Pakistan earthquake appeal

It’s more than three months since Pakistan suffered a devastating earthquake, with huge loss of life, and still many people are in desperate need of help. Much of the aid promised in the immediate aftermath has not materialised (sadly, this often happens). You can read more here.

So with most people back from the Christmas break, I thought this would be a good time for another fundraising appeal. Given some of the mammoth comments threads we’ve seen lately, I thought about reviving the “cash for comment” idea, but I decided to stick with the simpler plan of matching funds.

Please give as much as you can afford to a Pakistan earthquake appeal of your choice (I’m giving to Oxfam), and send a comment or email advising me of the amount. I’ll match the total amount given, up to $1000.

Remember that all this is tax-deductible, so the final cost to a taxpayer on the top marginal rate is only $50 cents for a final donation (counting my matching money) of $200. Or someone on the 30 per cent rate could give $50 and get $15 back, a net cost of $35 for an effective donation of $100.

Update Tuesday 0830 Already a total of $600 has been raised, with generous $100 contributions from Harry Clarke, James Farrell and (by email) Steve Edwards.

Monday message board

It’s time, once again for the Monday Message Board. As usual, civilised discussion and absolutely no coarse language, please[1].

fn1. Given recent problems with trolls and generally heated debate, I’m going to come down harder on this. Please don’t use any abusive language, swear words including *ster*sked versions and so on.

What I've been reading

Orwell, Collected Essays. I bought a set of these years ago, but lost Volume 3, which I’ve just replaced. It still stands up very well after all these years, and has lots of fascinating stuff to dip into, such as a defence of English cooking.

Orwell is one of those writers, like Shakespeare, who lots of people have tried to claim, particularly during the Cold War. I was particularly interested therefore, to read his very level-headed assessment of the British Communist Party and his observation that its fluctuating membership was inversely proportional to the extent to which it embraced revolutionary politics and to which Russian and British foreign policy was in conflict. However sharp his phraseology at times, Orwell always stood against heresy-hunters, and he would certainly have recognised the kinship between McCarthyism and Stalinism.

In plain view

The New Republic has a piece by Paul Thacker pointing out that Fox News science columnist Steven Milloy is a shill for, among other corporations, Philip Morris and ExxonMobil. It’s behind a paywall but that scarcely matters, because the relevant facts have been on the public record for years. As usual, Tim Lambert has the most detailed coverage, but a search of this blog or Crooked Timber will produce plenty more, and most of the info has been in Milloy’s Wikipedia entry for some time. In this context, the claim by Fox News, reported by TNR, that they were unaware of Milloy’s corporate payoffs speaks volumes for their capacity as a news organisation. I guess when you can just make it up, you don’t need to use Google.

What seems to be happening here, as with the Abramoff scandal is that facts that have been in plain view for ages can now be fitted into a media narrative – Republican sleaze in general and pundits for hire in particular. Whereas evidence of these kinds of links has been ignored or brushed aside in the past, they can now be seen as part of a systematic pattern of corruption.

If this narrative keeps running it’s going to make life a lot more difficult for the network of rightwing thinktanks and lobby groups that have proliferated in the US over the past two decades or so. Apart from the fact that most of them have at least one individual shill or fraud already exposed (AEI with Lott, Hudson with Fumento, Cato with Bandow and Milloy, TCS from top to bottom[1]) it’s going to become increasingly obvious that these guys have done little more than some unauthorised moonlighting. The organisations are engaged in the same kind of shilling, but on a larger scale. It’s hard to see how they can retain any credibility, or how any reputable person can continue work for any of them, unless all of the shills are sacked, and the organisations become a lot more open about their funding.

In this context, it’s heartening to note that Milloy has quietly departed from Cato where he was an adjunct scholar until the end of 2005. I don’t suppose this post had anything to do with it, but having called for Cato to sack him, I’m glad they’ve parted company. How long will it take Fox News to do something similar?

fn1. Except for Tim Worstall, who seems unaffected by the general atmosphere there.

Castles and Henderson, again

People who’ve been following the debate about global warming closely will be aware that the economic modelling used in projections of future climate change by the IPCC has been severely criticised by former Australian Statistician Ian Castles and former OECD chief economist David Henderson. The critique emerged in a rather confused form, with a number of letters and opinion pieces before finally being published in contrarian social science journal Energy and Environment. Responses, including mine, have been similarly partial and sporadic.

I’ve finally prepared a full-scale response to the main claim made by Castles and Henderson, that the use of market exchange rates, rather than “Purchasing Power Parity” conversion factors for national currencies, biases estimates of future emissions upwards. My conclusion is that although PPP measures are preferable in comparisons of national welfare, the biases introduced by using market exchange rates are not important in modelling emissions and will, on average, cancel out. You can read it all here.

Update: Ian Castles has sent a response which I’ve posted here. It doesn’t seem to me that Ian responds to my argument except to deny that the MER/PPP issue was the main point of the critique.

I should also note that Holtsmark and Alfsen (2004), whose paper I’ve just found, present much the same argument as mine.

Further update In the comments discussion, a fair degree of common ground has been reached. Ian clarifies that he and Henderson object to MER conversion factors, but not because they bias projections of emissions, saying

I agree that these arguments (about the errors in GDP growth and emissions intensity reductions cancelling one another out) are sound as a first approximation.

Ian makes the valid point that use of MER conversion produces the incorrect conclusion that the energy-intensity of LDCs is about the same as prevailed in developed countries when their income was similar. This could lead to misleading policy inferences, for example with respect to mitigation policy and should be corrected.

I agree with Ian that it is better to use PPP measures consistently, and that the sooner the IPCC does this the better. On the other hand, I think it’s important to make the point that the widely-repeated claims that IPCC projections of emissions are fundamentally erroneous because of the choice of exchange rate are not supported by careful analysis.

Weekend reflections

Weekend Reflections is on again. Please comment on any topic of interest (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Feel free to put in contributions more lengthy than for the Monday Message Board or standard comments.

An ounce of inefficiency (Crossposted at CT)

This post by Belle Waring at CT, on the fact that the US appears unlikely ever to go metric prompted me to try and put together some thoughts I’ve had for a long time.

When I lived in the US around 1990, I was struck by all sorts of minor inefficiencies that seemed to be sanctified by tradition. In addition to its unique system of weights and measures (similar to, but confusingly different from, the Imperial system I had grown up with), there was the currency, with no coin of any substantial value, thanks to inflation (this particular inefficiency was subsequently enshrined in the Save the Greenback Act), and the practice of quoting prices net of sales tax, so you always had to pay more than the marked price. And then there was a huge, but ill-defined, range of activities where tips were expected, apparently regardless of the quality of service. In all of these cases, Americans seemed much more willing to put up with day-to-day inefficiency in the name of tradition than Australians would be, and much more resistant to government action that would sweep such inefficiencies away in the name of reform.

Bigger issues like creationism can be fitted into this picture. As far as I can see, very few supporters of creationism (or intelligent design or what have you) have any desire to see it taught in university biology departments [there are a handful of exceptions, like Bob Jones, that are resolutely stuck in the pre-Civil War era on most things] or applied by oil geologists. Their big objection is seeing evolution stated as fact in museum displays or taught in high schools. Broadly speaking the position seems to be like that with the metric system – scientists are welcome to be evolutionists as long as they don’t try and ram it down the throats of our kids. Obviously, this is costly; as with metric and traditional measures, the two systems are bound to clash from time to time.

Then there’s the inefficiency that seems to be built in to the US system of government. When I lived there, I was subject to four different levels of government (town, county, state and federal) with multiple overlapping responsibilities, and procedures that seem designed to achieve maximal inconvenience for citizens (not to mention resident aliens!).

All of this of course, was set against the background of a general level of technology in advance of very other country in the world, and an economic system in which the pursuit of efficiency wasn’t much hindered by concerns about equity. At least for the upper-middle class to which I belonged, these things produced a very high standard of living.

How much do these minor inefficiencies matter? In one sense, I think, quite a lot. In another, they don’t matter very much at all, and can in fact be defended on cultural grounds

The direct costs of the inefficiencies I’ve mentioned are all small, but taken together I wouldn’t be surprised if they added up to several percentage points of national income, or hundreds of billions of dollars per year. I think, for example, that a payment of a dollar a day would be a bargain for an average American adult if it could deliver a sensible coinage and posted prices that actually corresponded to the amount to be paid. Multiplied out, that’s around $60 billion a year or 0.5 per cent of national income. And requirements for goods to be made in non-metric measures amount to a kind of trade barrier which seems likely to have a similar cost.

Even more than this, the attitude underlying the adherence to traditional measures is that the US is rich enough and important enough to do what it likes, and the rest of the world can like it or lump it (an attitude not unique to this issue). There’s a lot of truth in this, and it helps to explain why the US is pretty much self-sufficient in a wide range of cultural services. On the other hand, it’s not conducive to success in export markets for goods. Now that the US no longer has a big technological lead, the lack of interest in what foreigners think is one of the factors explaining big trade deficits with almost every other country in the world (Australia is one of the few exceptions).

So, in these ways, adherence to inefficient traditions matters quite a lot. On the other hand, taking the long-term historical view, they scarcely matter at all. Suppose inefficiency costs 6 per cent of national income. With productivity rising at a rate of 2 per cent a year, that means that the average living standard that might have been reached in 2006 will in fact be reached in 2009. For any given person, this trend effect will be swamped by year to year fluctuations in income and expenses. And in most households, there are probably inefficient arrangements that cost a fair bit, but are maintained because that’s the way things have always been done in the family.

Moreover, looking around the world it seems that nearly every country has its sanctified inefficiencies. France has its heavily protected agriculture, as does Japan, and Britain has a whole set of hangovers from the class system and reactions against it. I don’t buy general claims about Eurosclerosis, but there are clearly plenty of features of European social welfare systems that don’t stand up to close scrutiny. In Australia, although agricultural protection is pretty much gone, we spend a lot of money ensuring that much the same bundle of services is available everywhere in the country at the same price, regardless of the cost of delivery.

In a world where the level of technological development and the basic pattern of consumption are much the same in all developed countries, such idiosyncratic differences between countries that are an important barrier to a completely globalised uniformity.

BTW, if you want to comment on this post, you might be better off at CT which is currently leading JQ 92-0.