Interesting stuff

  1. Listen: More women needed in science!
  2. Read: Bad policy encourages stupid behavior (NY Times): “The sense that money and technology can overcome nature has emboldened Americans. Where money and technology fail, though, it inevitably falls to government policies — and government subsidies — to pick up the slack. Thanks to federally subsidized canals, for example, water in part of the Desert Southwest costs less than it does in Philadelphia. The federal National Flood Insurance Program has paid to rebuild houses that have flooded six times over in the same spot. And federal agriculture aid withholds subsidies from farmers who switch to drought-resistant crops, while paying growers to replant the same ones that failed. Farmers, seed manufacturers, real estate developers and a few homeowners benefit, at least momentarily, but the gap between what the climate can destroy and what money can replace is growing.”
  3. Watch: Mr Money Moustache’s 15-year old brings some seriously valid criticism to the cheap (and not very efficient) educational system. Watch the video to be VERY impressed by a teenager “firing on all cylinders”
  4. Read: Steve Keen thoroughly criticises the shitty economics that William Nordhaus uses to under-estimate the (civilization-threatening) damages of climate chaos. His biased, hackneyed work has slowed or prevented  us from engaging in the catastrophe now unfolding. (I’ve criticised Nordhaus before; this article makes me think he should be tried for crimes against humanity.)
  5. Read: The US labor market is running into trouble as workers turn down jobs that pay less than unemployment benefits. (Maybe there’s some need to raise wages, and thus prices, to sustainable levels?)
  6. Watch: American cities are developing via a car-centric Ponzi scheme
  7. Listen: The West must engage confront China
  8. Read: “How Russia wins the climate crisis
  9. Listen: Sometimes waiting (“masterly inactivity”) is better than micro-management?
  10. Watch (amazed): The crane that installs massive wind turbines
  11. Read: Rising food prices hit the poor the hardest:

H/T to PB

Review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

This book is better than its charming title suggests, although I am a strong advocate of swearing where appropriate. It draws on the author’s “growing up” process, experienced via many years of living the dream, psychotherapy and failure.

Here’s a summary of my notes:

  • You can’t give a fuck about everything. You need to choose when and where to give a fuck.
  • People without problems will invent them, so do give a fuck about something.
  • I just bought a sailboat (De Doffer, or The Pigeon), which I’d rename 90 Percent if renaming was not taboo. Why 90 percent? Because 90 percent of the boat is fine (it floats), so the other 10 percent is not worth worrying about because the “return on concern” is so low. Accept a few defects and issues and move along. Live wabi-sabi.
  • Happiness comes from solving problems, so get some and solve them!
  • You’re not special, not even when you “earn” your medal for participation, so stop comparing yourself to others, influencers, et al. Watch the “Century of the Self” to see how marketers hijacked self-regard. Read my paper on Google [pdf] to remind yourself that it’s impossible to compete with the world’s best.
  • Improve yourself. Set goals. Reach for them.
  • We are always choosing. You can chose to be a victim, or you can chose to accept reality and move along.
  • Every time you admit you’re wrong, you get the chance to improve and learn something. Accepting reality is easier than avoiding it.
  • The best way to improve is to fail. The best way to succeed is to start. Don’t know how to start? Doesn’t matter. Just start. (My boat kinda terrifies me, as it’s 77 years old and I’m not quite sure how to manage it, but the only way to learn is to do.)
  • Saying “no” is making a choice. You need to make choices and prioritise. In your relationships, you need to be honest about what you want and accept responsibility, just like your friend/partner does. Neither of you are responsible for the other’s happiness, since it’s impossible to do right and unethical to even consider.
  • “You need to be able to say no and hear no” in relationships (p177).
  • Some people are addicted to fixing others’ problems. Those people are never happy with folks who have their problems under control. They will make problems so they can have something to work on. Move on (I have).
  • Cheaters probably have issues that need more to fix than “I’ll try harder”.
  • You can lose trust in a fraction of the time it takes to rebuild that trust. Should you stick around to rebuild or more on? As someone accused of “betraying” someone (who happens to be deluded), I needed to hear this. There’s probably nothing I can do to rebuild trust when that person’s reality (and my role in it) is a fantasy.
  • Commitments to places, activities or people liberates you by helping you focus,  reducing the number of things you need to consider, and signalling to others where you need their support. I own my flat, have a permanent contract at work, and have a meaningful relationship. Now I can focus my energy on deepening those commitments, coping with surprise challenges, and trying new things — like sailing a boat!

My one-handed conclusion is that this book is well worth your time. Life is too short to give a fuck about the wrong things or too many things. Stop giving a fuck about useless shit and focus your fucks given on your priorities. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Post-water CliFi — Los Angeles and Riyadh

NB: I wrote these four CliFi scenarios* in 2019 for a paper on life in a “post-water” world, but they had to go, so I am posting them here for your enjoyment (or horror). Please tell me what you think!

Scenario 3: Los Angeles loses its aqueducts

The City of Los Angeles imports about 90 percent of its drinking water via the Los Angeles, California and Colorado River aqueducts, which cross hundreds of kilome- ters of agricultural land on their way to the city (Lin, 2017). Although Los Angeles has been fighting others for decades over water rights, extractions and exports (Got- tlieb & FitzSimmons, 1991; V. Ostrom, 1953; Zetland, 2008), rights to these water sources are relatively secure. The story with conveyance is different because the aqueducts that bring water to Los Angeles could suddenly fracture as stress in- creases due to uneven ground subsidence caused by overdrafting groundwater. Let’s unpack that causal chain.

First, there’s a long history of California farmers using groundwater when surface supplies are absent or reduced due to a drought. In cases of “overdrafting” — using more water than is replaced by natural recharges — ground levels can subside as water is abstracted. In California’s Central Valley, many areas fell by 3–6m (with the extreme of 8.5m) between 1926 and 1970. In the past 50 years, there have been efforts to reduce overdrafting and subsidence (one persistent reason/excuse for importing more surface water to the region is to relieve pressure on aquifers), but normal and drought-response overdrafting continues to lower ground elevations. Between 1995–2010, the ground dropped by 22–60cm in the area through which the Colorado River Aqueduct passes (Sneed, Brandt, & Solt, 2014). In the southern Central Valley (through which the California Aqueduct passes), ground levels dropped by 12cm in most of the area between 2007–2010, with local extremes of 90cm (Faunt, Sneed, Traum, & Brandt, 2016).

Changes in ground elevations wreck havoc with water conveyance infrastructure that must be massive enough to carry large volumes of water but also precisely sloped to maintain flow. Chronic subsidence requires ongoing monitoring and maintenance, but all bets are off if there was an earthquake on the San Andreas Fault, over which all three aqueducts (Lin, 2017) pass. A three-way failure would mean that Angelenos and the other 20 million residents of Southern California would lose 90 percent of their water supply.

Chaos would result. Although 50–70 percent of the the region’s residential drink- ing water is used for grass lawns and landscaping, it is hard to imagine people in the region coping, let alone cooperating. The first response — running the taps to fill bathtubs — would drain local and overwhelm pumps. Water distribution centers need to be numerous to prevent traffic jams that would result if the sprawl converged. These water troubles would be a lucky break. An earthquake is also likely to cause fires, and California is now said to have a “year-round” fire season (Economist, 2019).

Local water management institutions are somewhere between unprepared and lucky. They are unprepared with a system designed importing water, limited local storage capacities, and limited local supplies. Turning to local politics, it would take some time to agree on how to handle a crisis, given ongoing battles over everyday operations.

On the lucky side, people in Los Angeles and the area use vast volumes of water on landscaping, so a drastic cutback wouldn’t be too hard. Second, there is probably enough local storage to keep people going until emergency repairs of aqueducts were made. Finally, the earthquake would be during a rainy winter and not damage too much infrastructure.

In sum, Los Angeles is extremely vulnerable to the damages caused by overdraft- ing farmers whose consumption of a private good (irrigation water) is damaging the commons of the landscape. The city of Los Angeles and others in the region can probably get by if and when an accident happens, but they might be unlucky and pay dearly for ongoing poor management.

Scenario 4: Riyadh is stranded

The Saudi capital, home to at least 6 million people, gets half its water from desali- nation plants located nearly 500km away on the Persian (sometimes called Arabian) Gulf. The rest of the water comes from relatively local wells drilled deep into fossil (non-recharging) aquifers (Ouda et al., 2018). In the summer of 2027, demand for water is extreme due to average daytime temperatures of 36C, a culture of heavy water use, and population of over 8 million people. The Ras Al-Khair desalination plant (RAK) supplies 90 percent of Riyadh’s desalinated water due to the recent retirement of two older plants (Ouda et al., 2018), and SWCC (Saline Water Con- servation Corporation) is running it at full capacity in stifling heat, producing water that is raised 600m on its way to the thirsty distant capital. Groundwater pumps are working as usual, diverting their water into treatment plants whose potable water flows into one of the 50 storage tanks located around the capital (MEED, 2013).

Al Qaeda took these facts into account when planning their strike against the regime of King Mohammed Bin Salman, who has not only maintained diplomatic and military relations with the United States but also weakened the spiritual purity of his people. His reforms are not offensive because they allow women to drive, but because a majority of the population now goes to the movies instead of the mosque on Fridays. Donations have fallen as frivolous spending increases; Al Qaeda’s budget for justice is dropping.

The operatives work in five cells, unknown to each other. They have a date for action: August 15 2027, which is also the Prophet’s Birthday (Peace Be Upon Him). They have trained and prepared. They are ready.

In the early hours of the fifteenth, alarms sound in the RAK control center. Intake pipe #3 (out of 6) seems to be clogged at its mouth, which rests 30m below the gulf, 1.5km offshore. Control operators turn off pumps on #3 and order an inspection crew to go out. Due to the holiday, there are only two maintenance crews on hand, but this routine maintenance is not too difficult, so they leave shore within an hour. Just after 8am, and before that crew can report in, another alarm sounds as a cooling pump 22 shuts down after losing pressure. Perhaps a poor weld has burst due to load or heat. Roughly 15 minutes later, a radio cracks with static — someone from pumping station 4B is trying to get in touch. The control center staff, already distracted by two incidents, have a hard time understanding what the man is screaming, but they hear explosions and then static. Station 4B is 150 km away, on the pipe’s route to Riyadh. Pressure on line B drops to zero as the station goes offline. Only line A continues to operate, pumping water to Riyadh. Omar, the head of operations, suddenly realizes that the situation has exceeded the limits of bad luck. He triggers the emergency plan, which alerts the army, royal palace and SWCC staff that the Kingdom’s water is threatened.

Twenty minutes later, he’s still waiting for a response from the army, which attending upon a royal family pro-occupied with birthday festivities. The palace, likewise, is silent. His SWCC colleagues assure him that local storage is sufficient to meet demand while line B is repaired. Omar turns to report that news when two of his staff run up from opposite directions. “The maintenance crew was attacked by a drone on their way out to #3,” says one. “Their boat is on fire, and they have jumped into the sea.” The other man, barely listening to his colleague, says “we’ve also lost cooling on pumps 8, 17 and 32! Something is wrong with the systems. We’re losing capacity.” Omar flinches. The facility has multiple production units, but the leaks are scattered rather than concentrated. He tells the first one to call the navy. To the second, he says “reduce pressure — we need time to figure out what’s happening. Send out the other crew.”

Just then, the radio cracks to life. His colleague Dasan is calling from the capital. “Omar, we’ve got a real problem: Our storage tanks have been attacked by drones with explosive devices. We’re not sure which ones, yet, but we’re sending out crews.”

Just then, he gets a call from his wife. He doesn’t usually carry his personal phone at work, but his granddaughter is about to give birth any day. He picks up the phone: “Lala — I can’t speak now. We’ve—” She interrupts him: “Omar! Quick, look on Twitter!” He switches to his Twitter app and pales. The screen is filled with panic: #RiyadhDies and #poisonwater are trending in English and Arabic.

The loss of desalinated water supply, combined with mistrust of groundwater quality and ignorance of water safety (Alamri, 2019; Al-Omran, Al-Barakah, Al- tuquq, Aly, & Nadeem, 2015), leads to widespread panic. Tens of thousands flood hospitals and clinics with real or imagined sicknesses. Normal procedures grind to a halt. Over a hundred thousand cars flee the city. Thousands die in car accidents. Thousands drive into the desert to escape traffic jams, but their trust in GPS is defeated by sand washes and hidden cracks. Many stranded families die of thirst, clutching useless cell phones.

In the aftermath, over 50 officers and SWCC staff are arrested on the King’s orders. Five men are found guilty of “failure to protect the nation” and executed. Omar and Dasan are lucky to only be fired, in what the engineers call (under their breath) “Al Qaeda’s Plan B.” The death of 14,500 residents triggers an exodus of families from the capital to cities closer to reliable water supplies. By 2030, the capital’s population has dropped by 1 million, housing prices have dropped by 40 percent, and three-fourths of the staff of international firms have left the country.

These incidents are fictional, but not impossible. Riyadh’s vulnerability to sup-
ply disruptions is well known, as are its excessive demands (around 250 liters/capita/day) and 30 percent water losses (Ouda et al., 2018). Stress on this system will only grow worse as the capital’s population grows and temperatures rise. Riyadh will be able to manage its water with luck, but climate change will test that luck.

* CliFi (or Climate Fiction) draws on science fiction’s long tradition of thinking about possible future by combining human behavior with future technology. In the case of CliFi, the future “technology” is a changing climate, and these examples look into climate-related post-water shocks. I used this speculative method for two volumes of “CliFi” short stories [free to download] that I edited and published a few years ago.

  • Alamri, A. (2019). Water Usage and Human Health: A Preliminary Study in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Unpublished master’s thesis). Oregon State University.
  • Al-Omran, A., Al-Barakah, F., Altuquq, A., Aly, A., & Nadeem, M. (2015). Drinking water quality assessment and water quality index of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Water Quality Research Journal, 50(3), 287-296. 
  • Economist. (2019). Alaska hotshots. The Economist, 25 July.
  • Faunt, C. C., Sneed, M., Traum, J. A., & Brandt, J. T. (2016). Water availability and land subsidence in the Central Valley, California, USA. Hydrogeology Journal, 24(3), 675-684.
  • Gottlieb, R., & FitzSimmons, M. (1991). Thirst for Growth: Water Agencies as Hidden Government in California. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  • Lin, R.-G. I. (2017). California could be hit by an 8.2 mega- earthquake, and it would be catastrophic. Los Angeles Times, 8 Sep.
  • MEED. (2013). Riyadh plans water storage programme. Middle East Business Intelligence, 24 Apr.
  • Ostrom, V. (1953). Water Supply (Vol. VIII). Los Angeles: Haynes Foundation.
  • Ouda, O. K. M., Khalid, Y., Ajbar, A. H., Rehan, M., Shahzad, K., Wazeer, I., & Nizami, A. S. (2018, 02). Long-term desalinated water demand and in- vestment requirements: a case study of Riyadh. Journal of Water Reuse and Desalination, 8(3), 432-446.
  • Sneed, M., Brandt, J. T., & Solt, M. (2014). Land subsidence, groundwater levels, and geology in the Coachella Valley, California, 1993-2010 (Tech. Rep.). Reston, VA: U. S. Geological Survey.
  • Zetland, D. (2008). Conflict and cooperation within an organization: A case study of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Doctoral dissertation, UC Davis (Agricultural and Resource Economics). 

Post-water CliFi — Amsterdam and Jakarta

NB: I wrote these four CliFi scenarios* in 2019 for a paper on life in a “post-water” world, but they had to go, so I am posting them here for your enjoyment (or horror). Please tell me what you think!

Scenario 1: Drought in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is located in Nord Holland, a province in the west of the Netherlands that lies in the Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt delta, and thus at the foot of several major rivers. The local ecology and many methods of managing water take excess water and cooler temperatures for granted, but these gifts are not forever. As I write (July 2019), the Netherlands has just reached its highest recorded temperature (40.4C), and the heat is causing problems for people, farmers and infrastructure. What will happen if these temperatures become common-place? How would Amsterdam cope with the risks from heat and drought?

The good news is that water for humans is unlikely to run out. Amsterdam sits adjacent to the IJsselmeer, the largest freshwater lake in the Netherlands, which has a surface area of 1,133 km2 and average depth of 4.4 meters, meaning a volume of around 5 km2 (Rijkswaterstaat, 2017). That’s over 50 times Amsterdam’s current water use (Waternet, n.d.).

The bad news is that drought would also damage local ecosystems. Falling groundwater would mean dead vegetation and weaker trees, some of which would fall in otherwise “normal” storms. Increased heat will lead to infrastructure failures, such as draw-bridges that lock shut due to metal expansion, or roads, rails and runways that are too hot to bear trucks, trains or planes (Staff, 2019). Individuals faced with “public bads” of hot air and drying ground, will install and use air conditioners and spray drinking water on parched gardens. Poorer citizens and marginal businesses will suffer — unable to afford the costs of equipment or the energy to run it. Some city services will fill the gap, but productivity and happiness will drop (Deryugina & Hsiang, 2014; Kjellstrom, Holmer, & Lemke, 2009).

In terms of institutions for managing water, perhaps the only possible responses to the public bad would be a program of improved public goods to increase local cooling, such as denser tree cover and perhaps restoring water-flows to canals that were filled and converted into roads decades ago. Ignoring sea-level rise and storm surges, Amsterdam should be able to limit the risks from drought and heat.

Scenario 2: Jakarta floods

Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia and home to over ten million people, has been having trouble with sinking land, saltwater intrusion and floods for decades (Pur- nama & Marfai, 2012). These three problems can be attributed to the abstraction, use and discharge of freshwater from local aquifers. This classic case of a tragedy of the commons results from the private use (withdrawal) of freshwater from the common-pool aquifer that everyone can access but also which keeps the land from sinking.

There are two main solutions to these dilemmas: to mitigate or adapt. Mitiga- tion would require building infrastructure to import fresh water and inject treated wastewater under the city, but that’s not happening. Instead, there are efforts to adapt by raising dikes to protect sinking land and building a barrier island to slow down storm surges that risk flooding land (Sherwell, 2016). This “Garuda Project” is complex and controversial, but it is surely cheaper than rebuilding drinking- and wastewater systems to serve ten million, mostly poor residents.[19] Unfortunately, the Garuda project might deplete funds, weaken solidarity, and increase risk. Where’s the post-water element? The people (and leadership) of Jakarta need to live as if they are on an arid island, but they are consuming scarce fresh water as if it’s abundant, which puts them at risk of getting too much salty water.

Let’s assume that the Garuda project is built, and business as usual continues. The ground continues to sink, but the barrier island has created a lagoon on the city’s shore, and flooding has decreased. Barrier island residents live apart from fellow citizens whose houses lie 3m below sea level are protected by higher walls.

Now introduce surprisingly fast climate change based on exceptional methane releases (Weitzman, 2011). Increasing temperatures and greater atmospheric activ- ity means larger typhoons (called cyclones or hurricanes elsewhere in the world). Although Jakarta is not usually struck by typhoons, Typhoon Indra strikes in 2035 with high winds and a storm surge that overwhelms the barrier island (flooding hundreds of expensive cars and cutting power to the whole island) and flows into Jakarta. Thousands die as 8m waves crush down on sunken neighborhoods. When the storm recedes, half of the four districts closest to the sea is gone, replaced by a new shoreline and “beaches” of rubble, crushed cars and bodies. Half a million people are homeless. Fifty thousand are dead or missing.

The overwhelmed local government asks for help. Foreigners bring money and ideas, but no consensus recovery plan. Millions leave the capital for inland regions, hungry and desperately poor. Domestic aid is hard to organize or fund without political leadership, and the rich (such as those on the barrier island) do not feel inclined to pay. They withdraw further into their climate-proof enclaves. The poor cannot grow their own food. Local farmers do not have enough water to grow even their typical crops. Hunger intensifies. Many are sick from drinking polluted water. Aid workers do their best, but a significant minority support a new group that goes by the handle @newgaruda.

This example focusses on three factors: inequality, underinvestment, and climate risk. Inequality makes it hard for people to cooperate, as they “other” neighbors. Underinvestment (in mitigation) falls in to the “penny wise pound foolish” trap of trying to cover a basic problem with a partial (and inadequate) solution. Climate risk is present in all these examples, but this example uses uncertainty — a big storm in an under-prepared location.

* CliFi (or Climate Fiction) draws on science fiction’s long tradition of thinking about possible future by combining human behavior with future technology. In the case of CliFi, the future “technology” is a changing climate, and these examples look into climate-related post-water shocks. I used this speculative method for two volumes of “CliFi” short stories [free to download] that I edited and published a few years ago.

  • Deryugina, T., & Hsiang, S. M. (2014, December). Does the Environment Still Matter? Daily Temperature and Income in the United States. NBER Working Paper, 20750.
  • Kjellstrom, T., Holmer, I., & Lemke, B. (2009, Nov). Workplace heat stress, health and productivity – an increasing challenge for low and middle-income countries during climate change. Glob Health Action, 2.
  • Purnama, S., & Marfai, M. (2012). Saline water intrusion toward groundwater: Issues and its control. Journal of Natural Resources and Development, 2, 25-32.
  • Rijkswaterstaat. (2017, Oct). Natura 2000 Beheerplan IJsselmeergebied 2017–2023 [IJsselmeer region management plan] (Tech. Rep.).
  • Sherwell, P. (2016). $40bn to save Jakarta: the story of the Great Garuda. The Guardian, 22 Nov.
  • Staff. (2019). It has never been hotter since records began: temperature tops 39c. Dutch News, 24 July.
  • Waternet. (n.d.). Ons drinkwater [our drinking water].
  • Weitzman, M. L. (2011). Fat-tailed uncertainty in the economics of catastrophic climate change. Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, 5(2), 275- 292. 

The scope and method of economics

Appendix C

§1. In this appendix, Marshall begins by discussing the tension between specialisation and generalisation (I think he’s going to argue for the former, given that economics split off from political science early in his career, a split that I’ve lamented).* He begins with a caution against narrow and deep:

Specialists who never look beyond their own domain are apt to see things out of true proportion; much of the knowledge they get together is of comparatively little use; they work away at the details of old problems which have lost most of their significance and have been supplanted by new questions rising out of new points of view; and they fail to gain that large illumination which the progress of every science throws by comparison and analogy on those around it. Comte did good service therefore by insisting that the solidarity of social phenomena must render the work of exclusive specialists even more futile in social than in physical science. Mill conceding this continues:—”A person is not likely to be a good economist who is nothing else. Social phenomena acting and reacting on one another, they cannot rightly be understood apart; but this by no means proves that the material and industrial phenomena of society are not themselves susceptible of useful generalizations, but only that these generalizations must necessarily be relative to a given form of civilization and a given stage of social advancement

I agree wholeheartedly with these concerns (read this from 2016 and an improved version from 2018) and wrote this in my January newsletter:

The humanities (language, history, philosophy) illustrate the diversity of human existence just as the sciences (biology, physics, etc.) illustrate our similarities. This explains how scientists can collaborate and agree on the “big picture” while failing to see the point of humanities studies that don’t seem to draw any conclusions (and sometimes seem locked in eternal battles over the “right” element drawn from a pile of subjective perspectives)

§2. Marshall admires the utility of deductive mechanical reasoning in economics but cautions against excessive reliance on models untested by experience and intuition. Further, he notes that the human subjects of economics — unlike the atoms of chemistry — are actively changing their forms, functions and reactions while “under the microscope”, which makes accurate conclusions less likely.

§3. Marshall advises using both deductive (logical) and inductive (historical) methods to understand (looking back) and predict (looking forward). Given the impossibility of living life in parallel universes, we need to be cautious in drawing conclusions but hopeful in seeking explanations for observed patterns.

§4. Given Man’s tendency to see patterns everywhere (including where there are none), Marshall cautions against aggressive claims to insight in assembling “pertinent causes” for observed effects. He explains how both strategy and tactics are important in naval warfare but difficult for analysts to later recreate. What decisions were not made; what information was used in making decisions, what information was unknown to the actors but known to later historians? He warns economists trying to explain individual decisions and their aggregates.

§5. Intuition (Marshall calls this “mother-wit”) and technique are complements: Wisdom draws from experience; technique pushes one to think about potential situations beyond that experience. (I often get interesting insights by looking at the “off-diagonals” of 2×2 figures.) The aggregation of knowledge over time allows each generation of academics look yet further, standing on the shoulders of giants.

§6. Economics can explain a lot but the accuracy and value of its explanatory power drops as its area of study expands.

* I was wrong, as he doesn’t come out in favor of either view, unlike later economists (see footnote below…)

This post is part of a series in the Marshall 2020 Project, i.e., an excuse for me to read Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890 first edition/1920 eighth edition), which dominated economic thinking until Van Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944) and Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1946) pivoted economics from institutional induction to mathematical deduction.

Interesting stuff

  1. Read: The hidden toll of remote work
  2. Watch: The [US] national debt, republican hypocrisy, MMT and your kids
  3. Read (and weep): French vineyards are losing their grape wine crops (and maybe their vines) due to record frost. Worse news: ALL farms are facing crop losses, thereby taking us another step closer to a climate-chaos-driven food crisis.
  4. Read: Green spaces in Amsterdam over the centuries
  5. Read: The right-wing conspiracy to undermine university professors
  6. Read: The US was always a nation of migrants but only “white” (Northern European, but not Italians, Irish or Jews) immigrants — until the 1965 immigration reform allowed non-whites. For my father (British citizen but born in India), this was a barrier to his entering the US in the early 60s.
  7. Read: Why are Chinese solar prices so low? One reason is forced labor. A bit of blood splashed on that green?
  8. Read: I’m shocked, shocked to read that Facebook (passively) supports fascists
  9. Read: Goodbye forests 🙁
  10. Read: Looking at the roots of conspiracy theories
  11. Listen: Happiness

H/T to PB

The growth of economic science

Appendix B

§1. In the eighteenth century, political-economy (“economics” for short) emerged to study new ideas such as economic freedom and a prioritization of ends (happiness) over means (wealth).

It is true that modern economics had its origin in common with other sciences at the time when the study of classic writers was reviving. But an industrial system which was based on slavery, and a philosophy which regarded manufacture and commerce with contempt, had little that was congenial to the hardy burghers who were as proud of their handicrafts and their trade as they were of their share in governing the State (page 624).

§2. The (French) Physiocrats established the foundation of modern economics not so much for their interest in agriculture and physical goods but in their advocacy of “laisser faire, laisser passer”, i.e., allowing people to do what they want (free trade) and go where they want (free movement).

§3. Adam Smith is rightly credited as the founder of “modern” economics for his defence and advocacy of free trade, his discussion of the balance between individual freedom of action and government regulation, his exposition of the interaction between supply (cost) and demand (value), and his expositions — not always correct but “working his way towards the truth” — that others built on.

§4. Of those who followed Smith, Jeremy Bentham played an important role by advocating, with relentless logic, individual freedom and innovation over collective conservation, a perspective that fit Britain’s dominant economic and political role in the early eighteenth century.

§5. Economists improved and corrected on Smith’s ideas using inductive (from life) and deductive (from logic) methods for explaining choices and behaviors. They paid attention (and collected data) on the plight of the working classes. Marshall admires Ricardo’s work and perspective but finds his “Semitic genius for abstraction” difficult to follow at some times.

§6. But these economists tended to ignore or misunderstand the differences among countries and individuals. They assumed “economic man” to be like themselves: well-to-do,  intellectual “city men”, which blinded them to the perspectives and values of the working classes. (Indeed, they blamed the poor for their poverty when it resulted from lack of education and other constraints that were loosened by unionisation, education, public health, and so on.) Marx [not mentioned by Marshall] was not so blind.

§7. During the nineteenth century, economic thought became less rigid, uniform and logical as it integrated more human complexity into understanding choices. (Economics influenced Darwin as his Origin of Species influenced economists.)

§8. Marshall then gives “shout outs” to the French, Americans and especially the Germans, who had less faith in individual freedom and trade and a greater respect for national differences and competition. He ends the chapter by cautioning that the biological view of human interactions requires ever-greater analytical effort rather than a lazy appeal to imponderable differences.

This post is part of a series in the Marshall 2020 Project, i.e., an excuse for me to read Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890 first edition/1920 eighth edition), which dominated economic thinking until Van Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944) and Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1946) pivoted economics from institutional induction to mathematical deduction.

Interesting stuff

  1. This article on environmental scientists suffering emotionally as the natural world shrinks under the onslaught of Mankind (and mostly men within our species) rings true with me. It’s so sad to see dying corals, burning forests, etc. 
  2. Listen: I teach liberal arts and sciences (LAS). I’m not sure if our students know how lucky they are, but these prisoners earning their LAS degrees sure do.
  3. Read: Divorce in an Indian couple is no longer unimaginable
  4. Listen: Sal Khan, the founder of Khan academy, on better education
  5. Read: Amsterdam tries to rebalance away from mass tourism
  6. Read: “Extreme weather is wreaking havoc on olive oil production” — this is the beginning of the end of food security, which will affect people in poorer countries much more than most of us.
  7. Read: Tap water in the US is more polluted than it should be (as I said a few years ago when Flint was in the news).
  8. Read: ADHD in women manifests via self-doubt and confusion
  9. Read: American drivers — unlike those in other countries — are killing more pedestrians and bikers despite driving less. Why? US road rules are designed for speed not safety. Watch this for a humorous (but exacerbating) explanation.
  10. Read: Dutch recycling: ‘we don’t know what is going on’

The growth of free industry and enterprise

Appendix A

In this Appendix, Marshall sets out a brief history of the world that is “coloured” by his English, colonial (and sometimes racist) perspective.

§1. Civilization began in warmer places where easy food and transport enabled abstract thinking and organizational complexity, but warmth also leads to laziness (the scourge of colonial administrators in Imperial India), which is why savages in warm places were conquered by invaders from cooler places.

§2. People in smaller settlements needed to cooperate within their interdependency, which led to customs of sharing and non-exploitation but also a reluctance to innovate in ways that give advantages to individuals.

§3. The Greeks added freedom and innovation to the Semitic foundations of knowledge and commerce while [waving hands around] their slaves kept them fed and clothed. But even cooling sea winds could not keep the Greeks from settling into comfort and indifference.

§4. The Romans were more disciplined than the Greeks in war, conquest and organisation, even if they were indifferent to business (except with respect to money). They brought Stoic ideas of law and rights into circulation.

§5. The Teutons (Germans) were strong but limited by their customs and ignorance. The Saracens (Arabs) learned from those they conquered but their “sensual religion” (Islam) led to moral decay.

§6. Representative democracy worked better in towns and cities than in countries, due to the difficulty of communicating with all citizens. Easier transport and communication combined with literacy to facilitate self-governance.

§7. Cities in the Middle Ages were full of progress, innovation, self-rule and enlightenment, but they were conquered by larger, stronger neighbours, so their progress was sometimes diverted or lost.

§8. Feudal lords practiced chivalry with each other while dominating the lower classes. The Church was more meritocratic about advancing the best without regard to caste but facilitated feudal oppression. Revolution overturned this stable but stifling regime:

Within a very short period came the invention of printing, the Revival of Learning, the Reformation, and the discovery of the ocean routes to the New World and to India. Any one of these events alone would have been sufficient to make an epoch in history; but coming together as they did, and working all in the same direction, they effected a complete revolution.

Thought became comparatively free, and knowledge ceased to be altogether inaccessible to the people. The free temper of the Greeks revived; the strong self-determining spirits gained new strength, and were able to extend their influence over others. And a new continent suggested new problems to the thoughtful, at the same time that it offered a new scope to the enterprise of bold adventurers. pp612-3

§9. Spain and Portugal took, then lost, an early lead to the Dutch, whose industry and innovation allowed them to escape Spanish domination before they were conquered by the English and French. France fell apart with Revolution, leaving the English as the most powerful nation.

§10. The English were not as good at trading as the Armenians, Greeks, Italians and  Jews. Nor were they as sophisticated as the Latin nations. But a good location and internal communcations enabled many farmers and artisans to work and prosper.

§11. England benefitted from the cultures of “strong Northern” settlers, just as it benefitted from the assertive and varied beliefs of many religious believers.

§12. England’s openness to migrants and challenging climate encouraged hard work, diversification and innovation in the lower classes (even as the upper classes played frivolous games).

§13. England’s economy grew as workers specialised in trades, regions in products and “undertakers” (entrepreneurs) in management. Good ideas were copied, transformed and implemented widely.

§14. As labor was freed of parish borders, workers were able to find better jobs, but ruthless competition also brought social ills. The 19th century was good and bad for workers and society, in a two-steps forward, one-back sense of progress.

§15. Workers were caught between the old system of limits and comforts and a new system of freedom and exploitation. A new class of undertakers were as ruthless as they were successful. Children worked “in Satan’s mills” and labor went hungry as the rich and powerful protected their interests. Life was hard but it would have been worse under French rule (Napoleon as a modern Roman emperor).

§16. It has been left for our own generation to perceive all the evils which arose from the suddenness of this increase of economic freedom. Now first are we getting to understand the extent to which the capitalist employer, untrained to his new duties, was tempted to subordinate the wellbeing of his workpeople to his own desire for gain; now first are we learning the importance of insisting that the rich have duties as well as rights in their individual and in their collective capacity; now first is the economic problem of the new age showing itself to us as it really is. This is partly due to a wider knowledge and a growing earnestness. But however wise and virtuous our grandfathers had been, they could not have seen things as we do; for they were hurried along by urgent necessities and terrible disasters.

[snip] …increased prosperity has made us rich and strong enough to impose new restraints on free enterprise; some temporary material loss being submitted to for the sake of a higher and ultimate greater gain. But these new restraints are different from the old. They are imposed not as a means of class domination; but with the purpose of defending the weak, and especially children and the mothers of children, in matters in which they are not able to use the forces of competition in their own defence.

[snip] Thus gradually we may attain to an order of social life, in which the common good overrules individual caprice, even more than it did in the early ages before the sway of individualism had begun. But unselfishness then will be the offspring of deliberate will; and, though aided by instinct, individual freedom will then develop itself in collective freedom:—a happy contrast to the old order of life, in which individual slavery to custom caused collective slavery and stagnation, broken only by the caprice of despotism or the caprice of revolution.

§17. England is not alone. America has advantages of scale and will probably lead the world. Australia and Canada have the advantage of racial homogeneity. Germany is learning from England’s mistakes as it industrialises…

And Germany contains a larger number than any other country of the most cultivated members of that wonderful race who have been leaders of the world in intensity of religious feeling and in keenness of business speculation. In every country, but especially in Germany, much of what is most brilliant and suggestive in economic practice and in economic thought is of Jewish origin. And in particular to German Jews we owe many daring speculations as to the conflict of interests between the individual and society, and as to their ultimate economic causes and their possible socialistic remedies. (page 623).

This post is part of a series in the Marshall 2020 Project, i.e., an excuse for me to read Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890 first edition/1920 eighth edition), which dominated economic thinking until Van Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944) and Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1946) pivoted economics from institutional induction to mathematical deduction.

Interesting stuff

  1. Read: Stronger storms and waves have doubled the number of shipping containers “lost” at sea from cargo vessels. Another cut into our quality of life.
  2. Read: Inside Israel’s lucrative (and occasionally evil) cyber security industry
  3. Read: A look at the business model of influencers
  4. Read: Some German festival organisers (think Burning Man) have decided to take (health) matters into their own hands, in defense of culture. Bravo.
  5. Listen: Archaeology from space
  6. Try? “We build desirable, open source, privacy-enabled smartphone operating systems” — basically “de-googled” android systems
  7. Listen: Climate change is entering business models and (very interesting!) negative real interest rates are raising the cost of inaction
  8. Watch: The best NFT description I’ve seen (via SNL 😉
  9. Watch: How to (properly) compare COVID vaccines
  10. Read: Don’t say media has no impact. “Birth of a Nation” (1915), formerly called “The Klansmen” spurred racist violence: