Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Quotes of the day

.. that oil spill live video is truly a metaphor for our Information Age: a time when raw and live data gushes over us without any filter, but instead of informing and guiding action, it simply pollutes the infosphere and leaves us transfixed and dazed.--Micah Sifry

The disaster, however, poses a much deeper challenge to how modern societies deal with regulating complex technologies. The accelerating speed of innovation seems to be outstripping government regulators’ capacity to deal with risks, much less anticipate them. The parallels between the oil spill and the recent financial crisis are all too painful: the promise of innovation, unfathomable complexity, and lack of transparency (scientists estimate that we know only a very small fraction of what goes on at the oceans’ depths.) Wealthy and politically powerful lobbies put enormous pressure on even the most robust governance structures. It is a huge embarrassment for US President Barack Obama that he proposed – admittedly under pressure from the Republican opposition – to expand offshore oil drilling greatly just before the BP catastrophe struck. The oil technology story, like the one for exotic financial instruments, was very compelling and seductive. Oil executives bragged that they could drill a couple of kilometers down, then a kilometer across, and hit their target within a few meters. Suddenly, instead of a world of “peak oil” with ever-depleting resources, technology offered the promise of extending supplies for another generation. Western officials were also swayed by concerns about the stability of supplies in the Middle East, which accounts for a large proportion of the world’s proven reserves. Some developing countries, most notably Brazil, have discovered huge potential offshore riches. Now all bets are off. In the United States, offshore drilling seems set to go the way of nuclear power, with new projects being shelved for decades. And, as is often the case, a crisis in one country may go global, with many other countries radically scaling back off-shore and out-of-bounds projects. Will Brazil really risk its spectacular coastline for oil, now that everyone has been reminded of what can happen? What about Nigeria, where other risks are amplified by civil strife?--Kenneth Rogoff

For all the criticism BP executives may deserve, they are far from the only people to struggle with such low-probability, high-cost events. Nearly everyone does. “These are precisely the kinds of events that are hard for us as humans to get our hands around and react to rationally,” Robert N. Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard, says. We make two basic — and opposite — types of mistakes. When an event is difficult to imagine, we tend to underestimate its likelihood. This is the proverbial black swan. Most of the people running Deepwater Horizon probably never had a rig explode on them. So they assumed it would not happen, at least not to them. Similarly, Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan liked to argue, not so long ago, that the national real estate market was not in a bubble because it had never been in one before. Wall Street traders took the same view and built mathematical models that did not allow for the possibility that house prices would decline. And many home buyers signed up for unaffordable mortgages, believing they could refinance or sell the house once its price rose. That’s what house prices did, it seemed. On the other hand, when an unlikely event is all too easy to imagine, we often go in the opposite direction and overestimate the odds. After the 9/11 attacks, Americans canceled plane trips and took to the road. There were no terrorist attacks in this country in 2002, yet the additional driving apparently led to an increase in traffic fatalities.--David Leonhardt

Yes, organic methods sequester more carbon dioxide than conventional ones. But the ultimate culprit behind agriculture-driven climate change isn’t carbon dioxide. Instead, it’s methane and nitrous oxide—two gasses conspicuously absent from the Rodale study. Agricultural production in the U.S. accounts for only 7 percent of overall carbon dioxide emissions. By contrast, it accounts for 19-25 percent of methane emissions and 70-75 percent of nitrous oxide emissions. Methane, according to the EPA, is 23 times more potent a GHG than carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide is 310 times as potent. So the key question, as far as GHG emissions and agriculture goes, is not how much carbon dioxide organic agriculture sequesters. Instead, it’s how much methane andnitrous oxide it sequesters. And this question, like any controversial topic in agriculture, is riddled with caveats and qualifications. A recent conference in France dedicated to organic agriculture and climate change found that, in some cases, organic systems sometimes had higher GHG emissions and that, in other cases, conventional systems had higher levels of output.--James McWilliam

Is it worth getting upset over the fact that Uncle Sam and President Obama seem too busy trying to micro-manage what sort of toilet and crib you can use in your own home, and to make your renovations more costly with new lead paint regulations, instead of performing legitimate federal government roles? You bet it is.--David Freddoso

Chicago has a civic culture all its own and one that is particularly insular. Family ties and personal connections are hugely important. Professionals who have lived and worked there for a quarter-century are brusquely reminded, "You're not from here." Nonetheless Obama moved upward in the Chicago civic firmament with apparent ease. The community organizer joined the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church in search of street credibility in the heavily black South Side. The adjunct law teacher made friends around the University of Chicago from libertarian academics to radical organizer William Ayers. The young state senator designed a new district that included the Loop and the rich folk on the Near North Side. Obama could not have risen so far so fast without a profound understanding of the Chicago Way. And he has brought the Chicago Way to the White House. ... The problem with Obama's Chicago Way is that Chicago isn't America. The Chicago Way works locally because there is an America out there that ultimately pays for it. But who will pay for an America run the Chicago Way?--Michael Barone

There were two glamorous presidents in my lifetime besides Obama. The first was JFK, and he dealt with this problem by getting killed. That was something I didn’t want to mention in an article about Obama. There were lots of problems in the Kennedy administration and lots of secrets that were being hidden that came out later. But because he was assassinated, the glamour stayed. The other glamorous president of my lifetime, I would argue, was Ronald Reagan. And he managed to govern because he actually did stand for some specific ideas that brought a broad consensus of supporters together. He was still a figure of distance and mystery, to the extent that his authorized biographer, who followed him around for years, was unable to get at what the man was really like and wrote a semi-fictionalized biography with fake characters. But there was a core of identifiable beliefs that enabled him to govern and to maintain this sort of glamour, particularly to the Reagan coalition. Libertarians would say, “well, he’s really more libertarian,” and social conservatives would say, “well, he’s really more socially conservative.” But he did have specific beliefs that held those people together. They didn’t hold together so well after him. ... The Obama administration early on was saying, “We can give you better care for less with better management.” Well, I believe management can make a difference. It makes a difference in the private sector; it could make a difference in health care. Let’s do a trial run with Medicare. Let’s try it out there first and see how it works. I called Peter Orszag at the Office of Management and Budget, and he basically said, “We can’t do that, because the AARP is only on board if we do the whole system.” Well, OK. We can’t take you very seriously with this “better care for less” if you can’t apply it to the one system you already control.---Virginia Postrel

So to summarize, to the extent that China is a free market, it is an economic success, and to the extent it is statist, it is mostly a failure (excluding some sectors like transport.) But the question “Is the Chinese miracle due to a free market economy?” is nonsensical. It isn’t a miracle at all; it is a country rapidly transitioning from being extremely poor to having a so-so economy. That is all. I want to personally apologize to Ezra Klein for the exasperated tone of this post. His post is no worse than 1000 other similar posts; I’m not even sure he disagrees with me. Indeed the conventional view in the US is wrong, just as he says. It’s just that I just get annoyed seeing the debate constantly framed this way.--Scott Sumner

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