Why do so many people equate “natural” with “good”?

Dec 3, JDN 2458091

Try searching sometime for “all-natural” products. It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking for dog food, skin cream, clothing, or even furniture polish; you will find some out there that proudly declare themselves “all-natural”. There is a clear sense that there is something good about being natural, some kind of purity that comes from being unsullied by industrial technology. (Of course, when you buy something online that is shipped to you in a box carried on a truck because it’s “all-natural”….)

Food is the most extreme case, where it is by now almost universally agreed that processed food is inherently harmful and the source of all of our dietary problems if not all our social ills.

This is a very strange state of affairs, as there is no particular reason for “natural” and “good” to be in any way related.

First of all, I can clearly come up with examples of all four possible cases: Motherhood is natural and good, but gamma ray bursts are natural and bad. Vaccination is artificial and good, but nuclear weapons are artificial and bad.

Natural Artificial
Good Motherhood Vaccination
Bad Gamma ray bursts Nuclear weapons

But even more than that, it’s difficult to even find a correlation between being natural and being good. If anything, I would expect the correlation to run the other way: Artificial things were created by humans to serve some human purpose, while natural things are simply whatever happens to exist. Most of the harmful artificial things are the result of mistakes, or unintended consequences of otherwise beneficial things—while plenty of harmful natural things are simply inherently harmful and never benefited anyone in any way. Nuclear weapons helped end World War 2. Gamma ray bursts will either hardly affect us at all, or instantly and completely annihilate our entire civilization. I guess they might also lead to some valuable discoveries in astrophysics, but if I were asked to fund a research project with the same risk-reward profile as a gamma ray burst, I would tear up the application and make sure no one else ever saw it again. The kind of irrational panic people had about the possibility of LHC black holes would be a rational panic if applied to a research project with some risk of causing gamma ray bursts.

The current obsession with “natural” products (which is really an oxymoron, if you think about it; it can’t be natural if it’s a product) seems to have arisen as its own unintended consequence of something good, namely the environmentalist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The very real problems of pollution, natural resource depletion, extinction, global warming, desertification, and ocean acidification led people to rightly ask how the very same industrial processes that brought us our high standard of living could ultimately destroy it if we left them unchecked.

But the best solutions to these problems are themselves artificial: Solar power, nuclear energy, carbon taxes. Trying to go back to some ancient way of life where we didn’t destroy the environment is simply not a viable option at this point; even if such a way of life once existed, there’s no way it could sustain our current population, much less our current standard of living. And given the strong correlation between human migrations and extinction events of large mammals, I’m not convinced that such a way of life ever existed.

So-called “processed food” is really just industrially processed food—which is to say, food processed by the most efficient and productive technologies available. Humans have been processing food for thousands of years, and with very good reason; much of what we eat would be toxic if it weren’t threshed or boiled or fermented. The fact that there are people who complain about “processed food” but eat tofu and cheese is truly quite remarkable—think for a moment about how little resemblance Cheddar bears to the cow from whence it came, or what ingenuity it must have taken people in ancient China to go all the way from soybean to silken tofu. Similarly, anyone who is frightened by “genetically modified organisms” should give some serious thought to what is involved in creating their seedless bananas.

There may be some kernel of truth in the opposition to industrially processed food, however. The problem is not that we process food, nor that we do so by industrial machines. The problem is who processes the food, and why.

Humans have been processing food for thousands of years, yes; but only for the last few hundred have corporations been doing that processing. For most of human history, you processed food to feed your family, or your village, or perhaps to trade with a few neighboring villages or sell to the nearest city. What makes tofu different from, say, Fruit Loops isn’t that the former is less processed; it’s that the latter was designed and manufactured for profit.

Don’t get me wrong; corporations have made many valuable contributions to our society, including our food production, and it is largely their doing that food is now so cheap and plentiful that we could easily feed the entire world’s population. It’s just that, well, it’s also largely their doing that we don’t feed the entire world’s population, because they see no profit in doing so.

The incentives that a peasant village faces in producing its food are pretty well optimized for making the most nutritious food available with the least cost in labor and resources. When your own children and those of your friends and neighbors are going to be eating what you make, you work pretty hard to make sure that the food you make is good for them. And you don’t want to pollute the surrounding water or destroy the forest, because your village depends upon those things too.

The incentives that a corporation faces in producing food are wildly different. Nobody you know is going to be eating this stuff, most likely, and certainly not as their primary diet. You aren’t concerned about nutrition unless you think your customers are; more likely, you expect them to care about taste, so you optimize your designs to make things taste as good as possible regardless of their nutrition. You care about minimizing labor inputs only insofar as they cost you wages—from your perspective, cutting wages is as good as actually saving labor. You want to conserve only the resources that are expensive; resources that are cheap, like water and (with subsidies) corn syrup, you may as well use as much as you like. And above all, you couldn’t care less about the environmental damage you’re causing by your production, because those costs will be borne entirely by someone else, most likely the government or the citizens of whatever country you’re producing in.

Responsible consumers could reduce these effects, but only somewhat, because there is a fundamental asymmetry of information. The corporation “knows” (in that each of the administrators in each of the components that needs to know, knows) what production processes they are using and what subcontractors they are hiring, and could easily figure out how much they are exploiting workers and damaging the environment; but the consumers who care about these things can find out that information with great difficulty, if at all. Consumers who want to be responsible, but don’t have very good information, create incentives for so-called “greenwashing”: Corporations have many good profit-making reasons to say they are environmentally responsible, but far fewer reasons to actually be environmentally responsible.

And that is why you should be skeptical of “all-natural” products, especially if you are skeptical of the role of corporations in our society and our food system. “All-natural” is an adjective that has no legal meaning. The word “organic” can have a legally-defined meaning, if coupled with a certification like the USDA Organic standard. The word “non-toxic” has a legally-defined meaning—there is a long list of toxic compounds it can’t contain in more than trace amounts. There are now certifications for “carbon-neutral”. But “all-natural” offers no such protection. Basically anything can call itself “all-natural”, and if corporations expect you to be willing to pay more for such products, they have no reason not to slap it on everything. This is a problem that I think can only be solved by stringent regulation. Consumer pressure can’t work if there is no transparency in the production chain.

Even taken as something like its common meaning, “not synthetic or artificial”, there’s no reason to think that simply because something is natural, that means it is better, or even more ecologically sustainable. The ecological benefits of ancient methods of production come from the incentives of small-scale local production, not from something inherently more destructive about high-tech industry. (Indeed, water pollution was considerably worse from Medieval peasant villages—especially on a per-capita basis—than it is from modern water treatment systems.)

What exactly is “gentrification”? How should we deal with it?

Nov 26, JDN 2458083

“Gentrification” is a word that is used in a variety of mutually-inconsistent ways. If you compare the way social scientists use it to the way journalists use it, for example, they are almost completely orthogonal.

The word “gentrification” is meant to invoke the concept of a feudal gentry—a hereditary landed class that extracts rents from the rest of the population while contributing little or nothing themselves.

If indeed that is what we are talking about, then obviously this is bad. Moreover, it’s not an entirely unfounded fear; there are some remarkably strong vestiges of feudalism in the developed world, even in the United States where we never formally had a tradition of feudal titles. There really is a significant portion of the world’s wealth held by a handful of billionaire landowner families.

But usually when people say “gentrification” they mean something much broader. Almost any kind of increase in urban real estate prices gets characterized as “gentrification” by at least somebody, and herein lies the problem.

In fact, the kind of change that is most likely to get characterized as “gentrification” isn’t even the rising real estate prices we should be most worried about. People aren’t concerned when the prices of suburban homes double in 20 years. You might think that things that are already too expensive getting more expensive would be the main concern, but on the contrary, people are most likely to cry “gentrification” when housing prices rise in poor areas where housing is cheap.

One of the most common fears about gentrification is that it will displace local residents. In fact, the best quasi-experimental studies show little or no displacement effect. It’s actually mainly middle-class urbanites who get displaced by rising rents. Poor people typically own their homes, and actually benefit from rising housing prices. Young upwardly-mobile middle-class people move to cities to rent apartments near where they work, and tend to assume that’s how everyone lives, but it’s not. Rising rents in a city are far more likely to push out its grad students than they are poor families that have lived there for generations. Part of why displacement does not occur may be because of policies specifically implemented to fight it, such as subsidized housing and rent control. If that’s so, let’s keep on subsidizing housing (though rent control will always be a bad idea).

Nor is gentrification actually a very widespread phenomenon. The majority of poor neighborhoods remain poor indefinitely. In most studies, only about 30% of neighborhoods classified as “gentrifiable” actually end up “gentrifying”. Less than 10% of the neighborhoods that had high poverty rates in 1970 had low poverty rates in 2010.

Most people think gentrification reduces crime, but in the short run the opposite is the case. Robbery and larceny are higher in gentrifying neighborhoods. Criminals are already there, and suddenly they get much more valuable targets to steal from, so they do.

There is also a general perception that gentrification involves White people pushing Black people out, but this is also an overly simplistic view. First of all, a lot of gentrification is led by upwardly-mobile Black and Latino people. Black people who live in gentrified neighborhoods seem to be better off than Black people who live in non-gentrified neighborhoods; though selection bias may contribute to this effect, it can’t be all that strong, or we’d observe a much stronger displacement effect. Moreover, some studies have found that gentrification actually tends to increase the racial diversity of neighborhoods, and may actually help fight urban self-segregation, though it does also tend to increase racial polarization by forcing racial mixing.

What should we conclude from all this? I think the right conclusion is we are asking the wrong question.

Rising housing prices in poor areas aren’t inherently good or inherently bad, and policies designed specifically to increase or decrease housing prices are likely to have harmful side effects. What we need to be focusing on is not houses or neighborhoods but people. Poverty is definitely a problem, for sure. Therefore we should be fighting poverty, not “gentrification”. Directly transfer wealth from the rich to the poor, and then let the housing market fall where it may.

There is still some role for government in urban planning more generally, regarding things like disaster preparedness, infrastructure development, and transit systems. It may even be worthwhile to design regulations or incentives that directly combat racial segregation at the neighborhood level, for, as the Schelling Segregation Model shows, it doesn’t take a large amount of discriminatory preference to have a large impact on socioeconomic outcomes. But don’t waste effort fighting “gentrification”; directly design policies that will incentivize desegregation.

Rising rent as a proportion of housing prices is still bad, and the fundamental distortions in our mortgage system that prevent people from buying houses are a huge problem. But rising housing prices are most likely to be harmful in rich neighborhoods, where housing is already overpriced; in poor neighborhoods where housing is cheap, rising prices might well be a good thing.
In fact, I have a proposal to rapidly raise homeownership across the United States, which is almost guaranteed to work, directly corrects an enormous distortion in financial markets, and would cost about as much as the mortgage interest deduction (which should probably be eliminated, as most economists agree). Give each US adult a one-time grant voucher which gives them $40,000 that can only be spent as a down payment on purchasing a home. Each time someone turns 18, they get a voucher. You only get one over your lifetime, so use it wisely (otherwise the policy could become extremely expensive); but this is an immediate direct transfer of wealth that also reduces your credit constraint. I know I for one would be house-hunting right now if I were offered such a voucher. The mortgage interest deduction means nothing to me, because I can’t afford a down payment. Where the mortgage interest deduction is regressive, benefiting the rich more than the poor, this policy gives everyone the same amount, like a basic income.

In the short run, this policy would probably be expensive, as we’d have to pay out a large number of vouchers at once; but with our current long-run demographic trends, the amortized cost is basically the same as the mortgage interest deduction. And the US government especially should care about the long-run amortized cost, as it is an institution that has lasted over 200 years without ever missing a payment and can currently borrow at negative real interest rates.

This is one of the worst wildfire seasons in American history. But it won’t be for long.

Oct 22, JDN 2458049

At least 38 people have now been killed by the wildfires that are still ongoing in California; in addition, 5700 buildings have been destroyed and 190,000 acres of land burned. The State of California keeps an updated map of all the fires that are ongoing and how well-controlled they are; it’s not a pretty sight.

While the particular details are extreme, this is not an isolated incident. This year alone, wildfires have destroyed over 8 million acres of land in the US. In 2015, that figure was 10 million acres.

Property damage for this year’s wildfires in California is estimated at over $65 billion. That’s more than what Trump recently added to the military budget, and getting close to our total spending on food stamps.

There is a very clear upward trend in the scale and intensity of wildfires just over the last 50 years, and the obvious explanation is climate change. As climate change gets worse, these numbers are projected to increase between 30% and 50% by the 2040s. We still haven’t broken the record of fire damage in 1910, but as the upward trend continues we might soon enough.

It’s important to keep the death tolls in perspective; much as with hurricanes, our evacuation protocols and first-response agencies do their jobs very well, and as a result we’ve been averaging only about 10 wildfire deaths per year over the whole United States for the last century. In a country of over 300 million people, that’s really an impressively small number. That number has also been trending upward, however, so we shouldn’t get complacent.

Climate change isn’t the only reason these fires are especially damaging. It also matters where you build houses. We have been expanding our urban sprawl into fire-prone zones, and that is putting a lot of people in danger. Since 1990, over 60% of new homes were built in “wildland-urban interface areas” that are at higher risk.

Why are we doing this? Because housing prices in urban centers are too expensive for people to live there, but that is where most of the jobs are. So people have little choice but to live in exurbs and suburbs closer to the areas where fires are worst. That’s right: The fires are destroying homes and killing people because the rent is too damn high.

We need to find a solution to this problem of soaring housing prices. And since housing is such a huge proportion of our total expenditure—we spend more on housing than we do on all government spending combined—this would have an enormous impact on our entire economy. If you compare the income of a typical American today to most of the world’s population, or even to a typical American a century ago, we should feel extremely rich, but we don’t—largely because we spend so much of it just on keeping a roof over our heads.

Real estate is also a major driver of economic inequality. Wealth inequality is highest in urban centers where homeownership is rare. The large wealth gaps between White and non-White Americans can be in large part attributed to policies that made homeownership much more difficult for non-White people. Housing value inequality and overall wealth inequality are very strongly correlated. The high inequality in housing prices is making it far more difficult for people to move from poor regions to rich regions, holding back one of the best means we had for achieving more equal incomes.

Moreover, the rise in capital income share since the 1970s is driven almost entirely by real estate, rather than actual physical capital. The top 10% richest housing communities constitute over 52% of the total housing wealth in the US.

There is a lot of debate about what exactly causes these rising housing prices. No doubt, there are many factors contributing, from migration patterns to zoning regulations to income inequality in general. In a later post, I’ll get into why I think many of the people who think they are fighting the problem are actually making it worse, and suggest some ideas for what they should be doing instead.

When are we going to get serious about climate change?

Oct 8, JDN 24578035

Those two storms weren’t simply natural phenomena. We had a hand in creating them.

The EPA doesn’t want to talk about the connection, and we don’t have enough statistical power to really be certain, but there is by now an overwhelming scientific consensus that global climate change will increase hurricane intensity. The only real question left is whether it is already doing so.

The good news is that global carbon emissions are no longer rising. They have been essentially static for the last few years. The bad news is that this is almost certainly too little, too late.

The US is not on track to hit our 2025 emission target; we will probably exceed it by at least 20%.

But the real problem is that the targets themselves are much too high. Most countries have pledged to drop emissions only about 8-10% below their 1990s levels.

Even with the progress we have made, we are on track to exceed the global carbon budget needed to keep warming below 2 C by the year 2040. We have been reducing emission intensity by about 0.8% per year—we need to be reducing it by at least 3% per year and preferably faster. Highly-developed nations should be switching to nuclear energy as quickly as possible; an equitable global emission target requires us to reduce our emissions by 80% by 2050.

At the current rate of improvement, we will overshoot the 2 C warming target and very likely the 3C target as well.

Why aren’t we doing better? There is of course the Tragedy of the Commons to consider: Each individual country acting in its own self-interest will continue to pollute more, as this is the cheapest and easiest way to maintain industrial development. But then if all countries do so, the result is a disaster for us all.
But this explanation is too simple. We have managed to achieve some international cooperation on this issue. The Kyoto protocol has worked; emissions among Kyoto member nations have been reduced by more than 20% below 1990 levels, far more than originally promised. The EU in particular has taken a leadership role in reducing emissions, and has a serious shot at hitting their target of 40% reduction by 2030.

That is a truly astonishing scale of cooperation; the EU has a population of over 500 million people and spans 28 nations. It would seem like doing that should get us halfway to cooperating across all nations and all the world’s people.

But there is a vital difference between the EU and the world as a whole: The tribal paradigm. Europeans certainly have their differences: The UK and France still don’t really get along, everyone’s bitter with Germany about that whole Hitler business, and as the acronym PIIGS emphasizes, the peripheral countries have never quite felt as European as the core Schengen members. But despite all this, there has been a basic sense of trans-national (meta-national?) unity among Europeans for a long time.
For one thing, today Europeans see each other as the same race. That wasn’t always the case. In Medieval times, ethnic categories were as fine as “Cornish” and “Liverpudlian”. (To be fair, there do still exist a handful of Cornish nationalists.) Starting around the 18th cenutry, Europeans began to unite under the heading of “White people”, a classification that took on particular significance during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But even in the 19th century, “Irish” and “Sicilian” were seen as racial categories. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Europeans really began to think of themselves as one “kind of people”, and not coincidentally it was at the end of the 20th century that the European Union finally took hold.

There is another region that has had a similar sense of unification: Latin America. Again, there are conflicts: There are a lot of nasty stereotypes about Puerto Ricans among Cubans and vice-versa. But Latinos, by and large, think of each other as the same “kind of people”, distinct from both Europeans and the indigenous population of the Americas.

I don’t think it is coincidental that the lowest carbon emission intensity (carbon emissions / GDP PPP) in the world is in Latin America, followed closely by Europe.
And if you had to name right now the most ethnically divided region in the world, what would you say? The Middle East, of course. And sure enough, they have the worst carbon emission intensity. (Of course, oil is an obvious confounding variable here, likely contributing to both.)

Indeed, the countries with the lowest ethnic fractionalization ratings tend to be in Europe and Latin America, and the highest tend to be in the Middle East and Africa.

Even within the United States, political polarization seems to come with higher carbon emissions. When we think of Democrats and Republicans as different “kinds of people”, we become less willing to cooperate on finding climate policy solutions.

This is not a complete explanation, of course. China has a low fractionalization rating but a high carbon intensity, and extremely high overall carbon emissions due to their enormous population. Africa’s carbon intensity isn’t as high as you’d think just from their terrible fractionalization, especially if you exclude Nigeria which is a major oil producer.

But I think there is nonetheless a vital truth here: One of the central barriers to serious long-term solutions to climate change is the entrenchment of racial and national identity. Solving the Tragedy of the Commons requires cooperation, we will only cooperate with those we trust, and we will only trust those we consider to be the same “kind of people”.

You can even hear it in the rhetoric: If “we” (Americans) give up our carbon emissions, then “they” (China) will take advantage of us. No one seems to worry about Alabama exploiting California—certainly no Republican would—despite the fact that in real economic terms they basically do. But people in Alabama are Americans; in other words, they count as actual people. People in China don’t count. If anything, people in California are supposed to be considered less American than people in Alabama, despite the fact that vastly more Americans live in California than Alabama. This mirrors the same pattern where we urban residents are somehow “less authentic” even though we outnumber the rural by four to one.
I don’t know how to mend this tribal division; I very much wish I did. But I do know that simply ignoring it isn’t going to work. We can talk all we want about carbon taxes and cap-and-trade, but as long as most of the world’s people are divided into racial, ethnic, and national identities that they consider to be in zero-sum conflict with one another, we are never going to achieve the level of cooperation necessary for a real permanent solution to climate change.

The temperatures and the oceans rise. United we must stand, or divided we shall fall.

How can we stop rewarding psychopathy?

Oct 1, JDN 24578028

A couple of weeks ago The New York Times ran an interesting article about how entrepreneurs were often juvenile delinquents, who then often turn into white-collar criminals. They didn’t quite connect the dots, though; they talked about the relevant trait driving this behavior as “rule-breaking”, when it is probably better defined as psychopathy. People like Martin Shkreli aren’t just “rule-breakers”; they are psychopaths. While only about 1% of humans in general are psychopaths, somewhere between 3% and 4% of business executives are psychopaths. I was unable to find any specific data assessing the prevalence of psychopathy among politicians, but if you just read the Hare checklist, it’s not hard to see that psychopathic traits are overrepresented among politicians as well.

This is obviously the result of selection bias; as a society, we are systematically appointing psychopaths to positions of wealth and power. Why are we doing this? How can we stop?

One very important factor here that may be especially difficult to deal with is desire. We generally think that in a free society, people should be allowed to seek out the sort of life they want to live. But one of the reasons that psychopaths are more likely to become rich and powerful is precisely that they want it more.

To most of us, being rich is probably something we want, but not the most important thing to us. We’d accept being poor if it meant we could be happy, surrounded by friends and family who love us, and made a great contribution to society. We would like to be rich, but it’s more important that we be good people. But to many psychopaths, being rich is the one single thing they care about. All those other considerations are irrelevant.

With power, matters are even more extreme: Most people actually seem convinced that they don’t want power at all. They associate power with corruption and cruelty (because, you know, so many of the people in power are psychopaths!), and they want no part of it.

So the saying goes: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Does it, now? Did power corrupt George Washington and Abraham Lincoln? Did it corrupt Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela? I’m not saying that any of these men were without flaws, even serious ones—but was it power that made them so? Who would they have been, and more importantly, what would they have done, if they hadn’t had power? Would the world really have been better off if Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela had stayed out of politics? I don’t think so.

Part of what we need, therefore, is to convince good people that wanting power is not inherently bad. Power just means the ability to do things; it’s what you do that matters. You should want power—the power to right wrongs, mend injustices, uplift humanity’s future. Thinking that the world would be better if you were in charge not only isn’t a bad thing—it is quite likely to be true. If you are not a psychopath, then the world would probably be better off if you were in charge of it.

Of course, that depends partly on what “in charge of the world” even means; it’s not like we have a global government, after all. But even suppose you were granted the power of an absolute dictatorship over all of humanity; what would you do with that power? My guess is that you’d probably do what I would do: Start by using that power to correct the greatest injustices, then gradually cede power to a permanent global democracy. That wouldn’t just be a good thing; it would be quite literally and without a doubt the best thing that ever happened. Of course, it would be all the better if we never built such a dictatorship in the first place; but mainly that’s because of the sort of people who tend to become dictators. A benevolent dictatorship really would be a wonderful thing; the problem is that dictators almost never remain benevolent. Dictatorship is simply too enticing to psychopaths.

And what if you don’t think you’re competent enough in policy to make such decisions? Simple: You don’t make them yourself, you delegate them to responsible and trustworthy people to make them for you. Recognizing your own limitations is one of the most important differences between a typical leader and a good leader.

Desire isn’t the only factor here, however. Even though psychopaths tend to seek wealth and power with more zeal than others, there are still a lot of good people trying to seek wealth and power. We need to look very carefully at the process of how we select our leaders.

Let’s start with the private sector. How are managers chosen? Mainly, by managers above them. What criteria do they use? Mostly, they use similarity. Managers choose other managers who are “like them”—middle-aged straight White men with psychopathic tendencies.

This is something that could be rectified with regulation; we could require businesses to choose a more diverse array of managers that is more representative of the population at large. While this would no doubt trigger many complaints of “government interference” and “inefficiency”, in fact it almost certainly would increase the long-term profitability of most corporations. Study after study after study shows that increased diversity, particularly including more equal representation of women, results in better business performance. A recent MIT study found that switching from an all-male or all-female management population to a 50-50 male/female split could increase profits by as much as forty percent. The reason boards of directors aren’t including more diversity is that they ultimately care more about protecting their old boys’ club (and increasing their own compensation, of course) than they do about maximizing profits for their shareholders.

I think it would actually be entirely reasonable to include regulations about psychopathy in particular; designate certain industries (such as lobbying and finance; I would not include medicine, as psychopaths actually seem to make pretty good neurosurgeons!) as “systematically vital” and require psychopathy screening tests as part of their licensing process. This is no small matter, and definitely does represent an incursion into civil liberties; but given the enormous potential benefits, I don’t think it can be dismissed out of hand. We do license professions; why shouldn’t at least a minimal capacity for empathy and ethical behavior be part of that licensing process?

Where the civil liberty argument becomes overwhelming is in politics. I don’t think we can justify any restrictions on who should be allowed to run for office. Frankly, I think even the age limits should be struck from the Constitution; you should be allowed to run for President at 18 if you want. Requiring psychological tests for political office borders on dystopian.

That means we need to somehow reform either the campaign system, the voting system, or the behavior of voters themselves.

Of course, we should reform all three. Let’s start with the voting system itself, as that is the simplest: We should be using range voting, and we should abolish the Electoral College. Districts should be replaced by proportional representation through reweighted range voting, eliminating gerrymandering once and for all without question.

The campaign system is trickier. We could start by eliminating or tightly capping private and corporate campaign donations, and replace them with a system similar to the “Democracy Vouchers” being tested in Seattle. The basic idea is simple and beautiful: Everyone gets an equal amount of vouchers to give to whatever candidates they like, and then all the vouchers can be redeemed for campaign financing from public funds. It’s like everyone giving a donation (or monetary voting), but everyone has the same amount of “money”.

This would not solve all the problems, however. There is still an oligopoly of news media distorting our political discourse. There is still astonishingly bad journalism even in our most respected outlets, like the way the New York Times was obsessed with Comey’s letter and CNN’s wall-to-wall coverage of totally unfounded speculation about a missing airliner.

Then again, CNN’s ratings skyrocketed during that period. This shows that the problems run much deeper than a handful of bad journalists or corrupt media companies. These companies are, to a surprisingly large degree, just trying to cater to what their audience has said it wants, just “giving the people what they want”.

Our fundamental challenge, therefore, is to change what the people want. We have to somehow convince the public at large—or at least a big enough segment of the public at large—that they don’t really want TV news that spends hours telling them nothing and they don’t really want to elect the candidate who is the tallest or has the nicest hair. And we have to get them to actually change the way they behave accordingly.

When it comes to that part, I have no idea what to do. A voting population that is capable of electing Donald Trump—Electoral College nonsense notwithstanding, he won sixty million votes—is one that I honestly have no idea how to interface with at all. But we must try.

Our biggest oil subsidy is called the Interstate Highway System


August 13, JDN 2457979

In last week’s post I proposed an infrastructure project that probably sounded quite expensive. $410 billion for maglev lines? We’ve never spent anything like that on infrastructure, have we?

Actually, we have. The Interstate Highway System, in inflation-adjusted dollars, cost $526 billion. Of course, road is a lot cheaper than maglev rail, so that covers a lot more miles than the maglev system I’m proposing.

Of course, the maglev system would produce a lot less carbon emissions and be a great deal safer; while the Interstate Highway System has about 60% (91 log points) fewer traffic fatalities than the road system that came before it, the Shinkansen high-speed rail system in Japan has not had a single passenger fatality in over 50 years and 1 billion passengers. No system built by humans will ever be perfect, but the Shinkansen comes about as close as we’re ever going to get.

Assuming we could even get close to that level of safety, replacing the highway system with high-speed rail would save about 2,000 American lives every year. (Of course, we’d still lose over 30,000 Americans every year to non-interstate car accidents.)

But what I really want to talk about this week is how the Interstate Highway System is in fact an implicit oil subsidy. We currently spend over $140 billion per year in public funds to maintain highways (about one-fourth of which is specifically the Interstate Highway System). For those of you playing along at home, that’s about half what it would take to end world hunger.

The choice to spending this money maintaining highways instead of bike lanes, rail lines, or subway systems makes this spending an implicit subsidy for the car industry and the oil industry.

Of course, that’s only half the story; there’s also the gasoline tax, which is a pretty obvious tax on the oil industry. But the federal gasoline tax only raises about $35 billion per year, and state taxes add up to a comparable amount; so only about half what we spend on highways is actually covered by gasoline taxes. This means that even if you never drive a car, you are paying for the highway system.

Even including the gasoline tax, this means that this implicit oil subsidy may be the largest oil subsidy in the United States. Standard estimates of oil subsidies in the US range around $30 to $40 billion per year. Assuming that 3/4 of the benefit from the $140 billion in highway spending goes to the oil industry (the other 1/4 to the car industry), and then subtracting the roughly $70 billion paid in gasoline taxes leaves about $35 billion per year in net oil subsidy from the Interstate Highway System—which is to say about as much as all other oil subsidies combined.

Moreover, when you do drive on the highway, you usually don’t pay. You pay for gasoline, but that’s quite cheap, especially if your car is at all fuel-efficient; and most of us (in an entirely economically rational way) avoid toll roads when we have the time. Most of what you spend on driving is paying to buy, insure, and maintain your car—because cars are extremely complicated and expensive machines that take an awful lot of knowhow to build. The annual cost of driving a typical midsize sedan 15,000 miles per year is about $8,500. Of that, about $3,000 is depreciation (I’m assuming half the depreciation was inevitable, and the other half was due to mileage), registration fees, and finance charges that just come from owning the vehicle and would still happen even if you hardly ever drove it. This means that your marginal cost of driving is only about $0.36 per mile. (This makes the $0.54 per mile deduction the IRS will give small business owners actually quite generous.) You have a strong economic incentive not to drive at all, but in many places it’s hard to even get by without a car; and once you have one, a substantial portion of the cost is already sunk and you may as well drive it.

Compare this to how we fund public transit. Most of the spending on public transit is privatized, and federal funds for public transit are about 1/6 of federal funds for interstate highways. Then we charge every single passenger for every single trip. Except for the recent transition to transit cards instead of cash, this whole system almost seems designed to minimize the salience of the cost of driving and maximize the salience of the cost of public transit.

We also spend far more on our public transit projects than is really necessary, because corruption and excess bureaucracy in the subcontracting system dramatically raises the price. This is actually rather strange, as overall the US has less corruption than Spain or France, yet we pay substantially more for our infrastructure than they do. Indeed, capital costs per kilometer for US urban rail lines consistently rate above all but the most expensive European projects—notably, usually above that $100 million per mile threshold I estimated for maglev rail done right.

This combination of high prices and low funding means our public transit system provides far worse service. Combined with the fact that the rent is too damn high, this gives Americans some of the longest commute times in the world.
What we should actually be doing of course is taxing the oil industry, at the social cost of carbon—the monetary value of the marginal ecological damage done by extracting and burning oil. If we did this, it would raise the price of gasoline by about $0.20 per gallon; since the $70 billion in gasoline taxes is currently raised by a tax of about $0.50 per gallon, that means we would raise an additional $30 billion from gasoline alone (not quite, as people would reduce their gasoline consumption a little). This means that by not doing this, we are effectively subsidizing oil by an additional $30 billion—making our total oil subsidies over $100 billion per year.

Of course, there is a case to be made that this is not the largest US oil subsidy after all. There is one quite plausible candidate for US oil subsidies that might actually be larger, and that is US military spending. Obviously not all military spending is an oil subsidy; but when you include both the absurd amounts of fuel that tanks and fighter jets consume (the DoD accounts for 93% of all US government fuel consumption!) and the fact that several of our most recent wars were at least partly about securing oil reserves, it’s not hard to see how this might be benefiting the oil industry. Estimating this effect quantitatively is very difficult, but if even 5% of the US military budget amounts to an oil subsidy, that’s over $25 billion per year—just shy of the Interstate Highway System.

What will we do without air travel?

August 6, JDN 2457972

Air travel is incredibly carbon-intensive. Just one round-trip trans-Atlantic flight produces about 1 ton of carbon emissions per passenger. To keep global warming below 2 K, personal carbon emissions will need to be reduced to less than 1.5 tons per person per year by 2050. This means that simply flying from New York to London and back twice in a year would be enough to exceed the total carbon emissions each person can afford if we are to prevent catastrophic global climate change.

Currently about 12% of US transportation-based carbon emissions are attributable to aircraft; that may not sound like a lot, but consider this. Of the almost 5 trillion passenger-miles traveled by Americans each year, only 600 billion are by air, while 60,000 are by public transit. That leaves 4.4 trillion passenger-miles traveled by car. About 60% of US transportation emissions are due to cars, while 88% of US transportation is by car. About 12% of US transportation emissions are due to airplanes, while 12% of US passenger-miles are traveled by airplane. This means that cars produce about 2/3 as much carbon per passenger-mile, even though we tend to fill up airplanes to the brim and most Americans drive alone most of the time.

Moreover, we know how to reduce emissions from cars. We can use hybrid vehicles, we can carpool more, or best of all we can switch to entirely electric vehicles charged off a grid that is driven by solar and nuclear power. It is theoretically possible to make personal emissions from car travel zero. (Though making car manufacturing truly carbon-neutral may not be feasible; electric cars actually produce somewhat more carbon in their production, though not enough to actually make them worse than conventional cars.)

We have basically no idea how to reduce emissions from air travel. Jet engines are already about as efficient as we know how to make them. There are some tweaks to taxi and takeoff procedure that would help a little bit (chiefly, towing the aircraft to the runway instead of taking them there on their own power; also, taking off from longer runways that require lower throttle to achieve takeoff speed). But there’s basically nothing we can do to reduce the carbon emissions of a cruising airliner at altitude. Even very optimistic estimates involving new high-tech alloys, wing-morphing technology, and dramatically improved turbofan engines only promise to reduce emissions by about 30%.

This is something that affects me quite directly; air travel is a major source of my personal carbon footprint, but also the best way I have to visit family back home.
Using the EPA’s handy carbon footprint calculator, I estimate that everything else I do in my entire life produces about 10 tons of carbon emissions per year. (This is actually pretty good, given the US average of 22 tons per person per year. It helps that I’m vegetarian, I drive a fuel-efficient car, and I live in Southern California.)

Using the ICAO’s even more handy carbon footprint calculator for air travel, I estimate that I produce about 0.2 tons for every round-trip economy-class transcontinental flight from California to Michigan. But that doesn’t account for the fact that higher-altitude emissions are more dangerous. If you adjust for this, the net effect is as if I had produced a full half-ton of carbon for each round-trip flight. Therefore, just four round-trip flights per year increases my total carbon footprint by 20%—and again, by itself exceeds what my carbon emissions need to be reduced to by the year 2050.

With this in mind, most ecologists agree that air travel as we know it is simply not sustainable.

The question then becomes: What do we do without it?

One option would be to simply take all the travel we currently do in airplanes, and stop it. For me this would mean no more trips from California to Michigan, except perhaps occasional long road trips for moving and staying for long periods.

This is unappealing, though it is also not as harmful as you might imagine; most of the world’s population has never flown in an airplane. Our estimates of exactly what proportion of people have flown are very poor, but our best guesses are that about 6% of the world’s population flies in any given year, and about 40% has ever flown in their entire life. Statistically, most of my readers are middle-class Americans, and we’re accustomed to flying; about 80% of Americans have flown on an airplane at least once, and about 1/3 of Americans fly at least once a year. But we’re weird (indeed, WEIRD, White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic); most people in the world fly on airplanes rarely, if ever.

Moreover, air travel has only been widely available to the general population, even in the US, for about the last 60 years. Passenger-miles on airplanes in the US have increased by a factor of 20 since just 1960, while car passenger-miles have only tripled and population has only doubled. Most of the human race through most of history has only dreamed of air travel, and managed to survive just fine without it.

It certainly would not mean needing to stop all long-distance travel, though long-distance travel would be substantially curtailed. It would no longer be possible to travel across the country for a one-week stay; you’d have to plan for four or five days of travel in each direction. Traveling from the US to Europe takes about a week by sea, each way. That means planning your trip much further in advance, and taking off a lot more time from work to do it.

Fortunately, trade is actually not that all that dependent on aircraft. The vast majority of shipping is done by sea vessel already, as container ships are simply far more efficient. Shipping by container ship produces only about 2% as much carbon per ton-kilometer as shipping by aircraft. “Slow-steaming”, the use of more ships at lower speeds to conserve fuel, is already widespread, and carbon taxes would further incentivize it. So we need not fear giving up globalized trade simply because we gave up airplanes.

But we can do better than that. We don’t need to give up the chance to travel across the country in a weekend. The answer is high-speed rail.

A typical airliner cruises at about 500 miles per hour. Can trains match that? Not quite, but close. Spain already has an existing commercial high-speed rail line, the AVE, which goes from Madrid to Barcelona at a cruising speed of 190 miles per hour. This is far from the limits of the technology. The fastest train ever built is the L0 series, a Japanese maglev which can maintain a top speed of 375 miles per hour.

This means that if we put our minds to it, we could build a rail line crossing the United States, say from Los Angeles to New York via Chicago, averaging at least 300 miles per hour. That’s a distance of 2800 miles by road (rail should be comparable); so the whole trip should take about 9 and a half hours. This is slower than a flight (unless you have a long layover), but could still make it there and back in the same weekend.

How much would such a rail system cost? Official estimates of the cost of maglev line are about $100 million per mile. This could probably be brought down by technological development and economies of scale, but let’s go with it for now. This means that my proposed LA-NY line would cost $280 billion.

That’s not a small amount of money, to be sure. It’s about the annual cost of ending world hunger forever. It’s almost half the US military budget. It’s about one-third of Obama’s stimulus plan in 2009. It’s about one-fourth Trump’s proposed infrastructure plan (that will probably never happen).

In other words, it’s a large project, but well within the capacity of a nation as wealthy as the United States.

Add in another 500 miles to upgrade the (already-successful) Acela corridor line on the East Coast, and another 800 miles to make the proposed California High-Speed Rail from LA to SF a maglev line, and you’ve increased the cost to $410 billion.
$410 billion is about 2 years of revenue for all US airlines. These lines could replace a large proportion of all US air traffic. So if the maglev system simply charged as much as a plane ticket and carried the same number of passengers, it would pay for itself in a few years. Realistically it would probably be a bit cheaper and carry fewer people, so the true payoff period might be more like 10 years. That is a perfectly reasonable payoff period for a major infrastructure project.

Compare this to our existing rail network, which is pitiful. There are Amtrak lines from California to Chicago; one is the Texas Eagle of 2700 miles, comparable to my proposed LA-NY maglev; the other is the California Zephyr of 2400 miles. Each of them completes one trip in about two and a half daysso a week-long trip is unviable and a weekend trip is mathematically impossible. Over 60 hours on each train, instead of the proposed 9.5 for the same distance. The operating speed is only about 55 miles per hour when we now have technology that could do 300. The Acela Express is our fastest train line with a top speed of 150 miles per hour and average end-to-end speed of 72 miles per hour; and (not coincidentally I think) it is by far the most profitable train line in the United States.

And best of all, the entire rail system could be carbon-neutral. Making the train itself run without carbon emissions is simple; you just run it off nuclear power plants and solar farms. The emissions from the construction and manufacturing would have to be offset, but most of them would be one-time emissions, precisely the sort of thing that it does make sense to offset with reforestation. Realistically some emissions would continue during the processes of repair and maintenance, but these would be far, far less than what the airplanes were producing—indeed, not much more than the emissions from a comparable length of interstate highway.

Let me emphasize, this is all existing technology. Unlike those optimistic forecasts about advanced new aircraft alloys and morphing wings, I’m not talking about inventing anything new here. This is something other countries have already built (albeit on a much smaller scale). I’m using official cost estimates. Nothing about this plan should be infeasible.

Why are we not doing this? We’re choosing not to. Our government has decided to spend on other things instead. Most Americans are quite complacent about climate change, though at least most Americans do believe in it now.

What about transcontinental travel? There we may have no choice but to give up our weekend visits. Sea vessels simply can’t be built as fast as airplanes. Even experimental high-speed Navy ships can’t far exceed 50 knots, which is about 57 miles per hour—highway speed, not airplane speed. A typical container vessel slow-steams at about 12 knots—14 miles per hour.

But how many people travel across the ocean anyway? As I’ve already established, Americans fly more than almost anyone else in the world; but of the 900 million passengers carried in flights in, through, or out of the US, only 200 million were international Some 64% of Americans have never left the United States—never even to Canada or Mexico! Even if we cut off all overseas commercial flights completely, we are affecting a remarkably small proportion of the world’s population.

And of course I wouldn’t actually suggest banning air travel. We should be taxing air travel, in proportion to its effect on global warming; and those funds ought to get us pretty far in paying for the up-front cost of the maglev network.

What can you do as an individual? Ay, there’s the rub. Not much, unfortunately. You can of course support candidates and political campaigns for high-speed rail. You can take fewer flights yourself. But until this infrastructure is built, those of us who live far from our ancestral home will face the stark tradeoff between increasing our carbon footprint and never getting to see our families.