Bad day in the blogosphere

Kevin Drum is one of the high-candlepower sources in public deliberation.  This did not begin my day well.  My aunt succumbed to this disease fifty-odd years ago, and  one bright spot here is that Kevin’s prospects are so much better than hers. Another is Kevin’s completely unwhiny, thoughtful affect.  Get better, Kevin, and my best to Marian. And the cats.

Why we should fund medical and all science research more, I leave for another post.

Annals of commerce: Beerkeley

Mark says alcohol creates more social cost than all other drugs combined.  I work for a university that has a persistent alcohol problem among its students.

It also has a sideline in big-time athletics, but that operation has made some very bad decisions in recent years and is genuinely desperate for money.  Three years ago, we made a three-year deal to let Coors use our name to sell beer.  No, really; there was an enormous billboard on the local interstate, but no-one on campus noticed. Last year such a billboard went up again, and the 15-year-old son of a public health [sic] prof noticed, producing some faculty outrage and this 21/XI/13 assurance from Claire Holmes, our Associate Vice Chancellor for PR:

… I am working on this issue with Vice Chancellor Wilton and have a meeting to discuss this with him Tuesday next week.  As you know,  contracts are binding agreements, so there is a process involved to change any agreements.  What I can assure you though is that there are no more beer ads planned for the foreseeable future.


billboard 14a(Photo Terray Sylvester/SF Chronicle)

It appears the “process” didn’t work, or AVC Holmes was misled, or the folks who could sign a three year contract couldn’t foresee a year ahead…or everyone at our higher financial levels missed the MBA class where they explained that any contract can be abrogated for a price (which would be pretty small while Coors had a whole year to figure out how to use the billboard without us).  Or maybe our campus leadership just decided $200,000 was an appropriate price at which to sell our students’ welfare and our principles, and endure public humiliation in the eyes of every driver and Chron reader.   You might think the 200 large at least went to the health center for alcohol emergencies, or the police and fire departments who have to deal with the alcohol poisonings and sexual assaults on Saturday night, or the undergraduate dean’s office for student alcohol education and safety programs, but as far as I can tell, you would be wrong.  The money is Intercollegiate Athletics’ to use as they wish.

This year’s poster has a couple of little logos in the corner saying “Party safe”and “21 means 21″, so it’s fine! Cigarettes are OK with a little health warning on the pack, right? OK, I’m ready to get with the program…but we can do a lot better.  At the least, we need to start selling beer at games again.  Several years ago, I offered what I thought was a surefire scheme, but so far haven’t been able to sell it.  Never mind: how about we partner with these guys, so they can put our logo right on their page as long as they also have a little box that says “Don’t plagiarize!” But the payoff from that deal pales in comparison to what we can get for adjusting research results, from companies who would kill to have a UC study finding their products safe/effective/whatever.  A notice on our web home page, and on the title page of each such lucrative report, to the effect that “UC Berkeley does not support compromising academic standards” would surely sanitize such deals.

I’m already shopping for my new office furniture.


I despise the institution of tipping for service.  There’s no practical way to escape it (obviously no decent person will stiff a waiter in the service of a principle), it’s degrading to people who are no more “servants” to me in a restaurant than I am to my students, the “expected” tip has been increasing as a percentage of the tab for no reason (because its a percentage, inflation is automatically covered already), and in some contexts (like New York garages and apartment houses) it’s only slightly above extortion, with a soupçon of positional arms race.  Furthermore, it’s an invitation to tax evasion.

Here’s the beginning of a worthy trend: some high-end restaurants here are just putting a stop to it, and apparently to everyone’s approval.  Now we just need to increase the menu prices 20% and have done with the whole mess.  I like charging extra for checked bags on an airplane; why should people without bags pay to schlep mine across the country?  But having dinner put on your table is not an optional part of dining in a sit-down restaurant.  Roll it all up together and have done with it; let management manage things like salaries, training, and working hours.

[rev 24/X] from the linked (paywall) article:

Citing both pragmatic and philosophical reasons, a small collection of Bay Area restaurateurs are eliminating tipping. Instead of expecting diners to leave a tip, the restaurants will automatically add a 20 percent service charge to all bills — and not accept any additional gratuity beyond the service charge….Rather than relying on tips, the restaurants will compensate staff on merit-based hourly wages and revenue-sharing. It’s a system common abroad….So far, the restaurants’ respective staffs have been largely supportive, according to owners. Camino’s Hopelain estimates that cooks stand to receive an hourly increase of 50 cents to $1, while servers’ pay will remain steady, or perhaps decrease 50 to 75 cents an hour….One major shift will be in reporting tips for tax purposes. Generally speaking, cash tips have a tendency to go unreported among restaurant servers. Once the service charge becomes an official line item on a receipt, people will be accountable. Hoffman [co-owner] said employees at Comal will not see a change in their income if they have been declaring all of their tips.

More tinpot dictators in the schools

Some educators think the point of school is to get students to do their own thinking.   Others, not so much: the little Caesars in Bucks County seem to think their school is about sports and (for example) the school newspaper is there to gin up pep rallies so the high school players can do their job, which is to amuse ignorant white grownups.

Seriously, how messed up is this: students learn journalism by having their copy dictated by racist administrators?  Who obviously haven’t read a newspaper in twenty years?

More generally, there seem to be no limits to the degree that sports, especially football, can corrupt a community and degrade its culture (can you say Steubenville?) if the grownups go infantile; the good people of Sayreville seem to be more upset about missing a season of football than an epidemic of sexual assault (though in that case the school leadership is on the ball).

School team nicknames have many strange conventions, especially the taste for war and predation. A game isn’t a war, or a fight!  I always liked MIT’s choice of a beaver (your cougars or whatever may occasionally have a beaver for lunch, but they will end up working for them after graduation).  More mysterious to me is all the Trojans; why would you name your teams after history’s most famous losers?

Florida State (and Tallahassee) have plenty to work on about football and bad behavior by players. But the school took care to get the Seminole Nation to OK their team name.  I think that’s OK, especially as the Seminole are local to the institution, and Seminole is not a derogatory word.  As to Neshaminny, while the logo itself doesn’t have the particularly vile quality of the Cleveland pro baseball team’s, the idea that it has some aroma of local pride only demonstrates that the district’s curriculum doesn’t have much of a unit on Native Americans. He’s wearing the headdress of people who live a thousand miles away, a ludicrous inconvenience for eastern forest people trying to get around in trees and brush.

Oh well, seen one Indian, seen ‘em all, and there’s a game Friday night.

Athletics at Berkeley update

In late spring, big-time sports at Berkeley hit bottom on several dimensions, but things may be turning around. In the last few anni horribili,  the Intercollegiate Athletics program saddled the campus with about $400m in debt to rebuild the stadium and construct an accessory building that is about a third conditioning space for athletes, a third party venue for boosters and possibly players, and a third coaching offices.  A scheme to play the spread between tax-exempt bond interest rates and market returns on endowment, plus selling premium seats on long contracts (the ESP program), to retire this debt is in some trouble (ESP sales are steadily declining year by year).  At the same time, we were humiliated by the worst graduation rates in the country (football) and in the conference (men’s basketball) along with on-field performance in those money sports (1-11 in FB, 7th in the conference in MBB) that, let us say, does not sell tickets or open donor wallets.

We sent our athletic director packing (she wound up at Penn State…the world is a strange place in many ways) and the football team is no longer an embarrassment, 4-1 so far even though we did not beat the point spread in last week’s squeaker. More interesting, a task force stood up by the chancellor last winter has come out with a report, focused on “the academic performance of student athletes and the overall quality of their campus experience”,  that he has pretty much accepted.  It has a lot of good stuff in it and deserves a careful read.

Continue Reading…

Cliffs Notes for a Carbon Charge

The conversation in comments at Andrew’s post indicates it might be useful to go over the workings of a climate tax charge.  I like to call it a charge rather than a tax because it is much more like what we uncontroversially pay when we take potatoes from the supermarket, than what we pay government whether or not we use the fire department or the courthouse.

The moral case for charging people when they warm the planet is pretty simple. The world has a fixed capacity to process greenhouse gases (GHG’s) while staying habitable for polar bears and people: when you let CO2 loose, you are denying some of that capacity to everyone else, exactly like the potatoes you deny to others by eating them. When you do either without paying, you are a no-good lousy goniff stealing thief taker, a species despised by all.  Much better to drive your car, or heat your house, without making your kids ashamed of you, right?

Is it right to let people pollute the planet — take GHG capacity away from everyone else if they pay for it? Well, is it right to let people take food out of the mouths of the hungry just because they are willing to pay for those potatoes?  Um, yes, it is. Poverty, hunger,  and inequality are big important problems, and public policy is needed to deal with them, but that policy is not in the climate department. If you’re worried that some people won’t be able to afford to drive when gasoline carries a carbon charge, by all means let’s do something about it, but the “it”  is not gas prices, it’s poverty, because the same people are having trouble with the rent and feeding their families.

The technical case is a little more complicated, and  recognizes that burning fossil fuels (and fertilizing food crops; N2O is a potent GHG) is useful and creates real value as well as causing damage.  The liquid fuel in a medevac helicopter has no practical substitute because (i) two thirds of the “fuel”  is oxygen from the air that the helicopter doesn’t have to carry, so it  has an energy-to-payload ratio that beats existing batteries, wound-up rubber bands, and any other current possibility (ii) the stoker and boiler equipment to burn coal, or the pressure vesssel to hold hydrogen, are very heavy, while liquid fuels can be managed with an ordinary tank and a few pipes. This use of fossil fuel is a good decision.  The same fuel burned in a car that could have used electricity from a wind farm is much less valuable; if it’s going on a half-mile trip on a nice day next to a bicycle path to pick up a quart of milk, even less.  However, all of it does the same global climate damage at current atmospheric CO2 levels.  When the latter go up more, and we are flirting with putting seaboard cities under water, the damage per pound of CO2 will be higher.

It is not the purpose of a carbon charge to make everyone stop emitting any CO2: the right level of global GHG emissions is some, not none.  The policy goal is that we only emit the GHG whose benefits exceed its costs, the Goldilocks level: not too much, but also not too little.  This is the same policy goal we seek for all sorts of pollution and other kinds of bad behavior.  We don’t want people to never practice the trumpet, we want them to do it with the windows closed, at reasonable hours.  We don’t want no crime, we want the amount that suppressing further would be too costly in other ways.cc001

OK, I need to draw on the blackboard.  I’ve graphed the marginal benefit of each additional ton of fossil fuel (MB) and the price people pay for it, marginal private cost = MPC. Some uses, like the helicopter, have great benefits relative to possible substitutes or going without; others, like sitting in traffic with the engine idling, have very little value.  In the usual way, the world has settled down at point D.  But the real cost of emitting that GHG is additional to the current price of gas; the problem is that decisionmakers don’t see the climate damage they cause, marginal social cost (MSC).

According to what we know now, this system should be operating at point B.  We can get there if we impose a carbon charge of MSC so the last gallons of gas cost more than the users benefit from it. The right charge for now is (experts tell us) about $30/t, the social cost of an additional ton of CO2 where we are now; as emissions fall, that charge should probably fall as well.  What we have to know to get it right is the MSC curve over a reasonable range, and where we are now on the emissions axis. What we don’t have to know is where point B is: lay on the carbon charge and the world will show it to us.

We can get to B by a regulatory cap set right below it.  But to do that we have to know both the MSC curve and the MB curve, and the latter is even harder to see than MSC.  When we set out to put a stop to automobile smog emissions, the industry experts swore up and down, and probably believed, that a clean car would cost a fortune and be undrivable — that is, that the benefits of a dirty car relative to a clean one were very large. But they were wrong.  A cap also has to be allocated across emitters somehow; we could do it administratively by some sort of rationing, but most people come to see that letting emitters trade the rights to release GHG will lead to a much more efficient system.  It’s possible to show that a charge and a cap-and-trade system will get to the same sweet spot, at least in theory.  But what if we’re wrong about what the right cap level is, for example if the MB curve in fact is much lower than we think?  We’re already seeing it fall, as wind, solar, and conservation get cheaper so the advantages of fossil fuel (for lots of things) become less.  A carbon charge makes the whole world look for ways not only to pass up the fuel that’s not actually worth what it costs, but also to move that MB curve down by finding good substitute energy sources, so B moves to the left.

Actually implementing either a carbon charge or a cap-and-trade system is not a simple matter, what with making it work internationally (tariff?) and playing whack-a-mole with new schemes to cheat.  But the carbon charge is the way to go, all things considered. It’s easier for us to lay a charge on Chinese steel to account for the coal used to make it than to impose a cap on Chinese steel plants, but its big advantage is not having to pay attention to the fossil fuel industry’s bleating about how uniquely essential their products are to prosperity, freedom and the American way.  Just impose the charge, as well as we can calculate it, and the MB curve and point B will reveal themselves.


Can’t anybody here play this game?

Is there no-one down your NFL HQ who took a PR course in business school? Today we have another domestic violence arrest, and as the player is not a star and the team can do OK without him, a quick suspension. But we also learned that Peterson and Hardy’s “suspensions” (also Dwyer’s, I think) are vacations with full pay.  I thought paid vacation was a nice thing that people usually want more of! Roger, Roger, you don’t want pictures of these guys partying on the beach with floozies popping up in supermarket aisles; drawing multi-million dollar salaries, there’s plenty left after their lawyer bills to do that.

This is, if possible, even more messed up than yesterday’s improvisations, and it’s bleeding out from the NFL and owners’ suites to all the players, because the Players’ Association contract agreement is looking like a place for violent thugs to hide behind.

Here’s what I think should happen when there’s good reason to believe a player has behaved heinously off the field (good reason is certainly an arrest and might well be a lot less): Continue Reading…

Watching the NFL twisting in the wind

The remarkably inept response of the NFL and three of its teams to players in trouble for various kinds of violent behavior has triggered an important but somewhat confused debate. Football is intrinsically a violent sport, where most of the action is big strong men trying to impose their will on other big strong men (fall down, drop the ball, etc.) not only by main strength as in judo but by ballistic collisions.  The game is already in some trouble from the brain damage caused by its repeated head impacts (helmets or not, concussions or not): it appears that about a third of players will develop Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, way more than the population base rate and occurring earlier in life.  At least as damaging has been the NFL’s shucking, jiving, and denial as the evidence of this risk came to light, and its tradition of treating players like used Kleenex after their playing value is exhausted  (they don’t treat their purely decorative labor all that well either, apparently).
As football players are celebrities, they make news when they misbehave off the field, and while their arrest rates are lower than the average for adult males , the proper comparison would seem to be ‘adult millionare males with at least some college’.  When the misbehavior is violent, all sorts of bells go off, as they have with the recent cases of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and Ray MacDonald.

Continue Reading…

The less-union jack

Inquiring minds want to know, what will the British flag look like if the Scots scoot? Well, it will look like this:

british-flagThe reason involves one of the most famous creative heraldic hacks in history. If you look at paintings of British battles and ships before 1808, you will see that the Union Jack had only a white X, not a red one. More precisely, Azure, the Cross Saltire of St Andrew Argent [the Scottish cross] surmounted by the Cross of St George Gules, fimbriated of the second. This means, “on a blue field, a white X behind a red cross, the latter edged with white”. The white border on the red cross is required by the rule that metals (white/silver and yellow/gold) may not touch each other, nor may colors (red, blue, purple, orange, black, green).  Most baseball caps obey this rule, but incomprehensibly, the Mets and Giants take the field with non-compliant caps, an enduring scandal.

Upon the Act of Union with Ireland, it was necessary to add St. Patrick’s cross, a red saltire.  If this were centered, St. Andrew’s cross would disappear, becoming a mere fimbriation of the Irish saltire.  Placing the latter off-center as though slightly rotated, making St. Andrew’s cross an element in its own right, (given that the implied mess at the center crossing is hidden by the English cross), was a stroke of near genius and to my knowledge completely original in heraldic gimmickry.

If the white cross is removed, all that is necessary is to recenter the red saltire of (Northern) Ireland in its obligatory white border, hence the figure above: Azure, the Cross Saltire of St Patrick Gules, fimbriated Argent, surmounted by the Cross of St George Gules, fimbriated of the third.


Values in sports

Michael Vick was suspended from the NFL and sent to prison for  bankrolling a dogfighting ring.  Ray Rice was given a two-game suspension (until the public outrage was perceptible even to the Ravens and NFL honchos) and a wrist-slap in court  for punching his girlfriend out.

Why the disparity? Could it be because Vick was abusing highly trained athletes who excel at a violent sport?