Trump’s War on Coal IV

In the second of this series of posts, I reported on data from the SEIA and consultants WoodMac that cast doubt on FERC’s forecasts of “highly probable” new solar installation in the USA. I went so far as to characterize these as “politicised rubbish”.

At the time I did not have comparable data for wind. Now I do. In a press release, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reports:

Of the total wind pipeline, 17,213 MW were under construction across 21 states at the end of first quarter. [….] Project developers also reported 21,949 MW of wind capacity in the advanced development stage, which also reached a record level. Projects in advanced development have not yet begun construction but are likely to come online in the near term because they have either signed a long-term contract, placed turbine orders, or are proceeding under utility ownership.

My italics.

The AWEA definition corresponds very closely to the SEIA/WoodMac criterion for solar and to any common-sense interpretation of the term “highly probable”. So FERC have got this badly wrong too.

Putting the data together for your convenience, I get this:

The implied coal retirements in the last line – implied by the AWEA and SEIA/WoodMac data – are based on the assumptions of static demand for electricity, one-for-one substitution of renewables for coal, and no change in the latter’s break-even capacity factor (CF). The continuous-equivalent number for the announced retirements is just reached by applying the fleet average and is probably inaccurate, but it plays no part in the rest of the calculation. Note that old coal plants are inflexible, unlike gas, and don’t contribute much to the needed firming backup for cheap intermittent renewables.

The table also assumes that all the utility projects listed by SEIA/WoodMac and the AWEA will be completed in the three-year horizon used by FERC. This is very likely, though recently solar developers have started signing PPAs with delivery as late as 2023. The CFs for wind and solar are conservative, as technical advances are still raising them.

The estimate therefore has a fair margin of error. But it does strongly suggest that coal retirements of well over twice those already notified to FERC are already baked into the cake, with more on the way.

* * * * * *

Politically, the key factor is how many more coal jobs are lost in the next 15 months, before the 2020 elections. Here the picture is much less clear, but qualitatively similar.

It’s a fairly safe assumption that all the wind and solar farms currently under construction will be working by the election and cutting demand for coal. Since solar is very quick to build once ground is broken, this may imply a large underestimate. Using the same simple methods as in my table, that translates to 11.5 GW of redundant coal generation. The actual coal plant closures may be delayed or anticipated; the impact on mining jobs will be immediate.

The number is in the same ballpark as recent experience. 15 GW of American coal plants closed in 2018, displaced by gas as much as renewables. ( I don’t attempt to take account of gas here, but it’s more bad news for coal.) The acceleration I predicted, and still do, looks as if it will come after the election. However, the now certain job losses, and the equally certain prospect of many more to come, will already be on a sufficient scale to show up Trump’s promises in 2016 to American coal-miners as a cynical fraud.

It looks as if Appalachians generally are slowly getting the message. Trump’s approval ratings in selected states, Morning Consult, for now and at the start of his term:

Update 3 September

To do the FERC staff justice, they have changed the concept again and now less subjectively list new generating plants “under construction”. In the “energy infrastructure” report for June, the numbers I am interested in are:

  • coal plant retirements to July 2022 16.3 GW (+3.0 GW from May)
  • wind under construction 27.1 GW (+1.6 GW)
  • solar under construction 17.1 GW (+2.3 GW)
  • gas under construction less retirements 21.7 GW (+3.5 GW)

The small victory for professionalism should be praised. Note however that since wind and solar plants take at most 2 years to put up, FERC’s table is no longer very useful as a three-year projection. What we can say is that at least 44 GW of new wind and solar will be up and running before next November, and cutting coal sales. I make that 22 GW of coal generation replaced, plus up to another 13 GW from gas.

Yogi Wins One

Back in September, I reported on the decision by the U.S.D.C. for the District of Montana (per Christensen, C.J.) that overturned the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly as an endangered species.

In response to the Court’s order, on July 30, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revised the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife to again include grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) as part of the existing listing for grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

As reported in Science, the bears are (if you will excuse the expression) not yet out of the woods.

The long-running dispute over the bears may not be over. Legislation to delist them yet again was introduced in February by Senator Mike Enzi and Representative Liz Cheney, two Republicans representing Wyoming. They argue the population of Yellowstone bears has recovered to a healthy level.

Further, the original decision by Judge Christensen has been appealed by the U.S. to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. As of the time of this posting, that appeal has not been dismissed.

Finally, here’s a link to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s website for Ursus arctos horribilis.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Across 110th Street

Blaxploitation films are often described as sloppily produced, overly violent, sexist, racist, and demeaning to their audiences. Those gibes definitely apply to many entries in the genre, but roses exist among the thorns, particularly when a film had a bit more budget than usual and drew on other genres in creative ways (e.g., Blacula, for which I have long had a soft spot). Accordingly, this week I am recommending a 1972 blaxpolitation-film noir blend which is usually remembered today only as a Bobby Womack song: Across 110th Street.

The plot: The long-entrenched Italian mob is struggling to maintain the upper hand over the rising African-American gangs who rule the underworld across 110th street (i.e., Harlem’s boundary). Some small-time black criminals execute — and I do mean execute — a bold robbery of both criminal organizations, netting a massive haul of cash. The big-time criminals set out for vengeance, led by an arrogant, racist, Mafioso (Anthony Franciosa). But the robbers’ leader (Paul Benjamin) is nobody’s fool, and also knows how to handle a machine gun. Meanwhile, an honest African-American police detective (Yaphet Kotto) and a much less honest old school Italian-American police captain (Anthony Quinn) spar with each other as they try to round up all three criminal gangs.

Probably the best thing about the blaxploitation genre is the opportunities it afforded African-American actors to strut their stuff. Paul Benjamin brings the emotional heart to what otherwise would have been a routine crime melodrama. He conveys the power of friendship in his scenes with his fellow thieves, and even moreso expresses quite movingly how the degrading life of being a black ex-con in America drove him to crime as his only apparent option. True to his character’s cynicism, Benjamin sadly never became a big star in white-controlled Hollywood despite his evident talent. Where Benjamin brings the passion, Yaphet Kotto radiates intelligence here, as he was always able to do even when cast in cardboard roles (e.g., the James Bond villain in Live and Let Die, for which he was recruited while making this movie). Quinn as usual gives a blowy performance trying to dominate the screen, but in those same scenes you can’t stop looking at Kotto quietly thinking about what the hell he’s going to do next to crack the case.

Although many of its plot elements are straight from noir (cops being as crooked as criminals, small time crooks robbing big-time mobsters), the film retains the action-packed, violent, sensibility of the blaxploitation genre. The sadism of Franciosa’s character is hard to watch, but it’s central to the plot rather than being gratuitous: He’s such a racist that he enjoys torturing black people even to the point that his murderous black criminal allies are repulsed by him.

Across 110th Street’s modest budget shows here and there. At a few points, the plot jumps forward as if an intervening scene were missing, and there are some visible goofs (including two howlers in the first 10 minutes that I won’t ruin for you). But for the most part the unadorned sets and Naked City veteran Jack Priestly’s unvarnished cinematography are assets for a grim, gripping, story set in the rotting big apple that was 1970s New York City.

p.s. After watching this film, you will laugh very hard seeing Antonia Fargas send up his character 16 years later in I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka.

p.p.s. I don’t have a lot of company on this recommendation. Wikipedia summarizes contemporary critical reaction thus: Roger Greenspun of The New York Times wrote, “It manages at once to be unfair to blacks, vicious towards whites and insulting to anyone who feels that race relations might consist of something better than improvised genocide … By the time it is over virtually everybody has been killed—by various means, but mostly by a machine gun that makes lots of noise and splatters lots of blood and probably serves as the nearest substitute for an identifiable hero.” Variety wrote that “Those portions of it which aren’t bloody violent are filled in by the squalid location sites in New York’s Harlem or equally unappealing ghetto areas leaving no relief from depression and oppression. There’s not even a glamorous or romantic type character or angle for audiences to fantasy-empathize with.” Gene Siskel gave the film one-and-a-half stars out of four. Gary Arnold of The Washington Post slammed the film as “a crime melodrama at once so tacky and so brutal that one feels tempted to swear out a warrant for the arrest of the filmmakers.” Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film “self-destructs by consistently selling out to stomach-churning displays of unrelieved violence.” Yet I stand by my recommendation, because I’m a complicated man and no one understands me but my woman.

Holes in the ground!

The case for a large pumped storage programme in Appalachia

Senator (and Presidential pre-candidate) Kamala Harris and Rep. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez (not a candidate but lefty star) have published a draft Climate Equity Act. Here it is (pdf). It provides for principles, an Office, reports, consultations, and a platform for “frontline communities” to share their pain with the denizens of the Beltway. It reads like the work of a New Age therapist working in the bureaucracy of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Missing: any proposals for action that would actually do something for unemployed American coal-miners in say Harlan County, Kentucky.

Here’s my idea.

A 100% renewable electricity grid – actually a 90% one – based on cheap wind and solar electricity needs a lot of backup or firming to cover the gaps when there is no solar output (called “the night”) or little wind (week-long lulls mainly created by the procession of anticyclones that drive the weather in middle latitudes). Today, there is enough legacy baseload coal and nuclear power to reduce the problem, and natural gas to deal with what’s left, but they are all going to phase out soon in the GND. Actually the coal will go anyway regardless of the GND from price competition, and nuclear from age, but this plan is for GND supporters.

There is a longish list of technically feasible solutions or part-solutions. None of them are really cheap; but then, a good part of the cost of the electricity you buy today is to cover the rarely used peak generation capacity and the unused reserve. There are no free lunches here.

Sources: personal guesses except for deployment, for which here (pdf)

There is a lively argument in the “100% renewable” expert trade about the best method of firming. Very lively. Mark Jacobson went so far as to sue Christopher Clack for a hostile rebuttal of his first scenario for the USA, relying for firming on a rather peculiar scheme, since dropped, of retrofitting all existing US hydropower dams to run in burst mode, at much higher outputs for much shorter periods. I don’t include this false start.

Some of these technologies are in flux, others mature. It is therefore impossible to predict now the lowest-cost firming mix ten years ahead. The problem is that in a ten-year GND transition, there isn’t time to let things settle down. Some big spending decisions will have to be taken in the next few years, and some of them will turn out to be wrong in the sense of diverging from the optimum – there is not much risk of being stuck with an asset that simply does not work. The priority is as always to ensure a reliable supply, not to assure ratepayers suffering from power cuts that you were prudently trying to save them every last cent on their bills. The compressed timescale also calls for a strong federal policy lead and assumption of risks.

I want to make a case here for off-river pumped hydro storage (PHS).

It may not work out the cheapest in the end, but it’s a mature technology with no technical risk, known and reasonable costs, long working life, modest environmental impact (note off-river), and scaleable to any volume you want. Existing plants (pdf) provide 95% of the current US utility storage capacity. Its problem is that dams take a long time to build: at best five years, though with much less construction risk than nuclear plants. If the USA is going to rely on pumped storage to any significant extent, it will have to start building it out by 2025. There is no technical reason not to start sooner. Storage replaces peak gas immediately as soon as there is a worthwhile volume of wind and solar, which you already have.

Satellite view of Bath County PHS dams. The penstocks are inside the mountain. The height difference is 385 metres. Source

At least one expert, Andrew Blakers of the Australian National University, strongly recommends pumped hydro as the basis for firming a wind/solar power supply, along with more HVDC transmission. He has constructed 100% renewable scenarios (pdf) for the Australian NEM (the grid covering the populated East and South) using just these four technologies, with hourly balancing to match the current demand. This balancing costs an additional midpoint US$21 per Mwh on top of the raw wind+solar LCOE of midpoint US$49, a markup of 43%. His paper gives the (narrow) ranges and offers a large number of variants tweaking the assumptions in different ways. His base case calls for 16 GW of storage for 31 hours, making 490 Gwh, balancing a total annual demand of 205 Twh. The capital cost of the storage, based on replicating a standard unit costed by a hydro engineer, is US$600 per kw or US$9.6 bn for the whole package.

To get an order of magnitude for a US programme on the same lines, we will just scale up Blakers without any apology or attempt at adjustment. US consumption of electricity is 4,070 Twh a year, so the model calls for 318 GW of capacity at a cost of $191 bn. (Cross-check: the one-off PHS plant at Bath County, originally 2.1 GW, cost $1.6 bn in 1985, so on that basis 318 GW would have been $242 bn. The order of magnitude is OK, and there has been technical progress since in reversible generators and in tunnelling.)

Since we don’t know whether the alternatives will be cheaper or dearer, it does not make sense to put all the eggs in one basket. However, we can be pretty sure that PHS, as the dominant historical storage technology and still much the cheapest, will play a significant part. Picking with a pin, a 100 GW initial programme looks reasonable. As of 2017, 40 new PHS sites were already under active investigation by utilities and licenses applied for with eight, so we won’t start absolutely from scratch. But if we do, it will cost a ballpark $60 bn. In the context of the multi-trillion overall cost of the GND, this is clearly doable. The plants are long-lived revenue-earning assets: storage has a price, sometimes a high one. I don’t know what the ROI will be, and doubt if it matters very much.

PHS plants are very flexible on size and can adapt to different geographies. The world’s largest PHS plant, at Bath County in Virginia, has a capacity today of 3GW / 24 Gwh. But many working plants are much smaller, down to 100 MW or so. The programme could be met with 33 Bath Counties or 1,000 100 MW plants, or anything in between. The power generated is proportional to the head, and you can get more work from a given size of reservoirs if you can site the upper one higher. This all gives the planners a great deal of flexibility.

Where should the dams go? As a climate justice measure, it has to be Appalachia, since that is where most of the unemployed miners are and will be.

The mountain range is very extensive, seismically inactive, and high enough with typical crests of 900m. You only need 300m or so height difference for a decent PHS scheme. The number of potential sites is so large that the choice can often be made on grounds of economic deprivation. Socially, dam-building is a nearly ideal economic stimulus. The jobs are manly to match an old-fashioned culture, moderately skilled (highly skilled for tunnelling), and last for several years. Contrast suggestions that unemployed Appalachians should be retrained for installing solar in a foggy climate, or wind turbines on the few suitable hilltop sites, clashing with recreation.

How many jobs will be created? At its peak, Bath County had 3,400 workers on site. Applying the same ratio to our 100 GW programme, that would give 113,000 jobs. This is not realistic: smaller dams have different demands to big ones, the employment peaks won’t be synchronised, tunnelling machines are much better, and so on. But it is certainly enough to put a sizeable dent in unemployment across the region, before counting the spending multiplier in local communities. The ambition of the whole programme may even be constrained by the availability of workers. The jobs are only for a decade, but this buys time to develop other opportunities.

How to set up the programme? It is both large and specialised. The obvious solution is to copy Roosevelt’s TVA and set up the Appalachian Storage Authority, under a joint federal/inter-state governance structure, with borrowing and eminent domain powers and so on. It could have a fixed 20-year life, and sell the dams on to states or utilities before winding up. A programme of earmarked federal grants to states would risk sabotage by GOP state governments, which have shown on the Medicaid expansion that they are prepared to sacrifice the welfare of their citizens to ideology. Centralisation and standardization should also work out cheaper in design and project management. There are risks either way.

I don’t know if the scheme can realistically be extended to the Powder River Basin miners in Wyoming. Since their mines are open-cast and highly automated, the miners are far fewer – 5,535 in the state in 2018.  The Rockies have even more and better potential sites for PHS than the Appalachians but they are not SFIK anywhere near the mines. I suspect the climate justice warriors will have to think of something else.

Question to Senator Harris and Representative Ocasio-Cortez:

  • Do you support this plan or something like it?
  • If not, what is your alternative plan that gives former coal miners decently paid jobs where they and their families want to live?

Suppose you both win your political and electoral battles. If you content yourselves with just creating a cool new federal bureaucracy for climate justice, the miners will say: you may be prettier and better spoken than Mitch and Manchin, but in the end you are just another pair of politicians who spin fine words and let us down. They won’t be entirely wrong.

Footnote 1

In this post I have ignored the steelworkers and other groups in Appalachia whose situation is often just as bad as that of coal-miners. The issue here is framed by the two representatives as climate justice, implying specific action for those who must lose their jobs to secure the essential energy transition. In Appalachia, that means coal-miners, and they are the measuring-stick for my plan and for any alternative. The plan will of course benefit other groups as well, and these wider benefits should be considered in the planning.

I have no idea what to do for Texan oilfield roustabouts. They are doing all right for now, but that won’t last. Let’s think of something.

Footnote 2

The title is, as alert RBC readers will have spotted, a h/t to this famous passage of Keynes:

If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.

General Theory, Chapter 10, section VI

My dams, being useful, are “houses and the like”.

Footnote 3

As in Australia, the national grid is a good way of keeping storage costs down through geographical smoothing. The Australian population, and hence the variability of demand, is crammed into a single vertical time zone. An HVDC line from Sydney to Perth captures useful smoothing of wind and solar supply but not of demand. From New York to San Francisco, it does both. The grid has an even higher payoff in the USA, lowering the storage costs.

Footnote 4

If anybody wants to talk to someone who really knows about this stuff, Andrew Blakers is in the phone book: +61 2 612 55905, andrew.blakers@anu.edu.au

Update 08/08/2019

Blakers points me to a world atlas his team has prepared with 616,000 (not a typo) potential pumped hydro storage sites identified from satellite images. The theoretical collective storage capacity is a hundred times anything we are likely to need. Some of them are in places like Patagonia and Kamchatka that are fairly safe from the bulldozers, but that still leaves innumerable more useful locations. The database lists 33,000 site pairs in the USA, the majority in the Rockies  but a good number in the Appalachians – eyeballing, a few thousand. Total US potential storage 1.5 million Gwh. (The huge spreadsheet does not help you find geographical locations, to explore you have to work off the detailed zoomable map, example here, and then copy and paste the coordinates into Google Earth). Some of these sites will be home to protected snail darters or the like, others would drown the governor’s hunting cabin. That still leaves plenty.

A Win for Team Putin and His Useful Idiots

Yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (per Koetltl, J.) dismissed an action brought by the Democratic National Committee against the (i) Russian Federation (the “GRU”), (ii) WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, and (iii) the Donald J. Trump for President campaign and various official and semi-official operatives of that campaign–Donald J. Trump, Jr., Paul J. Manafort, Jr.; Jared C. Kushner, George Papadopoulos, Richard W. Gates, III, and Roger J. Stone, Jr. (I refer to “semi-official operatives” since Stone, at least, was not a formal member of the Trump Campaign, but sort of an ex officio member.) At least three shadowy go-betweens, Aras Iskenerovich Agalarov, Emin Araz Agalarov, and Joseph Mifsud, were also named as defendants.

The facts alleged in the DNC’s complaint were assumed to be true for the purposes of ruling on the motions to dismiss filed by the various defendants. Those facts are well-known to those who have followed the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Specifically, Russia hacked into computers and servers of the DNC, “stealing thousands of documents . . . including documents containing donor information, financial and economic information, proprietary opposition research compiled from multiple sources, information regarding planned political
activities, and emails. ” None of the defendants other than the GRU were alleged to have actually participated in the hacking. Rather, the DNC’s claims against the non-GRU defendants rest on the proposition that they:

[C]onspired with the [GRU] to steal the DNC’s emails, trade secrets, and other documents from the DNC’s computer system and disseminate those materials to the public. The DNC does not claim that the stolen materials are false or defamatory. Rather, the DNC seeks to hold the defendants liable for the theft and disclosure of the stolen materials.

The claim against the GRU was dismissed because, due to the provisions of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1602 et seq., the GRU cannot be sued in the courts of the United States for sovereign actions.

The non-GRU defendants argued that “the DNC’s claims against them are barred by the First Amendment because the DNC seeks to hold them liable for publication of documents that they did not help to steal.” The District Court’s decision with respect to the non-GRU defendants rests on two propositions.

The first, derived from the opinion in New York Times Co. v. U.S., 403 U.S. 713 (1971) (the “Pentagon Papers Case”) and its progeny, is that there is a right to publish information of public concern obtained from documents stolen by a third party. The District Court cited Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514, 517-18 (2001) for the proposition that:

[T]here [is] no liability for disclosing stolen information where (1) the disclosing party “did not participate” in the theft, even though that party knows or has reason to know of the theft, and (2) the disclosure “concern[s] public issues.”

See generally, slip op. at 31-34.

Second, the District Court found that the DNC had failed to plead factual allegations that would show that the non-GRU defendants had conspired with the GRU in committing the thefts. The District Court stated that:

The DNC argues that the various meetings and conversations between the defendants in this case and with persons connected to the Russian government during the time that Russian GRU agents were stealing the DNC’s information show that the defendants conspired with the Russian Federation to steal and disseminate the DNC’s materials. That argument is entirely divorced from the facts actually alleged in the Second Amended Complaint.

Slip op. at 35. Internal record reference omitted.

Stated simply, the District Court did not find that the defendants were blameless. After all, it is clear that they knowingly trafficked in material that the Russians stole from the DNC. Rather, the District Court found that the DNC had failed to state a legally cognizable claim for relief because it could not make any factual allegations that the defendants conspired with the Russians to commit the thefts.

While I’ve been away from civil litigation in federal court for some years now, it seems to me that the District Court misapplies the “plausibility” standard for weighing the sufficiency of allegations in a complaint. (“A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009), cited by the District Court at slip op. 4.) For instance, take this passage from the District Court’s opinion:

The DNC does not allege what specifically was discussed at the [June 9, 2016] Trump Tower meeting but reiterates that the Russians had offered “damaging information about the Democratic presidential nominee” to the Campaign. The day after the Trump Tower meeting, on June 10, 2016, GRU agents unsuccessfully attempted to hack the DNC’s backup server, Raider. On June 12, 2016, Julian Assange — the founder and publisher of WikiLeaks — appeared on a British television show and stated that WikiLeaks had obtained “leak materials concerning the Democratic presidential candidate” and would be releasing them soon.

Slip op. at 13. Internal record citations omitted.

I would humbly suggest that only one who is practiced in believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast could conclude that there was no plausible evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump officials at that meeting and the GRU.

But to focus on the mere technical aspects of legal pleadings certainly misses the point. It is this: The Trump election effort willingly trafficked in material that they knew had been stolen by a foreign enemy of the United States. By so doing, they cooperated with a foreign power to influence a presidential election and, in addition, put themselves in a position to be blackmailed and extorted by the foreign power. The facts set forth in the DNC’s complaint may not be sufficient to set forth a claim for relief, but they clearly disqualify any of the defendants and anyone else who knew of or participated in their actions from ever holding public office.

Random Thoughts…

… on averages, policing, and recidivism.

Averages. In all too many cases we see people basing their assessments on averages, even when the groups being averaged over are very heterogeneous. To me, that’s equivalent to ordering a dinner of onion soup, filet mignon, Caesar salad, a fine Bordeaux wine, and peach Melba – but instead of eating the courses separately, putting it all in a blender and eating it that way – after all, it goes into the same stomach, doesn’t it?

[Francis Galton criticized those who focused on averages as being “as dull to the charm of variety as that of the native of one of our flat English counties, whose retrospect of Switzerland was that, if its mountains could be thrown into its lakes, two nuisances would be got rid of at once.”]

– – – – – –

Policing. After my first few police ride-alongs in the mid-sixties I reached the conclusion, jokingly, that the police were report writers with the power of arrest. An exaggeration, of course, but it appeared to me that most of their activity seemed to be documenting the nature of their interaction with citizens.

Rather than look upon that as a joke, we can turn that around to some extent and realize that they are the only 24-hour-a-day representatives of the city on the street. And as such, they should note the deficiencies, not just in the people they meet, but in the city services that should be (but are often not) provided to the areas of most concern.

  • Kids congregating on street corners? Document the lack of athletic facilities and parks
  • Trash on, and potholes in, the streets? Notify the appropriate city agencies.
  • Truancy? How much is invested in the neighborhood schools?

I don’t mean to imply that police officers should all be renaissance men/women, but that they should be aware that the problems they encounter are not for them to solve using their police power. In other words, the police should be tasked with not only dealing with problem persons but dealing with problems that are exacerbated by municipal deficiencies. This would make the “thin blue line” a little bit stronger and more substantial.

– – – – –

Recidivism. Over thirty years I published a book on recidivism (called, appropriately enough, Recidivism). It focused, for the most part, on the way recidivism was measured at the time. In that era the effectiveness of a correctional program was evaluated based on the “one-year recidivism rate,” i.e., the fraction of those enrolled in the program who “failed” (choose a meaning: who were rearrested, or retried, or reconvicted, or whose probation or parole conditions were violated). That is, the status of the cohort at a single point in time was the criterion. So two programs with the same one-year recidivism rate were judged to be equally effective, which is a lousy measure. [1]

In our first paper on the topic, my colleague Dick McCleary (currently at UC Irvine) and I pointed out that a better measure would take into account the entire trajectory, not just one point in time. It was based on statistics originally developed in the biomedical field, for evaluating different treatment regimes for cancer patients.[2] In that field, rather than use the term “failure” for those who did not improve, the term “survival,” its complement, was used to denote those who did not fail. In other words, the flip side of the coin is considered as the important variable.

Now with a few more years under my belt, and a little more perspective, I realize that we should not only follow the lead of biostatisticians in the methodology to use, but also in the perspective we bring to evaluating correctional programs. Specifically, we should look at survival rather than failure as the more important consideration.

Words have impact, and these words promote different views of the context in which a failure may occur. When we say a person recidivates, we frame the situation using an active verb, as a deliberate action on the part of the offender. That is, we ascribe to the offender a willfulness to do bad. On the other hand, when we talk about correctional failure from the standpoint of survival analysis, we frame the situation as an action on the part of the offender due to his/her inability to withstand the pressures preventing rehabilitation.

Other correctional programs do not ascribe such willfulness to failure. As Alan Marlatt noted in his book Relapse Prevention, we realize that it may take a few tries before a person quits smoking, or drinking, or drugs. In these situations we say a person has thus far survived, and that s/he has not yet relapsed.

Obviously, there are people out there who are truly beyond correction and who, regardless of the circumstances, will continue to reoffend. But this is far from the norm, and tars every other person released from incarceration with the same brush.


[1] Suppose, for example, that both had one-year recidivism rates of 60 percent. In one program, 5 percent of the cohort failed every month; in the other program, all 60 percent failed in the first month, with no subsequent failures in the next 11 months. Obviously, they should not be considered to be equally effective. While this is an extreme example, it points out that the entire trajectory of failure should be considered when evaluating programs. That is what the book focused on, and it helped to change the way recidivism was measured.

[2] We thought that we had developed this completely new way of assessing correctional failure, but found out later that others had gotten there first. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Cannabis News Round-Up

Did Florida accidentally legalize pot? Officials clamber for a solution after hazy hemp law. Texas legalized hemp, not marijuana, governor insists as prosecutors drop pot charges. Marijuana arrests in Virginia reach highest level in at least 20 years, spurring calls for reform. Georgia governor candidate endorses legalization.

California seizes $30 million in black market cannabis. Can California really track all the weed in the world’s largest cannabis marketplace? How legal marijuana is helping the black market. New Washington law worries marijuana growers over cross-pollination from hemp farms. Two bills would make it easier for North Dakota marijuana businesses to operate.

Possible legalization in New Mexico draws public input. Arizona attorney general wants to legalize marijuana. Should Arizona legalize marijuana before it gets to the ballot? If Arizona legalizes recreational marijuana, it should regulate its potency.

Marijuana a substitute for alcohol, but not tobacco. Alcohol sales get high from pot legalization. CannTrust breach will damage legal pot market. As marijuana gets legalized, companies drop THC testing of employees.

Growing marijuana under the Michigan sun in a smart building. Legalizing marijuana is a victory for freedom in Illinois. Three other states, numerous public pension funds aiming to profit off legal weed in Illinois. While neighbors legalize pot, Indiana leaders still opposed. Governor Kim Reynolds: Don’t expect legal marijuana in Iowa.

Congressional hearing highlights fault line in legalization debate. Kamala Harris introduces law to federally legalize, tax marijuana. Pete Buttigieg pushes for marijuana legalization. Record number of states considered marijuana legalization in 2019.

Time to hit pause on marijuana legalization. Illegal pot still exists in states where weed is legal.

New York legalization: lawmakers vow renewed push in 2020.

In legalizing marijuana, Canada did everything differently. Here’s what we can learn.

Is ad hominem a fallacy?

Sometimes not always. Wonkish.

I got into an interesting argument in the comments on a post I wrote on nuclear energy. Keith wrote something that draws a tangent of much wider import:

There was intense opposition to nuclear power from many activists before anyone was focused on climate change, so now there is a credibility problem for critics, i.e., “Group that always hated nuclear power on principle still hates nuclear power for new reason” isn’t persuasive to most voters.

The proposition is that nuclear opponents changed their argument, which indicates opportunism and bad faith, ergo many people see this as invalidating the argument.

I challenged the fact pattern in the comments thread there, and see no evidence of the alleged tacking. (Any reader comments on the issue please in the other post thread, not here). Still, let’s assume it’s true. So what?

At first sight this is simply an example of the ad hominem fallacy, or as the French nicely say, “procès d’intention”. The motives and character of the person making an argument are simply irrelevant to its validity. One of the routine jobs of intellectuals, public or no, is to raise the red flag on such elementary mistakes and tell their authors to cut it out.

Up to a point, Lord Copper. The case is more complex than with a straight logical fallacy like petitio principii, and several strands need to be disentangled.

Keith is undoubtedly right to think that ordinary people do weigh credibility in assessing arguments. I suspect this is part of Daniel Kahneman’s Type 1 thinking: the fast, efficient and kludgy Hare processes that allowed our distant ancestors to make quick decisions based on incomplete information. These are (though Kahneman does not make the claim) probably hard-wired into the brains of their descendants, that is us. They are in contrast with the slow and effortful Type 2 Tortoise processes of abstract reasoning. Dismissing arguments from untrustworthy sources saves time and allows us to move on.

But, says our Type 2 brain, it’s still a fallacy with a real practical downside. Dismissing tainted sources makes us miss out on some useful reasoning. This is not a remote possibility. A good example from an extremely tainted source is the Nazi opposition to smoking and cruelty to animals. As far as I can tell, this was based on sensible premises – unlike their equally correct suspicion of the austerity financial policies recommended by bankers, influenced for at least some by the belief that the banks were controlled by a cabal of sinister Jewish incubi determined to impoverish Aryan Germans (link to revolting cartoon from 1931). The term “batshit crazy” does not do justice to this evil fantasy.

Other examples are the famous Milgram and Stanford Prison https://en.wikipexperiments in psychology, which show how easy it is to get normal people to commit atrocities. As I understand it these would in their original form now be considered unethical, as the subjects are very distressed when the façade is torn down and they find out what they are capable of. The results are still valuable, and add to the obviously unrepeatable field observations of Christopher Browning on reservist SS troopers. More broadly, it is simply part of education to learn to address arguments from people you find uncongenial.

That’s one side. On the other, it is surely not required to treat tainted and reputable sources equally. Read the whole of the now famous tirade of Daniel Davies about the justifications put forward for Gulf War II:

Good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. …. Fibbers’ forecasts are worthless… There is much made by people who long for the days of their fourth form debating society about the fallacy of “argumentum ad hominem”. There is, as I have mentioned in the past, no fancy Latin term for the fallacy of “giving known liars the benefit of the doubt”, but it is in my view a much greater source of avoidable error in the world.

Fair enough. So we face a procedural dilemma. Neither full-on obedience to the ad hominem rule nor its simple rejection seem adequate. Where do we draw the line?

We do need to distinguish between claims of fact and the reasoning built on them. For facts, the legal maxim falsus in unum, falsus in omnia is a fair guide: don’t trust liars, if you must use their work, double-check every claim they make. But what about their reasoning? Can’t we evaluate this independently of the claims of fact?

If reasoning were all syllogisms or mathematical deduction, we no doubt could. The following real-life example is is a perfectly sound logical inference, albeit from unacceptable premises:

  • Socrates is a corrupter of youth.
  • The laws of Athens say that a corrupter of youth must be put to death.
  • The laws of Athens are just.
  • Therefore Socrates must die.

If we disagree with the conclusion, and we do, it’s necessary to attack one or other of the premises. But in the typical case, facts are linked by inductive not deductive chains, calling on assumptions about the laws and state of nature as well as judgments of probabilities, both scientific and psychological. Would Saddam Hussein attack Israel if he had WMDs? Would the Iraqi people welcome an invading army of liberation? These are not yes/no facts.

In these complex assessments, trustworthiness is surely relevant. We rely on experts – doctors, statisticians, rocket scientists, economists, engineers, intelligence analysts, reporters – to inform us how the world works, drawing on long study or experience we can never ourselves emulate. We have to be able to trust them. Expert judgement is fallible, but it usually beats amateurs picking with a pin or clicking on an ad in Facebook.

This even applies, I understand, in the higher reaches of pure mathematics, the temple of deductive reasoning, where a new proof can be hundreds of pages long or the printout of a computer program exhaustively searching thousands of cases. I recall (but cannot trace) a description of the social process of acceptance of a new proof by the mathematical community, based on trust in colleagues expert in the relevant sub-area who accept the proof on detailed examination.

Trustworthiness is not a binary concept but a scale. We may allow that complete untrustworthiness is binary, as with Daniel Davies’ proven liars. So the ad hominem problem for inductive reasoning as well as claims of fact becomes one of calibrating our trust discount in a particular case not involving such liars.

Keith rightly mentions the emotional investment some may have in an issue as a distorting factor. We cannot usually wish this away by only listening to neutral experts. The investment is not determined by the people but by the issue. The validity of Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem took him years of dedicated work, but there were no impassioned pro-and anti-theorem schools in the background. Colleagues found a hole in his first proof, which he calmly acknowledged, then fixed to general applause. Contrast drugs policy, abortion, and nuclear power, where passions run high on both sides. Mark Jacobson (anti-nuclear) actually sued Christopher Clack (pro-nuclear) and the National Academy of Sciences as publisher over a hostile rebuttal to his first 100% renewables scenario. Both are reputable career scientists.

In such fields, it is generally impossible to find anybody with deep expert knowledge who does not have strongly held opinions on one side or the other of the relevant policy. Controversy and conflict are integral to the scientific and democratic processes. This applies in spades to advocacy groups, formed specifically to advance one or other policy. Greenpeace is not going to give you a sympathetic in-depth analysis of coal-mining. But its scenarios of solar deployment have consistently been much more accurate than those of professionals at the IEA.

What should the common reader or blogger do in this situation? I can only offer bromides.

  • Eliminate known liars and hired propagandists completely from consideration, see above.
  • Take into account formal credentials, institutional affiliations and possible conflicts of interest, as guides not filters.
  • Check whether the author fairly represents the opposing view or sets up straw men, notes unhelpful data or brushes it under the carpet.
  • Ignore tone short of abuse. Bias can hide under a façade of judicious neutrality, passion can be combined with fairness (see the model of Mark Kleiman). (This one may be a personal preference).
  • Check your own bias and lean over backwards to be fair to the side you aren’t on. IIRC David Hume, when writing the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, wrote to theologians to be sure he was presenting the cases of Cleanthes and Demea as well as possible, assuming he was Philo himself. (Can’t confirm this, help wanted.)
  • Remember that historians deal with and correct for biased sources all the time. Perhaps there is no other kind.

We now have an unsatisfactory answer to the question posed in the title: it depends. Sometimes the ad hominem rule calls for a red card (off the pitch), at others just an orange one with a dimmer (proceed with more or less caution).

Not much help? Welcome to the real world. Trust me.

[Update 30/7/2019]: A 2006 blog post by noted Australian economist John Quiggin on very similar lines.

[Update 2, 4/08/2019]: Australian conservative pundit Andrew Bot reminds us that there is another form of ad hominem attack, one that is not only fallacious but obnoxious. He devotes an entire column in Murdoch’s Melbourne newspaper the Herald-Sun to an unhinged and scurrilous personal attack on the teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Sample:

I have never seen a girl so young and with so many mental disorders treated by so many adults as a guru.

More here. Ms Thunberg has Asperger’s syndrome and does not conceal the fact. She shares it with several other famous people, possibly including Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. I’m not sure what condition Andrew Bolt suffers from, but it probably ends in “-path”.

Nadler Does His Job

Today, Congressmember Nadler on behalf of the House Judiciary Committee filed a petition seeking release of the grand jury materials that were redacted from the Mueller Report. The petition argues that providing otherwise secret grand jury materials is authorized under the rule of criminal procedure that permits disclosure that is “preliminary to a judicial proceeding.” What proceeding? Read my lips: an “investigation regarding impeachment.”

Game on.

In a footnote the petition also states that the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI – Schiff’s committee) “is investigating the counterintelligence risks arising from efforts by Russia and other foreign powers to influence the U.S. political process during and since the 2016 election, including links and contacts between individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and the Russian government.” Evidence obtained through HPSCI’s investigation, presumably including the grand jury materials if the court will release them, will “further inform the Judiciary Committee’s consideration of whether to recommend articles of impeachment against the President.”

The 53-page petition reads partly like a technical legal brief, partly like a press release (and was accompanied by a news conference by Nadler and other Dem members of the Judiciary Committee), all but announcing that his committee had no intention of waiting for the House to adopt a resolution of impeachment before conducting proceedings, and that “facts developed and reported by an investigating committee of the House” could “set[ ] an impeachment in motion.” (citing Jefferson’s Manual) (yes, that Jefferson). I gather that Speaker Pelosi and he worked out the exact wording of the stand-up presser, but the meaning in the petition is clear.

The kicker for the Tweeter-in-Chief is saved for last: “More broadly, the President has commented extensively about the Special Counsel’s underlying investigation, including by denying critical events described in the Mueller Report…. Grand jury secrecy is not unyielding when there is no secrecy left to protect.”

PS Although I haven’t posted here in a long while, until Mark’s recent passing I had taken to occasionally sending him source documents on legal matters of mutual interest. He relished cutting through the legal gobbledygook and tweeting out quotes and links within minutes. This one’s for him.

Harassing the President–New York Update

Both the State of New York and the House Ways and Means Committee have filed responses to Trump’s attempt to block the Committee’s use of New York’s TRUST Act.

Perhaps more significantly, Trump had attempted to have the case assigned to the same judge who is considering Trump’s challenge to the House’s subpoena for his bank records. The Court denied that request.

Significantly, the Court noted Trump’s argument that both cases require an examination of the Committee’s intent:

[I]t is not clear that this case will involve an inquiry into the Committee’s purposes at all. The Supreme Court has made clear that “in determining the legitimacy of a congressional act we do not look to the motives alleged to have prompted it.” Eastland v. U.S. Servicemen’s Fund, 421 U.S. 491, 508 (1975). This is important because “[i]n times of political passion, dishonest or vindictive motives are readily attributed to legislative conduct and as readily believed.” Id. at 509. So while the President insists that both cases will involve the Committee’s purpose in seeking the President’s tax returns, I am not so sure.

Slip op. at 4-5, footnote omitted.