The generation game and the 1 per cent

For a generation (fifteen years) or more I’ve been writing and rewriting the same piece about the silliness of the “generation game”, the idea that one’s year of birth matters more than class, gender or race in determining life outcomes and attitudes. But this is a zombie idea that can never be killed.

Stephen Rattner in the New York Times is the latest example, with a piece showing that US Millennials (those born after 1980) are doing much worse than previous generations at the same age, despite higher levels of education. Rattner notes the role of the recession, now nearly a decade old, but then jumps to the conclusion that it is the Baby Boomers, as a group, who are to blame. His only evidence for this is the long-discredited claim of a looming crisis in Social Security.

Rattner doesn’t present any evidence about the recent experience of non-Millennials, but his piece leaves the impression that the experience of doing worse than older cohorts at the same age is uniquely Millennial. So I thought I’d do his work for him, and dug out this graph prepared by Doug Short HouseholdIncomeByAge As can be seen, the group suffering the biggest loss, relative to older cohorts at the same age, are those households with heads aged 45-54 in 2013, a mix of late Boomers (for aficianados, this group is called Generation Jones) and early X-ers. But the main point is that median household income is falling for all groups except the 65+ cohort (mostly called Silents in the generation game). Part of this is due to declining household size, but (IIRC) household size has stabilized recently as forming a new household has become less affordable.

Rattner doesn’t mention, even once, the obvious and well-known explanation for the fact that median income is falling while mean income rises. This can only occur if the distribution of income is becoming more skewed, with the top tail (the 1 per cent) benefiting at the expense of everyone else.

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Among critics of renewable energy, one key idea is that of Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI). The central idea can be illustrated by the case of ethanol produced from corn in the US. It’s argued by critics that the production of ethanol from corn uses more fossil fuel inputs than it displaces. The US Department of Agriculture has an EROEI slightly greater than 1, but it’s still clear that corn ethanol is not going to do much to solve the carbon dioxide problem.

Now lets look at the case of solar PV. The energy-intensive component of a solar PV module is the polysilicon used to produce the wafer, which is produced using an electric furnace. Clearly, if more electricity is used in this process than is generated by cell, EROEI < 1, and the idea does not work. We can do a rough check by observing that a typical wafer uses 5 grams/watt of polysilicon. The cost of polysilicon is $20/kg. To be conservative let's assume this is all electricity, at a cost of 5c/Kwh. Then a quick calculation shows that each watt of PV requires 2 KWh of electricity in production or about 1 year's generation in a favorable location. So, for a panel with a 10-year lifetime, the EROEI is 10. Clearly not much of a problem. The estimate omits the energy costs of the rest of the module, but that's almost certainly more than offset by the conservative assumptions about polysilicon.

Some EROEI fans don't like this calculation. They want to include all sorts of other costs, going as far as the food energy used by the workers who instal the panel. At this point, the exercise becomes one of trying to price all economic activity in terms of energy, an idea that has been tried without success for decades. For everything except energy-intensive activities like smelting, energy costs are a small part of the total, and imputing such costs to any particular energy source is a fools errand.

How our Senate (and not the US Senate) blocked the TPP

Following the breakdown of talks on the Trans Pacific Partnership last week, I did a quick reaction piece for Inside Story, making the point that our much-maligned Senate was the most important source of resistance to the demands for yet more protection for US pharmaceuticals, demands that make a mockery of both the claim that the TPP is a “free trade agreement” and the “diffusion of knowledge” rationale for the patent system.

Is an emissions trading scheme a carbon tax?

I was recently asked this question by ABC Fact Check. Here’s my answer:

The core idea of an ETS is to limit the volume of emissions (of carbon dioxide) by creating a set of permits that must be used by emitters. The permits may initially be auctioned or given away. Since the permits are tradeable a market price will be determined by the demand for permits and the willingness of permit holders to sell their permits. By contrast, a carbon tax sets a price on carbon emissions and allows the market to determine the volume of emissions.

There are a large variety of schemes that resemble the ETS in general structure. Within the environmental area, both the Renewable Energy Target and the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (if augmented with a baseline allocation and penalty structure) fall into this class. Other examples include taxi licenses, electronic spectrum auctions, and tradeable catch quotas in fisheries. None of these policies is normally described as a tax.

CCS: A fiction that has outlived its usefulness

With only a handful of pilot projects in operation around the world, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has not played a significant role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. CCS has, however, been valuable as a fiction for all those who want, for whatever reason, to avoid dealing explicitly with the fact that stabilizing the global climate will require ending the use of fossil fuels, and particularly coal. For example, rather than prohibiting new coal-fired power stations, the US EPA has proposed that only power stations equipped with CCS technology should be permitted. Since new coal stations are mostly uneconomic even without CCS, this amounts to a ban, but can be justified simply as requiring best practice.

It now appears that this fiction has outlived its usefulness. Recent reports suggest that the EPA will drop the CCS requirement in favour of the weaker requirement that all new coal-fired stations should use supercritical combustion. There are two main reasons for this

(a) The requirement might not stand up to legal challenge on the basis that CCS is not a feasible technology
(b) No new coal plants are likely to be built anyway

Meanwhile, the EU is struggling over proposals to stop subsidies for coal-fired power. Again, the compromise was to subsidise only projects with CCS. But the coal lobby is now arguing that

proposed requirements on carbon capture and storage (CCS) to neutralise emissions have to be realistic as the technology is still in its infancy.

In this context, “realistic” means supercritical and therefore theoretically ready for CCS, as opposed to actually using the technology.

Combine this with a string of cuts in funding for CCS projects, and the conclusion is inescapable. CCS is an ex-parrot.