Results for “air pollution”
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Paul Krugman on Gary Johnson, libertarianism, and pollution

Paul Krugman is upset that many Millennials are toying with the idea of voting for Gary Johnson rather than Hillary Clinton.  He offers a number of arguments, here is one of them:

What really struck me, however, was what the [Libertarian Party] platform says about the environment. It opposes any kind of regulation; instead, it argues that we can rely on the courts. Is a giant corporation poisoning the air you breathe or the water you drink? Just sue: “Where damages can be proven and quantified in a court of law, restitution to the injured parties must be required.” Ordinary citizens against teams of high-priced corporate lawyers — what could go wrong?

That is the opposite of the correct criticism.  The main problem with classical libertarianism is that it doesn’t allow enough pollution.  Under libertarian theory, pollution is a form of violent aggression that should be banned, as Murray Rothbard insisted numerous times.  OK, but what about actual practice, once all those special interest groups start having their say?  Historically, under the more limited government of the 19th century, it was big business that wanted to move away from unpredictable local and litigation-driven methods of control, and toward a more systematic regulatory approach at the national level.  There is a significant literature on this development, starting with Morton Horwitz’s The Transformation of American Common Law.

If you think about it, this accords with standard industrial organization intuitions.  Established incumbents prefer regulations that take the form of predictable, upfront high fixed costs, if only to limit entry.  And to some extent they can pass those costs along to consumers and workers.  The “maybe you can sue me, maybe you can’t” regime is more the favorite of thinly capitalized upstarts that have little to lose.

So under the pure libertarian regime, big business would come running to the federal government asking for systematic regulation in return for protection against the uncertain depredations of the lower-level courts.  It is fine to argue the court-heavy libertarian regime would be unworkable for this reason, or perhaps it would collapse into a version of the status quo.

That would be a much more fun column: “Libertarian view untenable, implies too high a burden on polluters.”  I’m not sure that would sway the Bernie Brothers however.

Some of the criticisms of libertarianism strike me as under-argued:

And if parents don’t want their children educated, or want them indoctrinated in a cult…Not our problem.

Rates of high school completion were below 70% for decades, until recently, in spite of compulsory education.  Parents rescuing children from the neglect of the state seems at least as common to me as vice versa.

And what is the status quo policy on taking children away from parents who belong to “cults”?  Unusual religions can be a factor in contested child custody cases (pdf), but in the absence of evidence of concrete harm, such as beatings or sexual abuse, the American government does not generally take children away from their parents, cult or not.  Germany and Norway differ on this a bit, for the most part this is, for better or worse, the American way.  That’s without electing Gary Johnson.

By the way, Gary Johnson slightly helps Hillary Clinton.  Although probably not with New York Times readers.

Europe pollution fact of the day

Europe’s air is less corrosive than it once was, and much less foul than China’s or India’s. Industrial decline and clean-air policies since the 1950s have brought levels of many pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide, fine particulate matter (a dust that can irritate lungs), and nitrogen oxides down over the past few decades. Yet more than 400,000 Europeans still die prematurely each year because of air pollution, according to the European Environmental Agency. In 2010 the health-related costs were thought to be between €330 billion ($437 billion) and €940 billion, or 3%-7% of GDP.

Nine out of ten European city-dwellers are exposed to pollution in excess of guidelines produced by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Some of the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide are found in London; several cities in Turkey are choked with high levels of PM10 (particulate matter of at most 10-micron diameter). But some of the worst pollution is in Eastern Europe (see map). Coal-fired power stations are still common there, and some pollutants blow in from the rest of Europe. The commission is prosecuting 18 governments for infringing pollution limits.

Researchers at King’s College London have found that a child born in London in 2010 can expect to have his life cut short by nine months as a result of breathing its high levels of PM2.5—the very finest particulate matter—if pollution levels do not change.

That article excerpt is from The Economist.

Governments are more likely than businesses to break pollution regulations

I believe I linked to an earlier version of these results a while ago, but the point deserves reiteration:

For the study, Konisky and Teodoro examined records from 2000 to 2011 for power plants and hospitals regulated under the Clean Air Act and from 2010 to 2013 for water utilities regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The study included over 3,000 power plants, over 1,000 hospitals and over 4,200 water utilities — some privately owned and others owned by public agencies.

  • For power plants and hospitals, public facilities were on average 9 percent more likely to be out of compliance with Clean Air Act regulations and 20 percent more likely to have committed high-priority violations.

  • For water utilities, public facilities had on average 14 percent more Safe Drinking Water Act health violations and were 29 percent more likely to commit monitoring violations.

  • Public power plants and hospitals that violated the Clean Air Act were 1 percent less likely than private-sector violators to receive a punitive sanction and 20 percent less likely to be fined.

  • Public water utilities that violated Safe Drinking Water Act standards were 3 percent less likely than investor-owned utilities to receive formal enforcement actions.

Konisky said the findings are significant but not surprising. Government entities have higher costs of complying with regulations because they often must go through political processes to raise the money needed to improve their facilities. And they may face pushback from customers or taxpayers who object to higher rates and have the political power to block them.

Public entities also face lower costs for violating the regulations, the authors argue. There is evidence from other studies that they are able to delay or avoid paying fines when penalties are assessed. And officials with regulatory agencies may be sympathetic to violations by public entities, because they understand the difficulty of securing resources in the public sector.

The full Indiana press release is here, and for the pointer I thank Charles Klingman.

Tradeable Pollution Permits

The latest release of our principles of economics class covers Externalities, Costs and Profit Maximization, Competition and the Invisible Hand, and Monopoly.

I am especially fond of our video, Trading Pollution, which explains the economics of tradeable pollution permits. Tyler and I worked with the incredibly talented team at Tilapia Film for a long time on a montage involving jigsaw puzzle pieces that’s near the middle of the video. The montage is only a few seconds long but I think it’s a beautiful way of illustrating how the price system draws upon information that is dispersed across many minds. There is a lot of deep economics behind the visual metaphors.

Addendum: For those of you using our textbook, this video and others are available directly from the textbook (using QR codes) and also available with assessment in our course management system, Launchpad.

When did Korea clean up its air? (Korea fact of the day)

If you are going to ask “when will China clean up its air?”, you might wish to look at South Korea, a country with a broadly similar industrial profile, although of course Korea is much further along in terms of economic development.

As of 2002, South Korea was ranked 120th of 122 countries for air quality by the World Economic Forum.  And at that time South Korea was pretty much a fully developed nation, economically speaking that is.  South Korea was also already a democracy, and we know from Casey Mulligan (with Gil and Sala-i-Martin) that democracies tend to have cleaner air than autocracies, ceteris paribus.

Might we consider the possibility that China won’t clean up its air anytime soon?  The good news, however, is that once Korea started its environmental clean-up, improvements came pretty rapidly.  More recently, they come in at #43 on a more general index of environmental quality.

That fact is from Dong-Young Kim, The Challenges of Consensus Building in a Consolidating Democracy.

Why am I reminded of The Clean Air Act of 1963?

Here is one very brief history:

Each state was given primary responsibility for assuring that emissions sources from within their borders are consistent with the levels designated by the NAAQS. In order to achieve these goals, each state is required to submit a State Implementation Plan (SIP) to the EPA to ensure the implementation of primary and secondary air quality standards…Since many states failed to meet mandated air quality standards first set by the Clean Air Act, Congress created the 1977 amendments to aid states in achieving their original goals.

That is just one bit of course.  More broadly, people focus on The Clean Air Act of 1970, but of course the original legislation was from 1963 and it was extremely ineffective because it had inadequate popular support and the issue was not yet a major concern.  It had to be revised/amended in 1965 and 1967 and 1970 and then also 1977 and 1990.  Yet the 1963 act did set definite standards for stationary (but not mobile) pollution sources and mandated a timetable for adoption, albeit with a lot of state flexibility for meeting the new standards.  All of that went nowhere.  And that was an act passed directly by Congress, not just an Executive Order.  Even in those days, a lot of actual progress in the fight against air pollution came through the replacement of dirty coal by natural gas, a process which had started in the 1920s and spread through America in successive waves.

Here is a typical paragraph about early policy ineffectiveness, from a useful essay:

By 1970, it was “abundantly clear” to Congress that federal legislative efforts to fight air pollution were inadequate. State planning and implementation under the 1967 Act had made little progress.Congress attributed this “regrettably slow” progress to a number of other factors including the “cumbersome and time-consuming procedures” in the 1967 Act, inadequate funding at the federal, state, and local levels, and the lack of skilled personnel to enforce pollution requirements. Commentators have also suggested that federal legislation prior to 1970 failed because of both an inability and an unwillingness on the part of the states to deal with air pollution.

When I read about the new Obama plan, I am reminded of 1963, and also 1965 and 1967.  For all of the hullaballoo you are hearing — whether positive or negative — keep this in mind.

Addendum: Most of the best sources on the 1963 Act are off-line.  But here is an interesting essay about some of the federalistic issues behind the enforcement of the various Clean Air Acts, mostly post-1963.  Here is the text of the 1963 law, for one thing it is amazing how short it is.

The roots of Chinese pollution

A detailed analysis of powerplants in China by MIT researchers debunks
the widespread notion that outmoded energy technology or the utter
absence of government regulation is to blame for that country’s
notorious air-pollution problems. The real issue, the study found,
involves complicated interactions between new market forces, new
commercial pressures and new types of governmental regulation…

China’s power sector has been expanding at a rate roughly equivalent to
three to four new coal-fired, 500 megawatt plants coming on line every
week…most of the new plants have been built to very high technical
standards, using some of the most modern technologies available. The
problem has to do with the way that energy infrastructure is being
operated and the types of coals being burned.

The good news is that there is a single lever — coal quality — that could have an enormous impact on Chinese pollution levels.  Here is the full story.

Why Chinese pollution is such a tough problem

Alex is back, alive and well.  But he still has a raspy voice from sucking in all that air pollution.  Here is one reason why, as explained by Brad Plumer:

China’s central government is well aware that its blackened rivers and
sunless skies are a problem, not just because they’re sparking riots
and social unrest, but because out-of-control environmental degradation
is imperiling the country’s economic growth. Lately, Beijing has issued
a slew of bold–at least on paper–environmental regulations. But the
laws are doing little good because the central government can barely
enforce them in its own provinces. This structural problem will remain
the key to China’s environmental dilemma, and, as countries attempt to
push Beijing toward a cleaner future, they’ll discover that the capital
is the least of their troubles.

The central government has passed some fairly "green" laws but often to little avail:

Beijing is aware of this local lawlessness, but has had little success
handling it. "China used to send in swat teams from the central
government," says Barbara Finamore, who directs the Natural Resources
Defense Council’s (NRDC) China program. "I’ve seen these campaigns
going on for twenty years– they’ll come in, shut down some factories,
and, when they leave, they’ll open up again."

Envy pollution

Greg Mankiw considers Brad DeLong’s view that the presence of the rich makes the poor worse off.  Jane Galt discusses Cindy Crawford.  I will add the following:

1. Often the rich make us feel we are worse off when we fill out questionnaires, but the quality of experienced life doesn’t go down much from their existence.

2. Consider food.  If I hear of other people visiting El Bulli, I might downgrade the quality of my own eating life on a survey.  But I don’t enjoy my Sichuan Chili Chicken or my Silpancho any less.

3. "…its a great testament to economic progess that, walking round the city
center these days, say, it’s very hard to differentiate the rich and the
poor in the first instance. In this sense, things have indeed become a
lot more egalitarian."  That is from one of Greg’s commentators.

4. Envy tends to be local.  Few Americans resent Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.  The real definition of a wealthy man is one who earns more than his wife’s sister’s husband.

5. Greg Mankiw suggests that perhaps we segregate the rich into places like Nantucket and Aspen, so as to minimize the envy of the poor.  That won’t get at the root of the problem, as expressed in #4. 

What we need to do is tax gatherings of extended family and other like-minded people.

Tuesday assorted links

1. New CBA for the child allowance, showing basically a 10x benefit to cost ratio.

2. New survey of the non-health effects of air pollution.

3. The importance of teaching frontier knowledge.

4. Marcus Rediker’s tips for historical writing, excellent and also of more general interest.

5. The current state of nuclear brinksmanship (NYT).

6. “Companies are marketing polygenic risk scores as part of IVF…”  And more here.

7. UCLA will pay that adjunct after all.

Thanksgiving assorted links

1. Why do frozen turkeys explode when deep fried?

2. “Former South Korean military dictator Chun Doo-hwan has died at age 90. This means all living former South Korean Presidents are currently in jail.”  Tweet link here.

3. David Wallace-Wells on the tragedy of regular ol’ air pollution.

4. The case against the Trump-Biden tariffs (NYT).

5. New dating terms.

6. Walmart “cancels” children’s toy that swears and sings in Polish about doing cocaine.

7. Georgia politician stands by giant topiary chicken that got him ousted as mayor.

8. Long list of things to be thankful for.

Yglesias on CRT

Matt Yglesias has an excellent post on schooling and politics emphasizing three points. First, there is a lot of diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) nonsense which the schools are using to train teachers and administrators. Second, at the same time the school administrators/teacher’s unions are generally ignoring the very real cost to children and parents of the school closures, including the costs of a widening racial gap. Third, the schools are stigmatizing testing under the guise of promoting equity but in reality because the teacher’s unions know that when you test children you learn that not all teachers are equally capable.

[The DC Public Schools] also recommend that people read a bunch of Robin DiAngelo books and brag that “more than 2,000 DCPS staff have participated in Courageous Conversation training.” But is Courageous Conversation training a good idea? This NYT Magazine profile of the company and its founder made it sound pretty bad:

Singleton, who holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford, and who did stints in advertising and college admissions before founding what’s now known as Courageous Conversation in 1992, talks about white culture in similar ways. There is the myth of meritocracy. And valuing “written communication over other forms,” he told me, is “a hallmark of whiteness,” which leads to the denigration of Black children in school. Another “hallmark” is “scientific, linear thinking. Cause and effect.” He said, “There’s this whole group of people who are named the scientists. That’s where you get into this whole idea that if it’s not codified in scientific thought that it can’t be valid.” He spoke about how the ancient Egyptians had “ideas about how humanity works that never had that scientific-hypothesis construction” and so aren’t recognized. “This is a good way of dismissing people. And this,” he continued, shifting forward thousands of years, “is one of the challenges in the diversity-equity-inclusion space; folks keep asking for data. How do you quantify, in a way that is scientific — numbers and that kind of thing — what people feel when they’re feeling marginalized?” For Singleton, society’s primary intellectual values are bound up with this marginalization.

I don’t think Frankfurt School Marxists are going to take over society by injecting these ideas into K-12 schools or anything like that. What I so think is that time and money is being wasted on initiatives that are run by people who are somewhere between stupid and fraudulent.

And it’s important to take that seriously, not just because someone somewhere may take these goofy ideas seriously (see prior commentary about Tema Okun), but because fiscal tradeoffs are real. Dollars spent on DEI trainings that come with zero proof of efficacy are dollars that can’t be invested in things like D.C.’s successful teacher bonus pay program, updating school air conditioning, improving school lunches, reducing kids’ exposure to air pollution and lead poisoning, or any of the other various interventions that have decent evidence behind them.

Of course when I say that investing in higher quality school lunches is good for kids’ learning, what I mean is that it’s good as measured on standardized tests.

Standardized testing has become a weird discourse flashpoint, but I think everyone agrees that you can, in principle, assess someone’s competence in a given subject area with a test. And if you want to compare different people, you need to give them the same test. It’s only by making comparisons across classrooms and across time that we are able to persuasively demonstrate that particulates are bad for school performance, healthy meals are good for school performance, and air conditioning improves school performance in the summer.

All this would be uncontroversial, I think, except teachers’ unions don’t like the idea of assessing teachers based on their job performance.

Read the whole thing and subscribe to Slow Boring.

Tuesday assorted links

1. Mike Makowsky good career advice for those economists (and others?) coming out of non-elite schools.

2. Bryan Caplan on his home schooling experience.

3. BBC covers EV India winner and his fight against air pollution.

4. Why young Koreans are doing so well in classical music.

5. Art Blakey and Lee Morgan in concert.

6. Guardian Fall books preview.  And Vulture Fall books preview.

What should we regulate *more*?

Since the Biden team does not seem too favorably disposed to deregulation, perhaps it is worth asking in which areas we should be pushing for additional regulation.  Here are a few possible picks, leaving pandemic-related issues aside, noting that I am throwing these ideas out and in each case it will depend greatly on the details:

1. Air pollution.  No need to go through this whole topic again, carbon and otherwise.  Remember the “weird early libertarian days” when all air pollution was considered an act of intolerable aggression?

2. Noise pollution.  There is good evidence of cognitive effects here, but what exactly are we supposed to do?  Can’t opt for NIMBY now can we!?

3. Something around chemicals?  How about more studies at least?

4. Housing production.  You can look at this as more or less regulation depending on your point of view.  But perhaps cities of a certain size should be required by the state government to maintain sufficient affordability.

5. Mandates for standardized reporting of data?  For example, the NIH requires that scientists report various genomic data in standardized ways, and this is a huge positive for science.  What else might work in this regard?

6. Federal occupational licensing, in lieu of state and local.

7. Software as a service from China?

8. Animal welfare and meat production.

9. Is there a useful way to regulate to move toward less antibiotic use?

10. Should we have more regulation of AI that measures human emotions?  How about facial and gait surveillance in public spaces?

11. How about regulating regulation itself?

What else?

I thank an MR reader for some useful suggestions behind this post.

How to think about uni-disciplinary advice

Let’s say its 1990, and you are proposing an ambitious privatization plan to an Eastern bloc county, and your plan assumes that the enacting government is able to stay on a non-corrupt path the entire time.

While your plan probably is better than communism, it probably is not a very good plan.  A better plan would take sustainability and political realities into account, and indeed many societies did come up with better plans, for instance the Poland plan was better than the Russia plan.

It would not do to announce “I am just an economist, I do not do politics.”  In fact that attitude is fine, but if you hold it you should not be presenting plans to the central government or discussing your plan on TV.  There are plenty of other useful things for you to do.  Or the uni-disciplinary approach still might be a useful academic contribution, but still displaced and to be kept away from the hands of decision-makers.

Nor would it do to claim “I am just an economist.  The politicians have to figure the rest out.”  They cannot figure the rest out in most cases.  Either stand by your proposed plan or don’t do it.  It is indeed a proposal of some sort, even if you package it with some phony distancing language.

Instead, you should try to blend together the needed disciplines as best you can, consulting others when necessary, an offer the best plan you can, namely the best plan all things considered.

That might fill you with horror, but please recall from Tetlock that usually the generalists are the best predictors.

Ignoring other disciplines may be fine when there is no interaction. When estimating the effects of monetary policy, you probably can do that without calculating how many people that year will die of air pollution.  But you probably should not ignore the effects of a major trade war, a budgetary crisis (“but I do monetary policy, not fiscal policy!”), or an asteroid hurtling toward the earth.

If that is too hard, it is fine to announce your final opinion as agnostic (and explain how you got there).  You will note that when it comes to blending economics and epidemiology, my most fundamental opinion is an agnostic one.

This is all well-known, and it has been largely accepted for some time now.

If a public health person presents what is “only an estimate of public health and public health alone” to policymakers, I view it as like the economist in 1990 who won’t consider politics.  Someone else should have the job.  Right now public health, politics, and economics all interact to a significant extent.

And if you present only one of those disciplines to a policymaker, you will likely confuse and mislead that policymaker, because he/she cannot do the required backward unthreading of the advice into its uni-dimensional component.  You have simply served up a biased model, and rather than trying to identify and explain the bias you are simply saying “ask someone else about the bias.”

If an economist claims he is only doing macroeconomics, and not epidemiology (as Paul Krugman has said a few times on Twitter), that is flat out wrong.  All current macro models have epidemiology embedded in them, if only because the size of the negative productivity and negative demand shock depends all too critically on the course of the disease.

It is fine to be agnostic, preferably with structure to the opinion.  It is wrong to hide behind the arbitrary division of a discipline or a field.

We need the best estimates possible, and presented to policymakers as such, and embodying the best of synthetic human knowledge.  Of course that is hard.  That is why we need the very best people to do it.

Addendum: You might try to defend a uni-disciplinary approach by arguing a decision-maker will mainly be fed other, biased uni-disciplinary approaches, and you have to get your discipline into the mix to avoid obliteration of its viewpoint.  But let’s be clear what is going on here: you are deliberately manipulating with a deliberately non-truthy approach (I intend those words as a description, not a condemnation).  If that’s what it is, I wish to describe it that way!  I’ll also note I’ve never done that deliberately myself, and that is along many years of advising at a variety of levels.  I’d rather give the best truthful account as I see it.