am pondering the disconnect between popular opinion and climate change. Why isn't the average American (yes, I'm going to be Americentric in this post) more concerned with the end of the world? Hollywood certainly is playing on fears of total annihilation of the species. What is wrong with the narrative set forth by climatologists - why can't they capture our imaginations in the same way?

To answer this question, I want to look back two or three years, to the near-top of the recent bubble. There were economists - not many, mind you - but there were some who knew what was happening. Noted experimentalist Vernon Smith has a footnote in his recent work, Rationality in Economics, dated August 2005 and noting an anomaly in the P/E ratio of rental properties as compared to homes owned. Popular opinion never picked up on these themes, however, and it took a catastrophe - the bursting of the bubble - for people to recognize the facts of the situation.

Most professional economists, stockbrokers, and others in the financial industry were severely underweighting the possibility of a catastrophe. Monte Carlo simulations, the most popular tool for financial planners in the past decade, have been shown to be inadequate in predicting catastrophe, and investment professionals are now trying to rework their simulations to more adequately reflect both the odds of catastrophe and the devastation it causes.

The reality of climate change, though, is that the literature is crystal clear: the probability of a catastrophe is high and the effects will be, frankly, catastrophic. My personal opinion is that most people are risk averse; we don't run stop signs, even late at night, you can buy insurance for anything - the evidence is all around us. So why isn't the narrative ringing?

I think part of the answer is in the presentation. Climate Progress is trying to argue using the net present value of climate change, and listing the impact in hundreds of trillions of dollars. To me, this is kind of an absurd exercise. That's a number that is simply beyond the comprehension of most human beings and it frankly makes the situation seem rather hopeless.

Climate Progress has in its archives an Introduction to Climate Economics, and this exercise probably would hold a lot more weight if economists weren't so popularly vilified right now. We are probably the group you least want to identify with if you want the public to take your opinion seriously, considering our overall failure to predict the events of the last couple of years. Claims about the net cost of adaptation and failure to adapt may or may not be true, but I personally don't find them compelling, and I gather that the average American would agree with me.

I'm not sure how else to present the information or how else to argue for action, but I am sure that simply throwing around dollar figures isn't going to get the job done.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Things that make me mad: Op-Ed pieces that recommend blind faith in anything. Don't get me wrong, I very much like President Obama, but I'm not convinced that he has every answer to every problem. Here is the first sentence of the article:

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S apparent readiness to backtrack on the public insurance option in his health care package is not just a concession to his political opponents — this fixation on securing bipartisan support for health care reform suggests that the Democratic Party has forgotten how to govern and the White House has forgotten how to lead.

I'm going to go ahead and suggest that author Jean Edward Smith wasn't exactly thrilled with George W. Bush's leadership and governing skills when he ramrodded the USA Patriot Act through Congress, or took us into Iraq without Congressional approval, but anything is possible. Smith's blind faith in government, be it the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration, or any other, is downright terrifying, and not simply because I am a libertarian.

Skeptics of Macroeconomics

I am currently enrolled in a course that can best be described as "A History of the Science and Policy of Climate Change" and is essentially a lead-up to the upcoming summit in Copenhagen in December. My first reading is a Synthesis Report from 2007, the Summary for Policymakers, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I've read 1/3 of the report and am fascinated by the fact that every claim they make is accompanied by a listed certainty in italics: likely, more likely than not, very likely, etc. I assume this phenomenon is somehow connected to the skepticism of the science of climate change that has been perpetrated over the last 20 years.

Lately I've been fascinated by the parallels between the science of climate change and the science of economics. Climate can be subdivided into long and short-term trends, not unlike the division between macroeconomics and microeconomics. I can't help but wonder why climatologists are held to such high standards and forced to go to great lengths to try to prove the validity of their science, while macroeconomists - who, I'm beginning to think, may not be scientists at all - have not historically faced the same scrutiny. I realize that the recent economic events have changed popular views of macroeconomists, and that they do provide statistical models, confidence intervals, etc. in their work, but they simply are not forced to jump through the same hoops climatologists are. If you ask me, they should be.

The Final Chapter of Facebook?

Virginia Heffernan at the New York Times claims that we've reached our saturation point with Facebook. She quotes author Julia Klam as saying “Facebook is good for finding people, but by now the novelty of that has worn off, and everyone’s been found.”

Can't say I agree with this statement, though perhaps that's because I'm in a situation (college age and member of a social fraternity) where I am often meeting new people. Facebook may be dying among its older users, but I don't see an end anywhere in sight for the average teenager or twentysomething anytime soon.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ben Stein on Children

According to Ben Stein, our falling birth rate indicates that the net value of having a child in modern, upper-middle class America is negative.

"...the birth rate is collapsing. But if we stop having enough children, because their value is so low relative to their cost, the society grinds down. It's happening right now. The native-born upper middle class barely replace themselves in America, if they do at all. In a way we are committing suicide as a class, possibly in part because of the burdens of child rearing in modern life."

Stein's conclusion doesn't say outright that this is a bad thing, but he certainly implies it. I'm not sure I feel that distraught about the collapse of the system that has produced such winners as General Motors, Enron and Bear Stearns. In addition, although it's clear he didn't have enough space to discuss everything, he fails to mention our inability to build lasting relationships, which I would argue contributes substantially to the declining birthrate. For the most part I like Ben Stein, but I can't say I buy any of what he is selling today.

Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dynamic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ignorant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignificant. ~Fredrich Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty