Participatory budgeting in Amsterdam

I live in the West district in Amsterdam, where the local council has given residents power to allocate €300,000 to projects proposed by anyone.

I welcome this participatory process, but it has some flaws, which I’ll discuss here, along with my recommendations for improvement.

First, let’s clarify that this process is heavily managed. The amount to allocate is a tiny fraction of the total budget for the district, and experts make sure that proposals from the community are “feasible.” 

Even still, the voting process is flawed. Last year, I was surprised to see that I was asked to allocate the total budget of €300,000 among proposed projects. This process gave far too much weight to big projects, since projects were selected based on the number of votes they got from residents.

For example:
1st place: €50.000 project chosen via 12,839 votes = €4.03/vote
2e place: €5.000 project via 12,367 votes = €0.40/vote

As you can see, the way to win is to have a big budget, which will crowd out other projects (by absorbing the vote budget) as well as benefitting from voter fatigue, since it’s easier to choose one €50k project than choose ten €5k projects. (I’m pretty sure city bureaucrats also prefer to administer one big project over ten smaller projects, since per project set up costs are probably similar.)

Luckily, there’s an easy solution: give voters a “personal budget” of, say, €300, and then let them put 0-100 percent of that onto as many projects as they can afford. 

Thus, I can vote €150 to project 1 (€50.000, meaning its now 0.30% closer to happenings) and €150 to project 2 (a €5.000 project that’s now 3.0% to funded).

My one-handed conclusion is that voters will get better value for their taxes if they vote a personal budget. 

Addendum (19 Oct): The local bureaucrats in charge of this initiative clarified that this process will allocate 21% of the budget (good!) but they like their current method (sad!).

Interesting stuff

  1. Restoring overgrazed land in Masaai-lands
  2. statistical significance is a  poor master, but that doesn’t mean it’s a useless servant
  3. Some people are hoping for an alternative to capitalism, private property and inequality, but how can they overcome those entrenched interests?
  4. An American diplomat on professionalism and the Trump-disaster
  5. Do orcas see the world as we do?
  6. The US military is vulnerable to the climate change its magnifying
  7. Want good citizenship (and democracy)? Teach statistics
  8. What’s left of real conservatives in the US? Good ideas but few fans
  9. A thug reviews 1984
  10. An op/ed on the failures of Dutch drugs policy, which is particularly relevant after a Dutch lawyer (representing a witness testifying against a drug lord) was assassinated in front of his Amsterdam house.

H/T to LS

Climate chaos is like Brexit

I wrote the headline for this post before I decided to add more content (below), but it’s good to start off with the Brexit parallels.

Climate chaos, like Brexit, combines uncertainty, missing leadership, and wild promises into a realistic scenario of enduring disaster and regret.

But climate chaos is also not like Brexit, which some interpret as a game of “chicken” between the EU and BoJo, each trying to force the other side to swerve (to avoid a messy crash) and thus win. Although BoJo is doing a terrible job, the climate chaos game is more like a game of Bambi Vs. Godzilla in which humans (Bambi) don’t do so well.

If you’ve taken the 20 seconds to make it this far, then here’s the next bit:

Climate chaos will make us poorer and undermine our futures. 

We will be poorer because we will need to spend more and more of our income and wealth in defending ourselves against the massive forces of Earth’s climate systems.

I’ve had a number of guests on my podcast discussing various dimensions of climate chaos. Here’s the playlist, but I recommend you listen to the most recent episode with Femke Gunneweg, a 19-year old who’s suspended her studies to join Extinction Rebellion. Our chat was quite interesting.

Have you heard of Imelda? It was a tropical cyclone that dropped 40 inches (about 1 meter) of rain on the greater Houston area last week. Perhaps you heard of Dorian? That Cat-5 hurricane tied in first place for the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, with winds of 285 kph and a storm surge of 8 meters. The US was lucky to miss most of Dorian, but the Bahamas was hit hard, with over 1,000 people presumed dead. The hurricane season has just begun.

Our futures will be up in the air because “only a few degrees” can topple governments, undermine accepted wisdom, and reorder social norms

What’s to be done? Here’s a quick primer:

Climate chaos drivers

The Industrial Revolution was driven by coal and later oil power. These fossil fuels allowed us to multiply our wealth by burning the condensed energy of millions of years of sunlight and photosynthesis, in a decidedly non-renewable way.

As a result, we’ve had an explosion in population, from roughly 1 billion in 1800 to 7.7 billion today. These people are also wealthier, on average, than all previous humans, which means that each person’s “footprint” is bigger and more damaging. Technology has helped us do “more with less,” but there’s no sign of reducing the rate of fossil fuel consumption (and thus GHG emissions). Record and increasing deforestation reduces the absorption of GHGs, besides bringing many other problems.

Note the irony that it’s the middle class that is the main driver of climate chaos. The rich consume way too much, but they are too few. The poor just try to stay alive (sometimes causing environmental problems), but the middle class, with their desire to spend their disposable income on more,  cheaper stuff that’s really driving this process. Marx would be annoyed.

Climate chaos facts

1. Mitigation (reducing fossil fuel consumption) is failing due to greed, political distractions, and weak global mechanisms for collective action.

2. Many politicians accept this status quo because elections today are more important than survival tomorrow (ask Bahamians).

Take Germany, for example. Most of you know about Germany’s solar panels and wind farms, but did you know that its energy transition has cost nearly $1 Trillion, that the Germans are shutting down safe functional nuclear plants (due to an accident in Japan), and that Germany’s renewable energy production, despite reaching around 20-30 percent of the total, is still in the bottom half of EU nations? I’d say that this slow progress (contrary to press releases) reflects domestic political priorities, such as the those of the German car industry. And Germany is one of the good guys. Australia, Canada, and the US are shameful laggards.

3. Scientists have been very conservative in building their models, interpreting data, and projecting future harms. This conservatism (taken to its limit at the IPCC, where nothing is published without a consensus of all contributing nations) means that the news is always worse than we expect, since projections are based on best case, rather than average scenarios. The Paris Agreement, for example, requires “yet-to-be-invented” technologies to suck GHGs from the atmosphere to even meet Nationally Determined (voluntary) targets. Where’s the Manhattan Project or Apollo Project when you need it?

4. The denial industry has been very successful at scaring politicians and driving scientists into further timidity. Oil and gas companies have millions to spend on lobbying. Most humans are busy with life, but others have decided that “climate” is a political concept rather than a scientific fact. Their belief will not keep them from drowning, burning, starving or whatever element of climate chaos kills them. Economists — with William Nordhaus at the top of the list — deserve some blame here. 

5. All of these impacts were predicted decades ago, but scientists made the mistake of talking about rises of 2C and impacts in 2100, which led many to the unfortunate conclusion that impacts would occur after they were dead — and who doesn’t like a little more warmth, anyways? As it is, the hippie doomsayers of Population Bomb, Small is Beautiful, and Limits to Growth were right, just around the time I was born. But not enough people listened 🙁

Climate chaos dangers

We’re already seeing higher sea levels, record temperatures, powerful storms, and bigger fires in unexpected places. People will die in “accidents” at a greater rate.

Chaos means uncertainty instead of risk, so insurance companies will withdraw from the market, leaving people to face 100% of their losses.

Tipping points are coming fast. The Arctic is warming at alarming rates. Icesheets in Greenland and the Antarctic are sliding, rather than melting, into the sea. Massive forest fires are adding to warming by releasing more stored carbon. Fifty percent of corals are dead. This sad list is getting longer.

Humans are barely prepared. We’ve depleted groundwater that we’re want  when drought hits. We’ve built in flood zones that will soon be underwater. We’re more excited about electric cars, reusable bottles, and banning plastic bags than cutting air travel and meat consumption by 80%. People are more worried about “decluttering” their excesses than losing their lives to the results of over-consumption.

We need to act. By diverting resources from vacations to fortifications. By building political alliances rather than attacking others who also like living. By giving the youngest people among us hope for a decent future rather than “fuck you, I got mine.”

My one-handed conclusion is that we’re on a Highway to Hell, and it’s going to take a rebellion to stop this emergency. What are you doing?

Interesting stuff

  1. A fun “rap battle” video of bitcoin against fiat
  2. Venezuela’s oil capital collapses into chaos
  3. Fuck.
  4. “Free” media undermined good writing. That’s why you should pay writers you like
  5. The first windmills
  6. SoulCycle’s users are boycotting its Trump-supporting founder — and succeeding
  7. What if we stopped pretending the climate apocalypse can be stopped?”  lines up almost exactly with what I’ve been thinking in recent years, i.e., that we’re not making any serious dent in GHG emissions and that it’s better to focus on local community and resiliency. One ironic manifestation of this thinking is that property values in Amsterdam (a city in a region that will be underwater in 50-500 years — the timing will be difficult) may rise rather than fall, as people crowd into a place that’s well run relative to other places that are physically safer but institutionally dysfunctional. How will your future play out?
  8. Photos with impact
  9. The fall of the US might be good for the world, in the same way as the fall of Rome was
  10. This cool showreel provokes your imagination

Economics, capitalism and social progress

HH, one of my LUC students, wrote the following comment in the discussion board for my course Social and Business Entrepreneurship. I think it’s worth reading:

I think there is one area which is going backward – ‘Democracy.’ Due to tech advancement, now we can access information easily, but it is hard to verify whether it is reliable or not. Just like we had seen the American Presidential election in 2016, fake news dominated the Internet. On top of that, the same thing happened in the UK, the Brexit referendum. As Huff also mentioned in his article [PDF link], people tend to become less critical if there is too much information. It’s just out of our capacity to process everything with accuracy within a certain amount of time. Thus, people tend to go for an easy choice, believing what they want to believe, rather than evaluate information more thoroughly. Also, echo chamber effect makes it even worse. I think this is another critical challenge we are facing now – fake news on social media and the crisis of democracy. Check out this article, if you are interested in this topic: 

Also, on the discussion about poverty alleviation and progress, I agree with what A___ said: the world is focusing more on growth than achieving equality. But often what I found uncomfortable is a somewhat disparaging view towards profit-seeking companies, especially in the LUC community. I am not sure that I am the only one who felt this way, but from my perspective, money is neutral, and there is nothing wrong with pursuing it. The reason why capitalism is more successful than communism is that it understands the power of motivation and incentives. These are the foundation of innovations that make the world a better place. I believe, if they are not involved in illegal activities, purely profit-seeking firms can contribute to society by increasing productivity, investing in R&D, creating jobs, and so on. In addition, we all benefit from the products and services they sell. Only the way people use money determines the value of the money. I hope that many LUC students in the future become “successful entrepreneurs” and earn a lot of cash “ethically” and become “philanthropists.” I think it is way better than demanding the rich to share what they have. You can be the rich, and use it for the right thing.

To this, I replied:

What worries me is that some LUC’ers (and many people) take the old world view of profit as theft (zero-sum game) when the “magic” of economics is its revelation of win-win dynamics. This was why Smith (1776) was so influential.

Some people mistake economics for capitalism, which it’s not. But, worse, they also misunderstand capitalism as “=evil” when really:

Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit.

This definition and discussion doesn’t get to the important role of government, in creating the conditions for capitalism and also regulating its functions (competition, transparency, etc.)

These failures mean that those LUC’ers oppose institutions that create gains from trade and pt capital assets to good use: two main sources of our prosperity.

There are problems with markets (externalities) but there are also many problems with society (poverty) and government (corruption), so let’s keep all these issues in mind when seeking targets.

My one-handed conclusion is that many people blame capitalism for political failures.

Interesting stuff

  1. Money and trade in a US prison
  2. Millennials are NOT well insulated from the next recession
  3. Read the Cliff Notes version of Sapiens (my review is a little shorter 😉
  4. Related: a very short history of capitalism
  5. Wanna make a new country? Don’t ask — fight.
  6. People like confident leaders more than cautious ones
  7. How can we make waiting a lot less boring…
  8. What is Goop selling to women?
  9. Some good news on climate? 
  10. Scenes from America’s heroin-laden streets

H/T to DV

An (ig)nobel tragedy

In my most recent newsletter, I wrote:

I was surprised and upset to hear that Marty Weitzman, a Harvard environmental-economist of 77 years, killed himself recently. Weitzman brought, in my opinion, the right perspective to the costs and benefits of acting on climate change, and it was his work that motivated me to start the Life plus 2 meters project. I initially assumed he killed himself in despair over climate chaos, it seems that he was upset to not win the Nobel. (A third possibility is that the award of the Nobel to Nordhaus, who deserves zero respect for his highly flawed model and its recommendation to leave action to future generations,* convinced Weitzman that his work would not get the attention it deserves, thus sealing the miserable fate of our civilization.)

* I want to add more on that comment, which is based on two of Nordhaus’s assumptions. First, he assumes that it’s a good idea to use “market” discount rates to discuss (decidedly non-market) costs and benefits from climate change chaos (CC). I prefer Lord Stern’s view, i.e., that low discount rates (which make future damages from CC more salient in making sacrifices today to avoid CC) are more appropriate for discussing a existential threat like CC. Second, Nordhaus assumes that GDP captures the costs of CC when GDP misses many “ecosystem services” that CC will destroy (e.g., 2/3rds of our oxygen from oceanic phytoplankton). You can read his 2018 Nobel lecture in which he sticks with these flawed assumptions. Weitzman did not.

[Addendum (22 Sep): The lecture link returned a 404. Here’s a copy.]

When comparing these two environmental economists, I would have preferred that Weitzman get the Nobel and Nordhaus get the Ignobel prize, which is “devoted to people who’s research makes people laugh and then think.” Nordhaus’s work is worth thinking about (and laughing at once that’s done), but it’s instead taken seriously, which explains (partially) why the world has taken no substantial steps to slow CC.

How about an example of the dangers from CC? Last week, Hurricane Dorian slapped the Bahamas with winds of up to 300 km/h and a storm surge (more or less instantaneous sea level rise, or SLR) of 8 meters (24 freedom units). That much sea level rise would devastate many coastal cities, and the Bahamas were unlucky.

The Netherlands (where I live) is planning for 1.2 meters of SLR by 2100. What would happen if a 5.5m surge arrived? The whole country would flood, as the country’s famous “delta works” is really only configured to storms bringing a 3m rise. (Listen to my discussion with Ties on this.)

Why is this an emerging (and uncertain) threat? Because SLR is predictable but storms are not. The warming Arctic (see this month’s National Geographic) is making such conditions more and more likely.

My one-handed conclusion is that Nordhaus would be surprised at  the Netherlands getting flooded while Weitzman would not. These reactions explain (to me) why the Nobel went to the wrong guy and my sorrow at losing a real visionary on the dangers of CC.

R.I.P. Marty Weitzman.

Addendum (12 Oct): Tim Hartford shares my views

Addendum (May 2021): Steve Keen and I discuss Nordhaus’s terrible economics (JT archive). Read his paper.

Interesting stuff

  1. An interesting discussion on intoxication, consent and responsibility
  2. The peculiar dynamics of sharing your location with “friends”
  3. Bolsinaro thinks the Amazon is theirs to burn. That’s true but we all suffer
  4. City planning for everyone
  5. Good BBC podcasts: Is university worth it, fake stories going viral, and climate change starts to show up in the weather
  6. Joe Rogan talks to America’s men
  7. An amazing profile of a cop’s job
  8. Afghanistan pursues normality
  9. The threat of fake science (is rising)
  10. The modal American is a male, gen-Xer without a university degree

Surviving LA’s heat without AC

Frank Butterworth emailed me an interesting story. I asked if he could make it into a blog post, so here’s Frank…

If you think one can live (in Los Angeles or other semiarid places) without air conditioning, you’ve got to be crazy. Right? Actually, you can and we did.

I. The unplanned experiment

Our AC (air-conditioning) broke and it was 104F (40C). And the next day was also going to be 104. I figured we’d have to move to a motel or fry. But something miraculous happened. We opened the widows around 8 PM and with the help of fans, we sucked cool air into the house all night and early morning. [The outside temperature dropped to 68F (20C).] And when we arose at 6 AM, it was cool inside, about 75F (24C). We quickly shut the windows, pulled the drapes and closed the shutters. Voila — it stayed cool in the house until about noon when the temperature started creeping up to a max of about 82F (28C) at 4 PM in the warmest room — my office! On the first floor it was still cool even though it reached a high outside of 104. Not bad! I knew we could make it, and productivity would not suffer. There would be no motel, no misery. This cycle of opening and closing went on for 18 days (27 Jul to 13 Aug) with the average maximum temperature at 96F (36C).1 And we did not fry. We got our work done. And we did it without air conditioning. Yee hah! An ancient Mediterranean might say “meh,” but I was elated. 

Actually, we rediscovered our forebearer’s technology, using cold desert nights to cool the house to 68F/20C. With drapes (even see-through gauzy types) and shutters to block/reflect the daytime light and a few fans, the warmest parts of our house never went above 80 (even though the average, maximum external temp was 96 – three days in triple digits, three days at 99, and just a few 80 deg days gave that average). My office, the warmest room in the house, only once reached 90, when outside temps were in triple digits. (We probably did not open the house long enough at night or close it up soon enough in the morning.) On that day, we went out for an early dinner. Ha!

True, we suffered at night, sleeping under blankets, but this is nothing new vis-a-vis ancient Mediterranean technology. So I believe the modern world can save a lot of energy without fear.2 

Of course, folks living with high humidity may still have need fans and sweat, but my guess is that the night air can be harnessed to avoid suffering. I recall my life in miserable heat waves on the East Coast sleeping in a ‘pool of sweat’… yet the nights were cooler… people would sleep on the roof or on a back porch. We just have not yet figured out how to use night air to cool a house without massive amounts of electricity (see Greek anecdote below).

II. Several more points

  1. Not one of the few people I talked with was interested in my re-discovery. In fact, they were hostile. They were not going to let some academic nerd steal their comfort. I guess there would have to be huge incentives — or a catastrophe — for them to listen.
  2. ‘Ancient’ cooling technology is amazing and needs another look. My direct experience was in Greece, 40 years ago. Athens in July and August is hot and humid. Yet, when I went to an outdoor café in the shadow of a tall, fairly modern building on Syntagma Square, I was hit by a downdraft of cool air. No fans. No AC. It was the building’s structure, someone explained. Somehow, the coolness of the previous night was trapped somewhere… and it slowly escaped during the day.
  3. Before they proudly modernized to AC, the Greeks used the siesta to cope, eating a large meal at noon and napping until the air cooled. Then Athens became alive and a ‘second day’ began. The ‘new day’ meant a second shift of work and/or play in the cool, cool, cool of the evening. It was confusing to me at first because it seemed to give more time to life — plus another set of dreams. 🙂

III. A few caveats

  1. Knowing there would be no AC for the next day, extra alertness was required to open windows when the external temperature began to drop around 8 PM. A large portable fan was used in upstairs hallway to speed the process. Because the walls and roof had reached thermal equilibrium with the outside it was important to cool down the inside walls quickly. This could be a problem for those needing sleep in a noisy neighborhood.
  2. Also, wooden internal shutters, opaque drapes, and even gauzy window treatments prevented direct sunshine from entering the house and slowed  radiant heat transfer from windows where there was no direct sunshine. R factors lose their meaning (R1 for single pane and R2 for double pane glass). I think it applies to insulation from the cold, not heat. All our windows are double pane, but they still were warm to the touch. So, even a gauzy window treatment reflected light and slowed internal air convection.
  3. California construction codes (particularly those of 30 years ago, when our house was built) were not big on insulation. And California architecture of that time was big on windows. So, I was pleased and surprised by our experience. After the first day, I knew we were going to make it. And I knew this could be a viable solution to excess energy demand.

IV. A thought on individual energy savings

Our solar panels cut our annual energy use by about 2/3rds. That is, our annual electric bill two years ago was $1,500 without panels. Our bill for the past two years with panels was $500 per year. I know that when the AC is on during the peak sun, the panels’ electricity production is not enough, and we have to use electricity from the grid. So, it is likely that much of the $500 reflected the cost of AC.

Frank Butterworth, former professor of genetics and cell biology, is now a writer and author. His claim to fame was the discovery of the first pheromone (cis-vaccinyl acetate) in the fruit fly, which resulted in three papers in Science. Frank’s Twitter is @resource643.

1 Day-after-day for 18 days, the needed AC part was not available. But this made me so happy to use this inefficiency to do something I never would have planned.

2 In 2018, Los Angeles County used 67,850 GWh. The average California house used 7,000 kWh per year. [Note from David: We used 1,440 kWh in the past 12 months.] What proportion of that goes to AC? In Texas, peak loads reached 70,000 megawatts in July compared to 44,000 mw in April, so the difference (26,000 mw, or 37%) is probably used for AC.