Month: January 2018

Why does home solar energy cost so much in the United States?

Here in the land of technology leadership and free-market enterprise, American regulation has more than doubled the cost of solar.

The regulation comes in three un-American guises: permitting, code and tariffs — and together they are killing the U.S. residential market. Modernizing these regulations, primarily at the local and state level, is the greatest opportunity for U.S. solar policy in 2018.

To highlight the opportunity, let’s look at Australia, where nearly 2 million solar systems have been successfully and safely installed.

As of early December, installed costs in the main Australian markets were at $1.34 per watt, compared to $3.25 per watt in the U.S. What does that difference stem from?

In Australia, there is no permitting process. You simply lodge your request for interconnection online and go install it. The figure below highlights the relative mass of valueless work required to satisfy current city-level bureaucracy in the U.S., which adds between two and six months to delivery time and 47 cents per watt of cost directly to the installed system. That’s more than the cost of the panels themselves!

…the U.S. National Electrical Code dictates a best practice that more than doubles the installation time relative to Australia, and adds incremental hardware expense — together adding 49 cents per watt to the cost of solar. There is no discernable difference in the quality and safety of solar installations overseas relative to the U.S.

…There are no tariffs on imported hardware in Australia because it’s obvious to all that the jobs in solar are in sales and installation, not in manufacturing. That’s another 21 cents per watt in the Australians’ pocket — and a thousand dollars back into the economy per system sold.

And because solar is so much cheaper, as well as faster and easier to buy, it’s also much cheaper, faster and easier to sell. Acquisition costs in Australia average $400 per installed customer, compared to $2,500 in the U.S.

At lower cost and without the two- to six-month wait time and all of the permitting complexity, cancellation rates are minimal, compared to an average of about 30 percent for reputable U.S. companies. How many other electronics purchases do you know of that take up to half a year to be installed? That’s another 42 cents per watt of lower solar costs.

From Andrew Birch, there is much more at the link, read it and weep.  Via Felix Yates.

What Chinese viewers think of *The Last Jedi*

For China’s small but enthusiastic subculture of Star Wars fans, the latest film was a visual feast hampered by a protracted plot and uninspired characters. On popular review website Douban, the new film is rated a fairly weak 7.3, based on over 43,000 reviews. The most upvoted review complains that “the whole film really insults the IQ of its audience,” and demands to know how the universe could possibly be ruled by such an incompetent Galactic Empire. “In Star Wars, it seems only Darth Vader had a brain — it’s such a shame he’s already dead,” the reviewer concludes.


Other factors, according to Chen, include Chinese audiences’ preference for physically attractive protagonists and stories rooted in reality. He points out that, for example, superhero films from Marvel — a Disney cash cow that has enjoyed great success in China — feature recognizable settings, such as New York and even China, and are filled with larger-than-life leads who meet the public’s aesthetic standards. The Star Wars characters, meanwhile, look ordinary by comparison.

“These actors aren’t very beautiful, which may deter a lot of Chinese from seeing the recent films,” said Chen. “We fans often joke that if Finn were played by Will Smith, Chinese people might be more inclined to watch it — because he’s very handsome.”

Here is more from Sixth Tone.

The future of blockchains?

I also think it is noteworthy that actual cryptocurrency exchanges exist to get around the limitations of blockchain-based settlement. It’s hard to short bitcoins or buy bitcoins on margin, which is why exchanges exist and use off-blockchain methods (lending you money, keeping custody of your bitcoins, etc.) to allow you to do those things. (Sometimes that’s a mess!) It’s not like you’re using the blockchain to buy bitcoins with dollars on a cryptocurrency exchange; you’re using your credit card. If you want to rebuild the regular financial system along blockchain principles, you have to wrestle with the fact that even the bitcoin financial system doesn’t really operate on blockchain principles.

That is from Matt Levine.

Tuesday assorted links

It seems like there won’t be another Mickey Mouse copyright extension act

…advocates of a new copyright term extension bill wouldn’t be able to steamroll opponents the way they did 20 years ago. Any term extension proposal would face a well-organized and well-funded opposition with significant grassroots support.

“After the SOPA fight, Hollywood likely knows that the public would fight back,” wrote Daniel Nazer, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an email to Ars. “I suspect that Big Content knows it would lose the battle and is smart enough not to fight.”

“I haven’t seen any evidence that Big Content companies plan to push for another term extension,” Nazer added. “This is an election year, so if they wanted to get a big ticket like that through Congress, you would expect to see them laying the groundwork with lobbying and op-eds.”

Of course, copyright interests might try to slip a copyright term extension into a must-pass bill in hopes opponents wouldn’t notice until it was too late. But Rose doesn’t think that would work.

Here is the full piece, via someone in my Twitter feed sorry I forget.

Georgescu-Roegen vs. Henry George vs. Wakefield vs. Solow

For Georgescu-Roegen, the ultimate fixed factor is the laws of physics, due to entropy.  Economic systems cannot receive an ongoing influx of both energy and matter indefinitely, and so eventually they reach limits to growth.  At that margin substitutability breaks down and catastrophe ensues.  To check this outcome, we must find a way to live with slower rates of economic growth, and eventually a zero or negative rate of economic growth.  For him this is as much a criticism of Marxism as of capitalism, and he wrote about making do with agrarianism.  Consistent with this view, his consumer theory portrayed wants as hierarchical rather than smoothly substitutable.  He would have liked this Alex post on not all gdp being created equal.

For Henry George, the ultimate fixed factor is land, due to the nature of space.  There is always enough energy, due to Julian Simon-like arguments that allow capital and ingenuity to be substituted for all other fixed resources, except for  land.  Economic systems cannot create or activate more land indefinitely, and thus the marginal benefits of growth are captured mostly by landowners, to the detriment of social welfare.  At this final margin substitutability breaks down and widespread poverty ensues.  To check this outcome, the returns to land must be redistributed to the rest of society, ideally through a single tax.  Unlike many environmentalists, he wasn’t worried about soil erosion because land is land.

For 19th century colonial theorist Edward Gibbon Wakefield, human beings and the positive externalities from human contact are the ultimate scarcity.  If you let people settle the countryside, you will have an underpopulated republic of deplorables — there is no substitute for city life!  So the price of external farm land has to be kept high, so that settlers cluster in the city and as wage laborers contribute to ongoing innovation, urbanity, and economic growth.  Wakefield worked in New Zealand — did they listen?  If Wakefield were around today, maybe he would want to cut off broadband to large swathes of the Midwest and Appalachia.  Justly or not, he cited rural French Canadians as an example of what he was worried about, whereas Georgescu-Roegen might have appreciated their agrarianism.

For Robert Solow, ultimate fixed factors do not come into play and substitutability reigns at all relevant margins.  If some resources become scarce, just substitute in more capital.  Growth continues forever, though it can be accelerated by investing more in the ultimate growth driver, namely new ideas.  Georgescu-Roegen argued that Solow did not incorporate the idea of entropy or insights from science.

Is it proper that Solow’s model should have so dominated in the economics profession?

You cannot understand or evaluate environmentalism without revisiting these debates.  One reason many environmental critiques do not seem so strong is that they are trying to measure costs in a Solow-like framework, when in fact the underlying model might involve core non-substitutabilities, a’la the other thinkers.  Unless you stress how not all gdp is created equal, the costs of bad environmental outcomes won’t show up as very high, not relative to total wealth.  It will appear as if you always can substitute away from bearing those costs full on, even though perhaps you cannot.

My own view is that the ultimate scarcity in today’s system comes from what the political economy of our societies and polities can bear, but that must await another day.

China robot fact of the day

A number of Chinese mobile applications have been shut down after it was revealed women on their platforms were actually automated robots, it’s reported.

According to the Modern Express newspaper, police have closed down mobile apps associated with 21 companies and arrested more than 600 suspects operating across 13 provinces, after discovering that messages from some women were being automatically generated by computer programmes.

Police in southern Guangdong province began investigating in August 2017, after suspecting one app of fraudulently charging visitors to view pornographic videos which did not exist.

Further investigation found that technical personnel from at least one company had created fake “sexy girl” accounts. They wrote computer programmes which generated greeting messages and compliments from fake accounts, and targeted these at newly registered users.

Here is the full story, via Anecdotal.

Monday assorted links

1. How emoji are born.

2. The fast book outliner.

3. Baffling bathrooms, I very much relate to this.

4. “the surprising positive genetic correlation between intelligence and autism…

5. “The project is intellectual, involving a change in beliefs, but it is not only intellectual — and its intellectual character is inseparable from its affective and motivational character.” Agnes Callard in the NYT.

6. Eli on Ethereum vs. Bitcoin.

7. India clings to cash? (NYT).

Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid?

I added the question mark, the subtitle of that article is: “Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases.”  It is by Scott O. Lilienfeld,  Here is one excerpt:

(11) Gold standard. In the domains of psychological and psychiatric assessment, there are precious few, if any, genuine “gold standards.” Essentially all measures, even those with high levels of validity for their intended purposes, are necessarily fallible indicators of their respective constructs (). As a consequence, the widespread practice referring to even well-validated measures of personality or psychopathology, such as ) Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, as “gold standards” for their respective constructs () is misleading (see ). If authors intend to refer to measures as “extensively validated,” they should simply do so.

(14) Influence of gender (or social class, education, ethnicity, depression, extraversion, intelligence, etc.) on X. “Influence” and cognate terms, such as effect, are inherently causal in nature. Hence, they should be used extremely judiciously in reference to individual differences, such as personality traits (e.g., extraversion), or group differences (e.g., gender), which cannot be experimentally manipulated. This is not to say that individual or group differences cannot exert a causal influence on behavior (), only that research designs that examine these differences are virtually always (with the rare exception of “experiments of nature,” in which individual differences are altered by unusual events) correlation or quasi-experimental. Hence, researchers should be explicit that when using such phrases as “the influence of gender,” they are almost always proposing a hypothesis from the data, not drawing a logically justified conclusion from them. This inferential limitation notwithstanding, the phrase “the influence of gender” alone appears in over 45,000 manuscripts in the Google Scholar database (e.g., ).

It is difficult to use words properly, they don’t even want me to say “operational definition” again!

For the pointer I thank Denis Grosz.

What is the best book about each country?

I believe it was Dan Wang who loved the Robert Tombs book The English and Their History and asked for more books of that nature.  Another reader wrote in and wanted to know what was the best book about each country.

To count, the book must have some aspirations to be a general survey of what the country is or to cover much of the history of the country.   So your favorite book on the French Revolution is not eligible, for instance, nor is Allan Janik’s and Stephen Toulmin’s splendid Wittgenstein’s Vienna.  I thought I would start with a list of some nominees, solicit your suggestions in the comments, and later produce a longer post with all the correct answers.

1. England/Britain: Robert Tombs, The English and Their History.  Here is MR coverage.

2. Germany: Peter Watson, The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century.

3. Italy: Luigi Barzini, The Italians.  Or David Gilmour, The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Peoples, and their Regions.

4. Spain: John Hooper, The Spaniards.

5. France: Graham Robb: The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography.

6. Portugal: Barry Hatton, The Portuguese: A Modern History.

7. Ireland: Thomas Bartlett, Ireland: A History.

8. Russia: Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians.  One of the very best books on this list.

9. Ukraine: Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.

10. The United States: Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America.  Or de Tocqueville?  John Gunther’s Inside U.S.A.?

11. Canada: ????.  Alex?

12. Mexico; Alan Riding, Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans.  Even though it, like the Barzini book, is out of date.

13. Caribbean: Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, Island People: The Caribbean and the World.

I’ll give South America further thought, Africa and the Middle East too.

14. Cambodia: Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia.

15. India: Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India.  Or India, by Michael Wood.

16. Pakistan: Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country.

17. China: ????  I find this to be a tough call.

18. Singapore and Malaysia: Jim Baker, Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore.

19. Japan: In the old days I might have suggested Karel von Wolferen, but now it is badly out of date.  What else?

Joe Studwell, How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region gets tossed in somewhere too.

All of those are subject to revision.

Do leave your suggestions in the comments, and at some point I’ll publish an expanded and updated version of this post, with additional countries too, or perhaps split into multiple posts by region.

Here 22 ambassadors recommend one book to read before visiting their country, mostly mediocre selections.   Here is a suggested list of the most iconic book from each country.  Don’t take me as endorsing those.

Against teacher collective bargaining

Our estimates suggest that teacher collective bargaining worsens the future labor market outcomes of students: living in a state that has a duty-to-bargain law for all 12 grade-school years reduces earnings by $800 (or 2%) per year and decreases hours worked by 0.50 hours per week. The earnings estimate indicates that teacher collective bargaining reduces earnings by $199.6 billion in the US annually. We also find evidence of lower employment rates, which is driven by lower labor force participation, as well as reductions in the skill levels of the occupations into which workers sort. The effects are driven by men and nonwhites, who experience larger relative declines in long-run outcomes.

That is from a new paper by Michael Lovenheim and Alexander Willen, via Noah Smith.

What should I ask Charles C. Mann?

I will be doing a Conversation with Charles (no public event), what should I ask him?  Charles is one of my favorite writers, as he is the author of 1491, 1493, and the new and excellent The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.

Here is yet another excerpt from the latter book:

Rodale died in 1971 — bizarrely, on a television talk show, suffering a heart attack minutes after declaring “I never felt better in my life!” and offering his host his special asparagus boiled in urine.

I thank you all in advance for your wisdom and inspiration.  Here is Charles’s home page, he also has many excellent magazine articles.

Sunday assorted links

1. White noise video on YouTube hit by five copyright claims.

2. Charlie Stross’s update on the Charlie Stross view of the world and why we may be doomed.

3. Inside the Amish town that helps build rock and roll sets.

4. “However, another company, GenePeeks, Inc., was established precisely for the purpose of molecularly genotyping potential donors, though it is currently only aimed at predicting possible rare diseases in offspring between clients and donors. It seems a small step to include other non-medical traits of interest, however, especially if they can be accurately predicted from polygenic profiles. Currently, things like intelligence cannot be accurately predicted for an individual, but it may be possible to generate comparative scores that would influence donor selection. The new company Genomic Prediction, Inc., aims to use polygenic profiles to predict risk for complex disorders – the same approach could certainly be used for many non-medical traits.”  Link here.

5. Lauren Gunderson, an Atlantan living in San Francisco, is America’s most produced playwright.

6. “You’re Most Likely to Do Something Extreme Right Before You Turn 30… or 40, or 50, or 60 …”  Measured effects of that kind don’t always hold up, but fyi.  Addendum: Andrew Gelman says no.

The Minimum Wage, EITC, and Criminal Recidivism

From Amanda Y. Agan and Michael D. Makowsky, here is an new and important approach:

For recently released prisoners, the minimum wage and the availability of state Earned Income Tax Credits (EITCs) can influence both their ability to find employment and their potential legal wages relative to illegal sources of income, in turn affecting the probability they return to prison. Using administrative prison release records from nearly six million offenders released between 2000 and 2014, we use a difference-in-differences strategy to identify the effect of over two hundred state and federal minimum wage increases, as well as 21 state EITC programs, on recidivism. We find that the average minimum wage increase of 8% reduces the probability that men and women return to prison within 1 year by 2%. This implies that on average the wage effect, drawing at least some ex-offenders into the legal labor market, dominates any reduced employment in this population due to the minimum wage. These reductions in re-convictions are observed for the potentially revenue generating crime categories of property and drug crimes; prison reentry for violent crimes are unchanged, supporting our framing that minimum wages affect crime that serves as a source of income. The availability of state EITCs also reduces recidivism, but only for women. Given that state EITCs are predominantly available to custodial parents of minor children, this asymmetry is not surprising. Framed within a simple model where earnings from criminal endeavors serve as a reservation wage for ex-offenders, our results suggest that the wages of crime are on average higher than comparable opportunities for low-skilled labor in the legal labor market.

But two days ago I ran into Amanda and family at Penang restaurant in Philadelphia…

Saturday assorted links