December 31, 2005

Happy New Year

Will Wilkinson has posted a brilliant article on happiness in his blog. He writes:
Since most people in rich societies are already pretty happy, people who care about happiness ought to worry less about marginal policy changes in the US and Europe and worry more about people who do not already live in rich societies. The best thing we can do for them is free trade, more hospitable immigration policies, and fiscal policies that maximize world GDP growth.
I second Will. I wish people enjoy more freedom to trade, move and create wealth next year. Be happy!

December 28, 2005

Steady state economy, dystopian society

Brad DeLong reviews Ben Friedman's "The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth" and says:
[Friedman argues that] when the wheels stop—even as the result of economic stagnation, rather than a downturn or a depression—political democracy, individual liberty, and social tolerance are then greatly at risk even in countries where the absolute level of material prosperity remains high....

Consider just one of his examples—a calculation he picks up from his colleague Alberto Alesina, Ropes professor of political economy, and others: in an average country in the late twentieth century, real per capita income is falling by 1.4 percent in the year in which a military coup occurs; it is rising by 1.4 percent in the year in which there is a legitimate constitutional transfer of political power; and it is rising by 2.7 percent in the year in which no major transfer of political power takes place. If you want all kinds of non-economic good things, Friedman says—like openness of opportunity, tolerance, economic and social mobility, fairness, and democracy—rapid economic growth makes it much, much easier to get them; and economic stagnation makes getting and maintaining them nearly impossible. [...]

[T]he central thesis of the book is clear: the subchapters show the virtuous circles (by which economic growth and sociopolitical progress and liberty reinforce each other) and the vicious circles (by which stagnation breeds violence and dictatorship) in action. Where growth is rapid, the movement toward democracy is easier and societies become freer and more tolerant.

December 26, 2005

Infinite value of mangroves

Sahotra Sarkar writes:
[I]ntact mangroves along coasts (parts of Bengal, parts of the Andamans and Nicobars) provide incomparable protection against tidal waves and other disasters--here's a report from the BBC. (And this benefit is in addition to the economic benefits [fish] brought by intact mangroves to local communities.)

From the Asian tsunami to Katrina, the message should be obvious: where they still exist, we must protect our coastal ecosystems; where they do not (as in much of our Gulf coast) we must reconstruct them.

The message is not obvious because we don't have a quantitative measure of the benefits and the costs, including foregone opportunities, of maintaining and reconstructing all coastal ecosystems. One can advocate the preservation or reconstruction of coastal ecosystems - all of them, and regardless of costs - only by assuming that they have effectively infinite benefits.

If protection against disasters has infinite value we should not stop at maintaining and reconstructing coastal ecosystems. We should invest enormous (just a little less of infinite) resources in designing and erecting protections that are even more effective than natural ecosystems.

Actually, protection against disasters has, like everything else, finite value. Moreover, at the margin this value is effectively zero.

December 25, 2005

Barriers and poverty

In a comment to a recent post biodiversivist asks for examples of how poor countries would benefit from eliminating barriers to trade. Barriers separating peaceful people are always harmful. The free exchange of goods, services and ideas enriches people.

The best examples of poor countries getting rich thanks to trade are... the rich countries.

December 24, 2005

Statistical mechanics

Chris Anderson says that Wikipedia, Google, the blogosphere, markets and biological evolution are systems that "operate on the alien logic of probabilistic statistics, which sacrifices perfection at the microscale for optimization at the macroscale."
[N]obody's in charge; the intelligence is simply emergent. These probabilistic systems aren't perfect, but they are statistically optimized to excel over time and large numbers. They're designed to scale, and to improve with size. And a little slop at the microscale is the price of such efficiency at the macroscale.

But how can that be right when it feels so wrong?
His answer is that it is conterintuitive. He speculates that our "mammalian brains" have difficulty coping with it. Muck and Mystery suggests that the problem is not in our evolved brain but in our culture.

December 21, 2005

Habitat area and species extinction

Larger areas harbor more species. For some groups of species and types of habitats species-area curves are so well documented that they allow us to predict the number of species in an unstudied area only by knowing its size.

Species-area curves also allow us to guess how many species disappear from a given region when human activities reduce the size of suitable habitat.

For example, using this method E. O. Wilson estimated that 50% of tropical rainforest species will disappear with each 90% loss of forest area.


If most populations were originally globally rare but locally abundant, then depending on how the fragmentation process proceeds, many populations would remain abundant if local patches were protected. If enough of these patches were protected, then global species richness would not decline as much as predicted.
This is from a study by Brian Wilsey, Leanne Martin and Wayne Polley published in the current issue of Conservation Biology. They studied the effect of habitat heterogeneity on species richness in a set of prairie fragments in Iowa, where humans have converted 99.9% of the original prairie area to other uses. They found that there are more native plant species (491) than models of uniformly distributed species predict (27–207). "Even tiny remnants continued to support a large number of native species."

Second, species-area curves tell us nothing about the time dimension. Some populations may dwindle to extinction for a long time. Aveliina Helm, Ilkka Hanski and Meelis Pärtel found that the current number of habitat specialist plant species in 35 calcareous grasslands (alvars) in Estonia reflected not the current sizes of their habitats but those of 70 years ago, before 70% of alvar area disappeared due to changes in land use (published in the current issue of Ecology Letters).
We estimated the magnitude of extinction debt at around 40% in individual alvars, corresponding to predicted loss of around 20 vascular plant species per alvar in the future. With current landscape structure, many of these species will be lost from the entire region, although this will be an even slower process than extinction from individual alvars.
If the causes of habitat destruction cease and the ecosystem returns to its original condition populations may recover before going extinct.

December 18, 2005

Agricultural protectionism in rich and poor countries

From The New York Times (found via Marginal Revolution):
Two World Bank economists, Kym Anderson and Will Martin, concluded that if the world were to dismantle its agricultural protections, most of the benefits for developing countries would come from the reduction of their own systems of farm support. "Liberalization in the rich countries is a good thing, but in my opinion a small thing," said William Masters, a professor of resource economics at Purdue University and an expert on agriculture in Africa. "Poor countries' own barriers are the biggest constraint to their own development."

December 15, 2005

Public lands

This is from a news item in Nature:
The problem, says Alfredo Quarto, director of the Mangrove Action Project, Port Angeles, Washington, is that "mangrove areas are remote, usually public lands, available to lease by corrupt officials". Poor fishers and farmers rarely have any land rights and cannot prevent mangroves being cleared for shrimp ponds. "The people who enforce the laws don't live in these areas and can be convinced by someone with money to turn their backs on the destruction," Quarto says. When the farms collapse, due to disease or contamination, a wealthy owner can move on to another stretch of virgin coast, leaving a useless waste site behind.

December 13, 2005

Mice sing

From PLoS Biology:
[T]he ultrasonic vocalizations of mice are songs, containing different syllable types sequenced in regular temporal patterns. Different individuals sing recognizably different songs.
Male mice sing when encountering females or their pheromones.

December 12, 2005

Care that saves

Don Boudreaux quotes the book Africa by John Reader to illustrate how property rights help people to take care of natural resources. Trees have almost disappeared in the region of Lake Victoria due to firewood collection, but are abundant in the island of Ukara:
The fact that every tree is privately owned ensures that the use of this indispensable resource is sustainable. Every tree is protected by vested interest.
Read the whole quote at Cafe Hayek. See more political lessons from Ukara here.

December 11, 2005

Global government, global disaster

Rosamond Naylor, Henning Steinfeld, Walter Falcon, James Galloway, Vaclav Smil, Eric Bradford, Jackie Alder, and Harold Mooney have published a very interesting paper in Science (Losing the links between livestock and land) about recent trends in livestock rearing. They describe the spectacular advances in industrial production that have made chicken and pork cheap and widely available, and review the associated environmental problems. They advocate policy measures (regulations, taxes and subsidies) "to encourage livestock and feed producers to internalize pollution costs, to minimize nutrient run-off, and to pay the true price for water [and wild habitat conversion to feed grain croplands]." In the end, however, they have little hope that politicians will implement such measures:
At a global scale, linking livestock to land would require the difficult task of harmonizing production, resource, and waste standards at higher levels than are seen in most countries currently. If the major meat-and feed grain-producing countries were to invoke strict environmental and resource standards, international meat prices would almost surely rise, perhaps slowing the increase in demand. Such a transition would be made easier politically if consumers increasingly demanded meat products based on sound environmental practices. In a global economy with no global society, it may well be up to consumers to set a sustainable course.The last sentence is intriguing.
The authors are wrong, of course -- there indeed exists a global society since there are worldwide interactions among people, including economic ones. Science magazine, where people from all over the world discuss scientific and political ideas, is itself an upshot of global society. Naylor and her colleagues probably mean that there is no global government to tinker with those interactions. They seem to lament this lack, and the fact that, in the absence of a global Big Brother, consumers (all of us) will have more freedom. I do not share their sadness both because I want as much freedom as possible and because I expect a global government to repeat the mistakes of country governments. One such mistake is to take possession of water, rivers, seas, and wild lands, and then let anyone use, pollute and destroy them for free.

December 09, 2005

US taxpayers give out t-shirts to the world

From KickAAS:
Burkina Faso in West Africa, the third poorest country in the world, depends on cotton for 70% of export earnings and 30% of its entire GDP. This year, despite a record crop, the country is on its uppers because of a slump in the price of cotton caused largely by US farming subsidies amounting to — wait for it — an astonishing $4.2 billion. This is more than the entire GDP of Burkina Fasso which employs 3.5 million people in cotton compared with only 28,000 in the US.

US subsidies amount to $142,000 per person involved. If the US government decided to withdraw subsidies it could give an annual pension of $42,286 to all the people involved in cotton growing to help them do something more productive and save $100,000 per person for investment elsewhere. Meanwhile Burkina Faso, and other cotton growing countries in Africa would get a huge boost that would enable them to sell more exports and employ millions more people.
US subsidies result in low market prices of cotton. This hurts cotton producers in other countries (and taxpayers in the US), but benefits cotton consumers throughout the world. Africans and everybody else can now afford more t-shirts or save more money for other expenses because cotton is so cheap. This benefit to consumers exceeds the harm to producers. The sad side of the story is that the harm is concentrated in Burkina Faso and a few other places (and in US taxpayers, in case you care about them).

December 06, 2005

What Lenin can teach environmentalists

This is Lenin in "Left wing communism: an infantile disorder":
It is far more difficult — and far more precious — to be a revolutionary when the conditions for direct, open, really mass and really revolutionary struggle do not yet exist, to be able to champion the interests of the revolution (by propaganda, agitation and organisation) in non-revolutionary bodies, and quite often in downright reactionary bodies, in a non-revolutionary situation, among the masses who are incapable of immediately appreciating the need for revolutionary methods of action.
This is David Johns in "The other connectivity: reaching beyond the choir" (Conservation Biology, subscription required):
Although conservation has made important progress in the last several decades there is little question about the overarching trend: biodiversity loss and ecosystem decline remain dominant. To change this situation will require the mobilization of important sectors of society that have up to now not acted on behalf of conservation. [...]

[S]cientists need to play a significant role in reaching out to, and mobilizing, key constituencies. [...] To protect the natural world, to heal the many wounds we have inflicted as a species, we must catalyze mass political action. [...]

We need only reflect on ourselves as conservation biologists to realize the power of emotion. We feel love for nature. We fear that we are losing it. We are angry with those destroying it. Our emotions are what connect us to the world; they are our primary means of adapting to it. To be effective we must arouse strong emotion in others; information and facts alone cannot do that.
This reminded me of nationalism and religion. And indeed...
We need to understand what arouses people and then touch that. Some years ago, in an effort to halt the decimation of parrots by smugglers in the Caribbean, conservationists tried a new approach. Instead of appealing for the protection of the birds based on love or respect for nature per se, they appealed to nationalism and patriotism. Arguments that capturing and selling parrots to rich countries was a betrayal of one's national heritage and perpetuated neocolonial relationships achieved results.

[I]f people hold Genesis to be literally true it does little good to argue to them that they should protect nature to protect the theater of evolution. We must speak in a language that people understand (e.g., creation is good according to the creator). [...] We must remember that what is important is to protect nature; the reasons people protect nature are secondary at best.
According to Johns, "we need" (he uses the word "need" 28 times and "must" 10 times in two pages of text) story, ritual, and organization:
We have three primary tools to evoke the link between conservation and emotion, needs, and values: story, ritual, and organization. [...]

Our stories need to find their way into film and music and other performance media. This is the only way to reach the many who do not read or attend talks. [...]

We come up short in using existing rituals or in fashioning new, mass-based rituals that will attract others to the conservation movement. [...] When the U.S. Declaration of Independence was published in newspapers the general response was tepid. When the Declaration was read publicly and followed by burning King George in effigy, the crowds were moved to action. [...]

Finally, we need to use and create organizational structures that provide a home for people's ongoing involvement with conservation. [...] Involvement need not always result in some accomplishment. It may simply help people bond with each other and with the organization. These bonds sustain involvement. Mutual support is critical to action. In short, organization fixes the level of motivation. [...]

Understanding ecosystems and other species will not be enough to protect them. We need to better understand our own species, what moves us, and how to harness what moves us in the service of conservation.
In short: "we need" to spread "propaganda, agitation and organisation" in the service of conservation.

December 02, 2005

More on Spain and Kyoto

Spain has the largest increase in greenhouse gas emissions of all Kyoto countries, according to this graph (1990-2003 data from the UN, found via Environmental Economics). The Spanish government has some well-thought policies to deal with this. On one hand, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food keeps discussing a further increase in gas subsidies with farmers after reaching a "generous" deal with fishers. This is just in case some other country attempts to surpass us in the Kyoto ranking. On the other hand, the Minister of the Environment announces that the recent storm that has hit the Canary Islands is a response of the planet to climate change ("una respuesta del planeta frente al cambio climático") and advises us citizens to change our consumption habits.

December 01, 2005

Climate change and herbivore outbreaks

This is from an open access article by J. O. Stireman et al. in the PNAS:
[M]odels of climate change have predicted greater frequency and duration of droughts in some areas, increased periods of high precipitation in others, and a widespread increase in the frequency of extreme weather events. [...] Here, we compare caterpillar–parasitoid interactions across a broad gradient of climatic variability and find that the combined data in 15 geographically dispersed databases show a decrease in levels of parasitism as climatic variability increases. [...] Given the important role of parasitoids in regulating insect herbivore populations in natural and managed systems, we predict an increase in the frequency and intensity of herbivore outbreaks through a disruption of enemy–herbivore dynamics as climates become more variable. [...]

[M]any species of parasitic wasps have been and continue to be used in biological control programs, often with appreciable success. Increases in climatic unpredictability could compromise their ability to control important crop pests, leading to increased use of pesticides.
Stireman et al. also suggest that further research on herbivore–parasitoid dynamics is "likely to provide additional incentives to slow anthropogenic contributions to global climate change." This is entirely reasonable. And following the same logic this research can provide incentives for artificially decreasing climate variability below historical levels.