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!


Interesting stuff

  1. Listen: Land taxes are a good idea (I am wavering between land-only and land+improvements taxes, but both are easier/better than taxing income!)
  2. Watch: The big tech monopolies (Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple) need stronger regulation.
  3. Listen: Some wisdom on where markets are going and why many will still go down.
  4. Read: Undirected consumerism, supply chain snafus and confused retailers are creating messes of wasteful excess and shortage
  5. Watch: A nice guy’s guide to dealing with a bad cup of (paid) coffee.
  6. Read: People are already facing “unlivable heat” (wetbulb temperatures over 35C) in this Pakistani city. Surviving, yes, but not thriving.
  7. Read: Here’s a good update on the clusterfucked mismanagement of the Colorado River. I emailed its author these thoughts: Sadly, the REAL harm is not to farmers (who need to get behind cap and trade of scarce water), but the environment. The Colorado Delta is dead, and Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin is in trouble and/or dying… in both cases due to excess “take.” More ecosystems will collapse, and air conditioning will not replace them.
  8. This essay on the “internet middle class” of people who make a modest living through internet activities (writing, performing, selling stuff) stuck me as a bit sad. Yes, supporters from anywhere in the world might find you in random ways, but that process, and the endurance of your (patron-creator) relationship, is fragile and one-dimensional compared to working for local supporters. Eighteen years ago, I described [pdf] how Google (and the internet’s “winner-takes all” dynamic) would undermine creativity by removing the “middle-class” performers and teachers. I think that’s still true, to a degree. I’m personally thinking about (one day) moving from my paid job to an unpaid retirement where I do mostly the same as I do now (save the faculty meetings), as the “work for the internet” option seems to have too many negatives.
  9. Listen: This discussion with a Canadian of the slow supply response from the oil/gas industries surfaced an interesting problem: So many people are refusing to enter this “unethical” industry, and so many people are retiring now (with high share prices that allow them to cash out), that there’s a risk of serious price increases due to unyielding demand. Be careful what you ask for!
  10. Listen to this podcast episode on why a liberal arts training provides useful tools for a happier — and more successful — life.

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 😉

Interesting stuff

  1. Read: Shipping containers have lowered the cost of handling ocean-freight by 99 percent, but they fall off ships all the time (and increasingly so, due to climate chaos), which leads to some weird stuff floating around.
  2. Listen: George Monbriot on why and how we need to change our food systems
  3. Read: As the Great Salt Lake Dries Up, Utah Faces An ‘Environmental Nuclear Bomb’ — this story surprised me, as the Mormons (who dominate Utah politics) were famously good at managing water. It seems that THAT culture has been replaced by excess growth and water use. The GSL drying up, like the Aral and Salton “Seas,” exposes toxic dust but also shows the magnitude of excess use — a vision that we do not — but should — have of disappearing groundwater. More: Paul Krugman agrees with me and makes the (obvious, but important) point that there’s no chance of addressing climate chaos if Utah can’t even save the GSL.
  4. Read: How San Francisco Became a Failed City (but may be coming back from the edge of woke-stupid?): “…these are parables of a sort of progressive-libertarian nihilism, of the belief that any intervention that has to be imposed on a vulnerable person is so fundamentally flawed and problematic that the best thing to do is nothing at all. Anyone offended by the sight of the suffering is just judging someone who’s having a mental-health episode, and any liberal who argues that the state can and should take control of someone in the throes of drugs and psychosis is basically a Republican. If and when the vulnerable person dies, that was his choice, and in San Francisco we congratulate ourselves on being very accepting of that choice.” Fuck.
  5. Read: How crypto giant Binance became a hub for hackers, fraudsters and drug traffickers (and that $2.3 billion is MAYBE 0.1% of the volumes banks  launder, so keep that in mind…). Related: Hackers switch to email-fraud (e.g., sending a fake invoice from a “trusted” email).
  6. Read: Constant bargain hunting makes us value all the wrong things about shopping (like the value of the item itself).
  7. Read: Cities need to absorb water to reduce flood damage
  8. Read: Conservative (US) judges are “mining” linguistics databases to justify their opinions by selecting past uses of words
  9. Listen: Steve Levitt discusses his failure to understand geo-engineering but also the many troubles of the IPCC and other climate-related programs
  10. Read: Writers describe how they revise (and revise and revise)

H/T to ED

Review: Longitude

Since I got into watches, I’ve heard more about more about Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, a book by Dana Sobel that was published in 1995.

The book is short (191 pages) and blazing read, which stems more from Sobel’s clear and direct style than from the simplicity of the plot, which takes many twists and turns between the 1714 announcement of the “Longitude Prize” and its ultimate (but anti-climatic) award 60 years later.

What was the Longitude Prize and why did it matter? 

After “just a few too many” maritime disasters resulting from ships now knowing their correct longitude, the British Parliament offered the  prize to direct inventors and scientists towards finding a solution. What was the problem? Sailors at sea could easily identify their latitude, or distance from the equator, by observing sun’s noon height above the horizon, but they could not determine their longitude, as that distance could only be known relative to a starting point to the east or west.

Two main solutions were proposed. The first method tracked the difference in time between the starting point and the current location (comparing “local noon” to time at the starting point), which would tell you how far you were, in terms of the 24 hours it takes for the Earth to rotate. The second method compared the “star map” above one’s head to a published guide of star locations, to understand where in its rotation the Earth stood.

The first method was a challenge because there were no clocks (let alone watches) that could stay accurate as a ship sailed and swung and dipped and heaved across the seas, through changing temperatures and humidities. Few clocks could stay within 5 minutes per day, let alone the 5 seconds per day needed to win the prize. The second method was a challenge because it required mapping stars from different locations on Earth across the 16-year cycle it took the Earth, while wobbling, to pass through its “star cruise.” The second method was also useless in cloudy conditions or when the moonlight was too bright.

A determined problem-solver

The hero of the story is John Harrison, a carpenter-turned-clockmaker who spent most of his life (from 20 to 80 years old) inventing, refining and improving various clocks, and then finally a pocket watch (see the cover image). The villain(s) of the story are the astronomers who blocked recognition of Harrison (they were in charge of awarding the prize) while promoting their preferred “star solution.”

Although I am no watchmaker, I was impressed by the many advances that Harrison created and refined, such as a constant-tension winding spring (to replace a pendulum) and bimetallic components whose differing reactions to temperature maintained the same shape (length or thickness) in hot and cold conditions.

Although the Longitude Board could should have recognized Harrison’s victory as early as 1737 (and certainly by 1761), it issued smaller awards here and there, to encourage several contestants, before finally recognizing Harrison (after intervention by King George III) in 1773. Harrison was 80 years old. One of the main reason’s for his ultimate success was the ease of using his clocks/watches, which gave a location quickly and easily in comparison to the star method, which required several hours of calculation.

In these days of GPS and atomic clocks, most of us do not struggle to know our time and location, but these “modern delights” are only due to the efforts of determined, creative geniuses like Harrison. (NB: His pocket watch lost 5 seconds over 80 days in 1761; a modern, Swiss-certified “chronometer” — such as a Rolex — is allowed to lose 10 seconds per day!)

I give this book FIVE STARS for its compelling and interesting story.

Here are all my reviews.

Interesting stuff

  1. Read: Rent-the-Runway struggles with its “sharing” business model — is it sustainable? Profitable?
  2. Read: “As transformative investing grows, even if it remains a niche part of the financial market, emphasizing how it’s different from other kinds of ethical investing will become even more important, especially if it wants to avoid the haziness that surrounds socially responsible investing.”
  3. Read: Airlines take seating space and then sell it back — and you’re thrilled!
  4. Read: China’s new vassal: Vladimir Putin (the tables have turned)
  5. Read: Climate chaos: More Dengue in Singapore — and worldwide.
  6. Listen: Demographics, population growth and more (or less?)
  7. Watch: The ebb and flow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
  8. Read: Climate change damages (and other problems with life) can be radically reduced by educating people (women in particular) in poorer countries — or everywhere!
  9. Read: How harmful is social media? (Not as harmful as toxic personalities)
  10. Laugh (cry?):

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 it’s 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.

*Here’s an excellent summary (2015) [pdf] of the many barriers to achieving more-than-symbolic circularity, and here’s an OECD report (2019) [pdf] on the same topic, with far more detail.