Thursday, September 30, 2004

Another Night at Insomnia University

I had my Birkbeck exam last night, which I found slightly easier than last year's. If I decide to take this evening course, I'd have to drop my Saturday Chinese class and give up most of my free time over the next twenty months. It might be worth it, but I'll have to think deeply over the weekend as to what my strengths are. Also, I feel guilty about not looking for an alternative to the undirected way I've been cultivating my intellectual garden in the past by randomly reading purely narrative history books, blogs and op-ed pieces.

The Distinguished Gentleman from Colorado

The Renaissance-man tradition in American politics didn't die with Thomas Jefferson, it seems. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Native American Republican senator from Colorado has been honoured by the new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC. His artwork is on display at the Museum, which opened last week. According to Slate's account, the exhibit draws attention to the acclaim with which his work has received: Nighthorse was among 20 artists selected by Arizona Highways magazine for a contemporary jewelry issue.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Back to School

As well as working on the M.Sc. course at Birkbeck, I my Chinese classes at the City Lit have restarted. I've gone onto the second level, and the effort required to keep up has gone up a notch, although I've found it very hard to take even time on the train in the morning to keep up with all the new phrases, characters and written exercises.

I have the exam tomorrow for the introductory maths module of the M.Sc. Economics. I did it and passed it successfully two years ago, and then never followed up by doing the course. This time around, although I feel I've forgotten even more of my basic maths, I feel I've prepared much, much better. The module covers a lot of the material that I missed working on in depth at undergrad, such as matrix algebra and differential equations. For the most part, this stuff was assumed when I went onto the stochastic calculus and PDEs used for the derivatives models I studied during my M.Sc. Math Finance eight years ago.

I'm in two minds about the course as a whole. Maths and history , were my favourite subjects at school, but I turned my back on maths to some extent, dropping the maths, applied maths and physics I took in the Leaving Cert in favour of economics and accounting. Now going over this material, which the Birkbeck staff present logically and carefully, I'm enjoying learning it and look forward to going beyond the Sunday newspaper economics - as Paddy Waldron called it - I was stuck with at Trinity, not being allowed to take the more advanced math and econ classes there.

All the same, its a terrible burden to carry when working. Then, there's the question of how well I can actually do at the programme. Time will tell.

Thought for the day

I got a mail from Charles today inviting me to his wedding reception. I have to confess, I don't see the point in getting married - you might as well find someone you already hate and buy them a house.

Watching the Debates in Dublin

I'm booked to be in Dublin towards the end of this week. I was thinking of staying up to post on the first of the Presidential debates from home as they happen. I've asked one American expat of my acquaintence here in London to join me online, but perhaps would anyone else be interested in joining me in our own pressbox? I'd be interested to see how our commentary and analysis might turn out compared to the reports on RTE and the Irish press. With these events marking the last chance for Kerry to claw back a lead in the race, the stakes have seldom been higher. The Iowa Electronic Markets are showing 69% and 31% probabilities of victory for Bush and Kerry respectively.

From the Irish Times

Over the past twenty years, the obituary columns of some of the British broadsheets, the Daily Telegraph in particular, have gone from being a backwater to an unmissable gallery of vivid pen portraits, offering the salacious details of the lives noteworthy eccentrics and bounders, who can no longer threaten libel. The Irish Times seems to be stumbling onto the same approach, albeit unintentionally.

In Saturday's edition, the anonymous chronicler tells of one chrracter who is described as " of the godfathers of the sustainability movement". This worthy "...hated injustice of any kind and has been described as a freedom fighter for humans, animals and plants". Vegetation of all lands unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains...

The next time Monsanto creates new forms of transgenic sugar beet to be planted experimentally, maybe it will give the plants the ability to move, so they may flee these horticultural hooligans.

On the other hand, if you're interested in reading more well-defined thinking on sustainability, then I would recommend this paper by Peter Clinch of UCD, who downheartedly describes himself as being, in effect, Ireland's only professional environmental economist.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Public Enemy Number One

I read some more acute analysis of the Middle East in an unexpected place today, namely in the weekly email from scandal sheet Popbitch. In one recent issue, I hadn't heard of anyone they mentioned apart from David Hasselhof.

Anyway, the anonymous gossip-mongers seem to have figured out who exactly is the inspiration for the notorious kidnapper al-Zarqawi:
The macho posturing, the flags and logos, the righteous anger, the 50 Cent prison gym-honed muscles, the guns: Al-Z's whole image is taken straight from a Public Enemy video. All that's missing is Osama Bin Laden appearing with an enormous clock around his neck...
The other link, of course, is that Cork's answer to Michael Lind, Gavin Sheridan, posts about both of them on his blog.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

I complain a lot about standards of fact-checking and reasoning in the media, but the Guardian, for some strange reason, never prints my letters. Neither do the columnists I email to point out their mistakes ever reply.

So, I have decided to change my approach. From now on, I have decided instead to highlight the most brilliant contributions to human knowledge by awarding Monbiot Book Prizes; each winner will receive a plug here on this blog and a free copy of the introductory textbook Writing for Journalists to encourage their efforts.

The first winner is Donald MacLeod, Higher Education Editor of the Guardian for a story published last year. In June 2003, the Economic Journal, the premier outlet for the discipline in Europe, published a review of Bjorn Lomborg's book, The Skeptical [sic] Environmentalist. Given the status of the journal, I was eager to read what the authoritative voice of the economics profession might have to say. I finally tracked it down last Saturday in the British Library.

Cole writes:
There is no doubt that, at times, both the media and environmental organisations do provide a distorted impression of environmental problems. The former are concerned with providing eye catching headlines whilst the latter are concerned with increasing membership. Presumably membership growth is a positive function of bad news rather than good.
The Guardian article trancsribes this conclusion as follows: "...Cole, who does not concede that pressure groups make exaggerated gloomy claims..."

Well done, Donald, keep up the excellent work. I hope that talent like this means we'll see him contributing in the future to the Guardian's coverage of US politics or Israel.

How do Economists Think About the Environment?

I found this stimulating paper from Resources for the Future on their website in which they try to highlight common misperceptions about economists' views of the environment:
First, despite their apparent reputation, economists do not necessarily believe that the market solves all problems. Indeed, many economists--ourselves included--make a living out of analyzing "market failures" such as environmental pollution. These are situations in which laissez faire policy leads not to social efficiency, but to inefficiency.
Yes, but these, as Coase showed with his example of English lighthouses public goods may often be privately provided.

Second, when economists identify market problems, they do not (or, at least, should not) always recommend market solutions. Admittedly, our profession's tendency is to consider first the feasibility of market solutions, because of their potential cost-effectiveness, but the "hot-spot" example makes clear that market-based approaches to environmental protection are no panacea.
No, but the public sector - like public toilets - are seldom what we would prefer to use, for inescapable reaons of human motivation.

Third, when market or non-market solutions to environmental problems are being assessed, economists do not limit their analysis to financial considerations. The scope of economic analysis is much broader than financial flows. The only reason that monetary equivalents are used in benefit-cost calculations is that a more convenient set of units is simply not available.
True, true, but not everyone has the brains to crack open a textbook like the fine one written by Joe Stiglitz to figure that out.

Fourth, and finally, although the efficiency criterion is by definition aggregate in nature, economic analysis can tell us much about the distribution of both the benefits and the costs of environmental policy.
Yes, indeed.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Thought for Today

It's ten minutes to midnight and I thought I couldn't let this day go by with out reproducing this quote from Jean-Jacques Revel's How Democracies Perish:
Democratic civilisation is the first in history to blame itself because another power is working to destoy it... But it is less natural and more novel that the stricken civilisation should not only be deeply convinced of the rightness of its own defeat, but that it should regale its friends and foes with reasons why defending itself would be immoral, and in any event, superfluous, even dangerous.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Chucky's Back!

My polymath correspodent, Dr Charles Hymans, at the Ecole Polytechnique sent me some new links recently, including this paper by Garrett Hardin, coiner of the famous concept of The Tragedy of the Commons and I've just sent him a response.

I was very interested to read this paper. I hadn't realised Hardin was the author of "The Tragedy of the Commons", which must be one of the most quoted papers in social science. It's usually interpreted as arguing for the creation of property rights, with the implication that economic interest will then dictate that the externalities are borne by those with the strongest incentive to manage them.

However, I find the viewpoint here and in Tragedy shocking and disconcerting. I think a concern with overpopulation can easily degenerate into a hatred of the human race and often particular subsets of it. Many people espousing these views seem to be tainted by association with eugenics and race science, including the journal Population and Environment where this article was published. P&E was involved in some controversy after its editor acted as a character witness for David Irving in his 2000 libel trial. I'm not sure that it would be considered respectable; there is more background here.

I think there are a number of logical and empirical errors in the article, the chief one being that the Malthus theory doesn’t model any of observed historical progress of population. I've just finished an excellent non-technical book, The Elusive Search for Growth by William Easterly of NYU. His data and tests show that development in the third world is entirely uncorrelated - for good or bad - with population growth. The limits, such as they are, seem to depend on agricultural technology, the construction of good economic and political institutions and participation in international trade. To put it very simply: Production for export generates cash incomes. Then food imports and transport infrastructure give the ability to overcome local shortages with production bought and moved from other areas.

The Ethiopia storyline in particular is not consistent with the other studies on the country that I have read.

Hardin writes: "An ecological economist views the problems of poor countries in the following way. In a country like Ethiopia there are three major production factors: cropland, pasture land, and forest land. Cropland produces human food directly. Pasture land produces human food indirectly, through the conversion of (inedible) grass into (edible) meat and milk. The third production factor, forest land, is land that produces woody plants-bushes as well as trees, anything that can serve as fuel in the cooking of food."

The most detailed account of famine in Ethiopia I've read is the book by Indian economist A Sen, Poverty and Famine (OUP, 1981), which has a chapter looking at the crises there up to the mid-seventies. Sen delves into the figures and presents what seems to be a credible case that the total amount of food available in the country was not diminished by the droughts in certain areas. The transport network, mainly the roads that either their government or private traders could have used to distribute food was also unchanged. Here's a good review good review by his fellow Nobelist Ken Arrow.

Sen believes, based on his detailed case studies on Africa, India and Bangladesh, that famines may occur along with droughts and bad harvests, but they're CAUSED by lack of purchasing power on the part of the starving. If there is no cash economy available to subsistence peasant farmers, they simply cannot buy the food they need any other way, even though it is readily available.

The actions of indifferent or actively hostile governments compound this problem. Popular memory in Ireland attributes the millions of deaths and displacements of the famine of the mid-19th century to the callous disregard of the British. The cash was there and available in Britain, and even in Ireland in the form of bank deposits and financial investments to pay for the food. The rich were largely absentee Englishmen, most of whom owed their wealth to corrupt political patronage. The British electorate in general simply didn't care enough to pay the extra taxes for famine relief. Queen Victoria famously contributed more for London's stray dogs than her starving Irish subjects.

Robert Kaplan's book Surrender or Starve, published in the eighties and reissued recently is a more narrative account by an American foreign correspondent of the war and famine in Ethiopia. He interprets the catastrophe as one incident in a long line of imperial conquest and repression by the Amhara elite against the other peoples of the Abyssinian empire.

Many of the people of Ethiopia died, he reports, because their government wanted to starve their rebellious provinces of Tigre and Eritrea into submission during the thirty-year civil war. When the communist government then applied the classic Stalinist model - confiscating from the peasants to subsidise the urban working class and government elite - the result was starvation in the countryside, as it had been in the Ukraine and China. He writes admiringly of the Eritreans, who he says brought excellent organisation both to waging the war and to famine relief, largely feeding their own people and even manufacturing the pharmaceuticals they needed.

More passages in Hardin's article seem like are elliptical ways of saying "They're starving, it's their fault, screw 'em!":

'Sacred," like all old words, has many meanings and connotations. What we are concerned with here is its related meaning of sacrosanct or inviolable. When disputants say that human life is sacred they clearly mean that we should preserve every human being now living regardless of the cost, either now or in the future. Though not given to using emotionally charged words, an ecologist would be more inclined to say that the environment, not human beings, is sacrosanct. The moment this proposition is advanced the conventional moralist expostulates: "Oh! You mean you prefer the life of dickey-birds to human beings? You prefer redwood trees to people?"

Observing that people are starving is much easier to estimate than ecological "carrying capacity". Why should the repeatedly failed estimates of men like Ehrlich be taken seriously? There are no proper models of it as yet. In the meantime, perhaps Professor Hardin and his family will voluntarily starve themselves to death to leave more for the rest of us?

"This is the equilibrium of the pure Malthusian demostatic system, which holds for animal species in general..."

First, we're not animals and we’re certainly not microbes, although Hardin seems to find moving beyond the framework of his initial academic training impossible. As anybody will concede, we have a much greater capacity to manipulate our environment, whether intentionally or by accident, than any other species. These big wrinkly brains and a capacity for co-operation that is truly exceptional in nature make us unique.

"...and was true during most of historic time for the human species."

Oh, no it hasn't, and certainly not for the past three centuries, when technology and transport have improved to allow local shortages to be balanced by global plenty. None of these Malthusian scenarios of collapse have occurred anywhere in the modern world, so it’s at best a theoretical possibility that Hardin and Ehrlich are forecasting.

Population growth rates have been levelling off globally since the sixties and the UN projections now are for slow growth to a steady state level of 9-11bn people on Earth. The demographic transition is a long-standing fact in Europe. I come from a family of five and I've only one niece. As Ireland has become more prosperous, birth rates have indeed levelled off with economic growth to reach the rates normal in northern Europe.

Monday, September 06, 2004

More Monkey Business

I caught a review while at Heathrow airport a few weeks back of The Monkey Wrench Gang by science writer and London School of Economics Philosophy Professor, Colin Tudge:
Originally published in 1975, The Monkey Wrench Gang poses a question that is key to our own time: what should ordinary citizens do when their own governments do unspeakable things? According to some moral philosophers, the answer is nothing. Saint Paul professed to be against civil insurrection (though perhaps, given his devotion to the memory of Jesus, he was being disingenuous). And nothing, too, is the answer that Blair and Blunkett, Bush and Cheney would surely give: the due processes of democracy (and possibly consumerism) will sort everything out in the long run.
Here Professor Tudge is adding to the philosophical debate on how to govern the good society that has raged since the time of Socrates. However, he has made a breakthrough, no a quantum leap, nay brought forward a true revelation:
But in the long run, as John Maynard Keynes observed, we are all dead; and in truth there is no evidence that democracy, as currently understood, actually works, apart from at the level of the tribe, where the chief or chieftain rules only by consent, primum inter pares.
So, that's that absurd democracy nonsense done away with.

No doubht, we'll alll come to realise this when the hunter-gatherers of the jungle interior of Papua New Guinea come to rule the world, oh yes.

The big eejit.

The End of the Line?


I'm not sure how much longer I'm going to be able to continue writing, even at the slow pace I'm posting to this blog.

This evening, you see, I am starting the preliminary course in maths for the taught M.Sc. programme in economics at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London. I'm not sure that I can or will devote any of my much more limited spare time to anything but my work and this course. Only time will tell if they might be compatible.

The Rat Leaves the Sinking Shit

I'm reading a book on game theory at the moment, showing how the mathematical modelling of strategic behaviour can explain states' behaviour in adopting and implementing environmental treaties, as I've written about below at length here and here.

One of the most common illustrations in game theory is the famous Prisoners' Dilemma showing how lack of trust among two actors causes them to choose the worse outcome available to them because each fears that the other player will not co-operate in the common interest.

Political science graduate Richard Perle probably knows the story and now he's starting to act it out, frantically trying to put distance between himself and Conrad Black.

Today's NY Times has the story:
From his vacation home in southern France late Friday, issuing the outlines of his legal defense for the first time, Mr. Perle said that he was misled. "The special committee has concluded that Lord Black and other [associates] misled the directors of Hollinger, including me, concerning the scope of their compensation, the payment of noncompete payments and the related-party nature of several transactions," Mr. Perle said..."I did not participate in or profit in any way from the management agreements, related-party transactions or noncompete payments at issue," the Perle statement added.
Maybe florescent orange will be THE colour for Richard this winter.

Perle: "They went that way"

Saturday, September 04, 2004

News from SciAm

Two important stories on global warming in August's Scientific American.

First, the magazine briefly notes that the longest ice-core yet recovered will give a clearer picture on historical temperatures and their links to the global carbon cycle.
The bottom of the 10-centimeter-wide cylinder dates to some 740,000 years ago and nearly doubles the reach of the next-longest ice core, which was drilled at Vostok, Antarctica, in the late 1990s and spanned the past 420,000 years. Temperature records for eight ice ages are documented in the new core. Of particular interest to climatologists is the complete record of the interglacial time period known as Marine Isotope Stage 11 (MIS11), which occurred around 400,000 years ago, a time when our planet's positioning was similar to its current orbital configuration. MIS11 lasted 28,000 years--considerably longer than the next three interglacial periods before present--and understanding its progression may help scientists better predict what’s in store for the earth’s future climate.
A feature story elaborates on some of the reports that have been creeping into the newspapers about global dimming, the steadily falling amount of sunlight reaching the Earth's surface. The results will obviously cool the earth:
Estimates of the effect vary, but overall “the magnitude has surprised all of us," comments climatologist Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the University of California at San Diego. Stanhill and Cohen have pegged the solar reduction at 2.7 percent per decade over the period from 1958 to 1992. Put another way, the radiation reduction amounts to 0.5 watt per square meter per year, or about one third (in magnitude) of the warming that takes place because of carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere.
Complicating any attempt to understand the pheonomenon is the complex interactions with cloud formation and precipitation. The models used for climate change modelling will need adaptation to take account of the work, even if the effects of dimming offset increases in greenhouse gasses.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Black, the Kettle and the Pot

Pearls of stupidity were cast before the swinish media multitude this week on the release by a highly critical report Hollinger, Conrad Black's holding company for the Daily Telegraph, Jerusalem Post, Spectator and other media assets.

Richard Perle, among the most prominent of the shape-shifting twelve foot lizards running US foreign policy under the Bush administration also came in for some severe flak.

As one of three members of Hollinger's executive committee, Mr Perle allegedly approved transactions that directly benefited Lord Black "without any thought, comprehension or analysis", the FT wrote, quoting the Hollinger report. The

The Hollinger special committee report continues by highlighting the conscientiousness and attention to detail Perle brought to the role of independent director: "Perle's own description of his performance on the executive commitee was stunning. In fact he admitted that he generally did not even read [the documents] he signed or understand the transactions to which they applied". Obviously, he's just the man you need to have around when negotiating superpower nuclear missile treaties, as Perle did as Assistant Defense Secretary under Ronald Reagan.

Black seems to have condemned Perle's untruthfulness and not his self-enrichment even though it was apparent to him, writing in an email to a colleague, "As I suspected, there is a good deal of nest-feathering being conducted by Richard which I don't object to other than that there was some attempt to disguise it behind a good deal of dissembling and obfuscation".

The one bright spot for Republicans in his swamp of conceit and corporate misgovernance is that Perle, as he started out when working for Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, champion of Soviet Jewish emigration, remains a registered Democrat.

I would have published this post in much more timely way had I not been struggling in vain to come up with some amusing pun on Conrad Black's name.

Not Hot Air

I'm stuck in Environment and Statecraft as it were wet cement. A fascinating book, with both a detailed history of its subject - international environmental agreements - and an exposition of game theory which is comprehensive but with a very light touch that makes it a pleasure to read, all woven into a confident and compelling story.

Others writing on Kyoto merely say what has happened, but Barrett has made a breakthrough in explaining why the agreement faces crisis, a question that has been either neglected or subject to ideological filtering of the worst kind.

Even the official bodies seeking to guide climate policy seem, from what I have seen of their reports and public statements, not to have given as much thought to the governance structure behind any arrangements in as much depth as other questions. As a result, maybe the field has been left open to the shrillest voices and the most unsupported arguments. Or else, the unspoken assumptions seem, from my reading of the IPCC's work, to be an unspoken assumption that the UN and its often flawed multilateralism offer the only moral and practical option for managing the problem.

I've been surveying the Irish publications on climate policy but none comment on whether the treaty is worthwhile or correctly-designed, although they do have implications for weighing up the analysis in Lomborg's Skeptical Environmentalist.

Walking Back to Houston?

Texas Hold'em is perhaps the most demanding variant of poker, requiring judgment and nerves in equal measure. The players bet as common cards are dealt face up on the table, one after the other. The American economy looks like being the unpredictable decider of the Autumn elections.

Today's non-farm payroll numbers, the most reliable and closely-followed indicators of US unemployment, came out moderately strong and in-line with Wall Street's expectations with 144,00 new jobs added. With dissappointing growth, in June and July after a roaring recovery the first quarter, a weak economy could easily have left George Bush busted out, or "walking back to Houston", as Dallas card-sharps say.

Bonds went down, reflecting market consensus on imminent interest rate rises according to Bloomberg. The gaps in implied probabilities on a Bush victory on the Iowa Electronic Markets has seems to have widened out from parity with Kerry's chances to today's seven percent lead.