Monday, April 09, 2007

Back to Work

So I started work today as a Business Analyst for The Orchard. In preparation, I've been reading a lot, and as a result, I've been thinking a lot.

It occurs to me that for the last six months I've been engaged in largely consumptive behavior. I had all the time in the world, and I never made anything of it. All of a sudden, I have all these ideas I want to explore, but I have to get to bed so I get to work on time.

Well, tomorrow is a new day...

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Sophia's Choice

Sophia is a vegan. She interns at the Humane Society and is very concerned with animal welfare. I eat meat. I offered Sophia a deal: if she ate a steak, I would refrain from eating meat for a month. On balance, meat consumption for that month would decrease, since I eat more than a steak's worth in a month. That would further her goal, even though she would be eating meat. Should Sophia accept this offer? Do vegans love animals enough to eat them?

Sophia didn't accept the offer, saying she could no longer eat meat without becoming ill, which is a fine answer, but it sidesteps the matter. Are vegans more concerned with total animal suffering or the suffering they themselves induce? Why would a vegan be reluctant to accept this offer?

Incidentally, a few people were appalled I would make this offer at all. I like to offer people choices, what can I say?

Monday, January 24, 2005

What's in a name?

An Economist article discusses the strange turns the term "liberal" has taken. In the US, it has become an insult against the left. As a result, the left seeks to use the term "progressive." The Economist wants to restore it to its orginal meaning, something akin to "libertarian."

Meanwhile, a Reason article describes how some egalitarian types are using that term, calling themselves "left libertarians." The ideas described in the article don't sound very coherent, though.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Amateur Tsunami Warning Systems

Robert X. Cringely has written about the feasibility of decentralized tsunami warning systems. Basically, a personal computer connected to the Internet can continuously monitor relevant seismographs and determine whether its particular location is at risk. Every beach would run its own instance, obviating the need for international coordination. A developer and an earth scientist have started an Open Tsunami Alerting System to develop the software necessary.

Meanwhile, world leaders have pledged to develop a centralized early warning system. It will be interesting to see how these parallel efforts progress. Perhaps this will be another battle in the "pro-am revolution," ushering in what David Brin called in The Transparent Society the "century of amateurs."

Of course, for such a decentralized effort to work, the people at the beaches need to be connected to the rest of the world. They need the seismographs from the Internet and the (rather modest) computer hardware to monitor them. They need local expertise to run the system. Unfortunately, judging by the graph below, they were completely unconnected to us:

Much of this tragedy could have been prevented if they were better connected to the rest of the world.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Geneva Conventions and Torture

The nomination of Alberto Gonzales for attorney general has been quite controversial, despite early comments to the contrary. (For example, CNN had quoted Democratic Senator Chuck Shumer as saying "It's encouraging that the president has chosen someone less polarizing. We will have to review his record very carefully, but I can tell you already he's a better candidate than John Ashcroft.")

After the Abu Ghraib scandal, his 2002 memo calling the Geneva Conventions "quaint" and "obsolete" drew fire for creating a permissive environment for torture. The Geneva Conventions were agreed upon in different, perhaps simpler, times. The Third Geneva Convention specifies how lawful combatants must be treated, essentially a reciprocal agreement between warring states. Lawful combatants must be in uniform, bearing arms, under a chain of command, and following the rules of war. There is some debate whether special forces and snipers are lawful combatants. Terrorists are obviously not. The Geneva Conventions aren't quaint or obsolete, but they do not specify how to treat unlawful combatants.

There are legitimate question as to how to treat terrorists, and whether torture can be justified. Alan Dershowitz thinks torture is necessary in ticking-bomb scenarios, but we should formalize the process with torture warrants. Mark Bowden thinks we should officially denounce torture, but our interrogators should use whatever coercive methods work, short of outright torture. Others believe we should avoid torture altogether, for fear of a slippery slope and losing the moral high ground.

At Abu Ghraib, we certainly did lose moral high ground. However, it doesn't seem like it was the result of the debate over the Geneva Conventions or torture. The current issue of Reason contains a short interview with Seymour Hersh, who wrote Chain of Command, detailing the administration's responsibility for Abu Ghraib. In Reason, he writes:
The idea of using sex, exposing men to shame as part of the breaking down process, photographing them naked in front of women or simulating homosexual acts - it's inconceivable that a bunch of kids from West Virginia knew the most sophisticated way to humiliate Arab men. And the purpose was not really to break down those people - often they had nothing to give - but to photograph them in a compromised position and say: "Go home, find the insurgency, join it, and report back to us or we'll show these to your relatives and people in your village."
Such a plan is beyond Gonzales's discussion of the Geneva Conventions. It is unlikely that the administration was waiting to hear whether their plan fell afoul of the Geneva Conventions, anyway. President Bush must bear the brunt of the blame for Abu Ghraib, not Alberto Gonzales.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Proper Emissions Trading Markets

This week, the high-powered Becker-Posner Blog tackles global warming. Posner writes:
However, subsidies would be necessary for technologies that would have no market, such as technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There would be no private demand for such technologies because, in contrast to ones that reduce emissions, technologies that remove already emitted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would not reduce any emitterÂ’s tax burden.
It doesn't have to be this way. As I wrote in a paper earlier this year, emissions credits should come from actual absorptive capabilities, not created ex nihilo, and awarded to the owners of those capabilities. Some, such as the oceans, have no definite owners; these credits can belong to neutral bodies. Rainforest have owners, who would receive a valuable commodity in return for preserving the rainforests. So would the owners of machines that sequester carbon dioxide. Emitters would have to buy emissions credits from these sources, incentivizing them to be more efficient. The high price of credits would incentivize protection and restoration of rainforest and investments in new technology.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

The Folly of Universal Service

After reading the New Yorker article "Green Manhattan," (see my earlier post) I've been wondering why places aren't more like Manhattan already. The article was about environmental factors, which, as externalities, don't cause enough cost pressure. However, even without the externalities, some cost pressure exists. For example, the article mentions how heating apartments is cheaper than heating houses. Now, if the full cost to the environment (the externality) were factored in, heat would be more expensive. This would make the cost difference between heating apartments and houses even greater. (Funny how global warming makes heating more expensive.)

Even without internalizing the externality, though, there is some cost difference. Heat is just one example; the article listed many things that were more efficiently done in an urban setting. These efficiencies should translate to cost savings, which should act as a huge incentive for moving to cities. The market should lead us to organize our populations in cities, with rich folks having the luxury of owning comparatively expensive country houses to vacation in. Instead, rural areas are often poor.

The truth is that we've done a lot to insulate people from these cost pressures. Take phone service. If you look at your phone bill, we pay a tax towards Universal Service. This money is collected to wire up rural customers at a great expense. Phone companies wouldn't ordinarily do it, because it is a money losing venture. So all of us who live in an efficient manner pay a penalty to subsidize the (in a way) extravagant lifestyle of our rural cousins. Utilities often employ rate averaging so that customers everywhere pay a "reasonable" price. The urban dwellers don't feel the benefit, and the rural folk don't feel the pressure.

This is harmful on several levels. In a way, it seems "progressive." The people that can easily afford phone service subsidize those for whom it is more expensive. Really, though, there's nothing progressive about urban poor subsidizing rural rich; it's just the opposite. Cities aren't uniformly rich, and rural areas aren't uniformly poor. If providing cheap rural phone service is important, it should be funded out of general (progressively taxed) revenue, rather than a regressive fee paid by rich and poor alike.

But perhaps people in rural areas should feel the cost pressure. Cheap phone service is not a universally guaranteed right. They should be encouraged to move to cities where utilities are so much cheaper, after city dwellers are no longer forced to pay subsidies. If cities are the most efficient way of living, let us live that way. In practice, of course, everyone has phone service already. That universal service money just goes to developers who are building new housing developments, to subsidize laying new wire, and to the mob.

Phone service may not be guaranteed, but certain other services are. Voting booths, for example. With the current welfare state, public schools. But imagine, for a moment, what the country might look like under bleeding-heart libertarianism. There is no public school system. There is no post office. There is no universal service. There are people with more money looking to spend it on cost-efficient services. Where will they find them? They will be drawn to cities.

It is difficult to imagine what the country would be like if it were mostly urban. There is a correlation between cities and liberals, but causation isn't clear. Some conservatives believe liberals are drawn to cities for the anonymity, where they can follow their perverse proclivities without interruption. Some liberals believe cities turn people liberal, as the diverse range of experiences opens their minds. If the liberals are right, their own beloved welfare state and their distrust of market solutions for pollution may be the obstacle to opening everyone's minds. Of course, if they kept the open mind, but not the welfare state and the distrust of markets, they would no longer be liberals; they would be libertarians.