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.

Beware the false balance

JDN 2457046 PST 13:47.

I am now back in Long Beach, hence the return to Pacific Time. Today’s post is a little less economic than most, though it’s certainly still within the purview of social science and public policy. It concerns a question that many academic researchers and in general reasonable, thoughtful people have to deal with: How do we remain unbiased and nonpartisan?

This would not be so difficult if the world were as the most devoted “centrists” would have you believe, and it were actually the case that both sides have their good points and bad points, and both sides have their scandals, and both sides make mistakes or even lie, so you should never take the side of the Democrats or the Republicans but always present both views equally.

Sadly, this is not at all the world in which we live. While Democrats are far from perfect—they are human beings after all, not to mention politicians—Republicans have become completely detached from reality. As Stephen Colbert has said, “Reality has a liberal bias.” You know it’s bad when our detractors call us the reality-based community. Treating both sides as equal isn’t being unbiased—it’s committing a balance fallacy.

Don’t believe me? Here is a list of objective, scientific facts that the Republican Party (and particularly its craziest subset, the Tea Party) has officially taken political stances against:

  1. Global warming is a real problem, and largely caused by human activity. (The Republican majority in the Senate voted down a resolution acknowledging this.)
  2. Human beings share a common ancestor with chimpanzees. (48% of Republicans think that we were created in our present form.)
  3. Animals evolve over time due to natural selection. (Only 43% of Republicans believe this.)
  4. The Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. (Marco Rubio said he thinks maybe the Earth was made in seven days a few thousand years ago.)
  5. Hydraulic fracturing can trigger earthquakes.(Republican in Congress are trying to nullify local regulations on fracking because they insist it is so safe we don’t even need to keep track.)
  6. Income inequality in the United States is the worst it has been in decades and continues to rise. (Mitt Romney said that the concern about income inequality is just “envy”.)
  7. Progressive taxation reduces inequality without adversely affecting economic growth. (Here’s a Republican former New York Senator saying that the President “should be ashamed” for raising taxes on—you guessed it—”job creators”.)
  8. Moderate increases in the minimum wage do not yield significant losses in employment. (Republicans consistently vote against even small increases in the minimum wage, and Democrats consistently vote in favor.)
  9. The United States government has no reason to ever default on its debt. (John Boehner, now Speaker of the House, once said that “America is broke” and if we don’t stop spending we’ll never be able to pay the national debt.)
  10. Human embryos are not in any way sentient, and fetuses are not sentient until at least 17 weeks of gestation, probably more like 30 weeks. (Yet if I am to read it in a way that would make moral sense, “Life begins at conception”—which several Republicans explicitly endorsed at the National Right to Life Convention—would have to imply that even zygotes are sentient beings. If you really just meant “alive”, then that would equally well apply to plants or even bacteria. Sentience is the morally relevant category.)

And that’s not even counting the Republican Party’s association with Christianity and all of the objectively wrong scientific claims that necessarily entails—like the existence of an afterlife and the intervention of supernatural forces. Most Democrats also self-identify as Christian, though rarely with quite the same fervor (the last major Democrat I can think of who was a devout Christian was Jimmy Carter), probably because most Americans self-identify as Christian and are hesitant to elect an atheist President (despite the fact that 93% of the National Academy of Sciences is comprised of atheists and the higher your IQ the more likely you are to be an atheist; we wouldn’t want to elect someone who agrees with smart people, now would we?).

It’s true, there are some other crazy ideas out there with a left-wing slant, like the anti-vaccination movement that has wrought epidemic measles upon us, the anti-GMO crowd that rejects basic scientific facts about genetics, and the 9/11 “truth” movement that refuses to believe that Al Qaeda actually caused the attacks. There are in fact far-left Marxists out there who want to tear down the whole capitalist system by glorious revolution and replace it with… er… something (they’re never quite clear on that last point). But none of these things are the official positions of standing members of Congress.

The craziest belief by a standing Democrat I can think of is Dennis Kucinich’s belief that he saw an alien spacecraft. And to be perfectly honest, alien spacecraft are about a thousand times more plausible than Christianity in general, let alone Creationism. There almost certainly are alien spacecraft somewhere in the universe—just most likely so far away we’ll need FTL to encounter them. Moreover, this is not Kucinich’s official position as a member of Congress and it’s not something he has ever made policy based upon.

Indeed, if you’re willing to include the craziest individuals with no real political power who identify with a particular side of the political spectrum, then we should include on the right-wing side people like the Bundy militia in Nevada, neo-Nazis in Detroit, and the dozens of KKK chapters across the US. Not to mention this pastor who wants to murder all gay people in the world (because he truly believes what Leviticus 20:13 actually and clearly says).

If you get to include Marxists on the left, then we get to include Nazis on the right. Or, we could be reasonable and say that only the official positions of elected officials or mainstream pundits actually count, in which case Democrats have views that are basically accurate and reasonable while the majority of Republicans have views that are still completely objectively wrong.

There’s no balance here. For every Democrat who is wrong, there is a Republicans who is totally delusional. For every Democrat who distorts the truth, there is a Republican who blatantly lies about basic facts. Not to mention that for every Democrat who has had an ill-advised illicit affair there is a Republican who has committed war crimes.

Actually war crimes are something a fair number of Democrats have done as well, but the difference still stands out in high relief: Barack Obama has ordered double-tap drone strikes that are in violation of the Geneva Convention, but George W. Bush orchestrated a worldwide mass torture campaign and launched pointless wars that slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people. Bill Clinton ordered some questionable CIA operations, but George H.W. Bush was the director of the CIA.

I wish we had two parties that were equally reasonable. I wish there were two—or three, or four—proposals on the table in each discussion, all of which had merits and flaws worth considering. Maybe if we somehow manage to get the Green Party a significant seat in power, or the Social Democrat party, we can actually achieve that goal. But that is not where we are right now. Right now, we have the Democrats, who have some good ideas and some bad ideas; and then we have the Republicans, who are completely out of their minds.

There is an important concept in political science called the Overton window; it is the range of political ideas that are considered “reasonable” or “mainstream” within a society. Things near the middle of the Overton window are considered sensible, even “nonpartisan” ideas, while things near the edges are “partisan” or “political”, and things near but outside the window are seen as “extreme” and “radical”. Things far outside the window are seen as “absurd” or even “unthinkable”.

Right now, our Overton window is in the wrong place. Things like Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize Social Security and Medicare are seen as reasonable when they should be considered extreme. Progressive income taxes of the kind we had in the 1960s are seen as extreme when they should be considered reasonable. Cutting WIC and SNAP with nothing to replace them and letting people literally starve to death are considered at most partisan, when they should be outright unthinkable. Opposition to basic scientific facts like climate change and evolution is considered a mainstream political position—when in terms of empirical evidence Creationism should be more intellectually embarrassing than being a 9/11 truther or thinking you saw an alien spacecraft. And perhaps worst of all, military tactics like double-tap strikes that are literally war crimes are considered “liberal”, while the “conservative” position involves torture, worldwide surveillance and carpet bombing—if not outright full-scale nuclear devastation.

I want to restore reasonable conversation to our political system, I really do. But that really isn’t possible when half the politicians are totally delusional. We have but one choice: We must vote them out.

I say this particularly to people who say “Why bother? Both parties are the same.” No, they are not the same. They are deeply, deeply different, for all the reasons I just outlined above. And if you can’t bring yourself to vote for a Democrat, at least vote for someone! A Green, or a Social Democrat, or even a Libertarian or a Socialist if you must. It is only by the apathy of reasonable people that this insanity can propagate in the first place.

What are the limits to growth?

JDN 2456941 PDT 12:25.

Paul Krugman recently wrote a column about the “limits to growth” community, and as usual, it’s good stuff; his example of how steamships substituted more ships for less fuel is quite compelling. But there’s a much stronger argument to made against “limits to growth”, and I thought I’d make it here.

The basic idea, most famously propounded by Jay Forrester but still with many proponents today (and actually owing quite a bit to Thomas Malthus), is this: There’s only so much stuff in the world. If we keep adding more people and trying to give people higher standards of living, we’re going to exhaust all the stuff, and then we’ll be in big trouble.

This argument seems intuitively reasonable, but turns out to be economically naïve. It can take several specific forms, from the basically reasonable to the utterly ridiculous. On the former end is “peak oil”, the point at which we reach a maximum rate of oil extraction. We’re actually past that point in most places, and it won’t be long before the whole world crosses that line. So yes, we really are running out of oil, and we need to transition to other fuels as quickly as possible. On the latter end is the original Mathusian argument (we now have much more food per person worldwide than they did in Malthus’s time—that’s why ending world hunger is a realistic option now), and, sadly, the argument Mark Buchanan made a few days ago. No, you don’t always need more energy to produce more economic output—as Krugman’s example cleverly demonstrates. You can use other methods to improve your energy efficiency, and that doesn’t necessarily require new technology.

Here’s the part that Krugman missed: Even if we need more energy, there’s plenty of room at the top. The total amount of sunlight that hits the Earth is about 1.3 kW/m^2, and the Earth has a surface area of about 500 million km^2, which is 5e14 m^2. That means that if we could somehow capture all the sunlight that hits the Earth, we’d have 6.5e17 W, which is 5.7e18 kilowatt-hours per year. Total world energy consumption is about 140,000 terawatt-hours per year, which is 1.4e14 kilowatt-hours per year. That means we could increase energy consumption by a factor of one thousand just using Earth-based solar power (Covering the oceans with synthetic algae? A fleet of high-altitude balloons covered in high-efficiency solar panels?). That’s not including fission power, which is already economically efficient, or fusion power, which has passed break-even and may soon become economically feasible as well. Fusion power is only limited by the size of your reactor and your quantity of deuterium, and deuterium is found in ocean water (about 33 milligrams per liter), not to mention permeating all of outer space. If we can figure out how to fuse ordinary hydrogen, well now our fuel is literally the most abundant substance in the universe.

And what if we move beyond the Earth? What if we somehow captured not just the solar energy that hits the Earth, but the totality of solar energy that the Sun itself releases? That figure is about 1e31 joules per day, which is 1e27 kilowatt-hours per day, or seven trillion times as much energy as we currently consume. It is literally enough to annihilate entire planets, which the Sun would certainly do if you put a planet near enough to it. A theoretical construct to capture all this energy is called a Dyson Sphere, and the ability to construct one officially makes you a Type 2 Kardashev Civilization. (We currently stand at about Type 0.7. Building that worldwide solar network would raise us to Type 1.)

Can we actually capture all that energy with our current technology? Of course not. Indeed, we probably won’t have that technology for centuries if not millennia. But if your claim—as Mark Buchanan’s was—is about fundamental physical limits, then you should be talking about Dyson Spheres. If you’re not, then we are really talking about practical economic limits.

Are there practical economic limits to growth? Of course there are; indeed, they are what actually constrains growth in the real world. That’s why the US can’t grow above 2% and China won’t be growing at 7% much longer. (I am rather disturbed by the fact that many of the Chinese nationals I know don’t appreciate this; they seem to believe the propaganda that this rapid growth is something fundamentally better about the Chinese system, rather than the simple economic fact that it’s easier to grow rapidly when you are starting very small. I had a conversation with a man the other day who honestly seemed to think that Macau could sustain its 12% annual GDP growth—driven by gambling, no less! Zero real productivity!—into the indefinite future. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that China is growing so fast and lifting so many people out of poverty. But no remotely credible economist believes they can sustain this growth forever. The best-case scenario is to follow the pattern of Korea, rising from Third World to First World status in a few generations. Korea grew astonishingly fast from about 1950 to 1990, but now that they’ve made it, their growth rate is only 3%.)

There is also a reasonable argument to be made about the economic tradeoffs involved in fighting climate change and natural resource depletion. While the people of Brazil may like to have more firewood and space for farming, the fact is the rest of need that Amazon in order to breathe. While any given fisherman may be rational in the amount of fish he catches, worldwide we are running out of fish. And while we Americans may love our low gas prices (and become furious when they rise even slightly), the fact is, our oil subsidies are costing hundreds of billions of dollars and endangering millions of lives.

We may in fact have to bear some short-term cost in economic output in order to ensure long-term environmental sustainability (though to return to Krugman, that cost may be a lot less than many people think!). Economic growth does slow down as you reach high standards of living, and it may even continue to slow down as technology begins to reach diminishing returns (though this is much harder to forecast). So yes, in that sense there are limits to growth. But the really fundamental limits aren’t something we have to worry about for at least a thousand years. Right now, it’s just a question of good economic policy.