Flea markets

One of the local sports round Perpignan, where we’ve just bought a house, is going to village flea-markets on Sundays. They don’t go in for car boots: trestle stalls are rented cheaply by the organising villages, so the atmosphere is pleasant, even for a reluctant shopper like me. This is Latour-bas-Elne. On a given Sunday, there are half-a-dozen such dos.


How do flea markets by amateurs match up against the idealised markets of Walras and Arrow? Continue Reading…

The pain of Easter

Neither Google nor Bing show a results count when you search images (why not?), but it’s obvious that the number of Christian images of the Resurrection, especially of serious works of art, is enormously less than the number of images of the Cruxifixion. This is to some extent a reflection of the technical difficulty: if a painter can’t make a Cruxifixion affecting, he’s in the wrong business; a convincing Resurrection is hugely difficult. But religious artists basically respond to commissions, and the ratio reflects the unease of Christians with the idea. It was there in the proto-Church, see 1 Corinthians 15:12:

How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?

And if Christians are honest, it’s still a hard sell.

It is not then surprising that good Resurrection art is scarce. The works are often the work of oddball artists: Grünewald, whose day job was as a millwright; Piero della Francesca, day job mathematician; and the anonymous painter of the Chora in Istanbul (image, discussion).

Continuing our little RBC series of Easter artworks, here is one by Bramantino (who he?) in the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, dated to around 1490. Hi-res version on their website.

Bramantino Risen Christ

Bramantino takes the unease into outright shock and weirdness. It starts with the corpse-like pallor of the skin and the knife-like folds of the drapery: this isn’t fun. The most striking thing is the face: a head-on gaze, without joy or triumph, but inward-looking rather than judgemental. There is no glory here, and much recollected pain in the twisted mouth and bloodshot eyes. Victory no doubt, but that of a soldier who has survived a bloody battle; a Malplaquet, with no ringing of church bells in celebration.

The take is I suppose orthodox theologically. In the standard Christian theodicy, God became Isaiah’s suffering servant in the Passion, and suffers still through the ongoing sins of men and women. The eccentricity is in Bramantino’s omission of the joy of reunion, the humour, and the empathy we find in the Gospel accounts of the appearances, and the eschatological hope and triumph emphasised by the other artists in our series. Also in the lovely 8th-century Easter hymn by St. John of Damascus (take note of the hapless mediaeval geography, Ted Cruz):

The round earth keep high triumph, and all that is therein.

Enjoy your Easter eggs or chocolate bunnies, everybody.

The bottom of the pit

Will Rogers said it first:

When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.

From an IEA press release on Friday 13 March (sic), my emphasis:

Global emissions of carbon dioxide stood at 32.3 billion tonnes in 2014, unchanged from the preceding year. [...]
In the 40 years in which the IEA has been collecting data on carbon dioxide emissions, there have only been three times in which emissions have stood still or fallen compared to the previous year, and all were associated with global economic weakness: the early 1980′s; 1992 and 2009. In 2014, however, the global economy expanded by 3%.

This statistic is highly reliable. The IEA was set up in 1974 with the initial task

to help countries co-ordinate a collective response to major disruptions in oil supply through the release of emergency oil stocks.

Keeping tabs on the oil market and giving advance warning of another price spike means counting barrels of oil, and later wagons of coal and millions of cubic feet of gas. It’s what they do for a living. If you want to challenge their methods, outlined here, feel free, but I reckon it’s a waste of time. Continue Reading…

Freud, the !Kung and teddy bears

Acerbic Aussie economist John Quiggin recently had a post up at Crooked Timber on the dependence of property rights on the state. The argument is with the natural property rights crowd. Worth reading, though I can’t get worked up about the issue. Property is a claim recognised by society. Our form of society is the state. Where’s the problem?

The interesting side to me is where the claim comes from. I got thinking about infants and property. Any parent who has tried to deprive a toddler of the favourite teddy bear or rabbit, if only to wash the crust of dried food off it, will have encountered a fierce and absolutist defence. Not everything is property to a toddler, but what there is matters. Toddlers constantly squabble over the use of toys, often based on a claim to ownership. (Nice joke from a CT commenter: of course kindergartens are Hobbesian – the participants are all nasty, brutish, and short.) The idea of natural child communism is wishful thinking. It’s the adult carers who promote sharing, in an uphill struggle.

I commented that toddler property in teddy bears is a difficulty for the statist theory. States do offer their theoretical protection against teddy-nappers on buses, but it is both ineffectual and practically unimportant. States do not intervene to protect such rights against those who really do threaten them, caregivers, siblings and playmates. State judicial systems barely recognize toddlers as individuals, except in custody disputes and cases of abuse. When a young child, perhaps an orphan or grandchild, does legally own substantial property, it is managed by parents, step-parents or guardians. It doesn’t look as if property in teddy bears derives from the state. But it’s clearly of some psychological importance in the genesis of our complex attitude to the institution.

Is Freud any help here? Not much. Continue Reading…

The IPCC is wrong

IPCC WG III on mitigation of climate change had this to say on the costs of a forceful 2 degree C strategy (Summary for Policymakers, page 15, my italics, their godawful prose):

Scenarios in which all countries of the world begin mitigation immediately, there is a single global carbon price, and all key technologies are available, have been used as a cost-effective benchmark
for estimating macroeconomic mitigation costs … Under these assumptions, mitigation scenarios that reach atmospheric concentrations of about 450 ppm CO2eq by 2100 entail losses in global consumption – not including benefits of reduced climate change as well as co-benefits and adverse side-effects of mitigation (footnote 19) – of 1 % to 4 % (median: 1.7 %) in 2030, 2 % to 6 % (median: 3.4 %) in 2050, and 3 % to 11 % (median: 4.8 %) in 2100 relative to consumption in baseline scenarios that grows anywhere from 300 % to more than 900 % over the century. These numbers correspond to an annualized reduction of consumption growth by 0.04 to 0.14 (median: 0.06) percentage points over the century relative to annualized consumption growth in the baseline that is between 1.6 % and 3 % per year.

This has been summarised by retail commentators, including yours truly, as an estimate that “2 degree mitigation will cost 0.06% of GDP growth, or “nothing” within the margin of error.”

But it’s wrong. What is the point of an estimate of “macroeconomic mitigation costs” that excludes a substantial part of them, viz. the co-benefits and co-costs? One way forward is to try for a comprehensive estimate in welfare terms, including biodiversity, long-tailed risk of civilisational catastrophe, psychic burdens of anxiety, corrections for inequality, heightened risk of conflict, etc. This is pretty much impossible. Or you limit yourself to a GDP estimate, with its well-known flaws and the merits of familiarity – in which case you must put in all the GDP components. The whole point of mitigation is to prevent the damage from climate change. Not all of this is captured in GDP, but a lot of it is. Leaving out the avoided damage is a fatal flaw in the IPCC’s estimate of net costs. It’s much, much too high. Continue Reading…

Ten million

Remember when the first million signups to health plans under ACA was news? I do, because I blogged it in November 2013. (Checked later and confirmed here.)

How things have changed. Charles Gaba, last Wednesday:

With today’s HC.gov & NY State of Health updates, total QHPs [qualified private health plans] have OFFICIALLY broken 10M nationally.

Gaba’s estimate for the additional increase to date in ACA-enabled coverage under Medicaid and CHIP (including bulk transfers from state programmes) is 13.16m, a number which is sensitive to definitions.

If the Supreme Court reactionaries uphold the crackpot challenge in King v. Burwell to the subsidies on the federal backstop exchange, they will be breaking a large second-best reform that, after enormous effort and in the teeth of systematic vilification and obstruction, actually works.

[Update: my link for crackpottiness only covers the legal arguments. Meet the plaintiffs of record.]

Christiana Figueres bets the world

c_figueres_v3_400x400Not many people get to bet the world’s future, but Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN climate circus (UNFCC), has just done that.

The key decisions of the Lima COP 20 were these – my emphases.

The Conference of the Parties

3. Underscores its commitment to reaching an ambitious agreement in 2015 that reflects the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances;

9. Reiterates its invitation to each Party to communicate to the secretariat its intended nationally determined contribution towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2;
10. Agrees that each Party’s intended nationally determined contribution towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2 will represent a progression beyond the current undertaking of that Party;

13. Reiterates its invitation to all Parties to communicate their intended nationally
determined contributions well in advance of the twenty first session of the Conference of
the Parties (by the first quarter of 2015 by those Parties ready to do so) in a manner that facilitates the clarity, transparency and understanding of the intended nationally determined contributions; [Note: the 21st session will be held in Paris from 30 November - 11 December]

16. Requests the secretariat to:
(a) Publish on the UNFCCC website the intended nationally determined contributions as communicated;
(b) Prepare by 1 November 2015 a synthesis report on the aggregate effect of the
intended nationally determined contributions communicated by Parties by 1 October 2015…

This procedure marks a radical break with the top-down thinking that has stymied discussions for a decade. Continue Reading…

E-health for the world’s rural poor

The British microprocessor design giant ARM has tweeted 15 predictions for 2015. Some of them are incomprehensible geekspeak: “Benchmark data will shift end-user choice to purpose-optimized servers versus monolithic approaches”. But not this:

Mobile operators will deploy smartphone services as de facto healthcare for rural areas.

iphone_healthHow should they know? ARM just makes and licenses processor designs. Licensees incorporate them in complex chips (SOCs); the licensees’ customers incorporate the SOCs in gadgets; the gadgets are sold to final customers. It’s a long chain. But ARM’s business model requires it to keep abreast of these final markets, so it can steer its design programme. That’s why ARM puts a lot of effort into designs for the booming automotive market, and very little into the stagnant one for desktop PCs. The chances are they know what they are talking about.

Sure enough, Google quickly finds an example in Kenya:

“Safaricom has employed a wide-network infrastructure across and there is therefore opportunity for us to layer on services that make a difference to the Mwananchi,” Safaricom’s Enterprise Business General Manager, Sylvia Mulinge said in a recent statement. (Mwananchi is the Kiswahili word for “Common man” or “Citizen.”) “We have set up 800 digital villages and target to push the number to 5,000,” she said.

The company has partnered with Cisco to roll out e-health services across Kenya so as to enable patients in rural areas consult with doctors in urban areas. Through its e-health services, small clinics will be stationed in digital villages, where patients can consult doctors via video conferencing facilities.

In case you are worried that this is just feelgood PR, the telcos are into e-health for the money, like Adam Smith’s butchers and bakers. Health ministries even in Africa have budgets, and a major delivery problem; if e-health is value for money, they will pay for it. 800 digital clinics is not greenwashing. 5,000 will be major change.

If this works in Kenya, it will be rapidly replicated. The mobile phone revolution in Africa has wirelessed the continent – with >700m subscriptions, probably 80% of Africans have access to a least a basic mobile phone. Smartphones and 3G networks are following (another ARM prediction is 64-bit smartphones for under $70). Current Internet penetration is 26% for Africa as a whole, with 51m Facebook accounts. The operators are parts of big multinational groups: Safaricom is 40% owned, and operationally controlled, by Vodafone. The company launched the mobile phone payment system M-Pesa in Kenya in 2007, and has now spread it to 10 countries, including India. M-Pesa has rivals, like this one sponsored by India’s Airtel operator.

The mobile operators have found themselves in the unlikely position of being the first universal utility to reach half of the world’s population. They have already become de facto banks. If e-health takes off, they will become healthcare providers too.

Safaricom’s digital clinics don’t quite match ARM’s prediction. The clinics will presumably piggyback on the high-quality microwave links the operators have set up to their cellphone towers, and there’s no mention of smartphones. But mobile telcos are run by IT types, with no preconceptions about the proper way to deliver health care, and a keen understanding of their own technology. Why not set up a Kenyan WebMD, in Swahili, Luo, Masai, and Kikuyu? A smartphone is a very capable multimedia communications device: it has a microphone you can link to a stethoscope; a camera you can link to visual probes; and wifi you can connect to a cheaply pre-equipped blood pressure or blood sugar monitor. That’s a lot of diagnostic kit already.

This sort of health care was pioneered years ago in the days of radio in the sparsely populated Australian Outback, and more recently in the Canadian North. These are tiny niches in terms of the population covered. Telemedecine in the developing world is about to change the lives of billions of Mwananchi.

Peak China coal update

Some cheering news to start the year with. Remember my announcement in August of peak Chinese coal?  Premature, you thought, on the basis of a Greenpeace Asia blog and a garbled translation from an unknown Chinese business information company?

Well, the year is over and here is the reputable-looking Cleveland-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis weighing in. An IEEFA report states, according to  Platts:

In 2014, coal demand actually declined by 2.1%.

The IEEFA have a reputation to lose, unlike me, so they cautiously predict that China’s coal demand “will permanently peak by 2016, if not earlier.” I see no reason not to take the drop at face value. GDP growth was 7.3%, on trend. Chinese coal burning has peaked.

Of course, to save the climate it still has to drop, and by a lot. But this is still very, very good news.

In November I was puzzled why the Chinese government only promised Obama a CO2 target it will easily meet with no change in policy, allowing for a large increase in coal-burning it won’t need. A hypothesis I didn’t think of then is that China can now very easily announce stronger goals in its national offer for the Paris climate talks. The USA’s side of the bilateral deal is already at the limit of what can be achieved by executive action. So China will look good, and deflect criticism from the most vulnerable countries to the USA as laggard.

Attention will also shift to India, whose plans for a massive increase in coal-burning will isolate it. My (Pollyannish?) prediction here is that Modi will realize that Coal India’s promises are worthless and scale back the coal plans. He’s bet his political future anyway on solar energy and might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.

PS on the bad news front: I’ve nothing to add to Ezra Klein on the atrocious crime in Paris to silence Charlie Hebdo. I rarely looked at it while I lived in France – crude and fiery anticlericalism is a taste I never acquired. But as I shall be in France next week, I plan to buy a copy of their special 1-million print run edition. The usual circulation is 45,000. I hope they sell every copy. Feel free to comment here on this.

The Rolex Caliph

We wish all our readers and especially the commenters a peaceful and fulfilling 2015.

In some parts of the world such wishes would be a cruel fantasy. That includes the swathes of disintegrating Syria and Iraq under the control of Islamic State and its charismatic leader, the Rolex-toting and self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.


Photo source

US officials are baffled how to fight this new kind of enemy. Al-Qaeda had a bizarre and fantastical goal, the restoration of a purified Caliphate of all Muslims, and a too-clever bank shot strategy, attacking the “far enemy” American sponsor rather than the corrupt governments of Muslim states directly. But its structure and methods were straight out of the 150-year-old manual for conspiratorial violent revolutionaries, and would have been familiar to the Fenians, the Black Hand, or Carlos Marighella – and to the governments who fought them. Islamic State has similarly crazy ambitions, but it rules a territory, and possesses a useful army and a Twitter account.

The NYT reports on the puzzlement. Continue Reading…