Overreaction

What we knew when the police and FBI started responding to the LAX shooting was that someone had walked into one of the terminals and shot several people. What the authorities did was to help the victims, check for a confederate, and secure the scene (Terminal 3), which sounds about right…and hold incoming flights to the whole airport on the ground before they took off, which gave air travel across the country a coronary; divert a couple of arriving flights; stop nearly all departures for most of the day; and make the airport inaccessible to travelers by clogging roads with emergency vehicles.  In turn, this crippled the 405 and created hours of stopped and crawling traffic all over the west side.  They didn’t know whether they were in the middle of a large coordinated terrorist event; we  never know that for sure when a gun goes off (or a CO2 “bomb”).   But they did not have enough evidence that they were, or might be, to justify the chaos they ordained.

It was over the top.  It will always be possible for someone to come in the front door of a busy place with a weapon in a piece of baggage or a backpack and shoot people before he or she is stopped. One such incident might be part of a plot reaching out to other airports and other terminals, and might conceivably have something to do with risk to aircraft.  But that way madness lies.  It would have been wrong to close all the movie theaters in Colorado after Aurora, or stop having marathons after Boston, or shut down the Postal Service after one of its massacres: the shooting at LAX was, and reasonably appeared to be, a one-off, localized outrage.  Amplifying the costs to society of events like this on unsupported conjecture about what a fever dream of anxiety could blow it up into does real damage to millions of people and may even increase the likelihood of copycats.  I think security services in charge of public places, including airports, need to get a grip. It is not appropriate to bring a city to its knees to demonstrate how risk-averse the various police agencies are.

In contrast, while I’m on this, is the FAA’s mishandling of the small pocket knife issue for travelers.  Recall that they announced they would allow pocket knives with blades about the size of a Swiss Army Knife (one of those is really a useful thing to have with you when traveling, for mundane things like peeling an orange or opening a beer or tightening a loose screw in one of your gadgets), and then changed their mind.  A knife like that used to be a hijacking device before cockpit doors were secured, but now it’s not.  In fact, I would feel much safer if I knew a lot of passengers each had one to help them deal with one or two hijackers who might get something serious through security.  If we are willing to go up in the air in an airplane at all, merely to get somewhere, we cannot rationally believe that there is no risk small enough to tolerate for convenience and comfort.

Sabotage of a generation

Everything in this heartbreaking article rings bell after bell, from the perspective of more than forty years on both sides of college and graduate classrooms.  And from my desk, critiquing student written work.  I think we will find the intellectual damage done to current American students by the testing/NCLB disaster is comparable to the effect of poisoning previous generations with leaded gasoline.  Well, at least it doesn’t cause violent crime.

This outcome is the predictable offspring of  a  marriage of two profound misapprehensions.  The first is a desperate, but doomed, hope that something as complicated and personal as education can be fixed by a piece of bureaucratic, mechanistic administrative machinery.  Really helping students learn is complicated, hard to do, and probably expensive; surely there’s some automatic process we can wind up and let loose that operates without anyone having to really think about what it is doing! The second is the absurd imperialism of a crippled, myopic economics that (i) infers, from the undeniable effects of money (and firing-threat) incentives in some contexts, that people can be either bribed or threatened to do anything, and (ii) that the only reality is what can be easily measured, whether by prices in markets or bubble short answer tests.

As readers of my other posts are aware, I am far from hiding behind the preparation problem as an excuse not to attend to our own (college) practice.  But two things can true at the same time.  There is no way four years of college can do what we traditionally expect of it, and also make up the unfinished work being passed to us.

More advice for Janet Napolitano

Mark’s gracious rejoinder to my letter to Janet Napolitano as she takes the reins of the University of California reminds me of an old joke:

A rabbi of Chelm is assailed by two neighbors demanding he settle a dispute.  The first presents  a devastating indictment of the second’s housekeeping, garden management, child-rearing, and more.  He listens and says, impressed, “You’re right!” The second woman denies all these assertions, and then accuses the first of setting a terrible moral example for the neighborhood, entertaining strange men at all hours, dressing inappropriately, and the like.

The rabbi says, “that’s terrible, you’re absolutely right!”

His daughter says, “but Daddy, they can’t both be right!”

After reflection, he says, “you’re right, too!”

Yes, we can.  Mark is right that the president of ten campuses, each with a chancellor, isn’t in the same position as the president of a one-campus institution. Much of what I said to Napolitano is, as Mark suggests, more directly relevant to the chancellors, though they are always academics and not new to the business. It’s also true that if Napolitano doesn’t take on Mark’s charge to get the funding tap reopened, she’s not doing her job. But doing that is not, in my view, just a matter of reciting the facts about UC’s importance to the state and society, and glad-handing important pols. The citizens of California have withdrawn their traditional support for us, admittedly through very noisy and flawed political machinery, because they do not see us as creating net value for money. Without rebuilding that support, neither smooth lobbying craft skills nor “radical political action”, whatever Mark means by that, will work. Continue reading “More advice for Janet Napolitano”

Things we won’t hear in the big climate speech tomorrow

By now all but the hopelessly stupid or deliberately ignorant understand the basics of climate change. Increasing the amounts of a few gases in the atmosphere traps heat and make the planet’s equilibrium temperature higher. The big three are methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and mainly carbon dioxide (CO2): humans are pumping these gases out like there’s no tomorrow – more precisely, as though we were all leaving the planet in a few decades.  CO2 is the big one, and it mainly comes from burning coal, oil, natural gas, and forests: if we want the planet to be habitable for the big 2076 parties, that’s what we have to stop doing.

These gases are, in effect, pollutants like the gunk in automobile exhaust that made the air in LA brown until we put a stop to it, or the phosphorus in your dish soap that makes algae grow in lakes and rivers, but they have two tragic and pernicious qualities that our familiar pollutants don’t have. First, because they last a long time in the air, and the atmosphere is well mixed with winds, their effects aren’t felt only in the legal jurisdiction in which they are emitted, but everywhere, by everyone. Second, because the processes are slow and easy to miss in the normal variation of weather, Exxon and Consolidation Coal can pay politicians and TV weather reporters to say it isn’t happening, and doing the right, expensive things about climate will not show results we can see before the next election or the one after that.

Continue reading “Things we won’t hear in the big climate speech tomorrow”

Boston

It’s always dangerous to make judgments while something like the marathon bombing/murder of MIT policeman/shootout in Watertown/search is underway.  But recognizing that there is much I don’t know yet, my tentative judgment is that the leadership of my former city has kind of lost it.  As I understand it,

  • A murderer, probably armed and dangerous, is on the loose.
  • His appearance, identity, associates, history, family and more are well known and widely disseminated.
  • He is 19 years old,  not Carlos the Jackal with safe houses, a network, and years of experience being on the lam, and especially not [the fictional!]l Jason Bourne.
  • His partner is already dead and not helping him.

The response of the city and nearby suburbs has been to essentially close down: taxis are on the street again, but no public transit, businesses closed, streets empty, Amtrak into the city stopped. [My daughter relays the delicious tidbit that Dunkin Donuts shops remain open at the specific request of the police!] A population of about three million people is doing nothing but hunkering down and being afraid: the back of my envelope says the price tag for this is 3 million x $56000 [median per capita income for Boston] x 1/200 [fraction of working year lost] = 840 million dollars, not to mention the enormous unpriced costs of anxiety and inconvenience.  This response, it seems to me, is appropriate to learning that a dirty bomb or biological WMD or Oklahoma City-scale ANFO device has been set somewhere, not to a kid who might kill a few more people.  Indeed, the conditions in my bullet list above exist quite commonly in every big city and I’ve never heard of a reaction like this.

Someone needs to get a grip. Leadership seems to be wallowing in a positive-feedback orgy of too much adrenaline and too much media attention.

Food service and tipping

Kathleen Geier has a nice piece in WaMo reflecting on this really heartbreaking article about the abuse restaurant workers endure.  She doesn’t have a big policy solution, but recommends (i) we be civil to waitstaff and (ii) tip generously (she says 20%).

I wish I agreed about (ii), but not only do I despise the whole convention of tipping, and  despise it more after learning how corrupt it is and how it exposes workers to theft by employers, but I believe doing more of it is anti-worker and inhumane.  Of course, if you are the only one who leaves an extra-big tip, you have done something nice for the waitstaff (unless the boss has figured out how to steal it all; see the Salon article).  But to think you can do people any good in the medium to long run by generally tipping more, you have to believe the labor market in this industry doesn’t work at all.  It is hard to see the wheels turn because it’s not only wages but also menu prices that adjust together when the rules change.  But suppose tipping were ended, either everywhere or in a single restaurant: employers would have to offer more salary to get people to work for them, and raise menu prices, to a first approximation, by 15% or whatever the typical tip is.  Not much change in anyone’s income or costs, but everything would be in the open, and the wages would be reported and taxable (maybe still higher prices, if tipping is shielding a lot of the labor cost from tax, and a good thing), and it would be much harder for employers to rip off the help.  If customers take Kathy’s advice and just tip more, conversely,  nearly all will be competed away from the workers as employers (and customers) pay lower wages and customers pay less for their meals. That the minimum restaurant wage of $2.13 per hour is the actual wage in many places proves that tips are fungible against salary; no-one can live on that. Continue reading “Food service and tipping”

Detroit

A city is the creature of its state; the states made the national government, but they were not made by their counties and cities. There is no constitutional right to elect a mayor or a city council: you get to do that if your state government thinks you should.   Michigan’s  shiny 2010 Republican state government is playing out several interesting experiments of which one is direct administration of black-majority cities by prefects. These worthies are appointed by the governor with complete powers to tax, hire, fire, collect the garbage…or not collect it, and the latest of these prefectures is in Detroit, where the 700,000 people who haven’t yet figured out how to leave are knocking around in 143 square miles (San Francisco, with about as many people, is a third this size) of abandoned buildings – including some heartbreaking decaying vacant treasures like the railroad station – empty lots, and misery: 16% unemployment and the worst violent crime incidence in any big US city. Meanwhile, the folks who made it into (or started out in) the surrounding nice leafy-green suburbs cluck about mismanagement and expect the city to keep up a symphony orchestra, two pro sports teams, an art museum, a school system, and all the other stuff you expect in a prosperous industrial city with three times as many people.

So what is this prefect expected to do, and what good will it do the Republicans who put him there?  The problem in Detroit isn’t that the city government is going broke: that’s just a symptom. The problem is that the remaining population is broke and can’t afford a functioning government.  There’s nothing to tax, neither wealth nor property, if the prefect can’t reach across Eight Mile or into Grosse Pointe (and you bet he isn’t going to be allowed to do that). I bet there isn’t even anything left worth looting; if you can’t divert tax money into your pocket because there isn’t any, what’s the angle? The city is trying some desperation tactics like casino hotels and tourism, which might gin up some jobs, but those are mostly low-pay jobs making beds and serving food. Detroit is 80% black; one might speculate that white people in Michigan are just trying to do something nice for all those black folks who only need Republican sound business management principles in their government to prosper; right.  Maybe Detroit will have some sort of renaissance after all, but I cannot imagine what economic engine will drive it. Its new prefect will have a few years applying austerity and service cuts and will discover that the medicine doesn’t go anywhere, as Frank Loesser said, near where the trouble is.  Why Republicans want to hang Detroit’s continued decline around their own necks in this way is a mystery.

The big question raised by this episode of decline and misery is bigger than Detroit and bigger than the rust belt:  what is the right policy for regions that have lost their economic reason to be populated? An endless flow of welfare in one form or another can keep people in them, but that can’t be the right answer: people deserve the chance to create value. One or another such place can reinvent itself as a museum or a high-tech center of some sort, or luck out with an oil boom, but not all of them, or even most: former governor Granholm is proud of the wind power plant she saved one town with, but that’s not going to generalize.  The Northern Great Plains, where we have learned to grow food without people, are depopulating somewhat gracefully, but of course the bus ticket policy loses the whole social capital of the community it drains, and in the case of a city, the infrastructure and physical capital (Detroit is the empty-house-demolition capital of the US).  We sort of know how to manage growth; we can cope adequately with stasis; but shrinkage and the source end of migration are deeply refractory problems.

Why your kids’ trust fund portfolio should short coastal real estate

Climate stabilization is net cheap, so humanity should buy a lot of it.  But it’s expensive gross: the costs are high. (No, Virginia, we will not all get richer than we are now conserving energy and making windmills.  If low carbon methods were cheaper, we would be using them.  We will just be a lot less poor and desperate than we are headed to be if we stay on our current course. ) It also gores some specific rich, powerful oxen (the fossil energy industry, for example), and it isn’t fair: it’s outrageous that the developing world can’t have a couple of nice fossil-fueled centuries, just because the west stole all the atmosphere’s CO2 capacity to make Europe and North America rich.

It’s worse than that, so much worse that the chances the world will achieve it or even come close seem to me overall small.  First, climate stabilization is a prisoners’ dilemma.  For any jurisdiction smaller than China, the benefits of buying it are enormously diluted because the atmosphere is well mixed and we all experience the climate.  For California citizens, for example, to invest $100 to achieve $1000 worth of climate benefits looks like a good deal, until you realize that Californians will only get about $5 of those benefits; even the whole US,  about $50.  So a hard-headed benefit cost calculation for any single nation or government faces a tremendous hit on the benefit side: the Australians James writes about are good people doing the right thing to their cost.  The hard truth is that if Californians think the rest of the world will step up and deal with climate, our best bet is to do nothing and enjoy our free-rider’s share, and if we think the rest of the world will not, our best bet is to do nothing and not be chumps; at least we’ll save the stabilization costs to spend on adaptation.

It’s also a NIMTO (“not in my term of office”), and a NIML (“not in my lifetime”) for most people of voting age.  Climate change is slow, greatly delayed from the actions that cause it, and the really big costs are decades away.  No candidate will have climate benefits to show before the next election, or the end of his term, from a vote that might make a difference.  At least in the US, we used to be willing to spend money for the benefit of future generations, but we now have (for example) national candidates who have learned, from polling and focus group research, that there are votes to be had asking seniors to throw their children and grandchildren under the retirement bus. We have (for example) adult voting cohorts happily defunding the education of their kids. The Sonny Corleones have won the argument: enlistees in WWII weren’t the greatest generation; they were “…chumps, because they risk their lives for strangers.”

I worried when we elected a senator from a coal state and from a corn state as president; Obama was the better choice overall, and the better even on environment specifically, and of course he wouldn’t be able to do anything if he lost the election touting a carbon t_x, I know. But that’s where we are: anything at all about climate in the debates from either side?

Finally, it’s big and awesome and different from anything in our lived experience.  I won’t experience much of it, but I don’t even know how to think about 160m Bangla Deshis on the hoof looking for a place to live in a very crowded neighborhood.  What will a worldwide famine, not a localized one, look like when Argentina, Brazil, the US, and Russia all have a bad crop year together? We will have a military able to defeat everyone in the world at once, but exactly how will that be useful when the southern half of Florida goes under water?

The Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree was just obeying sound market signals of value, doing his part to optimize social welfare. Because he was not a chump or a sucker, and never did any more than he had to for other people, he was the winner, because he was the last guy with a palm tree still standing.  If his descendants had survived, no doubt they would celebrate his Randian merit and put his portrait over the fireplace.

Continued collapse of the information system: two more dead canaries

Two significant pieces of news today:  Google’s earnings (and stock price) are down, and Newsweek has given up on a paper edition.The Newsweek story is only the latest step down a path to oblivion, as the digital edition cannot survive financially either and will close down in turn.

This is happening because the business models for  providing content have collapsed.  Newsweek is one dying gasp of a hybrid system whereby content could be  denied to anyone who didn’t pay for a physical object, and the attention of readers therefore sold to advertisers who could be assured that (i) anyone reading the story on left-hand page 32 would see the nice big ad on page 33 and (ii) cared enough to plunk down  50c or so for the magazine.  Google is a different animal, that sells ads with the promise that people seeing the ad had shown some interest in the type of product on offer.   What made Newsweek worth buying was the expensive expertise of its authors and editors and the expense accounts on which the former could get stories; what makes Google run is the utility of its search engine, maps, and other cool stuff, that we pay for by tolerating the crappy little ads that appear on tiny patches of a screen about the size of  a two-page Newsweek spread, but cluttered with a bunch of other stuff. Or the infuriating big ads that pop up all over what you’re trying to read, infinitely more intrusive than advertising in old print media. That these ads aren’t a substitute for what print ads used to do is evidenced by how long ago it was that you clicked on one, and that the whole deal manifestly isn’t working out for Google. Continue reading “Continued collapse of the information system: two more dead canaries”

Party of waste

What moral/religious/ethical principle can the broadest possible spectrum of a diverse nation agree on? It might seem to be the fifth commandment, but it isn’t. That one is on something of a roll – even Texans are losing their traditional enthusiasm for having the state kill people, and murders are  on a twenty year slide – but we have a military, we allow some killers to plead self-defense,  and police carry deadly weapons with broad consent.

I propose that it’s an eleventh commandment, Thou shalt not waste. There’s lots of waste around, but who puts forth a moral justification for whacking the fin off a shark and throwing the rest of it back in the ocean to die? Who expects to be admired for leaving windows open in the winter, or throwing away food?  Tiny symbolic sacrifices figure in some religions, but I can’t think of any faith or tradition that doesn’t broadly condemn waste as foolishness, a character flaw, or a sin.  I myself take the last view, not in a pietistic or obsessive-compulsive way (I don’t print on the back of used paper, nor drive the smallest possible car the least I can).  I have too much stuff and my house is too big, but I try to keep on top of it and most important, I’m not proud of, say, the computer gadgets I don’t use and haven’t recycled yet.  My personal hostility to waste distinguishes clearly between waste and use: I think that we are obligated to do what we reasonably can to assure that everything that gets used up creates the most possible value. Much more important, I claim that this rule is very broadly accepted as a moral, not just an economic, principle. It is, in particular, a conservative principle; it’s not an accident that before the formal organization called “The Republican Party” went insane with fear and hate, it was quite hostile to waste of all kinds.

I condemn the US Republican party of the present era for a variety of sins, but today I wish to highlight its radiant, smug, knowing wastefulness. I know you can find examples of waste in other countries, and among Democrats, Independents, anarchists,…, and there’s a lot of waste that flows from ignorance, but no-one else has made it such a central, conscious, operating principle.

Let us count the ways: Continue reading “Party of waste”