The Dutch nitrogen crisis

The Netherlands is one of the highest (per capita) GHG emitters in the EU. It is also responsible for a lot of local pollution, mostly due to its intense agricultural production (mostly meat and dairy, mostly for export).

The government has promised to improve its pollution record, but it’s often tried to avoid action.

Now the country is in a “stikstof (nitrogen) crisis” in which nitrogen emissions (a local pollution) need to be reduced by 50-70 percent by 2030.

From what I’ve heard (correct me if I’m wrong), the government is focussing on identifying and closing farms (responsible for most of the domestic nitrogen emissions), and this “plan” is attracting a lot of opposition. Just imagine thousands of angry farmers.

This method of “efficiently” finding/closing farms is neither politically nor economically efficient, as bureaucrats will have to pay a lot if “targeted” farmers don’t want to shut down. The bureaucrats will also be unpopular for “attacking” certain farms.

What the government should do instead is set up a “cap (and reduce) and trade” system where all large farms get a certain number of “rights” (say 1000 in total) and a schedule of “eroding” those rights by 50% by 2030.

Such a system will allow farmers to decide if they want to stay in business (buying rights), close down (selling rights) or change their methods (relieving them of the need to have rights to operate).

My one-handed conclusion is that bureaucrats never know more than farmers on either how to farm or who should retire.

Use market incentives. Farmers already do!


The high cost of permit parking

That’s the title of a new paper that I just uploaded on SSRN.

The paper is “interesting” for its critique of weaknesses in Amsterdam’s parking policies, which the city is (perhaps unjustly) famous for.

It’s also interesting for the “ratio” method of comparing market and bureaucratic prices, to see if they are in balance.

I am definitely looking for feedback/corrections/advice on the paper. please forward to anyone who may have an interest!

The high cost of permit parking” (with Karolina Kneller)

Abstract: In 1992, Amsterdam’s voters pushed for a more-aggressive autoluw (fewer cars) policy, but progress has been slow. Hourly parking tariffs are the highest in the country, but car registrations are higher than in 1992. We explore the gap between promise and results by making a spatial comparison of parking prices (set by bureaucrats) to living prices (set by market forces). We assume that a balance between supply and demand for open spaces will result in a relatively stable ratio of these prices across the city. We do not find such stability.* The normalized price of parking permits (for residents) is much lower than the normalized prices of living space or hourly parking (for visitors). Cheap permits encourage car ownership, which takes public space away from other uses. Our recommendation, in line with that of Donald Shoup (an inspiration for this study), is to increase the price of permits and let neighborhoods spend the proceeds on improving their streets.

*one-handedly 😉

Mining, entropy and sustainability

Fossil fuels, like many mined resources, are “non-renewable,” which means they are used faster than replenished (as far as human-time scales are concerned).

But the extraction and consumption of non-renewables (NRs) also creates pollution (“negative externalities”) at local and global scales.

Mining scars the landscape and produces toxic tailings. Fracking releases methane and pollutes water. Oil drilling pollutes aquatic and land ecosystems. Even getting “on site” means plowing through remote,  sensitive ecosystems. Fossil fuel consumption contributes to climate chaos by increasing GHG concentrations in the atmosphere.

The NR industry tries to “offset” damages with various wheezes, i.e.,

  • Restoring landscapes by shifting earth back into holes or filling ponds of tailing water
  • Cleaning process water before its released back into ecosystems
  • Scrubbing GHGs from the atmosphere via carbon capture and storage (CCS) or other technologies.
  • “Protecting” landscapes elsewhere (on paper).

The trouble with ALL of these techniques is that they defy the laws of physics, as far as 100% remediation is concerned, for two reasons:

  1. The production of NRs requires energy and “remediation” also requires energy. Thus, there’s no way to “reset” the situation to its ex-ante state.
  2. The consumption of NRs releases energy (often the point) as well as pollution. Recapturing or removing that pollution (via CCS or DAC, etc.) will take energy, so there’s no way to “suck it all back in” without using even more energy than was generated in the first place, due to entropy.

Why does this matter? Because many industry lobbyists seem to promise that it’s possible to find/extract/use NRs and then clean up the consequences while still remaining profitable.

Although it’s true that 100% remediation is possible from an engineering perspective, it’s also true that such activity cannot occur without adding more energy and work, which makes any 100% goal (e.g., “green growth”) physically (entropy) and financially (fixed costs plus operating costs) impossible.

These are just facts, but they are not openly discussed. We need to talk about “minimizing damages” instead of pretending it’s possible to “remediate, restore, recapture or offset.”

My one-handed conclusion is that NRs are very useful, but let’s not forget about the damages from their production and use. So the choice is between sustainable but unprofitable or profitable but unsustainable. Choose one.

The long and short of my hair

Me, 2007

Students at my university are rather amused at the passport photo to the right, which hints at my long hair in 2007. I ask them “what’s so interesting?” but they don’t have much of an answer. I’m guessing that they’re reacting to the difference between then and now (my short hair is not more salt than pepper), but, I think there’s also something of a “whoa, crazy” element to guys with long hair — or maybe economists with long hair?

That reminds me of one of my favorite long-hair scenes: I was in Virginia (the rural side) for a summer school in 2005, and we grad students were climbing the stairs to the bar/pool hall when a guy yelled “hey, where you going hippie?” in my direction. Without a pause, my philosopher friend from Quebec said “he’s no hippie, he’s an economist!” Take that, non-sequitur!

Anyways, back to hair, the long and short…

I had normal hair for most of my life. The first time I got radical was after returning from my post-university European travels, where I merely trimmed my hair at the neck, thereby allowing quite the “fullness” to develop. At that time, I was under a lot of stress (long story), which I escaped by changing job, home and girlfriend. I decided to travel the world for five years, and that kinda fuck-it led to my Halloween mohawk. My “as loud-as-possible” style was popular with the guys on the shop floor (they were Vietnam vets recovering from drugs, alcohol and other issues). “Hey man,” one said, “I used to have hair like that.”

Oct 1994: Nic (left) and Mike (right). Mike died of HIV/Aids a few years later

From that “base,” my next step was obvious: grow my hair as a clock during my travels.

As anyone will tell you, there’s an “ugly” phase of growing out your hair, where it’s too long to manage but too short to tie back. That stage (and many others) don’t matter when you’re traveling and meeting new people every day, so my transformation was just my private source of amusement (some people wouldn’t recognize me if we met after too many “hair days”). A few years later, I had a mane:

Me and Mike, with a dodgy Somali guy (he tried to “sell us” to his friends) in Yemen, July 1997

Long hair seemed to fit better in Africa, where people — locals and visitors — tried many looks. Long-term travelers like me (over two years in at that point) often carried a “look” due to saving money, carrying a few changes of clothes, and embracing no social norm. Our “culture” was whatever we focussed on.

I also thought long hair changed the way how people saw me and helped  them relax — “where you going, hippie?” types excepted.  Short hair says “responsible” or “stressed;” really short hair says “military/CIA,” so that’s a bad sign, right?

I wasn’t totally wrong, but long hair is a pain, and — after yet another day of trying to look through my mop (while driving around the US, on a “trip-inside-the-trip” visit to the US in 1998), I cut it short.

And then we (I was with a girlfriend now) went back “out there,” on the way to Asia, where I started to cut shave my hair, which was handy for staying cooler, cleaner, and fitting in with the locals, like this guy:

Mar 1999: This Burmese monk shaved my head (“$1, USA only”).

I kept the short hair for the rest of the trip and until I started graduate school in 2002. Then, I decided to “start the clock” for the duration of my PhD studies, so I didn’t cut my hair for 6 years and then a few years after. Ok, I did trim the ends that split due to my swimming. (I was using heaps of conditioner, but chlorine is nasty.)

2007: Me and my “long lost” half brother Gary.

In 2009, I went short with a “fancy” (=$90) haircut in San Francisco. While living in the Netherlands, I adopted the national gel-habit for a few years, but then went to “shorter doesn’t need gel,” where I’ve been ever since.

I like my short hair for its low maintenance and tidyness. I’m not sure if it scares people (CIA!), but long hair also isn’t a “peace weapon” so I’ll just stick with the smile.

My one-handed conclusion is chose your hair to suit your mood but don’t assume your hair will change the way people see you.

Drought in the Netherlands

Drought is relative. “Nobody ever says the Sahara is in drought” captures the difference between a permanently dry place and a wet place that’s receiving less rain than normal, like the Netherlands right now [EN article; NL article]. The figure below [source] shows the LACK of rain (so “more is worse”) in the Netherlands so far this year (black line), which is currently as bad as the 1976 record drought.

What are the consequences of drought? Besides the obvious ones (farmers cannot irrigate as much; ecosystems suffering), there are some “Dutch” consequences such as dikes drying out (leading to cracks, leaks and maybe failures), housing foundations rotting (as water levels drop, rot sets in), and more pollution on the streets and air (rain’s “cleaning” function on hold).

Long ago, I joked that I was “bringing California weather with me” (due to climate chaos) when I moved to the Netherlands. So far, my “plan” is working. Now I worry about wildfires.

My one-handed conclusion is that “wet” places suffer with less rain — and many will.

How taxes undermine progress

Start with the obvious: Follow the money.

Then consider how money motivates action: Academics will study anything that has research money attached; thieves go to banks “because that’s where they keep the money;” prostitutes “spend time” with clients who “spend money;” California has endless retail stores because cities — starved of property taxes due to Prop 13 — can collect local sales taxes.

So that’s why we should pay attention to how governments “earn” their money, e.g., oil royalties (leading to a democracy deficit because the government doesn’t need to tax citizens), income taxes (so encourage work to get more taxes), cigarette taxes* (please smoke so we can fund schools), or consumption (sales or VAT) taxes that leads governments to encourage consumption.

But what if you want democracy, less work, less lung cancer and/or less consumption? Then you want to tax in a way that does not change behavior (see this post) but still raises revenues. A property tax (read this post) or wealth tax (property is a good proxy) does that because both are “fundamental” (everywhere) and “good” (in terms of social progress), and neither change your decisions “on the margin”

Nobody ever says “Gee, I want to be poorer today,” but plenty of people say “Gee, I don’t want to work today” or “maybe I should’t smoke that next one.”

My one-handed conclusion is that government policy should encourage what we want, not what we don’t.

* Arjen Lubach explains [in Dutch] how the Dutch government won’t ban cigarettes because it wants to save money from smokers dying

People are fucking in Brussels

Theory: Brussels — as the workplace of many “EU professionals” — has a large population of people from all over the EU (diversity and away from home), most of them fluent in English (good for mixing), and all of them working in a social/bureaucratic atmosphere (personal relations and “mixers”) are common. This seems quite the formula for an active dating scene in comparison to, say, Berlin or Barcelona (cities dominated by the “youth” dating scenes).

Data: I don’t have any. Do you? (Even anec-data are welcome 🙂

My one-handed assertion is that “nature will find a way” 🙂

The future of the human species

We hear a lot of “we need to prevent climate change chaos [CC] to save the Earth humanity,” but that cliché is just wrong.

  • There are nearly 8 billion of us, and I am pretty sure that some of us will survive the current (sixth) mass extinction that is being driving by CC.* Humans, like cockroaches, will find ways to survive, even if it’s in a Matrix of some sort.
  • Human populations are already falling due to a combination of pessimism, female empowerment, and the high cost of raising babies. So we’re moving from quantity to quality, which will mean that everyone will have a greater chance of living.
  • Even if male fertility continues to fall (the “Children of Men” scenario), we will find a way to reproduce.
  • Humans are the pre-eminent species at adopting ourselves into hostile environments and/or changing those habitats to suit ourselves.

In combination, I predict that our world of 2100 or 2200 will be much more dangerous (due to CC) than today but inhabited by a smaller population of humans who have found ways to cope with harsh conditions and a falling standard of living. (We will need to pay for man-made alternatives as today’s “free” ecosystem services weaken/collapse/reverse.)

Beginning around then and strengthening as history unfolds and humans are beaten back, I predict that some ecosystems (and their services) will come back as people are forced to retreat. In some ways, there may be a flowering of diversity in this “new Eden” but it may not be so friendly to our descendants.

My one-handed conclusion is that humans will always be on Earth, even if they are less dominant.

* There’s the possibility of a catastrophic, “Don’t Look Up” event, but I’m not sure that even that would eliminate ALL humans.

Basic political-economy

Economics concerns itself with voluntary, win-win exchanges among actors that increase overall wealth. Economics depends upon property rights.

Politics concerns itself with rights to choose, refuse or oblige. Rights imply the ability to force others into action (or prevent them from acting), which translates into non-voluntary (compulsory), zero-sum transfers of wealth (or its equivalent) from those with less power to those with more power.

Power can be exchanged into wealth but wealth cannot always be exchanged into power.

Changing urban metabolism

I’m on my way back from Paris, a city that I’ve visited many times since my first baguette in 1991.

What was different this time is the “life on the streets,” i.e., the density of people, activities and “domination” that Jane Jacobs evoked as the essence of why we choose to live on top of each other: for the joy and connection that we can have in the density of humanity.

These changes are not accidental. In 2007, Paris implemented its shared bike program  to try to move citizens from cars to bikes. (My observation is that any bike that can survive French abuse — “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” — is a bike that can survive service elsewhere.) With COVID, the French mayor — Anne Hidalgo, a politician to watch — radically expanded places and priorities for people, bikes and other forms of “personal transit” over cars, in her quest to make Paris a “15 minute city.”

In my experience, Paris has always been “nice but for the cars” and that has changed now. We walked, biked and marvelled at the calm and joy of the streets, quays, and cafes. Sure, there are still busy boulevards, but it’s so much better to cross the street or just pause without noise, pollution or danger from cars.

These changes are likely to continue, IMO, as I think Parisians may have crossed a tipping point, as pedestrians, bikers and non-automobilistes, in terms of tolerance for cars. People are not stopping for crossing signals. Bikers are going where they want, with or against traffic. Pedestrians are learning (slowly!) to look both ways for bikes that did not exist 10 years ago.

My one-handed conclusion is that a city’s metabolism can change fairly quickly once a critical mass of its citizens sees and experiences an alternative to the old, wrong way of interacting. Cities are for people, not cars.