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.

Nuclear power is safe. Why don’t people like it?

Sep 24, JDN 2457656

This post will have two parts, corresponding to each sentence. First, I hope to convince you that nuclear power is safe. Second, I’ll try to analyze some of the reasons why people don’t like it and what we might be able to do about that.

Depending on how familiar you are with the statistics on nuclear power, the idea that nuclear power is safe may strike you as either a completely ridiculous claim or an egregious understatement. If your primary familiarity with nuclear power safety is via the widely-publicized examples of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and more recently Fukushima, you may have the impression that nuclear power carries huge, catastrophic risks. (You may also be confusing nuclear power with nuclear weapons—nuclear weapons are indeed the greatest catastrophic risk on Earth today, but equating the two is like equating automobiles and machine guns because both of them are made of metal and contain lubricant, flammable materials, and springs.)

But in fact nuclear energy is astonishingly safe. Indeed, even those examples aren’t nearly as bad as people have been led to believe. Guess how many people died as a result of Three Mile Island, including estimated increased cancer deaths from radiation exposure?

Zero. There are zero confirmed deaths and the consensus estimate of excess deaths caused by the Three Mile Island incident by all causes combined is zero.

What about Fukushima? Didn’t 10,000 people die there? From the tsunami, yes. But the nuclear accident resulted in zero fatalities. If anything, those 10,000 people were killed by coal—by climate change. They certainly weren’t killed by nuclear.

Chernobyl, on the other hand, did actually kill a lot of people. Chernobyl caused 31 confirmed direct deaths, as well as an estimated 4,000 excess deaths by all causes. On the one hand, that’s more than 9/11; on the other hand, it’s about a month of US car accidents. Imagine if people had the same level of panic and outrage at automobiles after a month of accidents that they did at nuclear power after Chernobyl.

The vast majority of nuclear accidents cause zero fatalities; other than Chernobyl, none have ever caused more than 10. Deepwater Horizon killed 11 people, and yet for some reason Americans did not unite in opposition against ever using oil (or even offshore drilling!) ever again.

In fact, even that isn’t fair to nuclear power, because we’re not including the thousands of lives saved every year by using nuclear instead of coal and oil.

Keep in mind, the WHO estimates 10 to 100 million excess deaths due to climate change over the 21st century. That’s an average of 100,000 to 1 million deaths every year. Nuclear power currently produces about 11% of the world’s energy, so let’s do a back-of-the-envelope calculation for how many lives that’s saving. Assuming that additional climate change would be worse in direct proportion to the additional carbon emissions (which is conservative), and assuming that half that energy would be replaced by coal or oil (also conservative, using Germany’s example), we’re looking at about a 6% increase in deaths due to climate change if all those nuclear power plants were closed. That’s 6,000 to 60,000 lives that nuclear power plants save every year.

I also haven’t included deaths due to pollution—note that nuclear power plants don’t pollute air or water whatsoever, and only produce very small amounts of waste that can be quite safely stored. Air pollution in all its forms is responsible for one in eight deaths worldwide. Let me say that again: One in eight of all deaths in the world is caused by air pollution—so this is on the order of 7 million deaths per year, every year. We burn our way to a biannual Holocaust. Most of this pollution is actually caused by burning wood—fireplaces, wood stoves, and bonfires are terrible for the air—and many countries would actually see a substantial reduction in their toxic pollution if they switched to oil or even coal in favor of wood. But a large part of that pollution is caused by coal, and a nontrivial amount is caused by oil. Coal-burning factories and power plants are responsible for about 1 million deaths per year in China alone. Most of that pollution could be prevented if those power plants were nuclear instead.

Factor all that in, and nuclear power currently saves tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives per year, and expanding it to replace all fossil fuels could save millions more. Indeed, a more precise estimate of the benefits of nuclear power published a few years ago in Environmental Science and Technology is that nuclear power plants have saved some 1.8 million human lives since their invention, putting them on a par with penicillin and the polio vaccine.

So, I hope I’ve convinced you of the first proposition: Nuclear power plants are safe—and not just safe, but heroic, in fact one of the greatest life-saving technologies ever invented. So, why don’t people like them?

Unfortunately, I suspect that no amount of statistical data by itself will convince those who still feel a deep-seated revulsion to nuclear power. Even many environmentalists, people who could be nuclear energy’s greatest advocates, are often opposed to it. I read all the way through Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and never found even a single cogent argument against nuclear power; she simply takes it as obvious that nuclear power is “more of the same line of thinking that got us in this mess”. Perhaps because nuclear power could be enormously profitable for certain corporations (which is true; but then, it’s also true of solar and wind power)? Or because it also fits this narrative of “raping and despoiling the Earth” (sort of, I guess)? She never really does explain; I’m guessing she assumes that her audience will simply share her “gut feeling” intuition that nuclear power is dangerous and untrustworthy. One of the most important inconvenient truths for environmentalists is that nuclear power is not only safe, it is almost certainly our best hope for stopping climate change.

Perhaps all this is less baffling when we recognize that other heroic technologies are often also feared or despised for similarly bizarre reasons—vaccines, for instance.

First of all, human beings fear what we cannot understand, and while the human immune system is certainly immensely complicated, nuclear power is based on quantum mechanics, a realm of scientific knowledge so difficult and esoteric that it is frequently used as the paradigm example of something that is hard to understand. (As Feynman famously said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”) Nor does it help that popular treatments of quantum physics typically bear about as much resemblance to the actual content of the theory as the X-Men films do to evolutionary biology, and con artists like Deepak Chopra take advantage of this confusion to peddle their quackery.

Nuclear radiation is also particularly terrifying because it is invisible and silent; while a properly-functioning nuclear power plant emits less ionizing radiation than the Capitol Building and eating a banana poses substantially higher radiation risk than talking on a cell phone, nonetheless there is real danger posed by ionizing radiation, and that danger is particularly terrifying because it takes a form that human senses cannot detect. When you are burned by fire or cut by a knife, you know immediately; but gamma rays could be coursing through you right now and you’d feel no different. (Huge quantities of neutrinos are coursing through you, but fear not, for they’re completely harmless.) The symptoms of severe acute radiation poisoning also take a particularly horrific form: After the initial phase of nausea wears off, you can enter a “walking ghost phase”, where your eventual death is almost certain due to your compromised immune and digestive systems, but your current condition is almost normal. This makes the prospect of death by nuclear accident a particularly vivid and horrible image.

Vividness makes ideas more available to our memory; and thus, by the availability heuristic, we automatically infer that it must be more probable than it truly is. You can think of horrific nuclear accidents like Chernobyl, and all the carnage they caused; but all those millions of people choking to death in China don’t make for a compelling TV news segment (or at least, our TV news doesn’t seem to think so). Vividness doesn’t actually seem to make things more persuasive, but it does make them more memorable.

Yet even if we allow for the possibility that death by radiation poisoning is somewhat worse than death by coal pollution (if I had to choose between the two, okay, maybe I’d go with the coal), surely it’s not ten thousand times worse? Surely it’s not worth sacrificing entire cities full of people to coal in order to prevent a handful of deaths by nuclear energy?

Another reason that has been proposed is a sense that we can control risk from other sources, but a nuclear meltdown would be totally outside our control. Perhaps that is the perception, but if you think about it, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense. If there’s a nuclear meltdown, emergency services will report it, and you can evacuate the area. Yes, the radiation moves at the speed of light; but it also dissipates as the inverse square of distance, so if you just move further away you can get a lot safer quite quickly. (Think about the brightness of a lamp in your face versus across a football field. Radiation works the same way.) The damage is also cumulative, so the radiation risk from a meltdown is only going to be serious if you stay close to the reactor for a sustained period of time. Indeed, it’s much easier to avoid nuclear radiation than it is to avoid air pollution; you can’t just stand behind a concrete wall to shield against air pollution, and moving further away isn’t possible if you don’t know where it’s coming from. Control would explain why we fear cars less than airplanes (which is also statistically absurd), but it really can’t explain why nuclear power scares people more than coal and oil.

Another important factor may be an odd sort of bipartisan consensus: While the Left hates nuclear power because it makes corporations profitable or because it’s unnatural and despoils the Earth or something, the Right hates nuclear power because it requires substantial government involvement and might displace their beloved fossil fuels. (The Right’s deep, deep love of the fossil fuel industry now borders on the pathological. Even now that they are obviously economically inefficient and environmentally disastrous, right-wing parties around the world continue to defend enormous subsidies for oil and coal companies. Corruption and regulatory capture could partly explain this, but only partly. Campaign contributions can’t explain why someone would write a book praising how wonderful fossil fuels are and angrily denouncing anyone who would dare criticize them.) So while the two sides may hate each other in general and disagree on most other issues—including of course climate change itself—they can at least agree that nuclear power is bad and must be stopped.

Where do we go from here, then? I’m not entirely sure. As I said, statistical data by itself clearly won’t be enough. We need to find out what it is that makes people so uniquely terrified of nuclear energy, and we need to find a way to assuage those fears.

And we must do this now. For every day we don’t—every day we postpone the transition to a zero-carbon energy grid—is another thousand people dead.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people refuse to do cost-benefit analysis

July 27, JDN 2457597

My title is based on a famous quote often attributed to Edmund Burke, but which we have no record of him actually saying:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

The closest he actually appears to have written is this:

When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.

Burke’s intended message was about the need for cooperation and avoiding diffusion of responsibility; then his words were distorted into a duty to act against evil in general.

But my point today is going to be a little bit more specific: A great deal of real-world evils would be eliminated if good people were more willing to engage in cost-benefit analysis.

As discussed on Less Wrong awhile back, there is a common “moral” saying which comes from the Talmud (if not earlier; and of course it’s hardly unique to Judaism), which gives people a great warm and fuzzy glow whenever they say it:

Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he had saved the whole world.

Yet this is in fact the exact opposite of moral. It is a fundamental, insane perversion of morality. It amounts to saying that “saving a life” is just a binary activity, either done or not, and once you’ve done it once, congratulations, you’re off the hook for the other 7 billion. All those other lives mean literally nothing, once you’ve “done your duty”.

Indeed, it would seem to imply that you can be a mass murderer, as long as you save someone else somewhere along the line. If Mao Tse-tung at some point stopped someone from being run over by a car, it’s okay that his policies killed more people than the population of Greater Los Angeles.

Conversely, if anything you have ever done has resulted in someone’s death, you’re just as bad as Mao; in fact if you haven’t also saved someone somewhere along the line and he has, you’re worse.

Maybe this is how you get otherwise-intelligent people saying such insanely ridiculous things as George W. Bush’s crimes are uncontroversially worse than Osama bin Laden’s.” (No, probably not, since Chomsky at least feigns something like cost-benefit analysis. I’m not sure what his failure mode is, but it’s probably not this one in particular. “Uncontroversially”… you keep using that word…)

Cost-benefit analysis is actually a very simple concept (though applying it in practice can be mind-bogglingly difficult): Try to maximize the good things minus the bad things. If an action would increase good things more than bad things, do it; if it would increase bad things more than good things, don’t do it.

What it replaces is simplistic deontological reasoning about “X is always bad” or “Y is always good”; that’s almost never true. Even great evils can be justified by greater goods, and many goods are not worth having because of the evils they would require to achieve. We seem to want all our decisions to have no downside, perhaps because that would resolve our cognitive dissonance most easily; but in the real world, most decisions have an upside and a downside, and it’s a question of which is larger.

Why is it that so many people—especially good people—have such an aversion to cost-benefit analysis?

I gained some insight into this by watching a video discussion from an online Harvard course taught by Michael Sandel (which is free, by the way, if you’d like to try it out). He was leading the discussion Socratically, which is in general a good method of teaching—but like anything else can be used to teach things that are wrong, and is in some ways more effective at doing so because it has a way of making students think they came up with the answers on their own. He says something like, “Do we really want our moral judgments to be based on cost-benefit analysis?” and gives some examples where people made judgments using cost-benefit analysis to support his suggestion that this is something bad.

But of course his examples are very specific: They all involve corporations using cost-benefit analysis to maximize profits. One of them is the Ford Pinto case, where Ford estimated the cost to them of a successful lawsuit, multiplied by the probability of such lawsuits, and then compared that with the cost of a total recall. Finding that the lawsuits were projected to be cheaper, they opted for that result, and thereby allowed several people to be killed by their known defective product.

Now, it later emerged that Ford Pintos were not actually especially dangerous, and in fact Ford didn’t just include lawsuits but also a standard estimate of the “value of a statistical human life”, and as a result of that their refusal to do the recall was probably the completely correct decision—but why let facts get in the way of a good argument?

But let’s suppose that all the facts had been as people thought they were—the product was unsafe and the company was only interested in their own profits. We don’t need to imagine this hypothetically; this is clearly what actually happened with the tobacco industry, and indeed with the oil industry. Is that evil? Of course it is. But not because it’s cost-benefit analysis.

Indeed, the reason this is evil is the same reason most things are evil: They are psychopathically selfish. They advance the interests of those who do them, while causing egregious harms to others.

Exxon is apparently prepared to sacrifice millions of lives to further their own interests, which makes them literally no better than Mao, as opposed to this bizarre “no better than Mao” that we would all be if the number of lives saved versus killed didn’t matter. Let me be absolutely clear; I am not speaking in hyperbole when I say that the board of directors of Exxon is morally no better than Mao. No, I mean they literally are willing to murder 20 million people to serve their own interests—more precisely 10 to 100 million, by WHO estimates. Maybe it matters a little bit that these people will be killed by droughts and hurricanes rather than by knives and guns; but then, most of the people Mao killed died of starvation, and plenty of the people killed by Exxon will too. But this statement wouldn’t have the force it does if I could not speak in terms of quantitative cost-benefit analysis. Killing people is one thing, and most industries would have to own up to it; being literally willing to kill as many people as history’s greatest mass murderers is quite anotherand yet it is true of Exxon.

But I can understand why people would tend to associate cost-benefit analysis with psychopaths maximizing their profits; there are two reasons for this.

First, most neoclassical economists appear to believe in both cost-benefit analysis and psychopathic profit maximization. They don’t even clearly distinguish their concept of “rational” from the concept of total psychopathic selfishness—hence why I originally titled this blog “infinite identical psychopaths”. The people arguing for cost-benefit analysis are usually economists, and economists are usually neoclassical, so most of the time you hear arguments for cost-benefit analysis they are also linked with arguments for horrifically extreme levels of selfishness.

Second, most people are uncomfortable with cost-benefit analysis, and as a result don’t use it. So, most of the cost-benefit analysis you’re likely to hear is done by terrible human beings, typically at the reins of multinational corporations. This becomes self-reinforcing, as all the good people don’t do cost-benefit analysis, so they don’t see good people doing it, so they don’t do it, and so on.

Therefore, let me present you with some clear-cut cases where cost-benefit analysis can save millions of lives, and perhaps even save the world.

Imagine if our terrorism policy used cost-benefit analysis; we wouldn’t kill 100,000 innocent people and sacrifice 4,400 soldiers fighting a war that didn’t have any appreciable benefit as a bizarre form of vengeance for 3,000 innocent people being killed. Moreover, we wouldn’t sacrifice core civil liberties to prevent a cause of death that’s 300 times rarer than car accidents.

Imagine if our healthcare policy used cost-benefit analysis; we would direct research funding to maximize our chances of saving lives, not toward the form of cancer that is quite literally the sexiest. We would go to a universal healthcare system like the rest of the First World, and thereby save thousands of additional lives while spending less on healthcare.

With cost-benefit analysis, we would reform our system of taxes and subsidies to internalize the cost of carbon emissions, most likely resulting in a precipitous decline of the oil and coal industries and the rapid rise of solar and nuclear power, and thereby save millions of lives. Without cost-benefit analysis, we instead get unemployed coal miners appearing on TV to grill politicians about how awful it is to lose your job even though that job is decades obsolete and poisoning our entire planet. Would eliminating coal hurt coal miners? Yes, it would, at least in the short run. It’s also completely, totally worth it, by at least a thousandfold.

We would invest heavily in improving our transit systems, with automated cars or expanded rail networks, thereby preventing thousands of deaths per year—instead of being shocked and outraged when an automated car finally kills one person, while manual vehicles in their place would have killed half a dozen by now.

We would disarm all of our nuclear weapons, because the risk of a total nuclear apocalypse is not worth it to provide some small increment in national security above our already overwhelming conventional military. While we’re at it, we would downsize that military in order to save enough money to end world hunger.

And oh by the way, we would end world hunger. The benefits of doing so are enormous; the costs are remarkably small. We’ve actually been making a great deal of progress lately—largely due to the work of development economists, and lots and lots of cost-benefit analysis. This process involves causing a lot of economic disruption, making people unemployed, taking riches away from some people and giving them to others; if we weren’t prepared to bear those costs, we would never get these benefits.

Could we do all these things without cost-benefit analysis? I suppose so, if we go through the usual process of covering of our ears whenever a downside is presented and amplification whenever an upside is presented, until we can more or less convince ourselves that there is no downside even though there always is. We can continue having arguments where one side presents only downsides, the other side presents only upsides, and then eventually one side prevails by sheer numbers, and it could turn out to be the upside team (or should I say “tribe”?).

But I think we’d progress a lot faster if we were honest about upsides and downsides, and had the courage to stand up and say, “Yes, that downside is real; but it’s worth it.” I realize it’s not easy to tell a coal miner to his face that his job is obsolete and killing people, and I don’t really blame Hillary Clinton for being wishy-washy about it; but the truth is, we need to start doing that. If we accept that costs are real, we may be able to mitigate them (as Hillary plans to do with a $30 billion investment in coal mining communities, by the way); if we pretend they don’t exist, people will still get hurt but we will be blind to their suffering. Or worse, we will do nothing—and evil will triumph.

Saudi Arabia is becoming a problem.

JDN 2457394

There has been a lot of talk lately about what’s going on in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Iran, and Iraq, where Daesh (I like to call them that precisely because they don’t like it), also known as ISIS or ISIL, has been killing people and destroying things–including priceless ancient artifacts.

We in the United States actually have little to fear from Daesh. Pace Ben Carson and Lindsey Graham, Daesh is absolutely not an existential threat to the United States. We have them completely outnumbered and outgunned—indeed, we have the world outgunned, as we ourselves account for 40% of the world’s military spending and a comparable portion of the world’s nuclear missiles, naval tonnage, and air fleet.
The people who need to worry are those living in (or fleeing from) the Middle East.

Some 17,000 civilians were killed by warfare in Iraq in 2014, the plurality killed by Daesh and only a small fraction killed by US or NATO forces. Contrary to the belief of people like Noam Chomsky who think the US military is comprised of bloodthirsty genocidal murderers, we actually go quite far out of our way to minimize civilian deaths, up to and including dropping pamphlets warning of bombing raids before we carry them out (I love the “admits” in that headline. You keep using that word…). Then there’s Syria, where there have been over 200,000 deaths, though actually more attributable to Bashir al-Assad than to Daesh.

Daesh, on the other hand, has no qualms about killing anyone they consider not a “true Muslim”, which basically means anyone who doesn’t support them—it certainly doesn’t exclude all Muslims. Daesh is so brutal and extreme that Al Qaeda has condemned their tactics. Yes, that Al Qaeda, the one that crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center in 2001. If you really want to know the sorts of things Daesh has been doing (and have the stomach for it), there are plenty of photos and video footage, many of them openly promoted by Daesh itself, including on their Twitter feed which also shows lots of (I am not kidding) kitten photos called “Mewjahideen”.

But today I’m not actually going to focus on Daesh itself. I’m going to focus on a country that is ostensibly our ally in the fight against them—yet the way they’ve been behaving is a lot more like being an ally of Daesh. As I gave away in the title, I mean of course Saudi Arabia.

Between the time that I drafted this post as a Blog From the Future on Patreon and the time that you are now reading this, Saudi Arabia did another terrible thing, namely executing an important Shi’ite cleric and triggering the possibility of war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. (I think it helps support the point I’m about to make shortly that the focus of this article is on the effect on oil prices.)

First, remember what Saudi Arabia is—namely, an absolute theocratic monarchy founded upon the same Wahhabi Islamist ideology that drives Daesh. They teach Wahhabi Islam as their state religion in schools. This by itself should make us wonder whether they are really our allies—they after all agree a lot more with our enemies than they do with us. And indeed, while they speak of joining the “war on terror”, they are actually the leading source of funds for global Islamist terrorism. In theory, with their large, powerful military and a majority-Muslim population (which would help avoid the sense that this is some kind of Christian/atheist versus Muslim neo-Crusade, which it absolutely must not be), Saudi Arabia could be a valuable ally in this war—but they don’t particularly want to be.

Saudi Arabia is now paying to support refugees, but they aren’t actually accepting any refugees themselves. It would make sense for the US to do this, because we are very far away and it would be very difficult to transport refugees here. It does not make sense for Saudi Arabia to do this, except in order to look like they’re doing something while actually doing as little as possible. (Also, I’ve read conflicting reports as to whether they’ve pledged $10 million to Jordan or $10 billion—which is kind of like saying, “The car was either $1,000 or $1,000,000, I’m not sure.” The most credible estimate I’ve seen is $300 million, $10 million to Jordan. In my favorite unit of wealth, they’ve donated a romney. It’s a whopping… 0.04% of their country’s income in a year.) They should be doing what Turkey is doing, and taking on hundreds of thousands of refugees themselves.

As is fairly common among tyrants (look no further than North Korea), Saudi Arabia’s leaders often present some rather… eccentric beliefs, such as the claim that Daesh is actually secretly a wing of the Israeli military. Maybe this is Freudian projection: Knowing that they are secretly supporting Daesh and its ideology, they decide to accuse whomever they most dislike—i.e., Israel—of doing that very thing. And they certainly do hate Israel; Saudi Arabia’s state-run media frequently compare Israel to Nazis because apparently irony is completely lost on them.

One of the things Daesh does to display its brutality is behead nonbelievers; yet Saudi Arabia beheads far more people, including for thoughtcrimes such as apostasy and political dissent, as well as “crimes” such as sorcery and witchcraft. The human rights violation here is not so much the number of executions as the intentional spectacle of brutality, as well as the “crimes” cited. In the summer of 2014, they beheaded about one person per day—in a country of 27 million people, it wouldn’t be that odd to execute 30 people in a month, if they were in fact murderers. That’s about the size and execution rate of Texas. The world’s real execution leader is China, where over 2,000—and previously as many as 10,000—people per year are executed. China does have a huge population of almost 1.4 billion people—but even so, they execute more people than the rest of the world combined.

I mean, one can certainly argue that the death penalty in general is morally wrong (it is certainly economically inefficient); but I never could quite manage to be outraged by the use of lethal injection on serial killers (which is mainly what we’re talking about in Texas). But Saudi Arabia doesn’t use lethal injection, they use beheading. And they don’t just execute serial killers—they execute atheists and feminists.

Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is one of the worst in the world. (And that’s from the US Department of State, so don’t tell me our government doesn’t know this.) Freedom House gives them the lowest possible rating, and lists several reasons why their government should be considered a global pariah. Even the Heritage Foundation (which overweights economic freedom over civil liberties, in my opinion—would you rather pay high taxes, or be executed for thoughtcrime?) gave Saudi Arabia a moderate freedom rating at best.

So, the question really becomes: Why do we call these people our allies?

Why did President Obama cut short a visit to India—which is, you know, a democracy—to see the new king—as in absolute monarch—of Saudi Arabia? (Though good on Michelle Obama for refusing to wear the hijab. You can see the contempt in the faces of the Saudi dignitaries, but she just grins smugly. You can almost hear, “What are you gonna do about it?”) Why was “cementing ties with Saudi Arabia” even something we wanted to do?

 

The answer of course is painfully obvious, especially to economists: Oil.

Saudi Arabia is by far the world’s largest oil exporter, accounting for a sixth of all crude oil exports.

The United States is by far the world’s largest oil importer, accounting for an eighth of all crude oil imports.

As Vonnegut said, we are rolling drunk on petroleum. We are addicts, and they’re our dealer. And if there’s one thing addicts don’t do, it’s rat out their own dealers.

Fortunately, US oil imports are on the decline, and why? Thanks, Obama. Under policies that really were largely spearheaded by the Obama administration such as expanded fracking and subsidized solar power investment, a combination of increased domestic oil production and reduced domestic oil consumptionhas been reducing the need to continue importing oil from other countries.

Of course, the “expanded fracking” and “increased oil production” part gives me very mixed feelings, given its obvious connection to climate change. But I will say this: If we’re going to be burning all that oil anyway, far better that we extract it ourselves than that we buy it from butchers and tyrants. And indeed US carbon emissions have also been steady or declining under Obama.

The sudden crash in oil prices last year has been damaging to both Saudi Arabia and other major oil exporters such as Russia and Venezuela, which are nowhere near as bad but also hardly wholesome liberal democracies. (It also hurt Norway, who didn’t deserve it; but they’re wisely divesting from fossil fuels, starting with coal.) Now is the perfect time to implement a carbon tax; consumers will hardly feel it—it’ll just feel like prices are going back to normal—but oil exporters will have even more pressure to switch industries, and above all global carbon emissions will decrease.

Ideally we would also combine this with what I call a “human rights tariff”, a tariff applied to the goods a country exports based upon that country’s human rights record. We could keep it very simple: Another percentage point added to the tariff every time you execute someone for political, religious, or ideological reasons. A percentage point off every time you go at least a month without executing anyone for any reason except murder.

Obviously that wouldn’t deal with the fact that women can’t drive, or the fact that hijab is mandatory, or the fact that homosexuality is illegal—but hey, it would at least be something. Right now, every barrel of oil we buy from them is basically saying that we care more about cheap gasoline than we do about human rights.

Elasticity and the Law of Supply

JDN 2457292 EDT 16:16.

Today’s post is kind of a mirror image of the previous post earlier this week; I was talking about demand before, and now I’m talking about supply. (In the next post, I’ll talk about how the two work together to determine the actual price of goods.)

Just as there is an elasticity of demand which describes how rapidly the quantity demanded changes with changes in price, likewise there is an elasticity of supply which describes how much the quantity supplied changes with changes in price.

The elasticity of supply is defined as the proportional change in quantity supplied divided by the proportional change in price; so for example if the number of cars produced increases 10% when the price of cars increases by 5%, the elasticity of supply of cars would be 10%/5% = 2.

Goods that have high elasticity of supply will rapidly flood the market if the price increases even a small amount; goods that have low elasticity of supply will sell at about the same rate as ever even if the price increases dramatically.

Generally, the more initial investment of capital a good requires, the lower its elasticity of supply is going to be.

If most of the cost of production is in the actual marginal cost of producing each new gizmo, then elasticity of supply will be high, because it’s easy to produce more or produce less as the market changes.

But if most of the cost is in building machines or inventing technologies or training employees which already has to be done in order to make any at all, while the cost of each individual gizmo is unimportant, the elasticity of supply will be low, because there’s no sense letting all that capital you invested go to waste.
We can see these differences in action by comparing different sources of electric power.

Photovoltaic solar power has a high elasticity of supply, because building new solar panels is cheap and fast. As the price of solar energy fluctuates, the amount of solar panel produced changes rapidly. Technically this is actually a “fixed capital” cost, but it’s so modular that you can install as little or as much solar power capacity as you like, which makes it behave a lot more like a variable cost than a fixed cost. As a result, a 1% increase in the price paid for solar power increases the amount supplied by a whopping 2.7%, a supply elasticity of 2.7.

Oil has a moderate elasticity of supply, because finding new oil reserves is expensive but feasible. A lot of oil in the US is produced by small wells; 18% of US oil is produced by wells that put out less than 10 barrels per day. Those small wells can be turned on and off as the price of oil changes, and new ones can be built if it becomes profitable. As a result, investment in oil production is very strongly correlated with oil prices. Still, overall production of oil changes only moderate amounts; in the US it had been steadily decreasing since 1970 until very recently when new technologies and weakened regulations resulted in a rapid increase to near-1970s levels. We sort of did hit peak oil; but it’s never quite that simple.

Nuclear fission has a very low elasticity of supply, because building a nuclear reactor is extremely expensive and requires highly advanced expertise. Building a nuclear power plant costs upward of $35 billion. Once a reactor is built, the cost of generating more power is relatively trivial; three-fourths of the cost a nuclear power plant will ever pay is paid simply to build it (or to pay back the debt incurred by doing so). Even if the price of uranium plummets or the price of oil skyrockets, it would take a long time before more nuclear power plants would be built in response.

Elasticity of supply is generally a lot larger in the long run than in the short run. Over a period of a few days or months, many types of production can’t be changed significantly. If you have a corn field, you grow as much corn as you can this season; even if the price rose substantially you couldn’t actually grow any more than your field will allow. But over a period of a year to a few years, most types of production can be changed; continuing with the corn example, you could buy new land to plant corn next season.

The Law of Supply is actually a lot closer to a true law than the Law of Demand. A negative elasticity of supply is almost unheard of; at worst elasticity of supply can sometimes drop close to zero. It really is true that elasticity of supply is almost always positive.

Land has an elasticity near zero; it’s extremely expensive (albeit not impossible; Singapore does it rather frequently) to actually create new land. As a result there’s really no good reason to ever raise the price of land; higher land prices don’t incentivize new production, they just transfer wealth to landowners. That’s why a land tax is such a good idea; it would transfer some of that wealth away from landowners and let us use it for public goods like infrastructure or research, or even just give it to the poor. A few countries actually have tried this; oddly enough, they include Singapore and Denmark, two of the few places in the world where the elasticity of land supply is appreciably above zero!

Real estate in general (which is what most property taxes are imposed on) is much trickier: In the short run it seems to have a very low elasticity, because building new houses or buildings takes a lot of time and money. But in the long run it actually has a high elasticity of supply, because there is a lot of profit to be made in building new structures if you can fund projects 10 or 15 years out. The short-run elasticity is something like 0.2, meaning a 1% increase in price only yields a 0.2% increase in supply; but the long-run elasticity may be as high as 8, meaning that a 1% increase in price yields an 8% increase in supply. This is why property taxes and rent controls seem like a really good idea at the time but actually probably have the effect of making housing more expensive. The economics of real estate has a number of fundamental differences from the economics of most other goods.

Many important policy questions ultimately hinge upon the elasticity of supply: If elasticity is high, then taxing or regulating something is likely to cause large distortions of the economy, while if elasticity is low, taxes and regulations can be used to support public goods or redistribute wealth without significant distortion to the economy. On the other hand, if elasticity is high, markets generally function well on their own, while if elasticity is low, prices can get far out of whack. As a general rule of thumb, government intervention in markets is most useful and most necessary when elasticity is low.

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.