Saturday, November 15, 2014

Saint Reagan vs the Wildcats and Oil Barons

Now would have ever guessed that Ronald Reagan would say this in an address to the nation:

"Under our new tax proposal the oil and gas industry will be asked to pick up a larger share of the national tax burden. The old oil depletion allowance will be dropped from the tax code except for wells producing less than 10 barrels a day. By eliminating this special preference, we'll go a long way toward ensuring that those that earn their wealth in the oil industry will be subject to the same taxes as the rest of us. This is only fair. To continue our drive for energy independence, the current treatment of the costs of exploring and drilling for new oil will be maintained."

- Ronald Reagan, May 28th 1985


The oil depletion allowance is a tax gimmick instituted in 1926 that allows well owners to deduct a fraction of their revenues rather than their actual costs. Of course, they can chose to do the latter if it works out better, so effectively this becomes a tax cut relative to standard many cases a very large one. There is no reason to grant a sweetheart deal to the world's most profitable industry. Reagan was right, and this tax break should be eliminated.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Statistical Lives - Volcanic Edition

First, I would like to thank all the people that expressed concern about me last weekend. As most of my friends know, my hobby is climbing mountains and I live in Japan. If I hadn't been at a wedding last Saturday, I would have been climbing somewhere on such a beautiful fall day, and Ontake is certainly on the list. Fortune was with me that day, but tragically not for at least 36 others.

That being said, climbing here or almost anywhere at those elevations in the summer or fall is not particularly risky. In fact, my back-of-the-envelope calculations put my chances of dying on the mountain - whether due to volcanic activity or more mundane things like falls, landslides, or exposure - is about the same as the risk I incur driving to the mountain trailheads. More importantly, the combination of all these risks are dwarfed by the exercise benefits.

In short, the approximately half of a statistical life-day I "lost" due to various risks of this hobby are much smaller than the approximately four statistical life-days I "gained" due to the incredible amount of exercise each of these climbs bring. Even if the exercise didn't have this benefit, I'd be perfectly happy to give up a half day of my life if it meant eleven of them were so pleasurable. So while I appreciate your concern, just keep things in perspective - climbing is about as dangerous as a long Sunday drive, and the exercise will help ensure that I stick around to pester you with blog posts for a long, long time.

Oh, and here is Why I Climb. Need I say more?

 Ash crater of Adatara-san (Fukushima)

Skies Under Iwate-San (Iwate)

Hakkoda-san in Green (Aomori)

Crater Lake at Zao (Miyagi/Yamagata)

Top of Japan: Mt Fuji  (Yamanashi/Shizuoka)


1: Assumes 1 fatality per 150 million mile driven. This is about half the US rate, but since this hobby does not involve much driving at night or any while drunk, my odds are better

2: Volcanoes have killed about one hiker per year in Japan historically. Given that there are something like 75 climbable active volcanoes, and what appears to be a couple hundred people climb them per day throughout their 4-6 month seasons, something like 2-3 million climbs are made per year. My one-in-a-million estimate is probably high

3: This is based on my best efforts to track hiking deaths both in Japan and the US, adjusting for the difficulty of my climbs 

4: Based on a study by the National Cancer Institute found here: 2.5 hours of moderate exercise or 1.25 hours of vigorous exercise per week increases your lifespan by 3.4 years, or 4.2 if you double up on the exercise. I assume I am already in the "double up" phase, and thus gain 0.8 years for each 2.5/1.25 hours. I also assume that only two-thirds of the exercise I get while climbing is additional, as I probably would have gotten some exercise (but not 6+ hours!) on those days.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

God Bless America, Ohio Secretary of State Edition

Summer 2009: I move to Ohio. Shortly after my move, I head off to the BMV to get my driver's license, set up my address, register to vote, etc

October 2010: I head online to see where I am supposed to vote in the upcoming elections. Answer? Nowhere, because Ohio somehow failed to register me the year before, and it was now a couple days past the deadline. Yet Michigan had already unregistered me. What the heck? Anyway, after a couple of phone calls it was clear I was disenfranchised for this cycle. But at least I was finally properly registered!

July 2011: I move overseas, but maintain my Ohio voting privileges. This requires sending in a form called an FPCA in order to enroll in the Ohio overseas voter / military system. The ballot is emailed to me, I print it, fill it out, sign it, and send it back, along with some other documentation like a copy of my driver's license.

October 2012: I send in my first overseas ballot, carefully following the instructions.

Summer, 2013: My parents receive a letter stating I am being purged from the Ohio voter rolls for living with them in Michigan. Oh, and apparently I didn't vote in 2012. Even though I did. It appears my vote was tossed for unknown reasons. A letter exchange with Cuyahoga county solved the registration issue, but of course not the lost vote, which will forever remain a mystery.

September 2014: It now appears I have been booted from the overseas voter system, probably during the failed purge, and have to reapply. Fortunately, I caught this issue with a week to spare and will be sending in my new FPCA (along with a nasty note) in short order.

Anyone want to bet that Ohio will find a way to disenfranchise me a third time?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Swimming Pools Good, Guns Bad

A number of gun advocates use bad statistics and logic to conclude that swimming pools are more dangerous than guns. They make a number of logical mistakes, such as only looking at accidental shootings or focusing on children and thereby deliberately ignoring the adults who are much more likely to be shot and less likely to drown in a swimming pool. Leaving those arguments aside, however, there is another reason they are fundamentally wrong – the health benefits of a swimming pool dwarf the risks, providing around an order of magnitude more lifespan increase via exercise than they claim due to drowning accidents, if not more.

390 children per year under the age of 15 drowned in the nation’s approximately 10.7 million swimming pools between 2009 and 2012. Note that this data is substantially different that the data from 1997 used in the Levitt article cited above (550, 6 million), so we clearly have experienced a dramatically falling death rate the last 15-20 years. I suspect you can blame regulations for that. In any case, data on teens or adults is sparse but the trend of death rates falling rapidly with age clearly continues, at least until very old age. Let's approximate it at 450 total drowning per year in recent years, which works out to one death per 23,778 pools.

Sadly, the average age of the drowning victims – two-thirds are between one and three years old – is very low, so let’s approximate the average as five years. Compared to an eighty year lifespan, this represents 75 years of lost life per 23,778 pools per year. Therefore, the average pool claims 1.15 life-days (or 28 life-hours) each year due to drownings.

So how does this stack up against the exercise benefits? In short, this risk is dwarfed by them. For example, this paper indicates (summary here), that meeting the CDC guidelines of 2.5 hours of moderate exercise (such as playing in a pool) per week extends lifespan by a whopping 3.4 years. If you work through the math on that, you will find that for each hour of moderate exercise, your lifespan is increasing by two hours and fifty minutes, almost three times as much! Vigorous exercise is even better, close to a six to one ratio. This data was specifically for those aged over 40, but it is highly likely that something similar applies to younger people as well.

So assuming that swimming in a residential pool meets the paper’s definition of moderate exercise, which is certainly seems to, and that the benefits of exercise are roughly constant with respect to age, then if a pool generates a mere 10.4 hours of additional moderate exercise per year, it will save more life-days than it will take. While I don’t have any firm data on how many person-hours a typical pool represents each year, surely it is far, far higher than 10.4, probably closer to several hundred, and many thousands for public pools. Clearly, the health benefits win in a landslide, and the net effect of owning a pool is to cause your family members to live substantially longer, not less.

So while pools are risky, they are far less risky than the alternative – your kids sitting around in front of the TV growing fat. Obviously, one should take the risks of pools seriously, follow all relevant regulations, and otherwise act prudently, but getting your kids a pool is ten steps forward for every one back.

In contrast, guns do not have any health benefits that would offset the incredible risks that they bring to bear on your family. To compare them to pools, which are a substantial net positive from a health and longevity perspective, is therefore completely mistaken. Guns do not lower your cholesterol, or prevent heart attacks, or make your sex life better. They just get you and your family members killed, both by dramatically increasing suicide rates in your home, and turning what would have been merely heated arguments into fatal tragedies. If you love your family, you'd sell your guns for scrap today, and use the money to buy a pool.


Addendum: The same logic works for cycling. Others have worked out the math here. Exercise is your friend, folks.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Long Live Peak Oil...

To anyone out there who says the peak oil theory is dead, please note the following:

1: The western hemisphere's largest infrastructure project is an off-shore oil project near Brazil with a projected cost of $237 billion. Yes, that is a "b".

2: That is more than three times the projected cost of the next largest project, the California High Speed Rail system, and almost as much as the US spends on all public infrastructure projects in one year.

3: According to one insider, the break-even cost on that oil is $110/barrel.

When the oil majors are already messing around with dregs like this, what are they going to be doing twenty years from now? Fifty? It ain't going to be pretty, whatever it is. We can either prepare for the inevitable production declines and price surges by carefully nursing our remaining oil reserves, or we can continue to drill-baby-drill until the collapse begins. Which policy is conservative, and which is insane? You decide.

Snatching Defeat on Immigration

Congratulations, President Obama and my fellow Democrats. You have managed to turn a winning issue for our party - immigration - into a losing one. Poll after poll is showing strong opposition to the President's policies with respect to the immigration issue.

It has gotten so bad that the majority of Americans want less legal immigration, and independents have switch solidly into the Republican camp on this issue. How did Democrats screw this up so badly?

By betraying legal immigrants, and selling the farm on behalf of those who are in the US illegally. The Senate "Gang of Eight" bill has little for legal immigrants, and most of what might benefit them is offset by tens of billions of dollars of unfunded and wasteful security spending which will inevitably catch legal immigrants in its net. I especially love how they "solved" the problem of backlogs of up to twenty years for some visa types - not by speeding up the lines, but by eliminating those visa types completely! Brilliant!

What America needs is a full-throated, unabashed pro-legal-immigration party, a party that refutes the false and ugly claim (believed by 63% of Americans) that legal immigration harms the economy. Instead, we have an anti-immigration Republican party, and a Democratic party who only seems to care about securing another round of amnesty. Americans are siding with the former, and despite my extremely pro-immigration attitudes, I can certainly understand why. Hopefully my fellow liberals figure this out soon, or we are going to get hammered at the ballot box.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Immigration and the Lump of Labor Fallacy

One very common (and bi-partisan!) argument I see against immigration is that it will lower wages of American workers. This meme is, fortunately, nonsense, as confirmed by numerous actual studies of real-world data. It is a classic example of what economists call the "Lump of Labor Fallacy" - the idea that there is a fixed pool of jobs, and if someone gets one, someone else does not. While this might be a sensible notion in one's very narrow experience, it is not true in the broader economy. If someone beats you out during the final interview round for a job, it is true that in the very short term, you are still out of work. However, the number of jobs in the economy does not decrease by one. Why? Because that someone will presumably spend their money from their new job, which will in turn create approximately one new job. If there were a million open positions across the US before the final interview round, there will still be a million the next day.

Immigration works the same way. Assuming for a moment that immigrants are more or less demographically matched to the native population in terms of education, age, etc, then any jobs they "take" will be made up for by the jobs they create when they spend their earnings. At first principle, this is a wash. In reality, immigrants are not demographically matched, so they can have impacts in specific labor markets where they are concentrated. If, for example, we were to allow a million dock workers to immigrate to the US, it is obvious that the wages of dock workers would fall. However, this would mean prices for goods passing through the docks would fall, which would in turn mean we'd all have a few more dollars in our pockets each month. When we spend this money, we'd create jobs all throughout the economy. How many? About as many as were lost by native dock workers! Likewise, the push to import a bunch of STEM workers will almost certainly depress wages for native STEM workers, but it means everyone else will be getting STEM products for cheap, saving us cash that we can then spend on other things. So while STEM workers have a right to complain, and may even deserve some sort of compensation or protection, overall, society wins.

If you can't see my point, let's try it another way. It should be obvious that population size of a country has essentially no impact on wages - there are plenty of counties of all sizes which are rich, and plenty which are poor. Therefore, to claim that immigration can lower wages is to claim that the economy somehow differentiates between population growth via border crossings and population growth via vagina crossings. That, of course, is absurd.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Natural Gas Ain't Cheap...

One refrain I have been hearing a lot over the last few years is that natural gas is really cheap right now, and this will lead to some sort of economic bonanza. This would be nice, if the premise was true. Now, natural gas is certainly cheaper than it was in the aughts, but how does it compare historically? The EIA publishes all sorts of data on natural gas production and prices, but unfortunately does not have an inflation adjusted series, which is more relevant from a policy perspective. I have gone about constructing one, so that we can compare today's prices with those in the past.

I've chose to use the EIA's wellhead price, which was its longest running series until it was discontinued at the end of 2012. The prices in red are estimated from the city gate price, using a linear extrapolation based on the overlapping city gate and wellhead data from 2010-2012 using the regression formula

WH = (CG-2.9053)/0.7031

As you can see, wellhead natural gas is not unusually cheap. While it did very briefly touch historic lows near the beginning of 2012, it's average price over the last year of around $3.60 per tcf is similar to or higher than the real prices of natural gas in the late seventies and the period from 1985-2000.

But what about before the mid-seventies, you ask? Well, fortunately the EIA has less granular historical data going back to the 1920s! Again, I had to do the inflation adjustment myself, so here is their data in 2014 dollars.

Well I'll be. Natural gas was lot cheaper from the 1920's through the mid 1970's than it is today! Who would have guessed?

So no, natural gas is not cheap right now, nor does the futures market predict it ever will be again. It is highly unlikely we will ever return to the real price levels of the middle of the last century, or even to the somewhat elevated but still tolerable prices of the mid 80s and 90s. Instead, we will be faced with high prices in good years and insane prices in the rest. You'd better be ready for it.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Trouble with Game of Thrones, Season 5 (In One Chart)

Very light spoilers ahead....

The directors of Game of Thrones have said many times they were looking forward to Season 4, and dreading Season 5. Here is why.

By my count, there are currently nine plots running in the series, a "plot" being defined as a cluster of characters in a single location. The three major ones are the King's Landing / Lannister plot, the Jon / Wall plot, and the Daenerys / Slaver's Bay plot. Six smaller plots (Stannis and Company, Sansa/Littlefinger, Arya/Hound, Bran and Company, Brienne/Pod, and Ramsey/Theon/Yarra) round out the story. To film the series, the directors tend to focus on one of the three "main" plots each episode, filled with smaller scenes from some of the minor plots or the other two main plots.

As you can see, though, this breaks down in Season 5. If the books are followed, not only are two new significant plots born, but one of the main three splits into three and births another, one splits in two, and the other combines with an existing minor plot and then proceeds to split into five separate lines. At peak levels, there are many as seventeen separate plots going on simultaneously. Two of these do combine towards the end of book A Dance with Dragons (Book 5), and it is clear that many are converging early in Winds of Winter (Book 6), but as it stands, even with some significant pruning of characters and plots, there are some serious challenges to filming Season 5, as so many characters get divided and scattered to the winds. It will be interesting to see how the directors handle this challenge.

Note that this near-doubling of the plot lines is what underlies most of the criticism of the books A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. With that many threads going on at once, the pace of the overall plot seemed to slow down considerably.

PS: I'll give a small prize to the first person who can correctly decipher my graph!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Land of The Free, Baby, Yeah (IRS Edition)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post comparing the Japanese immigration system to America's USCIS. Today, it is the IRS that is in my sights. My accountants just provided me with my US returns for 2013, and for the second year in a row (and completely predictably), the accountants cost more than my entire US tax burden.

How did things break down this year? My US returns were 70 pages long this year, beating out last year's 63 pages. In both years, the US collected a whopping 0.3% of my income*, a tiny tax liability I incurred either by traveling to the US on business or having some small US-source income streams that Japan didn't tax.

In contrast, my Japanese returns for the two years were 6 and 8 pages respectively, including things like cover letters. The actual returns are about as long as a 1040-EZ. The Japanese, of course, actually captured the lion's share of the taxes, around 17% of my income in both years. So just like in the immigration systems, Japan again wins hands-down in terms of simplicity and ease of complying with its laws. There is nothing like living in a true Land of the Free, rather than a false one.

*Note that payroll taxes are an entirely separate issue. I am only talking about income taxes. Fundamentally, I have a choice where to pay payroll tax, and I deliberately choose the US and participate in that system.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Bicycle Helmet Laws

An interesting article appeared on Vox today and was followed up on Treehugger. The basic argument, which I find compelling, is that mandatory bicycle helmet laws do more harm than good, despite the rather obvious fact that helmets do indeed reduce injuries in the event of an accident. There are several major reasons for this

1: Automobile drivers have been shown to be more aggressive around cyclists with helmets (and interestingly, males) than those without helmets. This increases risks for the cyclists and partially offsets the benefit of wearing the helmet.

2: Mandatory helmet laws significantly decrease bicycle ridership. This has two negative effects

   2A: Cycling is a very healthy activity. Fewer cyclists implies more heart disease, diabetes, etc
   2B: Fewer cyclists on the road increases the risk for those who remain due to some combination of inferior infrastructure and lack of attention by automobile drivers, who are not used to looking for cyclists in areas with low ridership

The combination of 1 and 2B leads to the somewhat counter-intuitive result that while helmets have been clearly shown to be effective in preventing injury, mandating them does not reduce the injury rate on the population level. Add in the costs associated with 2A, and these laws actually appear to be a net negative for the public. It is generally my opinion (one that I hope most people share) that the government should only restrict peoples' freedom when there is a compelling case to do so. I just don't see how you can make a compelling case here, as it appears the non-cycling portion of the public is actually worse off, not better off, due to these laws.

One other point in the article that I found interesting was the similarity in injury rates per hour for walking, cycling, and driving. It's actually rather hard to defend a cycling helmet law without implying that pedestrians and drivers should have to wear helmets as well. Can you really imagine demanding drivers where helmets in the car, or pedestrians don them before crossing the street?

 A typical Japanese bicycle ride

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Why Illegal Immigrants Ignore the Law

I just received my third 3-year work visa for Japan. My Japanese wife has a permanent residency in the USA. Here is a breakdown of the costs of my three visas vs her green card:

My three Japanese work visas (combined)
Wife’s green card
Dollar cost (1)
Hours spent (2)
Days taken off work
Processing time
8 days (renewal) or 3 weeks (initial)
3-5 months (visa) or 6-12 months (green card)
Pages of documentation
Forced unemployment (3)
4 months
TSA-style security screenings
Very thorough health screenings
Forced international trips
Immigration office visits
Any office, any time within a broad range
Time and place mandated by USCIS
Immigration officer behavior
“Welcome back” – in English
Hostile questioning about technical immigration details – in English
Senatorial interventions(4)
Times anyone was reduced to tears upon (re)entry
Why do immigrants flout our rules? Because our rules are utterly ridiculous. This, and not "security porkulus in exchange for amnesty" should be what our immigration debate is about.


1: Total dollars or yen spent by myself, my wife or my employer on application fees, medical or biometrics screenings, documentation, legal fees, and travel
2: Total time spent by myself, my wife, or my employer's staff
3: This results from the time gap between arrival in the US and receipt of a work permit that all family-based immigrants must endure, unless they have a work permit for independent reasons
4: Thank you, Senator Brown of Ohio and staff, for making this process "easier" than it otherwise would have been

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Some Quick Thoughts on Geoengineering

Just some quick thoughts on geoengineering, the idea of mitigating climb change not by reducing our emissions, but by some less direct method such as recapturing it somehow or blocking sunlight to mitigate the warming. Topics are generally discussed in my order of preference.


1: Cloud seeding: The basic idea here is that clouds reflect sunlight more than land or water, thus cooling the earth. The reason I like this concept in principle is that if we had sufficient know how, we could do this in a way that mitigated droughts or other unwanted precipitation evens as well as cooled the climate. Though it would likely be expensive, it would generally be better than benign and could have a significant impact on global warming.

2: Ocean fertilization: The idea here is that much of the ocean is essentially a dead-zone due to a lack of iron in the water, which is necessary for life. Iron salt solutions would be attached to ships (probably already going about other business) and poured into the water in strategic places. This spawns plankton blooms (confirmed) which then presumably works up the food chain and ultimately sequesters carbon. Unfortunately, any carbon sequestration appears to be small and speculative, but on the other hand, if done well, we could use this to increase the biological capacity of the oceans, both increasing the amount we could harvest AND increasing the amount of life in the ocean. There is modest promise in this idea that  is stupendously cheap, and it should be pursued.

3: Biochar: The basic idea here is to char plant material and use it as a soil amendment. Generally the idea is pretty sound and I don't see a whole bunch of downsides other than economic issues and a limited capacity, if managed properly.

4: Space mirrors: I divide these into two types - dumb mirrors whose only object is to block light, and smart ones which have good control over when and where the light is delivered. The first is possible with current technology but expensive. The latter is beyond us for the foreseeable future. Dumb mirrors, like any light-blocking scheme, have a huge downside - less light causes less photosynthesis, which means less life and lower crop yields. Also, it has no effect on ocean acidification and could disrupt ocean and weather patterns we rely on. To use any uncontrolled light-blocking scheme is an act of desperation. Controlled light blocking with smart mirrors, however, is something I have a hard time imagining our distant descendants not doing. Imagine moving light from the equator to the northern latitudes, making the former cooler and the later inhabitable. Imagine, using cloud seeding and the smart mirrors, turning Antarctica into an even huger block of ultra-cold ice, in order to offset rising oceans. Imagine using the smart mirrors to manipulate local weather patterns in order to ward off extremes. This is all possible in principle, but is not really relevant to solving climate change because it is still something that is far beyond our technological capabilities.

5: Light management with sulfates: This is basically the poor-man's version of dumb mirrors. It's cheap, but now you are making the air even filthier. Also, there is no meaningful method of controlling where the sulfate blocks light, so the technique cannot really evolve or improve towards being smart, as mirrors could.

6: Clean coal / carbon sequestration: Mostly a political farce. It's technically possible, but too expensive, and the sequestration is almost impossible to guarantee over long time frames. A limited amount of CO2 is and will be pumped underground in order to force out gas and oil, but the amount of demand here is trivial and by using the CO2 to extract fossil fuels, it makes the problem worse, not better. In the end, it is just thermodynamics. A coal plant would have to use a quarter of its output (at minimum in practice even more) just to compress the CO2 and put it back underground. Unless there is a pre-existing demand for CO2 nearby, which is rare, there is simply no way that this process will make financial sense vs wind, solar, or just about anything else. Also, since the plant would have to burn extra coal in order to compress and pump the CO2, it would release that much more soot, SOx, NOx, PAH's, particulates, heavy metals and all the other junk that continually comes out the smokestacks. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Missing the Tree for the Forest

I'll share another photo I took today, of one of the more amazing trees I can ever recall seeing. It's an old Japanese cedar tree (sugi, or Cryptomeria).

On the right is the main trunk, about seven feet in diameter. On the left is what appears to be a second tree, growing out of the branch of the main tree. Broken roots can clearly be seen hanging down from the daughter tree. I've never seen something like this, and am at a loss to explain it, as sugi do not sucker and even if they did, some really bizarre landslide would be required to suspend a tree over a twenty-foot cliff.

What was disappointing to me, however, was that as I sat there and ate my lunch exactly from the vantage point of that picture, around two hundred Japanese passed me by in their way up or down the mountain. Not one noticed this. Instead, they were all looking at some tiny little natural spring off to the left of the picture. Why? Because there was a sign there that gave a name to the spring, and if there is a sign, it must be important. No one bothered to look up and see what really matters.

The Price of Cheap

The image below was taken on a fine spring day without a cloud in the sky, from Mt Tsukuba, which lies north of Tokyo. What do you see? Or more specifically, what do you not see?

What you do not see is Tokyo. Or Mt Fuji. Or really anything more than about five miles away.  What is that nasty haze in the picture?

It's the price of your cheap Walmart junk from China. It's the price of cheap coal-powered electricity. It's what causes 200,000 Americans to die prematurely every year. No, that is not a typo. It's what made me hack up my lungs every day the winter before last and made me so weak I could barely climb stairs. It ruins beautiful days, forces people to hide indoors or behind masks, and coats everything in a layer of grime.

Fossil fuels are not cheap. Rather, their costs just land on everyone, rather than appearing on your electric bill or at the pump. Never let anyone get away with claiming otherwise.

PS: The saddest thing I observed today? How many Japanese refer to this as "kumotte-iru", which literally means "cloudy". It's gotten to the point that they don't even seem to realize that this is unnatural.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Game of Thrones Mind Games

Spoiler free (essentially) for TV-only fans

Joffrey is dead. But does it really matter who killed him? Of course we book fans know who killed him, right? The books eventually did reveal the culprit, but is there any reason that Martin and directors Benioff and Weiss are bound to the having the same murderer? A whole host of people had reason and opportunity to kill Joffrey. TV-fans' leading candidates are (in order of appearance)

Peter Baelish - in order to foster chaos from within he can seize more power
Tywin Lannister - in order to install the more pliable Tommen as king
Olenna Tyrell - in order to protect her grand-daughter from the monster Joffrey
Oberyn Martell - because he hates Lannisters and he ain't called the "Red Viper" for nothing

with other people speculating Sansa, Margaery, Tyrion (yeah, him!), and even Cersei. Among them, would it actually matter who did it? The future plot of the books is not driven by who did it, but who believes what about who did what.  As far as I can tell, Martin, Benioff and Weiss are completely free to play a huge switcheroo on book fans and make us eat some crow when our book-smugness backfires on us by having a different killer on TV vs the books.

So here is to hoping that Martin plays us book fans like this. It would be a great way of emphasizing the Littlefinger/Varys debates about the nature of power and truth - that they lie where people think they lie - and would just be a plain old fun way for Martin to surprise us yet again.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Republicans *** Heart *** Taxes...

Republicans do love taxes...when they are slapped on the wind and solar industry. Legislators in Oklahoma, citing "fairness" and a "free-rider" problem, have decided to slap grid-connected solar or wind powered homes with a monthly fee to cover theoretical costs these users place on the grid. While the precise fee hasn't be determined yet, Arizona has a $5/month fee based on a similar logic, or about half a penny per kilowatt hour for a typical household.

Now, one might be able to argue that these fees are justified, but it is not completely clear that the free-rider problem actually exists, especially in the case of solar, which reduces peak demand and therefore the amount of infrastructure needed to handle it. However, even if it is the case where renewably-powered homes place usual burdens on the grid and thus would be free-riding if they didn't pay for it, their competition has free-rider issues that are an order of magnitude larger or more, 14 to 35 cents per kilowatt hour according to a recent study.

It is all but impossible to justify this discrepancy. If free-rider problems are something that deserves government intervention, then the government should be focusing on the big ones tied to entrenched incumbents, not tiny ones by their competitors. The fact that Oklahoma Republicans decided to attack the wind and solar industries while letting fossil fuel industry get away with relative murder can only be explained by petty partisanship, regulatory capture, or both. None of these explanations reflects well on their abilities as our representatives. It is as if they are prosecuting shoplifters at the behest of the mafia.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Giving Game

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I am taking Professor Peter Singer's "Practical Ethics" course via Coursera, and am enjoying it immensely. This week, I got a special acknowledgement by Professor Singer on the course page which I am pretty excited about. What happened?

Last week's theme was the "Giving Game". An anonymous donor had giving the Coursera group $10,000 to divide up among four charities - Population Services International, Cool Earth, Give Directly, and the Wikimedia Foundation - in the manner we mutually decided was best. The point of the week's classes and assignments was to understand the best way to divide the money. Since all four are top-notch charities in their areas, this is a tough decision to make. The "Giving Game" doesn't end for another week, so I can't tell you who wins.

So what was my role in this? Well, as soon as I saw the week's theme, it came to mind that donating someone else's money wasn't perfectly in line with the theme of the course. So I started a message thread where I pledged to donate an (admittedly modest) sum to whichever charity(s) won the "Giving Game". The feedback from other students has been substantial and my little pot multiplied many-fold. The class may well surpass the very generous sum provided by the anonymous donor!

In any case, it feels pretty good to have started something that turned out so well, and to be recognized by a pretty famous intellectual. I hope my little string of fortune inspires my friends and readers to check out the four charities above. They really are best-in-class. If you have $10 or $100 or more to spare, please consider giving what you can.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Conservative bias in the media

I've always found the claim that the "mainstream" media is biased to be absurdly off the mark. In fact, it is just the opposite, with the mainstream media continually producing "balanced" pieces that select equal numbers of examples from both sides regardless of the actual number of each (for example, climate science experts), and often entirely ignoring the progressive political wing. If you need an overwhelming example of the latter, just compare the attention that Paul Ryan's annual budget proposals receive relative to those put forth by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which consists mainly of the more liberal third of the Democratic House delegation. According to a simple Google search, Ryan's budget has about 650 times as many hits as the CPC's "The Peoples' Budget", and even several times the 25 million hits one gets for "President's budget". Clearly, in this matter, the Republican budget proposal gets far, far more attention than those produced by the progressive wing, and even several times more than the formal and very centrist compromise budget put forth by the president himself! Admittedly, some of that attention is deservedly negative, but politically the ensuing conversation is a substantial net positive for Republicans.

What could possibly be the explanation for the vast discrepancy in media attention? It is certainly not because the Ryan budget is more realistic. If adopted, it would be by far the most right-wing budget of any advanced nation, and is unprecedented on many levels. It is also a complete fantasy in terms of how it works, with budget balance only achieved through heroic growth assumptions, budgetary gimmicks, and enormous cuts to anti-poverty programs and domestic spending that are both cruel, stupid, and unfair. Indeed, the poor would bear some 69% or more of the budget balancing directly. In contrast, the CPC's budget is very European-like in terms of spending and taxation, spreads the pain around evenly, and balances the budget in a reasonable time frame under realistic assumptions. The President's budget would actually be considered quite conservative by world standards and while failing to achieve budgetary balance, is realistic with respect to what is actually politically possible.

So the media in this case is clearly ignoring the actual left entirely, lionizing the right wing, and putting up a milquetoast centrist compromise as the left pole. This obviously distorts the debate and continually drags it to the right - something completely inconsistent with the theory that the mainstream media is liberally biased.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Why I Offset, Part II

Recently, I discussed why I purchase carbon offsets and why I believe they are not just sufficiently effective but highly so. Today, I would like to address what I perceive as the primary counter argument, which is that by purchasing offsets, one may feel they have paid for their “indulgences” and is therefore free to pollute.

First, the word “indulgence” is obviously a loaded term, and it is not particularly relevant anyway, as while most pollution (particular carbon) is completely fungible, while most sins are not. Nature doesn’t give a whit if I add a ton of CO2 here today and remove one there tomorrow. In contrast, I don’t get a free pass to steal from someone because I happened to return someone else’s lost purse. The idea that one can pay for immoral behavior with moral behavior is silly; the idea that you can clean up your messes is not. While there may be some borderline cases, this isn’t one of them, as the fungibility of carbon emissions is complete.

The crux of the matter, however, is the question as to what effects have on the purchaser’s emissions. One could argue that this is actually irrelevant, if the purchaser is honestly offsetting all their emissions. But even ignoring that point, do emissions actually increase for a typical purchaser? At least in my case, I strongly doubt it and in fact expect the reverse is true. There are in fact four mechanisms by which my emissions decrease when I purchase offsets:

1: The $100-200 I spend on offsets annually is $100-200 less I have to spend on anything else. Since there are few things I possibly could spend the money on that didn’t involve emissions, my emissions are almost certainly reduced. This represents a couple tenths of a percent of my income and likely decreases my total emissions by a similar amount.

2: Supply and demand. Knowing I have to purchase offsets causes me to perceive a higher price for any carbon-intensive activity and thus discourages me marginally from doing it

3: Guilt. In fact, this is so strong that just about every offset purchase I have ever made has been coupled with either donations to environmental organizations or volunteering with them

4: Direct action. Similar to above, my offset purchases usually spur me to act directly to reduce my emissions. They are like a big alarm clock that reminds me to check my tire pressure, fix that leaky window, or finally ditch that old, inefficient appliance.

Environmentalists who reject offsets do so essentially entirely two claims – that offsets don’t work, which I addressed last time, and that they cause the purchaser’s emissions to rise. Yet for the latter to be the case, the logic of indulgence – which just about anyone purchasing offsets would reject on principle – has to trump all four of the emission-decreasing effects listed above, two of which are rooted in very basic economic principles. Not only do I find this implausible, I am utterly certain in my own case that the balance lies heavily in the other direction, and that my offset purchases cause my emissions to drop substantially. Additionally, as I noted earlier, this is all likely irrelevant anyway because I am more-than-honestly offsetting all my emissions in the first place.

It goes even further than this. Even if one was only successfully offsetting a fraction of one’s emissions, the environment would likely come out ahead. If someone was emitting 10 tons a year before offsets, but post-offset emits 12 and offsets 8, there is still a net 60% reduction in carbon. I would hazard a guess that offset purchasers whose emissions increase by more than their successful offset purchases are close to non-existent. For example, if a typical purchaser successfully offsets half their emissions (failing in the other half due to either underestimating their emissions that need to offset, or buying offsets of insufficient quality), then their emissions would have to double in order to have a net negative impact. Barring a huge salary increase, a typical person would have to go out of their way to double their emissions, literally finding ways to burn fossil fuels with most of their spare cash. No one is going to do that. Even if there is a bump in people's emissions, which I doubt, it is unlikely to be anything more than a modest 10-20%, which in turn is almost certainly less than what they are offsetting. I simply see no plausible route for offset purchases to increase emissions.

Friday, March 21, 2014

On the Utility of Utilitarianism

This is a modified version of my first essay for Peter Singer's Practical Ethics course at Coursera.


There are a number of objections to utilitarian theory that one can raise: that it conflicts with individual rights(1), that it is difficult or impossible to convert disparate ideas such as rights, the sanctity of rules or the law, and peoples’ lives and preferences into a common currency(2), that it is too demanding(3), that it results in morality being partially dependent on luck(4), and that peoples’ preferences are inconsistent and malleable. Of these, I find the third objection (that utilitarianism is too demanding) and to a lesser degree the second (the common currency objection) to be the most compelling. Particularly when combined, these two objections lead to a broader problem with utilitarianism, which is that it just isn’t all that useful in one’s day-to-day life. In other words, utilitarianism lacks utility.

The “too demanding” objection arises from the highly counter-intuitive and essentially impossible to achieve requirements on personal behavior that a fully committed utilitarian would have to practice. Such a person would consider his or her own preferences no more important than anyone else’s, and thus be trapped in a life of endless sacrifice, as there would always be someone poorer than the utilitarian that the utilitarian could help. Indeed, such a “Utilitarian Martyr” would almost always answer the question of “What should I do right now in this situation?” with “Forsake my family and friends, work as hard as possible so that I can maximize my income, live like a penurious monk, and donate whatever is left over to high-quality charities”. This arises because the cost for such a charity to save a life is on the order of $1,000(5,6). Given the average per-capita income in the US was $42,693 in 2012(7), subtracting off $20,000 for a monk’s lifestyle and taxes leaves the typical American with enough resources to save over twenty lives per year, and the typical Princeton student far more. From a pure utilitarian perspective, which demands that we do whatever brings about the most good, becoming a Utilitarian Martyr is clearly the appropriate thing to do(8).

However, it is obvious that no one, even utilitarianism's proponents or anyone short of the mythical version of Jesus Christ himself, comes anywhere near abiding by such standards. Given that no one is going to reach such perfection, what we need in practice is not an abstract theory that tells us what is the absolute best thing to do (which is almost always to become a Utilitarian Martyr) but a practical theory that answers the two questions we regularly face: Which behaviors of my own are good enough, and which minimal standards of behavior am I willing to enforce unto others via the law? Unfortunately, utilitarianism fails this task. While it does provide a mechanism for ranking potential choices, doesn’t set useful criteria for placing either of these bars.

Worse yet, even this ranking mechanism can be highly suspect, due to the aforementioned “common currency” problem. The in-class example - McCloskey’s hypothetical about the sheriff accusing one man of rape in order to prevent five others from being lynched – is a perfect example of this issue. In this example, the sheriff can save five net lives, but only at the price of egregiously violating the law, the public trust, and justice,  thus potentially undermining the public good for years to come.

While a utilitarian can certainly point out and consider this trade-off, it is difficult to imagine any reliable mechanism for comparing such wildly differing concepts such as human lives on one side and the long-term public good on the other. If one were to lock ten professed utilitarians in separate rooms and individually ask them how many lives saved represent the break-even point in this hypothetical, you’d probably get ten different answers. Thus, when it comes to crunch time in situations that are close calls, utilitarianism generally fails to provide much clarity precisely because of its inability to accurately measure in a common currency items on either side of the scale.

Combining these objections, I find utilitarianism to not be all that useful and unable to answer either my day-to-day questions or many hypothetical ones. Should I buy carbon offsets to mitigate the pollution I caused on my recent vacation in Australia? Of course not. A Utilitarian Martyr would never waste money on such a trip, and only gives money to the poorest of the poor. How should I pay my friend back for the nice bottle of Zinfandel he gave me? I shouldn’t. In fact, I should have sold the wine and donated the proceeds. What should I buy my wife for her birthday? Nothing. In fact, I should divorce her immediately as I earn more than her and she has a claim on half of my income and assets that I could be giving to the poor. Should I push the fat man in front of the trolley in order to prevent it from careening off the tracks and thus saving a bunch of lives? Almost certainly not, as getting arrested would dramatically reduce my future income even if I were later found innocent. And then there are the legal fees…

Despite the intent of a "Practical Ethics" course, I find that utilitarianism alone just ain’t all that practical, give its inability to resolve real-life ethical questions.


1: Sandel, Michael.   Justice   New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. 37-41
2: Sandel, Michael.   Justice   New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. 41-48
3: Corbett, B., Moral Obligations to Distant Others
4: Nagel, Thomas.   Moral Luck   Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993. 57-71
6: Singer, Peter.   The Life You Can Save    New York: Random House 2009
8: Singer, Peter.   “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”  Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1(3) 229-243

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Dear TSA...

I would like to suggest that your agency spend more of its time cross-checking passenger lists with databases of stolen passports, and less time stealing my shampoo.

That is all. Have a nice day and thank you for your time.

A concerned American citizen

Saturday, February 8, 2014

What real immigration reform looks like

So the immigration debate has heated up a bit again. Unfortunately, the "security pork in return for amnesty for illegal immigrants" monstrosity that is being debated in the Senate is a million miles from what I believe real immigration reform would look like, and is in fact so bad that I cannot even support it even though I love legal immigration and want far more of it. Below, I have summarized what kind of immigration reform bill we should be discussing.

1: Amend the 14th Amendment by adding the words "of an American citizen" after the word "born" in Section 1. Only children of American citizens should automatically qualify for American citizenship under the Constitution. As a matter of policy, children of permanent residents should also qualify almost automatically, but this should be at our discretion. Jus soli "birthright" citizenship is at the core of our immigration problem, and is a policy which almost all nations have rejected as being impractical and abusive. The rest of my plan would only go into effect on passage of the amending amendment.

2: A national ID policy. Our fragmented system makes enforcing immigration laws difficult, as well as mucking up voting and facilitating fraud. This would be coupled with a national voter ID law once the IDs were nearly universally in place.

3: A path to permanent residency for current illegal immigrants. This should be slower than the path for legal immigrants, and come with substantial fines in the form of something like a 10% payroll tax for ten years. The current Senate bill has fines, but they are so small (~$2000) that they aren't any higher than the application fees and legal bills illegal immigrants skipped out on. As part of the amnesty deal, these folks would forgo any chance at citizenship.

4: A 50% increase in the number of green cards awarded every year, to approximately 1.5 million. This would include the reinstatement of the green card lottery. The remainder would be granted on a points-based system that considered skills, age, education, income, family connections to the US, English skill, and time previously spent in the US.

5: Work visas would be sold, not granted. Each month, a fixed number of 3, 6, 12, 24, and 36 month visas would be auctioned off. Obviously, passing a security screen would be required before placing bids. Once won, the visa could be activated any time within the next year and last as long as noted. Bidding for new visas while under a current one would be allowed, thus making it possible for someone to stay in the US indefinitely if they are willing to pay for it and obey our laws. This would cause the price of residency to be bid up high enough that there would be little advantage in "importing" cheap foreign workers. It would also ensure that the companies that really needed to bring over some guru for a rotation in the US would have little trouble doing so. Note that under this system, H1B's would no longer exist. Immigrants who won work visas would be free to work for any employer during the period of their visa, or not work at all.

6: Use the several billion dollars per year generated above to speed up USCIS processing times and iron out any inconveniences that it inflicts on immigrants due to lack of funds (such as the inability to do biometrics processing overseas).

7: Get rid of the "travel permit" system. In a modern world, USCIS should recognize that immigrants to America will often need to move about the globe. As long as the immigrants are paying their taxes and obeying the laws of both the US and whatever country they find themselves in, USCIS shouldn't bother them...and certainly shouldn't force them to come back to the US repeatedly at USCIS's whim, as is the case now. Additionally, any US immigrant who is abroad for any length of time should be considered to be maintaining their US immigration status if they are living with their American citizen spouse or child, or if they or their spouse is working for an American company or its international affiliate. Currently, such people are constantly threatened with having their immigration status revoked for "abandonment", requiring them to repeatedly travel back to the US and spend a fortune on legal fees (it cost my wife and I, as well as my employer, something like $20,000!).

8: Family-based visas should include a temporary work permit and a Social Security card. Currently, these people arrive in the US and are promptly forcably unemployed, as they can't work in the US until their work permit application comes through in 3-4 months, and they can't leave the country without voiding their green card application. This is just a waste of human capital.

9: Get tough on illegal immigrants and their employers. Rapid deportation should be the norm for the former, and crushing fines the norm for the latter. Illegal immigrants and their children should qualify for almost no public services, including schooling or identification.

10: Increased border the extent Republicans are willing to raise taxes to pay for it, and not one penny more.

There. Plenty of pain on both sides...but everybody wins except future illegal immigrants.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

An Open Letter to Eric Holthaus, or Why I Offset

I have been a regular purchaser of carbon offsets for the last eight years or so, specifically from TerraPass, though they are not the only acceptable provider. I do this because I cannot find it morally acceptable to leave the world in a worse condition than I found it. It is my responsibility to clean up the messes I make, even if that costs me a hundred bucks a year or so.

I was quite dismayed, however, to read prominent science writer Eric Holthaus's article in Slate earlier this week, where he discussed how, instead of flying like a rational person, he road a bus from Madison to Atlanta in order to attend an academic meeting, wasting essentially two days of his valuable time, all to save an estimated emissions of 1200 lbs of carbon dioxide. This can be offset via TerrPass for under ten dollars. Yep, Eric wasted two days of his time rather than spend ten bucks. Why? Because, to quote Eric, "I don’t believe in offsets". He then links to a debate about the quality of offsets that offers no conclusion, nor is particularly relevant anyway is it is a discussion about the UN's Clean Development Mechanism and related international treaties, not the small individual market. But even in the former case of the slow treaty process, independent audits have not been bad, finding that over 90% of offsets are real and "additional" - in other words, are not something that would have have happened anyway. Oddly, famous climate blogger Joe Romm cites the same article as evidence against offsets, linking it with a highly misleading lede. I normally like Joe, but on that day he let his hatred of "rip-offsets" as he calls them get the better of him.

In the case of private organizations, however, there is even less reason to doubt their work. TerraPass, with which I am most familiar, is completely transparent about its present and futures projects, providing long comment periods before accepting them, and routine audits by both TerraPass staff and independent auditors to ensure that emission reductions are being measured properly. Their business critically depends on transparency and they provide it in spades.

Which brings me back to Holthaus. Despite his herculean and largely pointless efforts, he still emitted over 300 lbs of carbon for the transportation portion trip. Since he didn't offset them, obviously his total was +300 lbs for the transportation segment of the trip. Now let's compare that to my upcoming trip to Australia, which TerraPass realistically estimates at 4600 lbs of carbon. In response to this, I will purchase 6000 lbs of offsets for less than $40. I always over-purchase a bit precisely because I worry that TerraPass (or any provider) is not perfect, and I want to keep sure I am in the right side of things. Even if you assume that TerraPass is only 80% effective, which is lower than there is any reason to believe, I would still be -200 lbs for the trip, 500 lbs less than Holthaus for our respective trips.

In my opinion, folks like Holthaus and Romm are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and in doing so, causing a lot of harm. It is simply too painful, in our world designed with high environmental impact infrastructure and economic systems, to live a very low impact lifestyle. Radicals aside, people won't do it. Even crusaders like Holthaus and Romm fall far short of perfection. However, a lot of people can be convinced to pay a bit of money to offset the messes they make, and a few dollars can be highly beneficial here. Claiming that offsets are not perfect enough or pure enough or direct enough will certainly push people away from buying them. However, imagining that these people Eric and Joe pushed away from buying them will then magically decide to drastically and directly reduce their environmental impact instead is wishful thinking.

For me, it is pretty simple. I am pretty low impact (living in Japan will do that to you), and I offset about 120% of the rest, just to be safe. Odds are I am pretty close to carbon neutral, give or take a few percent. Folks like Holthaus, in contrast, have no hope but to be substantially carbon positive given their current courses of actions. Worse yet, they are convincing other people to follow their lead in the wrong direction.


Post-script: For the record, I do not offset work-related activity. I offset what I consume, not what I produce. To do both would be to double-count. Also note that my upcoming set of flights is only the ninth set of my life that was not business-related. I am certainly not a million miler.