In a carbon constrained world, why increase the rate of carbon production?

Since the realization that carbon deposits in the atmosphere could cause global temperatures to rise, there has been increasing conversations on humanity’s role in causing this rise in temperature. We call this the Anthropocene Era, or the span of time in which the activity of humans has and continues to fundamentally alter the state of the world. (For the sake of this conversation, we’re going to assume that the anthropogenic climate change is incontrovertible.) The potential outcomes from this have ranged from mild warming of the global climate to the end of life on earth as we know it. I would wager that there is a fat tail of predictions that map the most disastrous outcomes. Many of these predict existential events.

Warning, normative statement: If there is a significant probability any one of these predictions coming true, humanity should coordinate to prevent this from happening.

One possible solution is by removing the human factor entirely. If there are no humans, there can be no anthropogenic climate change. This is also an existential event; therefore, I will ignore the potentiality of this being doable. I should note that many movements that proclaim a retrogression to primitive human civilizations are equivalent to the removal of humanity. How? No one ever states how far back we must go to not affect the world. Even going back a few centuries of economic evolution requires the elimination of billions of lives. Who decides who gets to live? How this is any better than allowing for future climate catastrophes to take their toll on humanity. This moral implications of this philosophy make it unacceptable.

Solution number two involves in doing nothing, or perhaps increasing our carbon production, which would end in any number of mild to existential level events.

Solution three involves using the resourcefulness of humanity to produce outcomes which are less severe than those being predicted. Even if the probabilities are currently set. moving one percentage point towards a more positive outcome is worth it. Should we do whatever is necessary to avoid the worse outcomes? I can’t answer that. What we shouldn’t do is make things worse. Specifically, if we’re looking to reduce carbon production, using fossil fuels in place of gaps in renewables or nuclear power is anathema to this goal.

Data to come later.

Not your father’s macroeconomics

The decision of the Fed not to raise interest rates raises some immediate doubts about the future of the economy; though, I question the validity of these doubts. Has the Fed been at the helm of the economy in a meaningful way over the past few years? I would argue that at most it has been a standard-bearer that the economy has looked up to since the Great Depression, but for a long time, there has been a disconnect between the actions of the economy and Fed policy. Just looking at the immediate trends: unemployment is low at less than 4% and interest rates are still near-zero when compared to historical averages. Is there an issue with this? Not really, unless you take stock in the Phillips Curve — the same curve taught today in many intermediate macro courses, but has been thoroughly debunked since the beginning of stagflation in the 1970s.

So what does this mean? Justin Wolfers sums it up nicely:

Fine tuning the economy is over… Controlling for u and r in face on inflation fails muster; the rudders connected to this helm aren’t as large or as sensitive as previous thought.

The discipline of economics is changing for the better. Two years ago, David Wilson Sloane claimed that economics as we know it is dead The stories economics uses to explain the world are extremely useful, but in all their explanatory power, they are merely fictions that simplify the world into understandable pieces. (I don’t mean to understate their importance, only to state that economics can go further. For all it’s simplifying, economics during the past century has had truly brilliant insights.) Macroeconomics is currently at sort of crossroads, one that will help define the discipline for generations to come. The useful fictions can be maintained, but their explanatory power can be made to be more robust through the integration of economic thought with the processes and knowledge of other sciences towards a common goal of creating a more humane science. Beinhocker et al. sum it all up in a recent response to their neoclassical counterparts, “We believe that in order for economics to progress it needs to fully embrace a transdisciplinary approach and modernize a number of its key concepts.” The authors of that essay come from a wide variety of backgrounds and believe that their combined insights allow for more perfect version of the truth. Given the exponential nature of combinatorial interactions, I am sympathetic to this claim.

They posit that economics can do three things to increase its explanatory power:

  1. Most of us admit to the downfall of homo economicus, we should bring in insights from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, etc. to advance the understanding of homo sapien.
  2. Heterogeneity goes mostly unexplored in neoclassical because most things are generalized to help simplify things. Complexity thrives in a heterogenous space; people are not homogenous.
  3. We need to look at the economy from the systems level. (I’m most in tune with with this action.)

In an aside to all of this by Dani Rodrick, he claims that we must take up FDR’s credo of nothing less than “bold, persistent experimentation” in order to advance the field. I couldn’t agree more.

You might find yourself asking, “Where will macroeconomics take us next?” That’s not the question we should be asking. The better question is: Where will we take macroeconomics?

One final thought, Noah Smith is right, the Fed is our scapegoat no matter what happens.

 

More thoughts on “The Economy of Cities”

Jacobs’ main thesis is that cities experience growth through import replacement: the economies of the cities begin producing the products that they are currently importing from other economies. One of her examples was that Tokyo started manufacturing bicycles once they became technologically able (the costs became sufficiently low) to produce them in the city rather than importing the bicycles from abroad. What this entails is the internalizing of economic activity– a city may seek to be self-sustaining, and this seeking causes economic growth. But this comes at a significant cost: the city, and its contents, must always be in constant adaptation and change. In fact, Jacobs remarks, “The primary economic conflict, I think, is between people whose interests are with already well-established economic activities, and those whose interests are with the emergence of new economic activities.”

I do not think that this is merely an anti-rent seeking argument. Surely, there is some of that implicit in the statement; people who want to maintain the status quo may want to stifle further innovation and may do so by seeking legal and political tools to prevent others from infringing upon their profit opportunities. These interests may attempt to exert control over who may enter the markets via certain qualifying measures, certifications, and fee structures; some may go as far as attempting to set up a government-licensed monopoly. Jacobs’ argument speaks to something far more devastating to economic evolution: not in my backyard.

It’s not only the resistance of change from those who own the methods of production but the resistance from those who would benefit from future economic evolution.  She states, “Conformity and monotony, even when they are embellished with a froth of novelty, are not attributes of developing and economically vigorous cities. They are attributes of stagnant settlements.” Economic evolution must advance the interests and benefit the lives of the average person– an argument I heard earlier this week said the same thing of climate change regulation. Import replacement, as Jacobs describes it, is a process of entrepreneurial discovery and division of labor within a city. These processes are part of a larger Schumpeterian system of creative destruction: new economic activities evolve to replace older activities. These stand to increase the wealth of both the city and its inhabitants.

Who carries the costs of these import replacements? There are immediate costs of undergoing change; this is where the NIMBYs can strike with the most damage. By refusing to change or limit the amount of growth, those with interest in older economic activities can prevent the evolution of new ones before they even get started. There is a cost in saying yes to development, but remember, there is no cause of poverty — that is the base condition — there is a cause to prosperity, which a key to which is the change of economic activity. There may be short-run costs to those exporters of goods from the which the city previously consumed, but these will be made back in the long-run by more and better technologies being produced in the city. These technologies then get imported to other cities and rural areas. The long walk of progress determines that growth is not simply for some, but all can prosper in the long-run. Recent trends in poverty reduction are proof to this. The reason that so much food can be grow with so little labor involved originates in work and innovation done in urban areas, not with the farms themselves. As I noted in an earlier post, urban and rural economies must work in a cycle for both to survive. (This will probably be true until someone figures out to grow enough food in urban  areas; vertical farms aren’t enough to feed an entire city. A lot of this is due to the limited selection of foods that can be grown in a vertical farm.)

Jacobs has a wonderful bit on discrimination in cities and how it is inefficient for unequal governance to be operation. Prior to gender/race equality, an economy is losing out on a large portion of labor, creativity, and human capital. Engaging in such discriminatory behavior only allows for more stagnation, sooner.

Side note for future thought: If contracts are unable to be performed, then there will be inefficiencies. Think apple trees and bees– Where is the Coasean bargain?

Krugman (gasp!) talks on evolutionary economics and biology

Okay, okay, okay… It was at the European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy in November of 1996 (which is before the blogging Krugman we all know and love). In this talk, Krugman offers some bridges in between the two fields, finds common ground, and even suggests that we use the same methodologies to accomplish our studies. Which I think is appropriate given that the variables studied in both of our fields are not as concrete as physics but can be infinitely more complex (and thus, according to Michael Shermer, more difficult).

Here are some notes:

Krugman offers a four-part approach to economics:

  1. Economics is about what individuals do.
  2. Individuals are self-interested.
  3. The individuals are intelligent.
  4. The primary focus of these individuals is their interactions.

The primary difference between evo-bios and econs is that evo-bios don’t assume requirement number (3). Agents in evo-bios can be myopic. My own interjection here is that agents need not seem rational to the outside observer, only that they are rational insofar as their rationality is bounded.

Reading John Maynard Smith’s (not Keynes’) “Evolutionary Genetics” is probably a good start to recognizing the parallels between the fields.

The differences between evo-econs and neoclassicals is that evo-econs want to get away from maximization and equilibria. I think the latter is a recurring theme in heterodox economics, especially that of Austrian which lends some bias into my formal training. Nonetheless, I often argue that the economy is always trending towards an ever-changing equilibrium; therefore, it is always in disequilibrium. If we ever reached equilibrium, either communism has succeeded or the human race is extinct… possibly both.

Krugman points to Leslie Orgel’s Second Law: “Evolution is smarter than you are.” Maybe so, if only in that evolution is an organic process and there is no way that any one person can predict the eventual outcomes of these marginal changes over time. We can’t necessarily know a priori what is and is not efficient. Often we assume whatever outcome is reached is inherently efficient. Also, evo-bios look at evolution from a stationary perspective, and not in a dynamic shift that is presently occurring. This is not so much unlike certain models in economic growth theory.

The most useful concept in this talk is that of “Evolutionary Stable Strategies.” These are the strategies that any one agent should follow given the strategies everyone else is following. Krugman points to equilibrium, but I think more towards game theory (both have equilibria, but game theory allows for probability of repeated games).

In conclusion, Krugman offers sage advice on what econs can learn from evo-bios: “that models are metaphors, and that we should use them, not the other way around.” Many economists fully believe in their mechanisms versus acknowledging them for what they are, merely useful fictions that allow us to simplify the complexity that is human action.

 

Thoughts on the marginal effects of shock doctrine on the power of words

We live in an era in which people make an abomination of words. With a stroke of a pen, a click of a key, and pulse of a teleprompter, our language and the power inherent within becomes less than what it was prior. With every superlative, every ounce of electrons containing the newest bit of shock doctrine, we move forward to a linguistic atrophy — the point at which words mean nothing.

The linguistic atrophy. When our language can no longer express the range of human experience: from our emotions to our hopes to our cries of defiance. Where will we turn? To whom will we call out? And if someone hears our cries, will they understand the depth of our pleas?

To what facet will our inner selves find relief if we become powerless in our voices? In a world where everyone is screaming, no one is heard. Today, as those who wish to be heard scramble to find the next loudest mouthpiece, the next platform upon which to stand, each one prior built upon the wreck of it’s previous standard holder, and the next fastest way to voices their opinion, we lose some of ourselves. For, at some point, technology escapes our grasp. Information flows too quickly. We are unable to hold onto the currents; the tide rises and we are without the proper evolutionary mechanisms that would enable us to swim with the depths and against the strength of the water.

Words spoken at volume of a jet engine are no more discernable than those at the faintest whisper. Words scavenged from the remnants of others, scaffolded upon faltering foundations will surely collapse in upon themselves. Knowledge and the speed at which it is transferred surely has a trade-off with truth, clarity, and depth.

We are slaves to the lies which we tell ourselves, along with the myths that pervade our consciousness. These overarching ideas which form into feedback mechanisms of both vicious and virtuous circles all reiterating things lost and opportunities forgone. We cannot see the folly in our actions because of the stories by which we have woven through them. The narrative, so dutifully cast, as us placed so high upon a hill and guardian of the ultimate good, face our foes who are of the vilest nature. We harbor the weapons of their demise. We must. After all, if we fail, the demise will be that of ourselves and our most loved. That is the basis of the story used to justify our actions. These actions, no matter the cost are justified by the inhumanity of those whom we claim to be our sworn enemies. The reverse is also true.

However, our use of words fails us in this respect. Those whom we assume are our foes are not our enemies. They are human; and like us, they are full of fallacies, hopes, and aspirations. Many of them want no more than to improve the world in which we live. Only, their vision has been shaped by their specific environment, not unlike our own visions. Yet, we are unable to see this. Our blindness, voluntary or not, makes us loathe and seek our harm on those who are not like us. In spite of our limited information and imperfect sight, we strike a blow. In retaliation, our formidable foe strikes back with slightly more force. Thus begins the exchange.