Wow! Just Wonderful Wow!

This infographic which ran on The Economist has been getting a lot of attention, and it’s worthy of the attention, too.

Of course, almost everything on this time scale is a hockey stick. Some people find this a bit alarming. Others think it is cause for celebration.
Here’s a particularly classic example of Not Getting It,

Wow! Just wonderful wow!

Lest we forget, amidst the daily/weekly/monthy/yearly ups and downs of the market, the market is an historically off-the-charts (almost literally) innovation machine.

Be happy that you live when you do and, if you live in the first world, where you do.

Now of course, the curmudgeonly likes of you and me don’t join in the celebration. We immediately think, I guess this sort of person has never learned about The Exponential, as explained by Prof. Bartlett.
But these guys don’t even have that excuse, as revealed in the comments:

I’m wondering about this…(just daydreaming)…The derivative is e^x. One might think that the derivative will always be e^x. History – and the future – always looks the most impressive to those alive/making it.

No, dude, that isn’t how exponentials behave in real-world applications, see… Eventually constraints that weren’t applicable in the early exponential growth phase appear and… Well, it gets complicated after that.

Anyway the reactions to this graph show that people are struck by different things. Others are struck by the triumphant march of civilization. I am struck by how little all this growth nets us.
I am struck that here we are, in the Great Recession or the Lesser Depression or whatever the hell it is. Yet the size of our economic activity exceeds that of any year in history prior to 2008. It substantially exceeds that of the rip-roaring 1990s and the Morning-In-America 1980s and utterly dwarfs the productivity of the postwar boom of the 1950s.
If production is wealth, we are in the richest period ever. We could afford to go to the moon in the 1960s. But now we are in “austerity” measures. We are forcing Greece to sell itself off to bankers. We are firing all our schoolteachers.
What exactly is this thing that has grown, then? And why should we be so happy about it?
Clearly, the thing that has grown is worse than worthless unless it keeps growing, since when it stops growing, we can’t afford to educate our children. And of course, as it gets bigger and bigger, it gets harder and harder to sustain the growth. So that being the case, what glorious achievement does the graph really show? It’s not only clear to me what is ominous about this graph. It’s actually unclear to me what is so inspiring about it.
It’s terrifying that this is a thing that has to grow exponentially all the time or else we have to immediately act on an emergency basis to shut down our civilization, cutting back on parks and cultural events, removing medical coverage from great swaths of the public, firing our schoolteachers. I don’t find a thing like that something to celebrate.
Somebody, tell me again, what is all this endless increase in activity yielding us?

World Record Hottest Low Temperature

This is an all-time anywhere instrumental record:

At Khasab Airport in the desert nation of Oman, a remarkable record was set yesterday–the low temperature for the day was a scorching 41.7°C (107°F). The record was brought to [Jeff Masters’] attention by weather records researcher Maximiliano Herrera. The previous highest minimum temperature for the world he was able to find was set just last year at Khasab Airport, 41.2°C (106°F). The U.S. record high minimum temperature may be a 39.4°C (103°F) taken in Death Valley, California in 1970. Higher record high minimums were set there in the early 1920s, but the quality of the data is suspect. Mr. Herrera notes that Khasab Airport in Oman lies at the base of a mountain range, behind which is desert. Winds blowing from the desert towards Khasab Airport flow downhill, undergoing compression and warming, like the Santa Ana winds in California. Incredibly hot conditions in Oman in late June are common, due to a seasonal shift in winds caused by the onset of the Southwest monsoon in India.

More locally, the San Francisco bay area had its wettest summer day ever, and the summer in Texas is shaping up pretty nasty. Though the all-time state high temperature of 120 F still seems to be secure, an astonishing temperature of 117 F was recorded at Childress in northern Texas. As readers here will be aware, drought centered in Texas is affecting all neighboring states in both the US and Mexico as well as other parts of both countries.

Parts of Mexico expect respite from the drought in the form of severe floods, as a consequence of the season’s first Atlantic basin tropical storm, Arlene.

Images: The massive, burgeoning urban heat island at Khasab Airport, satellite image via Google Maps. (see comments below), photo by Jayavarman VII via Panoramio.

Is Full Employment Good Policy?

This is the fourth part in my utterly uncredentialed and hopelessly eccentric review of recent economic history. I will end up claiming that not only were Donella Meadows and Norbert Wiener right all along, but the the person who first picked up the thread of a civilized and sensible macroeconomics was no less than Bertrand Russell.

Previous parts are here:


The Missing Automation Crisis

and

The Leisure Crisis, Feminism, and Overwork

and

Divide and Conquer or Multiply and be Fruitful


Suppose you have a given proposition for public policy: more renewable energy, more highways, smaller teacher-to-student ratios, startup funding for entrepreneurs, public hospitals, whatever. No matter what the question, an ancillary debate always arises. Those opposing the effort will say “it is too expensive”, and those supporting it say “it is not expensive at all: it creates jobs”.

I was taught in US history in a Canadian high school that in the early days of the WPA, before federal work was well-organized, there were instances of work crews engaged to fill in ditches that other work crews has dug up. I wonder if this is true. I sort of hope it is, because there is the dignity of labor for you.

The hard-working protestant populace would not countenance paying unemployed people for their idleness, but they could tolerate paying them to undo one another’s work, as long as it raised a sweat.

By the 1970s, I had read Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings and was steeped in the ideology of the Leisure Crisis. At about this time I was subjected to an introduction to a Keynesian education at the hand of a then well-known economist who taught the introductory sequence at Northwestern. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the fellow’s name. I believe George McGovern intended to appoint him to his cabinet. Maybe someone can refresh me.

I clearly recall the argument that deficit financing in a recession was harmless, “you’re borrowing from yourselves”. Indeed Nixon said “we’re all Keynesians now”, and this counterintuitive spending-when-you’re down was regarded as an intellectual breakthrough of Galilean proportions. This is how we would avoid financial crises for ever and ever. We would employ ourselves when we were poor, build up our nest egg, and once we had reached prosperity we would pay ourselves back! Nobody would be there to complain because there would be no “them”, just “us” huzzah!

But I was unable to reconcile this with my idea that if one work gang digs a trench and another one fills it in, you might as well just fork over the mony and forego the trench-digging. Why all this fascination with full employment?

The other question, though, is demand. What exactly would people demand if they were endlessly wealthier. It wasn’t clear. For awhile, there was creeping featuritis: the three channel TV became the five channel and the twenty channel and the three hundred channel TV, but the actual demand for television didn’t change. The thousand square foot house became the five thousand square foot house, four thousand feet of which were only occupied by ill-disciplined children and their plastic detritus. Your word processor could do a god-awful job of being a spreadsheet, a desktop publishing program, and an illustration program, though when you made a numbered list in it all the enumerated items would be mysteriously numbered “5”. (Eventually Steve Jobs became fabulously wealthy by helping people finally understand that the thing they most wanted from non-professional user interfaces was fewer features that they could remeber and understand.)

In the Keynesian scheme (and the Monetarist scheme which followed it, which I don’t claim to understand as well) economic growth is the primary objective of governance, policing, education, transportation and security notwithstanding.

Such growth is expected to be substantial in “normal” times and is fueled by free choice of people to always have more, more, more.

But in the early 1970s, alarming signs of economic satisfaction began to emerge along with various ethical and spiritual dissatisfactions. “Demand” was going away. Young people, in particular, were not bending over backward in pursuit of “careers” so the trend looked bad. The dread “stagflation” emerged.

Stagflation basically derailed the Keynesian gravy train, because slow growth required stimulus while inflation required cutting back. They were not supposed to happen at the same time. (If I recall correctly, there was some mismanagement, petty by our standards, at the banks at the time which emerged as rapid inflation which in turn led to unaffordable mortgages which in turn led to – horrors – less employment and less demand!)

I believe this threat was eventually beaten back in the 1980s during the Reagan administration using a pair of interesting artifices. The first was to use the military as an instrument of economic revival. Unquestioned American technical superiority could be converted to unquestioned military superiority. The hidebound Soviet economy could be bled dry keeping up. In retrospect this part was, perhaps inadvertently, quite clever.

(Reagan himself was the first of the transparently unintelligent national republican figures, but he was following closely in the footsteps of the clever and ambitious Barry Goldwater, and now we’re getting perilously close to the LBJ story which I’ll forego at this point, except to advise you in the strongest terms to visit his memorial library when you are in Austin.)

But the second part of it was developing a new pillar of “conservative” “ideology”: that “greed is good”. Go ahead. Have the big house. So you only use that boat once a year. Buy it anyway! Think how it will impress everyone. Have houses in several states just like J. P. Morgan. We can all be fabulously wealthy, except perhaps for the famous friends and getting invited to all the right parties. But we can fake that too!

In short, a few years after the first talk of limits to growth, a few years after the emergence of an anti-materialistic counterculture, the problem was solved. Ignore the damn filthy hippies and party on! Despite the Christian posturing, I sometimes think the zeitgeist and the commercial classes were pretty much in the grips of a cocaine psychosis and an accompanying base cynicism of unprecedented proportions. (cf. Enron.)

And so, the questions of leisure and of limits and sustainability and of human ethics and of what sort of a society we wanted to build were all triumphantly subsumed in the Reagan administration by an orgy of celebrated excess and desperate growth. And still, there were these nagging episodes of flagging of demand. Would people buy ten thousand square foot houses? What to do, what to do?

Enter Private Sector Keynesianism, or Tobis’s Theory of the Requisite Kluge, also known as Microsoft. Stay tuned.

Southwest Connecticut Mountain Lion

Another heroic animal looking for the root of the trouble? Or just wanting tickets for a Broadway show? Is there a revival of Cats? (h/t @revkin)

Connecticut officials are denying that this could have been a wild cougar. But remember the South Dakota cougar in Roscoe Village, Chicago?

Also, about ten years ago I found myself ten feet from an unconstrained cougar in a part of Florida where they are not supposed to exist anymore. So I am inclined to suspect they are more common than is believed. I think these critters mostly are doing a very good job of hiding from us, but it seems the occasion daredevil among them is attracted by bright lights and big cities. Which is really pretty interesting.

Good Question

Yet another graph of the “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” variety from our friends Martin and Stefan, one which presumably some skeptic has already attacked using a linear extrapolation.

A crucial key to more-or-less genuinely skeptical misunderstanding of climate science is revealed in this question at Kloor’s from kdk33:

The most difficult, almost intractable, aspect of the technical debate (IMVHO), is the time constant argument (both MT and Bart have offered this to me recently), Basically, the idea that GHG added today lock in warming for coming decades (the system has large time constants or lag times).

So, rabid deniers like myself ask to see the scary SLR data or the extreme weather data or the runaway temperature data and the scary just ain’t there. But the MTs and Barts will say the the scary is yet to come; we must act now, hurry, if we wait for confirming scary data it will be too late.

I, rabid denier, think MT and Bart sound like carnivel seers. MT and Bart, convinced their predictions are firmly grounded in science, think I’m a knuckle draggin’ republican who believes in god and other right wing fairy tales.

Their predictions AIUI are based in part on computer models and in part on their understanding of various climate forcings and responses. One the one hand, I’m forgiving if computer models don’t get all the details right – I think they are useful, even necessary, learning tools. OTOH, I do think they are (very much) abused…

So, my question to MT and Bart and other similarly minded folks (my questions are usually ignored, indicating my position on the CaS pecking order, but nevertheless) is this: What data can you show us, what evidence can you offer, to better convince people that your projections are likely to be right.

I object to the religion-baiting but otherwise it is a perceptive question
I think a really good answer will require some work. Please don’t let me get away with forgetting. I think it is worthwhile, at least, agreeing that this is a sticking point.
But if anyone cares to venture a quick answer, please give it a try.

TX Panhandle all-time record temperature

All time high recorded at Amarillo Texas.

We were going to give you the exact time it took to melt an ice cube (with video proof), but after a quarter of an hour in the sweltering heat, all we came back with was a bag full of water, a malfunctioning iPhone and a sunburn.

Not long after we learned the temperature had finally peaked at 109 degrees, breaking the all-time high record for Amarillo, someone got the bright idea to see how long it would take to melt an ice cube on the sidewalk.

Intrepid reporter melts ice cube, iPhone; doesn’t mention climate change.

Bartlett’s Unfamiliar Quotations

Neven pointed to Albert Barlett’s “Laws of Sustainability”, published in 2006 in the anthology The Future of Sustainability by Marco Keiner and repeated at The Oil Drum. Thanks to Neven for pointing these out.

Because these claims are very close to my point of view, and in many cases articulate my point of view better than I have done to date, I will brazenly repeat them here. I have emailed Prof Bartlett asking for permission as well.

Before pasting, let me state my own caveats clearly, and one I think others holding these positions will be likely to agree with. The constraints here are essentially absolute, not culturally mediated. However, they operate on time scales long compared with conventional politics. How we get from here to there matters a good deal less than that we get there eventually. Limits to growth exist – we either plan for them or we get blindsided by them. Those are the choices.

Second, the law of limited growth, which I think ought to be explicitly stated in a rigorous form:

In a finite physical domain, in the long term average, the growth rate of any physically extensive quantity approaches exactly zero.

(note, I changed “limit” to the more correct “average”)

This includes population, and that portion of wealth that involves real control of real physical resources. We’ve already had a bit of vigorous discussion on these things here, and I especially appreciated Pangolin’s comment:

Well, we can sit on the beach in a circle and sell each other buckets of sand and call it economic growth.

Eventually, somebody is going to want a hot dog. Probably made of meat from a named animal. I suspect a soda or iced tea will be on the list of demands also.

Those items, like all similar items provided to people who engage in fictional economic activity, (cough, Wall Street, cough) have to come from the domain referred to as “physical reality.”

The only physical reality providing resources to humans is this tiny skim layer between a ball of rock and an infinitude of hard vacuum. That layer is oversubscribed and actual production is falling in several resource areas due to overuse.

So, nope. Economic growth that includes growth in the use of real materials is a no-go in the long run.

There is no limit to the growth of “fictional” activity. “Real” economic activity can reasonably be defined as activities which cause redistribution of physically extensive quantities. Fictional activity is the stuff of bubbles. When food becomes scarce, making a really great movie will not have much value.

Finally, at least one of the points does not follow directly from the law of limited growth, and this has been one that has engendered some controversy. I highlight in red those that I think require some extra reasoning.

I highlight in purple one with which I slightly disagree. I do in fact question whether what we understand as agriculture might be replaced. Most people wouldn’t like it very much, though.


First Law: Population growth and / or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.

A) A population growth rate less than or equal to zero and declining rates of consumption of resources are a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for a sustainable society.

B) Unsustainability will be the certain result of any program of “development,” that does not plan the achievement of zero (or a period of negative) growth of populations and of rates of consumption of resources. This is true even if the program is said to be “sustainable.”

C) The research and regulation programs of governmental agencies that are charged with protecting the environment and promoting “sustainability” are, in the long run, irrelevant, unless these programs address vigorously and quantitatively the concept of carrying capacities and unless the programs study in depth the demographic causes and consequences of environmental problems.

D) Societies, or sectors of a society, that depend on population growth or growth in their rates of consumption of resources, are unsustainable.

E) Persons who advocate population growth and / or growth in the rates of consumption of resources are advocating unsustainability.

F) Persons who suggest that sustainability can be achieved without stopping population growth are misleading themselves and others.

G) Persons whose actions directly or indirectly cause increases in population or in the rates of consumption of resources are moving society away from sustainability.

H) The term “Sustainable Growth” is an oxymoron.

I) In terms of population sizes and rates of resource consumption, “The only smart growth is no growth.” (Hammond, 1999)

Second Law: In a society with a growing population and / or growing rates of consumption of resources, the larger the population, and / or the larger the rates of consumption of resources, the more difficult it will be to transform the society to the condition of sustainability.

Third Law: The response time of populations to changes in the human fertility rate is the average length of a human life, or approximately 70 years. (Bartlett and Lytwak 1995) [This is called “population momentum.”]

A) A nation can achieve zero population growth if:
a) the fertility rate is maintained at the replacement level for 70 years, and
b) there is no net migration during the 70 years.
During the 70 years the population continues to grow, but at declining rates until the growth finally stops after approximately 70 years.

B) If we want to make changes in the total fertility rates so as to stabilize the population by the mid – to late 21st century, we must make the necessary changes now.

C) The time horizon of political leaders is of the order of two to eight years.

D) It will be difficult to convince political leaders to act now to change course, when the full results of the change may not become apparent in the lifetimes of those leaders.

mt: Obviously requires some detailed demographics, but this all seems pretty clear.

Fourth Law: The size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average standard of living of the population are inversely related to one another. (This must be true even though Cohen asserts that the numerical size of the carrying capacity of the Earth cannot be determined, (Cohen 1995))

A) The higher the standard of living one wishes to sustain, the more urgent it is to stop population growth.

B) Reductions in the rates of consumption of resources and reductions in the rates of production of pollution can shift the carrying capacity in the direction of sustaining a larger population.

Fifth Law: One cannot sustain a world in which some regions have high standards of living while others have low standards of living.

mt: some debate on this topic. I see it as a consequence of basic ethical principles rather than a substantive result.

Sixth Law: All countries cannot simultaneously be net importers of carrying capacity.

A) World trade involves the exportation and importation of carrying capacity.

Seventh Law: A society that has to import people to do its daily work (“We can’t find locals who will do the work,”) is not sustainable.

Eighth Law: Sustainability requires that the size of the population be less than or equal to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for the desired standard of living.

A) Sustainability requires an equilibrium between human society and dynamic but stable ecosystems.

B) Destruction of ecosystems tends to reduce the carrying capacity and / or the sustainable standard of living.

C) The rate of destruction of ecosystems increases as the rate of growth of the population increases.

D) Affluent countries, through world trade, destroy the ecosystems of less developed countries.

E) Population growth rates less than or equal to zero are necessary, but are not sufficient, conditions for halting the destruction of the environment. This is true locally and globally.

Ninth Law: ( The lesson of “The Tragedy of the Commons” ) (Hardin 1968): The benefits of population growth and of growth in the rates of consumption of resources accrue to a few; the costs of population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are borne by all of society.

A) Individuals who benefit from growth will continue to exert strong pressures supporting and encouraging both population growth and growth in rates of consumption of resources.

B) The individuals who promote growth are motivated by the recognition that growth is good for them. In order to gain public support for their goals, they must convince people that population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, are also good for society. [This is the Charles Wilson argument: if it is good for General Motors, it is good for the United States.] (Yates 1983)

mt: This is a plausible inetrpretation which I share, but it’s much weaker than the rest of it.

Tenth Law: Growth in the rate of consumption of a non-renewable resource, such as a fossil fuel, causes a dramatic decrease in the life-expectancy of the resource.

A) In a world of growing rates of consumption of resources, it is seriously misleading to state the life-expectancy of a non-renewable resource “at present rates of consumption,” i.e., with no growth. More relevant than the life-expectancy of a resource is the expected date of the peak production of the resource, i.e. the peak of the Hubbert curve. (Hubbert 1972)

B) It is intellectually dishonest to advocate growth in the rate of consumption of non-renewable resources while, at the same time, reassuring people about how long the resources will last “at present rates of consumption.” (zero growth)

Eleventh Law: The time of expiration of non-renewable resources can be postponed, possibly for a very long time, by:

i ) technological improvements in the efficiency with which the resources are recovered and used

ii ) using the resources in accord with a program of “Sustained Availability,” (Bartlett 1986)

iii ) recycling

iv ) the use of substitute resources.

Twelfth Law: When large efforts are made to improve the efficiency with which resources are used, the resulting savings are easily and completely wiped out by the added resources that are consumed as a consequence of modest increases in population.

A) When the efficiency of resource use is increased, the consequence often is that the “saved” resources are not put aside for the use of future generations, but instead are used immediately to encourage and support larger populations.

B) Humans have an enormous compulsion to find an immediate use for all available resources.

Thirteenth Law: The benefits of large efforts to preserve the environment are easily canceled by the added demands on the environment that result from small increases in human population.

Fourteenth Law: (Second Law of Thermodynamics) When rates of pollution exceed the natural cleansing capacity of the environment, it is easier to pollute than it is to clean up the environment.

Fifteenth Law: (Eric Sevareid’s Law); The chief cause of problems is solutions. (Sevareid 1970)

A) This law should be a central part of higher education, especially in engineering.

mt: Really a claim of a different ilk. Probably it doesn’t belong here. But still it’s an opinion which I share. The whole limits to growth problem is a consequence of past successes in evading the limits to growth. Had we failed in the first place, the probable reimposition of limits by nature would not be taking us by surprise.

Sixteenth Law: Humans will always be dependent on agriculture. (This is the first of Malthus’ two postulata.)

A) Supermarkets alone are not sufficient.

B) The central task in sustainable agriculture is to preserve agricultural land. The agricultural land must be protected from losses due to things such as:

i ) Urbanization and development

ii ) Erosion

iii ) Poisoning by chemicals

mt: I wonder if agriculture couldn’t be moved indoors and into three dimensional structures. I don’t think this change would be popular, though. And it would remain resource intensive, just not land intensive. It would also be resilient to widespread pollution.

Seventeenth Law: If, for whatever reason, humans fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, Nature will stop these growths.

A) By contemporary western standards, Nature’s method of stopping growth is cruel and inhumane.

B) Glimpses of Nature’s method of dealing with populations that have exceeded the carrying capacity of their lands can be seen each night on the television news reports from places where large populations are experiencing starvation and misery.

Eighteenth Law: In local situations within the U.S., creating jobs increases the number of people locally who are out of work.

A) Newly created jobs in a community temporarily lowers the unemployment rate (say from 5% to 4%), but then people move into the community to restore the unemployment rate to its earlier higher value (of 5%), but this is 5% of the larger population, so more individuals are out of work than before.

Nineteenth Law: Starving people don’t care about sustainability.

A) If sustainability is to be achieved, the necessary leadership and resources must be supplied by people who are not starving.

mt: Obviously. But not exactly a growth law.

Twentieth Law: The addition of the word “sustainable” to our vocabulary, to our reports, programs, and papers, to the names of our academic institutes and research programs, and to our community initiatives, is not sufficient to ensure that our society becomes sustainable.

Twenty-First Law: Extinction is forever.