Monday, August 29, 2016

End of Gas-Powered Cars?

Whoa! Check out this quote from the executive director of Gasoline & Automotive Services Dealers of America, Mike Fox: "If Tesla can deliver on its current promises with the Model 3, gas vehicles are history." Whoa! That would be a marvelous thing indeed, assuming that power generation comes from sustainable, clean sources like solar, which Elon Musk (the guy behind Tesla) clearly envisions. Based on his past record, I'd say that his timeline is a little ambitious (like everything about the guy) but even if it's not right on time, this would sure be great.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Colony Collapse Disorder- struggles of bees

Really nice, balanced article in today's Washington Post about Colony Collapse Disorder. The refrain coming from environmental protests is that the problem is neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide. This piece argues that the problem may be more about the way they or applied, and that the protests ignore another major problem facing bees- the varroa mite. Surprise surprise- everything's not so simple!

Friday, August 26, 2016

Money for farmers

When "demand is soft" for some agricultural commodity, the Feds step in and buy a bunch of it. That has cost taxpayers over $300 million this year, including $15 million to buy up extra cheese and give it to food pantries. While farmers are subject to the vagaries of weather in addition to the ebbs and flows of the market, do you think this is appropriate?

I'm not a farmer (and there are no farmers in my family) so it's easy for me to say that this looks like waste, but I don't know the other side. so I'm going to write to a friend of mine who knows more than I do. I'll update this post when I hear back.

Here's the comment from my friend, agricultural economist Jenny Ifft, who replied with superhuman speed:

I'd say Marin's comment is probably the right way to think about it. It is political, and also not "large" in the big picture. Farm policy in the U.S. started this way - trying to buy commodities to keep prices up -didn't work then and doesn't work now. That being said, I'm skeptical that Section 32 is large enough to have much of an impact on producer decisions or markets, although I'm sure in some cases it has. My personal opinion on farm policy broadly is that it is more of a small boondoggle than large one in the sense that producers are mostly responding to market signals; overall as economists we would do things differently, but it could be a lot worse. Sugar, cotton and rice policies are probably the most distorting, while corn would be amongst the least, but with smaller payments spread over more acres, it is larger in aggregate. Dairy is very complicated and very cyclical - but from NY I can tell you that successful dairies large and small don't have much riding on MPP or any other current programs. 

Not sure if that helps! These are interesting issues. The article you send is overselling the impact and intent of Section 32 (such is journalism...), especially in the first paragraph and I think the 3 ag economists that were quoted are spot on.
The economic argument is that if this is supposed to help recipients of the cheese, they would be better off with cash than with cheese. I've heard that food pantries in particular can get really fantastic deals on food, getting huge bang for their bucks, so just give the $$ to the food pantries and take the farmers out of the loop.

In the meantime, I'm looking at the price of Cheddar over the last few years, and I do see that prices are really low right now.

If this money keeps people in business through a short term dip in prices, that might be a good thing for the economy: it's tough to have a bunch of people go out of business. On the other hand, if the money props up a business that is fundamentally unsustainable, that would be a bad thing for the economy: resources consumed by that business would be better given to a business producing something more in demand, like say improving mass transit.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Climate Change & Water in the West

Parts of three states- California, Nevada, Arizona- and a chunk of Mexico depend on the Colorado River for water, and that supply is rapidly running out. As climate change cuts into the snowpack in the Rocky Mountains and affects the timing of the snowmelt, less water is available to recharge the lakes and reservoirs along the way. Fortunately, being a country with a well-established system of laws, we have peaceful means of handling it: I have some friends who are "watermasters" in Nevada, and there are all sorts of conferences and arbitration over who gets what. It's not always an efficient system, but at least it's not like in some countries.

In other places, people anticipate that this century might well see wars over water, particularly in climatically stressed areas such as central Asia. Resources are stressed all over, and this "slow motion crisis" looks to get worse before it gets better. Some of the good news is that in dry countries like Kazakhstan, it's already clear that water is going to be an issue, and so they've begun to take action.

When something gets scarce, people start to see it as valuable, and they are more careful with it. Supply and demand start to matter. Economics at work!

Brazil's big score

Over the last decade, Brazil has seen a lot of growth (and yes, some big declines), they've landed both the Olympics and the World Cup, and they've (so far!) pulled off both with no headlines worse than Ryan Lochte's head-scratcher of an incident. That's pretty good. One accomplishment bigger than that is what they've done to save the rainforest, which they've managed at a very reasonable cost.

Yes, a lot is still being consumed, and more could be done, but the rate at which it was disappearing has slowed greatly. That's something to really be proud of!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Veganism & the environment

I'm not gonna lie: I got a link to this from someone on Facebook rather than from a scientific source. Still, it kind of makes sense. See what you think!

Here's a quote: "incorporating about 20 to 40% meat in your diet is actually better for the long-term course of humanity than being completely meat-free." How could this be? Meat is really resource-intensive to produce. Well, one idea is that some land is actually well suited to supporting livestock. It's easy to think of gauchos in Argentina as sort of the "way nature intended," but what about here in the US? If we put cattle or buffalo on the central plains rather than trying to grow corn there, we wouldn't be sending 10 tons of soil every second down the mighty Mississippi River (if I'm reading that right). Less soil erosion = more sustainability, and much less pressure on the Ogallala aquifer, much less use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, etc. So yeah: beef for dinner? Or at least, maybe some sustainably farmed tilapia?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Climate Change

We talk about climate change in one of the Stats classes I teach. This past semester, my colleague Prof. Palmateer taught that lesson (as I was on sabbatical) and he was told by a student that it's against the Code of Ethics at Towson to talk about climate change that way, that he needs to open the floor for all dissenters if he's going to talk about it.

Well, I'm sorry, but no, he doesn't, and no, the dissenters no longer have a viable argument. Literally thousands of scientists, many of them listed here, have come to one conclusion based on years of research done by each of them. No matter what the oil industry argues, human-caused climate change is a fact- it's happening now, as in right now: for example, this in the news today. (No, that one news article isn't sufficient evidence, but it's illustrative.)

As open as I am to conversation and discussion, there are some topics that we can't talk much about. Does the sun revolve around the earth? No, it doesn't: Copernicus figured that out in the 1500's. Is the moon made of green cheese? No, it's made of rock and covered with space dust, as was hypothesized by my great-uncle Charles in 1963 and proven true a few years later when people landed on it. Climate change falls into this category: the science is settled. The question is what to do about it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Having gone to grad school in California, I often think of it wistfully- I miss the nice dry air, the amazing cornucopia of fresh produce, the amazing mountains, and of course proximity to my family in nearby Nevada. 

One thing I don't miss is the air pollution, though of course I was in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is much less polluted than LA. Southern California is afflicted with some of the worst pollution in the nation, and a recent study says it kills thousands of people per year. The next time someone tells you that there are things more important to spend money on, ask them how they feel about spending money to save lives. Yeah- it matters.