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Scientists as Policy Advisors

Many non-economist science bloggers have hailed Obama's appointments of scientists to key positions within his administration. But some people, including economists, have been a bit more hesitant about at least one appointment. Likewise I am not so sanguine about the appointments. Yes, it signals that Obama wants the best scientific information to guide his policies. But, is it enough? How many of those scientists are actually good policy wonks? Do any of them acknowledge how important the science of economics is to their policy proposals? There are unfortunately too many otherwise good scientists who have no knowledge of economics but are otherwise more than happy to make pronouncements on economics.

I hate to pick on Ethan Siegel over at Starts With A Bang! since he does really good work there. But, he also just happened to give me a perfect example. In "Can the Moon Help Solve Earth's Problems?" he asks:

How many humans can the planet support before we need to either reduce the population or expand to other worlds?

Ethan seems to claim we are near or approaching the limit:

We’ve already talked about how forests and wild places are needed to remove Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere and reverse global warming, but let’s put that aside. We’ve got lots of arable land on this planet, and as the population goes up, more and more of that land is needed for farming, to feed the world. In order to do that, we need fewer forests: ...And we need to take that land and turn it into farmland for production of staple foods: ...The Earth currently produces staple foods (rice, grains, cereals, potatoes, etc.) in quantities of 2,264 million metric tonnes per year, enough to feed about 10 billion people assuming everyone eats a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet. ... So assuming we want to do the following:

* Keep our forests,
* Continue reproducing, and
* Continue feeding ourselves (and eating the good food, too),

what are our options? We clearly need more land, and we clearly can’t take any more from Earth, as we need more wild places and forests to help repair the damage that’s already been done. Where should we look?

Mu. The big problem an economist sees is the use of current food supply as different than food demand. But price theory is very clear: Supply equals demand in a clearing market. Food is a clearing market, even adding in various nuances such as political distortions of the market, transaction costs, and so forth. This factoid is worthless for calculating carrying capacity. There are a number of things that should be considered in calculating carrying capacity of the Earth.

First, is the land being cultivated being completely used? No. A significant amount of cultivated land is laying fallow each year in the U.S. I have heard estimates that the U.S. alone could feed the entire world with just the land currently cultivated. In the rest of the world, the yield per acre is nowhere near as high as in the U.S. and Canada - not because the soil or climate is better in North America, but just because it is not necessarily economic for farmers in other places to use the latest, greatest farming methods and tools. As developing nations further develop, the yield per acre of farmland will greatly increase.

Second, there is no evidence that yield per acre is anywhere near a maximum, even in the U.S. and Canada. The amount of cultivated land in the U.S. has actually been shrinking for a long time, yet total yields are still increasing.

Third, what about the land that is currently not arable but could be made so? What about using the oceans and seas for growing food?

Last but not least: what new developments - inventions, improved methods, whatever - will come along in the future that makes the whole thing moot? I won't even make a guess at the possibilities. The only thing I know is that as long as we have relatively free markets we'll get unpredictable new technologies.

My best estimate is that humanity will have to worry about the Sun's upcoming mid-life crisis long before we have to worry about population problems. Fortunately we have a few hundred million years before that becomes a problem.

Anyway, that was just to point out that a perfectly fine scientist should not be in a policy leadership role. On the other hand, I'd like to think that a rocket scientist with an interest in economics and political science would be perfectly fine for the job. So a scientist in a top policy role can be perfectly fine, but there is no guarantee. We need to look at each of them individually before we get excited.

I do not know enough about most of the appointees to really form an opinion on each of them individually. One that does stand out is John Holdren. In 1980 Holdren sided with and assisted Paul Ehrlich in establishing the terms of a bet with Julian Simon. The bet was whether certain commodity prices would go up or down over a decade. Simon handily won the bet, but as best as I can tell, Holdren did not and still does not accept that the reason Ehrlich lost was that Simon and most economists were and are right about the basic concept that on average each person creates more goods than that person consumes. Or to say it in a slightly different way - Holdren does not accept that on average, each additional person in the world makes all of us better off. And that is very dangerous.

We now have in our hands—really, in our libraries—the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next seven billion years.

(Simon "The State of Humanity: Steadily Improving" 1995)


Since astronomical distances are generally less than about 10^10 light years and U.S. federal government debt is on the order of 10^12 USD and will soon be 10^13 USD, then the term "governmental" ought to be used to refer to very large numbers.

Example: The current estimate for the auto industry bailout is merely astronomical, while the cost of the financial industry bailout is governmental.

Philosophy and Pragmatism

I do not believe it is any secret that I am philosophically against government, and thus can be described as an anarchist. But I do want to point out a feature of my anarchist beliefs that dramatically differs from the popular perception of anarchism - institutions matter. There must be sufficient institutions for resolving externality and public goods problems, including laws, defense, and controlling pollution.

I wrote:

Philosophically I'd rather NASA did not exist (that classical liberal desire for less government). On the other hand between the public goods problem of basic scientific research and a desire to get the best value for my tax dollars I do not want to see NASA gutted.

I can conceive of institutions that solve the public goods problem of basic research that are better than NASA, NOAA, NSF, and any other government science funding agency. I am even more confident that better institutional solutions than I can conceive could exist. But those institutions do not exist today. The institutions we have, while far from perfect, are better than nothing. Pragmatically then, NASA as a provider of a true public good falls pretty low on the priority scale of government programs that need to be axed. Private goods that are being provided by government are far better targets. One example of a much higher priority target is privileges granted to certain financial and industrial institutions. These privileges do nothing to help the general welfare over the long term and when the piper brings the invoice (he already did and it is due!), the costs are astronomical.

[Correction. On re-reading the linked to post I realize that I made a big error. The dichotomy is legit. But the rest of my point is somewhat useful.]
Related to this, Jacob Lyles commits the fallacy of the false dichotomy. He talks about the structural libertarianism and policy libertarianism as if one must choose between them. has a post or two on policy vs. structural libertarianism. I prefer think of it in a different way: structural libertarianism and policy libertarianism inform each other. David Friedman, Murray Rothbard, and others have proposed some good libertarian structures, Patri offers up a way make those structures possible. But there are policy decisions within the confines of the current political reality that also need to addressed. Related to sea- and space- steading are modifications and interpretations to various treaties dealing with the Seas and Space. General economic conditions need to be addressed to give us enough prosperity to make these schemes possible. Reform of various regulations has further practical implication on various aspects of development. Then there is the simple economic and political reality that not all the desired structural changes can be done at once - policy libertarianism helps us sort through what areas to work on first.

New Administration, New NASA?

Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy wonders if the new administration will gut NASA. Philosophically I'd rather NASA did not exist (that classical liberal desire for less government). On the other hand between the public goods problem of basic scientific research and a desire to get the best value for my tax dollars I do not want to see NASA gutted. On the gripping hand, NASA needs some serious change or it will soon be completely irrelevant and thus deserve to be gutted.

NASA is currently headed for extinction. It is concentrating on a large program that is ostensibly for achieving the goals outlined in the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). Yet the architecture only superficially achieves those goals, and in fact is antithetical to the full VSE. On the surface the VSE is about going back to the Moon and then going on to Mars. The full purpose of the VSE is to establish a permanent human presence out in the solar system. Constellation, specifically the Ares I/V portion practically guarantees that rather than a permanent human presence we will only get small, short term visits to the Moon and maybe reach out to Mars in some nebulous future. With only few exceptions, the non-NASA aerospace industry sees Ares as a waste of good funds. Delta IV, Atlas V, and Falcon 9 can get both people and cargo to ISS and with an architecture that uses on-orbit assembly and propellant transfer can actually deliver much higher mass to and from the Moon than the current Constellation architecture. Some industry insiders believe that on-orbit assembly and propellant transfer are a requirement for any long term human presence beyond low earth orbit.

Further, post-Apollo NASA does not have a good record of developing and operating launch capability. Granted the Space Shuttle has a lot of politician designed features (bugs) that NASA must work with, but as both the Challenger and Columbia incidents showed, NASA's culture is a far worse problem. In the meantime, science and advanced technology research, where NASA is actually good, are be neglected and cut.

It is this background that the Obama transition team must deal with. Obama has sent very strong signals that good science will be a priority in his administration. The economic reality is that it will have to be done with less. Within NASA there is an excellent opportunity to get much more science with much less budget, and this is why Mike Griffin is stressing out. Cut Ares and NASA can get a lot more science, even with a dwindling budget. Add in the fact that several key NASA supporting legislators will not be returning to Congress - it is a wonder that Griffin isn't postal yet.

From what I know of the situation, I expect that (Congress allowing) NASA is going to get a makeover. Constellation and returning to the moon will be cut back and the remains will be re-architected. SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and possibly other private launch providers will be encouraged to be the Shuttle replacement. And the various parts of NASA that have recently been cut will have funding restored or even increased. All of this would be a Good Thing.

Liberty for Me, But Not for Thee.

There is some good discussion downblog about whether Sarah Palin's family issues are fair game. Normally I would side with those who say "none of our business", because I am all about "mind you own damn business".

But Sarah Palin has made it very clear: our most personal, intimate, and private affairs are public matters to be regulated by government. Whether reproductive rights, alternative lifestyles, sex education, or just when a couple can or cannot have sex; Sarah maintains that it is the right and proper role of government to intervene those areas.

Sarah, take your pick - are these private affairs to be determined by each individual, or are they the government's business? We the people are at least ostensibly the government, if they are the government's business then your family's difficulties are fair game for us.

Liberty for me but not for thee, is not a small town value; however, it is business as usual in D.C.

[edited to fix Freudian slip]

Some Random Thoughts.

Tropic Thunder is too high brow for my tastes.

There is a Korean BBQ restaurant in Lancaster, CA that is pretty darn good.

Do not fund interesting aerospace projects through a controversial government program. Like say SDIO ("Star Wars") in the early 90's. Delta Clipper Experimental first flew 15 years ago, and demonstrated that a streamlined, low budget aerospace project could yield interesting results.

I'm officially old as of the 24th, though I really don't feel any older. I'm still going to be an astronaut when I grow up.

Line of the year?

Elon Musk talking with Wired about SpaceX after their third launch failed to make orbit:

Optimism, pessimism, fuck that; we're going to make it happen. As God is my bloody witness, I'm hell-bent on making it work.

And When You Solve This One, There's a Nobel Waiting For You In Palestine.

I think I'm missing something. Jim Henley seems to be claiming that the Lockean notion of rights was somehow convenient for and enabling of European conquest of the Americas. He starts off quoting Locke's claim of a property right originating by mixing one's labor with unclaimed land. He then states:

This particular view of (real) property claims was very convenient to the Age of Colonization, since it gave Euro-originating settlers the opportunity to “mix their labor” with “something not already anyone’s property,” which is to say, land that was sustaining non-Europeans.

But I don't see the connection. The Lockean notion of property rights was very inconvenient for some European settlers. William Penn felt the need to negotiate for clear title with every indigenous community occupying his intended colony. This often included settling competing claims between multiple indigenous communities by buying the contested lands multiple times to ensure clear title.

The Lockean establishment of property rights by combining labor with unclaimed natural resources seems to me to be a fine rule. It is neutral with regards to an individual's ancestry or social class. The details can be set forth in a way to favor some particular individuals or class, but this does not appear to be the case in American history. There were a number of indigenous communities that met even the most strict interpretations of mixing labor with land. Many indigenous groups had agriculture and permanent settlements, obvious claims for land rights. Yet, European descendants still stole their land, and with the same rationalization as used for chattel slavery.

What was convenient to the settling Europeans and their descendants was that the indigenous people looked different enough that the Europeans could convince themselves that indigenous Americans were somehow not quite human, and therefore not entitled to any rights. This is the real problem - blatant racism. It has nothing to do with something being wrong with private property rights. By the Lockean notion of natural rights including property rights, many white settlers were clearly in the wrong, unjustly depriving people of life, liberty, and property.

Until we can all understand the root of the problem - treating some people as non-people - we will have seriously limited our ability to make things right and perfect our nation. As Americans we have a sordid history, with many wrongs that need to be corrected, including slavery, Jim Crow, and our treatment of the indigenous people. Unfortunately, how to correct those wrongs is not clear to me. My economic intuition tells me that straight reparations will be a cure far worse than the disease, likewise, just letting bygones be bygones or a token apology does not fit my moral intuition. My fear is that there is no just solution.

If you can figure out a good and just solution, Palestine also needs you.

Update: Kevin Carson has a good take, and I particularly like his quote of Karl Hess:

The truth, of course, is that libertarianism wants to advance principles of property but that it in no way wishes to defend, willy nilly, all property which now is called private.

Much of that property is stolen. Much is of dubious title. All of it is deeply intertwined with an immoral, coercive state system which has condoned, built on, and profited from slavery; has expanded through and exploited a brutal and aggressive imperial and colonial foreign policy, and continues to hold the people in a roughly serf-master relationship to political-economic power concentrations.

Update II: It is probably not clear above - I do not mean to say that Penn had read and adopted Locke's notions before coming to the conclusion to negotiate for clear land titles - this was more a matter of his Quaker beliefs and pragmatism. The Lockean notion of property rights are consistent with Penn's actions, and most likely not original to Locke.

Torture and Iran

Or "Why I Prefer The Carter Administration to The Present One"

And I believe the Carter administration left a lot to be desired, especially in dealing with Iranian religious fanatics.

First, some utilitarian sense on coercive interrogation torture:

(ht: Ed Brayton)

And a long article by Seymour Hersch in the New Yorker about covert activities in Iran. (ht: Thoreau)

The Administration may have been willing to rely on dissident organizations in Iran even when there was reason to believe that the groups had operated against American interests in the past. The use of Baluchi elements, for example, is problematic, Robert Baer, a former C.I.A. clandestine officer who worked for nearly two decades in South Asia and the Middle East, told me. “The Baluchis are Sunni fundamentalists who hate the regime in Tehran, but you can also describe them as Al Qaeda,” Baer told me. “These are guys who cut off the heads of nonbelievers—in this case, it’s Shiite Iranians. The irony is that we’re once again working with Sunni fundamentalists, just as we did in Afghanistan in the nineteen-eighties.” Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is considered one of the leading planners of the September 11th attacks, are Baluchi Sunni fundamentalists.

So let me get this right - the current administration is encouraging Al Queda allies and religious brethren to create political instability in Iran. Most likely by giving them weapons and training them in guerrilla warfare. Or in other words creating Al Qaeda 2.0.

The Bush administration is truly incompetent and evil. Probably not news to anyone.

Still Lovin' That Simon Guy.

Even with oil prices shooting towards the heavens faster than a Saturn V, I still think that Julian Simon is essentially correct. From Tyler Cowen's list of hypotheses I'll take #4 - Markets don't allow bets on Simon's claim. At least not reasonable bets for those of us with limited funds. I won't be laughing my way to the bank as the common shorting instruments have limited upside and unlimited downside (err...why does that seem backwards?). IOW, current conditions will hold longer than I can remain solvent.

If reasonable terms can be had, I'll wager that the lowest per gallon price for gasoline that I will buy in my life is in the future.

However, I want to hedge my bet. If energy markets are insufficiently free then prices will continue to rise indefinitely. There is a lot of ruin in an economy, are the energy markets free enough or are we about to find the limits?

  • Significant oil reserves are off limits at any price.
  • Alternative energy subsidies are concentrating entrepreneurs and investors on what may very well be the poorest energy substitutes.
  • Many oil producers are state owned and being siphoned for short term political gains.
  • The most promising substitute for fossil fuels is for all intents only possible as a state run enterprise.
  • The nation that is soon to be the world's biggest oil consumer is subsidizing consumption.
  • Continuing war in one major oil producing nation and threatening another major producer can not be helping.

The two scenarios for 2028:
#1 - The market is free enough and our dominate energy sources are increasingly non-fossil fuel and some were unknown in 2008. Oil exploration and production continues to increase, and consumption either decreases or at least increases at a much lower rate than production.

#2 - Prices continue to rise, though possibly at a slower rate. Political tensions between major consumers and suppliers increase, possibly to open hostility between nations that have other stresses between them. I am not sure whether it will be consumer vs consumer or consumers vs producers, possibly both. Politicians enact even more counter-productive legislation. In the U.S., price controls and nationalizing energy companies becomes increasingly likely.

I'll bet on #1, but only with a hedge for #2.

[Update: cleared up possible confusion in scenario #1]

Oh really!?

According to Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo:

I'm not here to say that the government is always right, but when the government tells you to do something, I'm sure you would all agree that I think you all recognize that is something you need to do.


(ht: Jim Henley)

The cdesign proponentists of Economics

I am a bit late to this party, but seeing as how I live in the state I thought I would point out something about the idea of remote controlled thermostats. Fortunately, the idea is being shelved for now, or at least not being made mandatory yet. I am sure a bit of googling will get you commentary on the Orwellian nature of it, but I want to concentrate on the economic idiocy behind the whole deal.

Can we spot the real problem? Monopoly and price controls. The so called deregulation of the electric market in the 90's in California had nothing to do with deregulating it. It is still all price controls and government grant of monopoly. The idiots think that some intelligent designer must set prices and thermostats or else no one will get it right. How about market pricing and removing barriers to entry? Shortages and gluts (i.e. waste) are what necessarily comes from price controls. Simple intro to microeconomics bit here. This isn't rocket science, but it is well established economic science - for private goods (like electricity) the free market works, do not mess with it.

Sorry folks, I am getting nearly as frustrated with people refusing to believe economics as I am the geocentrists for refusing to believe Galileo and creationists for not believing Darwin. There really is no excuse for any of it in this modern society.

Libertarian Ideals and Racism

I am confused about what Will Wlikinson and Micha are actually saying. On the one hand I think they are saying that libertarians need to get away from the natural/negative rights and include some effort towards positive rights. On the other hand they seem to waffle enough to allow us to interpret their words as a call for better marketing, without changing the libertarian position. Let's see if I can both argue against the first interpretation while providing ammunition for the second.

Racism in the U.S. is historically a political phenomenon, not an economic one. The power of racists scales proportionately with the power of the state. After the Civil War and the end of slavery in the U.S., the former slaves started moving up the economic ladder - they were becoming educated, gaining valuable skills, and starting to move into the middle class. This scared many of the people who held political power. This political power was translated into the Jim Crow legislation. The Achille's heel of both federalism and democracy is that such injustices can and do occur.

It was the general laissez-faire attitude of the time that allowed the former slaves and their children to start moving up in society, to make a better world for themselves - and at the same time make everyone else better off. We can see from the nature of the legislation designed to keep the blacks "in their place" that it was libertarian laissez-faire economics that was decreasing the inequalities between the former slaves and their masters. The laws were not just seperate facilities, but licensing of trades and professions, gun control, and the enforcement of lesser facilities and services for blacks, in other words the denial of the very rights that libertarians espouse. Even today the systematic racism that still exists in many places is at the interface between a black person and the legal system - disparities between how blacks and whites are treated in the legal system and by law enforcement. Would the Duke students been exonerated if they were poor blacks from the local community college? Would we even know? Systematic racism requires political enforcement, either explicitly through Jim Crow legislation or implicitly by not enforcing the law and protecting the rights of the minority.

This is not to say that there are no problems in the purely laissez faire system. As one example, restaurants and clubs were not integrating nearly as fast in the post Civil war, pre Jim Crow era as other businesses, but I believe the evidence supports the view that those restaurants and clubs would have integrated faster than waiting around for the states to get rid of J Crow. Additionally, despite the positive right to be served at a restaurant, there are still restaurants and clubs that will treat customers of the wrong color so poorly as to dissuade them from returning - a certain Denny's comes to mind. Even with anti-racism laws, racism is still a problem because local bureaucrats and politicians may themselves be racist and fail to enforce the laws. Indeed the worst acts of racism were abetted by the knowledge that local law enforcement would selectively enforce laws - turning a blind eye to the lynchers and terrorists while noticing with an eagle eye any minor infraction on the part of the victim or his family and friends.

The natural rights/deontological libertarian has a very strong argument against both the state and racism, without supporting any positive rights.

Thank you.

For all those who have offered their lives (whether actually given or not) in the defense of liberty, thank you, and Happy Veterans Day.

Maybe I'm Biased, but...

Some brain surgeons are claiming that rocket scientists aren't all that smart. I'm not so sure about studies authored by brain surgeons. Besides, unlike brain surgeons, rocket scientists have to make contributions to the field* before they are considered rocket scientists.

Oh and then a University of Minnesota Expert claims University of Minnesota Experts are even smarter. Come on now. PZ Myers can be considered an expert in some things, is at the University of Minnesota, and is pretty darn intelligent, but smarter than rocket scientists? I don't think so.

*more specifically - contribute pieces of their rocket to the field (meadow, desert, canyon, or whatever, we aren't picky) they are testing in. Preferably in an explosive manner.