Streetwise Professor

January 17, 2017

Didn’t Know China is a Beacon of Economic Openness & Political Freedom? You’re Not Worthy of Davos!

Filed under: China,Climate Change,Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 9:26 pm

The Davos set is in such a complete meltdown over Trump that they are desperate for someone to champion the cause of globalism and to fight against the growing tide of protectionism. And they found him! Chinese President Xi Jinping.

No. Really. The slobbering over his speech today praising globalization and criticizing protectionism was embarrassing, even by Davos standards.

Trump’s views on trade are utterly misguided, but to view Xi and China as some sort of avatar for an open society is not just bizarre. It’s perverse. Beyond perverse, really.

China’s economy is a Frankenstein of controls and state intervention. Vast swathes of the Chinese economy are strongly protected from foreign competition, and foreign investment is heavily regulated. The currency is also tightly controlled, and not freely convertible: that will happen in a decade, if ever. I am not saying that that the currency is currently manipulated downwards. To the contrary, at present the reverse is true. Chinese are looking for every way possible to get money out of the country, a sure sign of an overvalued currency. (Small illustration: visit a luxury car dealer in any major city in the US, and you’ll note how many of the buyers are Chinese.) The government  is doing everything possible to prevent it, and may be forced to go to hard capital controls. The point is that in the currency as in other things, the Chinese buy open markets a la carte, and only when it pleases them.

In brief, China is a heavily controlled mercantilist economy. Xi and the Chinese do things that Trump could only dream of in his greatest flights of mercantilist fantasy. To view Xi as the anti-Trump is utterly ridiculous, even by the clownish standards of the Davos dips.

Trump’s presidency and the environmental holocaust that it will supposedly bring has also led many to turn to China for leadership on climate. This is just as clueless, even if one overlooks the real pollution that chokes China–already this year, 60 Chinese cities have declared smog emergencies–and focuses on the far more speculative issue of CO2.

Yes, China has spent gazillions on wind and solar. But what has it received for its massive investment? This NYT article gives a great illustration:

On the edge of the Gobi Desert, the Jiuquan Wind Power Base stands as a symbol of China’s quest to dominate the world’s renewable energy market. With more than 7,000 turbines arranged in rows that stretch along the sandy horizon, it is one of the world’s largest wind farms, capable of generating enough electricity to power a small country.

But these days, the windmills loom like scarecrows, idle and inert. The wind howls outside, but many turbines in Jiuquan, a city of vast deserts and farms in the northwest province of Gansu, have been shut off because of weak demand. Workers while away the hours calculating how much power the turbines could have generated if there were more buyers, and wondering if and when they will ever make a profit.

“There’s not much we can do right now,” said Zhou Shenggang, a manager at a state-owned energy company who oversees 134 turbines here; about 60 percent of their capacity goes unused each year. “Only the state can intervene.”

China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has pointed to its embrace of wind and solar power and other alternatives to coal to position itself at the forefront of the global effort to combat climate change.

More than 92,000 wind turbines have been built across the country, capable of generating 145 gigawatts of electricity, nearly double the capacity of wind farms in the United States. One out of every three turbines in the world is now in China, and the government is adding them at a rate of more than one per hour.

But some of its most ambitious wind projects are underused. Many are grappling with a nationwide economic slowdown that has dampened demand for electricity. Others are stymied by persistent favoritism toward the coal industry by local officials and a dearth of transmission lines to carry electricity from rural areas in the north and west to China’s fastest-growing cities.

Then there’s this: “Wind power now accounts for 3.3 percent of electricity generation in China.”

And so how does China generate power? With dirty coal, mainly–as the choking smog in Beijing and other major cities testifies.

In brief, China’s renewables boom is a classic example of green hype, and of the grotesque malinvestment that has occurred in China in the past decades, especially post-financial crisis. Keep this in mind when you interpret Chinese economic statistics. These thousands of windmills that produce nothing contributed to measured Chinese GDP–but they contribute virtually nothing to its actual economic wealth or consumption. Much of measured Chinese GDP growth is due to the incurring of costs that confer no benefits, and is as economically meaningful as Soviet statistics. (Alas, allegedly smart people are as deceived today by China as they were by the supposed Soviet miracle.)

The article also contains this tidbit: “The tepid demand for electricity in an economic downturn has also exacerbated the troubles for renewable energy. Demand for electricity grew by only 0.5 percent in 2015, the slowest rate of growth since 1974.” But measured GDP increased 6.9 percent. It’s hard to reconcile those figures.

But the “elite” is so obsessed with Trump and the havoc that they are just sure he will wreak on trade and the environment that they embrace the leader of a mercantilist environmental disaster as their savior.

And it’s not just economics. The elites project every conceivable oppression fantasy on Trump, and portray him as a mortal threat to racial and religious minorities (including Jews–quick: Someone warn his son-in-law!), LGBTQXYZwhateveritisnowIcan’tkeepupandwillprobablyrunoutofletters, immigrants, and on and on and on. Yet they are lionizing a real oppressor, indeed, the leader of one of the most repressive regimes on the planet: what it lacks in rigor compared to North Korea, it makes up with in size. They ignore real oppression and get hysterical over oppression that exists exclusively in their imaginations.

I would say these people are not serious. I wish that were true. The problem is that these people are deadly serious.

They are also completely without a clue. Davos founder Klaus Schwab ostentatiously said that Trump was not invited. First, as if Trump gives a flyer–indeed, he probably considers this a compliment. Second, and more importantly, it demonstrates exactly why this lot was utterly blindsided by the events of 2016–most notably by Brexit and the election of Trump. Davos–and elite conversation around the world–is a carnival of confirmation bias, an impenetrable bubble of self-congratulation utterly cut off from the people they condescendingly claim that they want to help. People with way too much money and way too little sense.

At the risk of sounding like Tom Friedman quoting some cab driver, I will relate a story from today that illustrates the disconnect between those in Davos giving tongue baths to a mercantilist leader of a police state and the people who are toppling their heroes and putting their arch enemies in their stead. While getting a haircut, my barber–a Lebanese immigrant, by the way, not a member of Storm Front–said “I don’t pay much attention to politics, but I hope Trump tells the Chinese to go fuck themselves.” (Note: China had not been part of the conversation up to that point.)

But this is our world now. Due to the Trump derangement syndrome the allegedly liberal globalist elites heap praises on the leader of a protectionist, mercantilist, serial human rights violator. And all the while ignoring those with more common sense (like my barber), then wondering why they are losing.


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November 29, 2016

A Policy Inspired More by the Marx Brothers Than Marx

Filed under: China,Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:51 pm

As goes China, so go the commodity markets. The problem is that where China goes is largely driven by a bastardized form of central planning which in turn is driven by China’s baroque political economy. In past years, China’s rapid growth conferred on the government a reputation for wisdom and foresight that was largely undeserved, but now more people are waking up to the reality that Chinese policy engenders tremendous waste, and that the country would actually be richer–and have better prospects for the future–if its government tempered its dirigiste tendencies.

Case in point: Morgan Stanley’s Chief China Economist uses the ham-fisted intervention into the coal industry to illustrate the broader waste in the Chinese system:

These reforms entail the necessary reduction of excess capacity, particularly in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and industries where overproduction issues are often the most acute.

While economists agree that a reduction of excess capacity, particularly in heavy industry, is key to the nation’s efforts to get on a more sustainable growth trajectory, China’s supply side reforms bare little resemblance to the “trickle down” Reaganomics of the 1980s, which seized upon tax cuts and deregulation as a way to foster stronger growth.

In Morgan Stanley’s year-ahead economic outlook for the world’s second-largest economy, Chief China Economist Robin Xing uses the coal industry to detail two key ways in which supply-side reforms with Chinese characteristics have been ill-designed.

“The state-planned capacity cuts and the slow progress in market-oriented SOEs reform have come at the cost of economic efficiency,” laments the economist.

In a bid to shutter overproduction and address environmental concerns, Beijing moved to restrict the number of working days in the sector to 276 from 330 in February.

But in enacting these cuts, policymakers employed a one-size-fits-all approach.

“The production limit was implemented to all companies in the sector, which means good companies that are more profitable and less vulnerable to excess capacity are affected just as much as the bad ones with obsolete capacity and weak profitability,” writes Xing.

This is largely true, but begs the question of why China adopted this approach. The most likely explanation is that the real motive behind the cuts has little to do with “environmental concerns”, though those are a convenient excuse. Instead, forcing the most inefficient producers out of business–or allowing them to go out of business–would cause problems in the banking and (crucially) the shadow banking sectors because these firms are heavily leveraged. Allowing them to continue to produce, and propping up prices by forcing even relatively efficient firms to cut output, allows them to service their debts, thereby sparing the banks that have lent to them, and the various shadow banking products that hold their debt (often as a way of taking it off bank balance sheets).

If the goal was to reduce pollution, it would have been far more efficient to impose a tax on coal-related pollutants. But this tax would have fallen most heavily on the least efficient producers, and would caused many of them to fail and shut down. The fact that China has not pursued that policy is compelling evidence that pollution–as atrocious as it is–was not the primary driver behind the policy. Instead, it was a backdoor bailout of inefficient producers, and crucially, those who have lent to them.

Morgan Stanley further notes the inefficiency of the capital markets which favor state owned enterprises:

As such, this misallocation of production serves to amplify the already prevalent misallocation of credit stemming from state-owned firms’ favorable access to capital. That arguably undermines market forces that would otherwise help facilitate China’s economic rebalancing.

But this too is driven by politics: SOEs have favorable access to capital because they have favorable access to politicians.

The price shock resulting from the output cuts hit consuming firms in China hard, which has led to a lurching effort to mitigate the policy:

This month, Beijing was forced to reverse course to allow firms to meet the pick-up in demand — another case of state dictate, rather than price signals, driving economic activities.

“In this context, we think the more state-planned production control and capacity cuts cause distortions to the market and are unlikely to be sustainable,” concludes Xing.

“Beijing was forced to reverse course” because utilities consuming thermal coal and steel producers consuming coking coal pressured the government to relent.

The end result is a policy process that owes more to the Marx Brothers than to Marx. A cockamamie scheme to address one pressing problem causes problems elsewhere.

Methinks that Mr. Xing is rather too sanguine about the ability or willingness of the Chinese government to sustain such highly distorting policies. They have done so for years, and are showing no inclination to change their ways. Efficiency is sacrificed to achieve distributive and political objectives, and the bigger and more complex the Chinese economy the more difficult it is for the authorities to predict and control the effects of their policy objectives. But this just induces the government to resort to more authoritarian means, and attempt to exercise even more centralized power. This is costly, but these are costs the authorities are willing and able to bear. Inefficiency is the price of power, but it is a price that the authorities are willing to pay.

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August 23, 2016

Carl Icahn Rails Against the Evils of RIN City

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 12:15 pm

Biofuel Renewable Identification Numbers–“RINs”–are back in the news because of a price spike in June and July (which has abated somewhat). This has led refiners to intensify their complaints about the system. The focus of their efforts at present is to shift the compliance obligation from refiners to blenders. Carl Icahn has been quite outspoken on this. Icahn blames everyone, pretty much, including speculators:

“The RIN market is the quintessential example of a ‘rigged’ market where large gas station chains, big oil companies and large speculators are assured to make windfall profits at the expense of small and midsized independent refineries which have been designated the ‘obligated parties’ to deliver RINs,” Icahn wrote.

“As a result, the RIN market has become ‘the mother of all short squeezes,”‘ he added. “It is not too late to fix this problem if the EPA acts quickly.”

Refiners are indeed hurt by renewable fuel mandates, because it reduces the derived demand for the gasoline they produce. The fact that the compliance burden falls on them is largely irrelevant, however. This is analogous to tax-incidence analysis: the total burden of a tax, and the distribution of a tax, doesn’t depend on who formally pays it. In the case of RINs, the total burden of the biofuels mandate and the distribution of that burden through the marketing chain doesn’t depend crucially on whether the compliance obligation falls on refiners, blenders, or your Aunt Sally.

Warning: There will be math!

A few basic equations describing the equilibrium in the gasoline, ethanol, biodiesel and RINs markets will hopefully help structure the analysis*. First consider the case in which the refiners must acquire RINs:

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 10.20.03 AM

Equation (1) is the equilibrium in the retail gasoline market. The retail price of gasoline, at the quantity of gasoline consumed, must equal the cost of blendstock (“BOB”) plus the price of the ethanol blended with it. The R superscript on the BOB price reflects that this is the price when refiners must buy a RIN. This equation assumes that one gallon of fuel at the pump is 90 percent BOB, and 10 percent ethanol. (I’m essentially assuming away blending costs and transportation costs, and a competitive blending industry.) The price of a RIN does not appear here because either the blender buys ethanol ex-RIN, or buys it with a RIN and then sells that to a refiner.

Equation (2) is the equilibrium in (an assumed competitive) ethanol market. The price an ethanol producer receives is the price of ethanol plus the price of a RIN (because the buyer of ethanol gets a RIN that it can sell, and hence is willing to pay more than the energy value of ethanol to obtain it). In equilibrium, this price equals the the marginal cost of producing ethanol. Crucially, with a binding biofuels mandate, the quantity of ethanol produced is determined by the blendwall, which is 10 percent of the total quantity sold at the pump.

Equation (3) is equilibrium in the biodiesel market. When the blendwall binds, the mandate is met by meeting the shortfall between mandate and the blendwall by purchasing RINs generated from the production of biodiesel. Thus, the RIN price is driven to the difference between the cost of producing the marginal gallon of biodiesel, and the price of biodiesel necessary to induce consumption of sufficient biodiesel to sop up the excess production stimulated by the need to obtain RINs. In essence, the price of biodiesel plus the cost of a RIN generated by production of biodiesel must equal the marginal cost of producing it. The amount of biodiesel needed is given by the difference between the mandate quantity and the quantity of ethanol consumed at the blendwall. The parameter a is the amount of biofuel per unit of fuel consumed required by the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Equation (4) is equilibrium in the market for blendstock–this is the price refiners get. The price of BOB equals the marginal cost of producing it, plus the cost of obtaining RINs necessary to meet the compliance obligation. The marginal cost of production depends on the quantity of gasoline produced for domestic consumption (which is 90 percent of the retail quantity of fuel purchased, given a 10 percent blendwall). The price of a RIN is multiplied by a because that is the number of RINs refiners must buy per gallon of BOB they sell.

Equation (5) just says that the value of ethanol qua ethanol is driven by the relative octane values between it and BOB.

The exogenous variables here are the demand curve for retail gasoline; the marginal cost of producing ethanol; the marginal cost of producing BOB (which depends on the price of crude, among other things); the marginal cost of biodiesel production; the demand for biodiesel; and the mandated quantity of RINs (and also the location of the blendwall). Given these variables, prices of BOB, ethanol, RINs, and biodiesel will adjust to determine retail consumption and exports.

Now consider the case when the blender pays for the RINs:

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 10.20.25 AM

Equation (6) says that the retail price of fuel is the sum of the value of the BOB and ethanol blended to create it, plus the cost of RINs required to meet the standard. The blender must pay for the RINs, and must be compensated by the price of the fuel. Note that the BOB price has a “B” superscript, which indicates that the BOB price may differ when the blender pays for the RIN from the case where the refiner does.

Without exports, retail consumption, ethanol production, biodiesel production, and BOB production will be the same regardless of where the compliance burden falls. Note that all relevant prices are determined by the equilibrium retail quantity. It is straightforward to show that the same retail quantity will clear the market in both situations, as long as:

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 10.20.35 AM

That is, when the refiner pays for the RIN, the BOB price will be higher than when the blender does by the cost of the RINs required to meet the mandate.

Intuitively, if the burden is placed on refiners, in equilibrium they will charge a higher price for BOB in order to cover the cost of complying with the mandate. If the burden is placed on blenders, refiners can sell the same quantity at a lower BOB price (because they don’t have to cover the cost of RINs), but blenders have to mark up the fuel by the cost of the RINs to cover their cost of acquiring them. here the analogy with tax incidence analysis is complete, because in essence the RFS is a tax on the consumption of fossil fuel, and the amount of the tax is the cost of a RIN.

This means that retail prices, consumption, production of ethanol, biodiesel and BOB, refiner margins and blender margins are the same regardless of who has the compliance obligation.

The blenders are complete ciphers here. If refiners have the compliance burden, blenders effectively buy RINs from ethanol producers and sell them to refiners. If the blenders have the burden, they buy RINs from ethanol producers and sell them to consumers. Either way, they break even. The marketing chain is just a little more complicated, and there are additional transactions in the RINs market, when refiners shoulder the compliance obligation.

Under either scenario, the producer surplus (profit, crudely speaking) of the refiners is driven by their marginal cost curves and the quantity of gasoline they produce. In the absence of exports, these things will remain the same regardless of where the burden is placed. Thus, Icahn’s rant is totally off-point.

So what explains the intense opposition of refiners to bearing the compliance obligation? One reason may be fixed administrative costs. If there is a fixed cost of compliance, that will not affect any of the prices or quantities, but will reduce the profit of the party with the obligation by the full amount of the fixed cost. This is likely a relevant concern, but the refiners don’t make it centerpiece of their argument, probably because shifting the fixed cost around has no efficiency effects, but purely distributive ones, and purely distributive arguments aren’t politically persuasive. (Redistributive motives are major drivers of attempts to change regulations, but naked cost shifting arguments look self-serving, so rent seekers attempt to dress up their efforts in efficiency arguments: this is one reason why political arguments over regulations are typically so dishonest.) So refiners may feel obliged to come up with some alternative story to justify shifting the administrative cost burden to others.

There may also be differences in variable administrative costs. Fixed administrative costs won’t affect prices or output (unless they are so burdensome as to cause exit), but variable administrative costs will. Further, placing the compliance obligation on those with higher variable administrative costs will lead to a deadweight loss: consumers will pay more, and refiners will get less.

Another reason may be the seen-unseen effect. When refiners bear the compliance burden, the cost of buying RINs is a line item in their income statement. They see directly the cost of the biofuels mandate, and from an accounting perspective they bear that cost, even though from an economic perspective the sharing of the burden between consumers, refiners, and blenders doesn’t depend on where the obligation falls. What they don’t see–in accounting statements anyways–is that the price for their product is higher when the obligation is theirs. If the obligation is shifted to blenders, they won’t see their bottom line rise by the amount they currently spend on RINS, because their top line will fall by the same amount.

My guess is that Icahn looks at the income statements, and mistakes accounting for economics.

Regardless of the true motive for refiners’ discontent, the current compliance setup is not a nefarious conspiracy of integrated producers, blenders, and speculators to screw poor independent refiners. With the exception of administrative cost burdens (which speculators could care less about, since it will not fall on them regardless), shifting the compliance burden will not affect the market prices of RINs or the net of RINs price that refiners get for their output.

With respect to speculation, as I wrote some time ago, the main stimulus to speculation is not where the compliance burden falls (because again, this doesn’t affect anything relevant to those speculating on RINs prices). Instead, one main stimulus is uncertainty about EPA policy–which as I’ve written, can lead to some weird and potentially destabilizing feedback effects. The simple model sheds light on other drivers of speculation–the exogenous variables mentioned above. To consider one example, a fall in crude oil prices reduces the marginal cost of BOB production. All else equal, this encourages retail consumption, which increases the need for RINs generated from biodiesel, which increases the RINs price.

The Renewable Fuels Association has also raised a stink about speculation and the volatility of RINs prices in a recent letter to the CFTC and the EPA. The RFA (acronyms are running wild!) claims that the price rise that began in May cannot be explained by fundamentals, and therefore must have been caused by speculation or manipulation. No theory of manipulation is advanced (corner/squeeze? trade-based? fraud?), making the RFA letter another example of the Clayton Definition of Manipulation: “any practice that doesn’t suit the person speaking at the moment.” Regarding speculation, the RFA notes that supplies of RINs have been increasing. However, as has been shown in academic research (some by me, some by people like Brian Wright)  that inventories of a storable commodity (which a RIN is) can rise along with prices in a variety of circumstances, including a rise in volatility, or an increase in anticipated future demand. (As an example of the latter case, consider what happened in the corn market when the RFS was passed. Corn prices shot up, and inventories increased too, as consumption of corn was deferred to the future to meet the increased future demand for ethanol. The only way of shifting consumption was to reduce current consumption, which required higher prices.)

In a market like RINs, where there is considerable policy uncertainty, and also (as I’ve noted in past posts) complicated two-way feedbacks between prices and policy, the first potential cause is plausible. Further, since a good deal of the uncertainty relates to future policy, the second cause likely operates too, and indeed, these two causes can reinforce one another.

Unlike in the 2013 episode, there have been no breathless (and clueless) NYT articles about Morgan or Goldman or other banks making bank on RIN speculation. Even if they have, that’s not proof of anything nefarious, just an indication that they are better at plumbing the mysteries of EPA policy.

In sum, the recent screeching from Carl Icahn and others about the recent ramp-up in RIN prices is economically inane, and/or unsupported by evidence. Icahn is particularly misguided: RINs are a tax, and the burden of the tax depends not at all on who formally pays the tax. The costs of the tax are passed upstream to consumers and downstream to producers, regardless of whether consumers pay the tax, producers pay the tax, or someone in the middle pays the tax. As for speculation in RINs it is the product of government policy. Obviously, there wouldn’t be speculation in RINs if there aren’t RINs in the first place. But on a deeper level, speculation is rooted in a mandate that does not correspond with the realities of the vast stock of existing internal combustion engines; the EPA’s erratic attempt to reconcile those irreconcilable things; the details of the RFS system (e.g., the ability to meet the ethanol mandate using biodiesel credits); and the normal vicissitudes of the energy supply and demand.  Speculation is largely a creation of government regulation, ironically, so to complain to the government about it (the EPA in particular) is somewhat perverse. But that’s the world we live in now.

* I highly recommend the various analyses of the RINs and ethanol markets in the University of Illinois’ Farm Doc Daily. Here’s one of their posts on the subject, but there are others that can be found by searching the website. Kudos to Scott Irwin and his colleagues.

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July 23, 2016

For All You Pigeons: Musk Has Announced Master Plan II

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:29 am

Elon Musk just announced his “Master Plan, Part Deux,” AKA boob bait for geeks and posers.

It is just more visionary gasbaggery, and comes at a time when Musk is facing significant head winds: there is a connection here. What headwinds? The proposed Tesla acquisition of SolarCity was not greeted, shall we say, with universal and rapturous applause. To the contrary, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative, sometimes extremely so (present company included)–but the proposed tie up gave even some fanboyz cause to pause. Production problems continue; Tesla ended the resale price guarantee on the Model S (which strongly suggests financial strains); and the company has cut the price on the Model X SUV in the face of lackluster sales. But the biggest set back was the death of a Tesla driver while he was using the “Autopilot” feature, and the SEC’s announcement of an investigation of whether Tesla violated disclosure regulations by keeping the accident quiet until after it had completed its $1.6 billion secondary offering.

It is not a coincidence, comrades, that Musk tweeted that he was thinking of announcing his new “Master Plan” a few hours before the SEC made its announcement. Like all good con artists, Musk needed to distract from the impending bad news.

And that’s the reason for Master Plan II overall. All cons eventually produce cognitive dissonance in the pigeons, when reality clashes with the grandiose promises that the con man had made before. The typical way that the con artist responds is to entrance the pigeons with even more grandiose promises of future glory and riches. If that’s not what Elon is doing here, he’s giving a damn good impression of it.

All I can say is that if you are fool enough to fall for this, you deserve to be suckered, and look elsewhere for sympathy. Look here, and expect this.

As for the “Master Plan” itself, it makes plain that Musk fails to understand some fundamental economic principles that have been recognized since Adam Smith: specialization, division of labor, and gains from trade among specialists, most notably. A guy whose company cannot deliver on crucial aspects of Master Plan I, which Musk says “wasn’t all that complicated,” (most notably, production issues in a narrow line of vehicles), now says that his company will produce every type of vehicle. A guy whose promises about self-driving technology are under tremendous scrutiny promises vast fleets of autonomous vehicles. A guy whose company burns cash like crazy and which is now currently under serious financial strain (with indications that its current capital plans are unaffordable) provides no detail on how this grandiose expansion is going to be financed.

Further, Musk provides no reason to believe that even if each of the pieces of his vision for electric automobiles and autonomous vehicles is eventually realized, that it is efficient for a single company to do all of it. The purported production synergies between electricity generation (via solar), storage, and consumption (in the form of electric automobiles) are particularly unpersuasive.

But reality and economics aren’t the point. Keeping the pigeons’ dreams alive and fighting cognitive dissonance are.

Insofar as the SEC investigation goes, although my initial inclination was to say “it’s about time!” But the Autopilot accident silence is the least of Musk’s disclosure sins. He has a habit of making forward looking statements on Twitter and elsewhere that almost never pan out. The company’s accounting is a nightmare. I cannot think of another CEO who could get away with, and has gotten away with, such conduct in the past without attracting intense SEC scrutiny.

But Elon is a government golden boy, isn’t he? My interest in him started because he was–and is–a master rent seeker who is the beneficiary of massive government largesse (without which Tesla and SolarCity would have cratered long ago). In many ways, governments–notably the US government and the State of California–are his biggest pigeons.

And rather than ending, the government gravy train reckons to continue. Last week the White House announced that the government will provide $4.5 billion in loan guarantees for investments in electric vehicle charging stations. (If you can read the first paragraph of that statement without puking, you have a stronger stomach than I.) Now Tesla will not be the only beneficiary of this–it is a subsidy to all companies with electric vehicle plans–but it is one of the largest, and one of the neediest. One of Elon’s faded promises was to create a vast network of charging stations stretching from sea-to-sea. Per usual, the plan was announced with great fanfare, but the delivery has not met the plans. Also per usual, it takes forensic sleuthing worthy of Sherlock Holmes to figure out exactly how many stations have been rolled out and are in the works.

The rapid spread of the evil internal combustion engine was not impeded by a lack of gas stations: even in a much more primitive economy and a much more primitive financial system, gasoline retailing and wholesaling grew in parallel with the production of autos without government subsidy or central planning. Oil companies saw a profitable investment opportunity, and jumped on it.

Further, even if one argues that there are coordination problems and externalities that are impeding the expansion of charging networks (which I seriously doubt, but entertain to show that this does not necessitate subsidies), these can be addressed by private contract without subsidy. For instance, electric car producers can create a joint venture to invest in power stations. To the extent government has a role, it would be to take a rational approach to the antitrust aspects of such a venture.

So yet again, governments help enable Elon’s con. How long can it go on? With the support of government, and credulous investors, quite a while. But cracks are beginning to show, and it is precisely to paper over those cracks that Musk announced his new Master Plan.

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June 21, 2016

Mating Hemophiliacs Seldom Turns Out Well

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 9:00 pm

I’ve long been an Elon Musk/Tesla skeptic, to put it mildly. I’ve called him out as a crony capitalist who milks subsidies, and as a con man.

Most recently, I said that one Musk company’s (SpaceX) purchase of the debt of another Musk company–Solar City–should raise alarms. Well, today four alarms rang: Tesla bid to take over Solar City, and to pay for the acquisition in Tesla stock. Solar City (SCTY) stock soared on the news: Tesla plunged. The effect of the announcement was market cap negative: Tesla’s value declined more than SCTY’s rose.

Both Solar City and Tesla rely on government subsidies, and crucially, on very dodgy financing models and questionable accounting. Like many other solar firms, Solar City was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Such an event would have a direct financial consequence for Musk, and given Elon’s large (and leveraged) ownership stake in Tesla, this would impact Tesla adversely.

Moreover, there’s a serious possibility that a SCTY bankruptcy would reveal a byzantine web of financial connections among Musk’s various ventures. Given the boundary-pushing accounting and tenuous financial condition of all of his companies, there is no doubt a lot hidden that Elon desperately wants to keep hidden.

But perhaps most importantly, a SCTY bankruptcy would undermine Musk’s image as a visionary genius and business colossus. This image is vital to keeping Musk, Inc. going. It is vital because this image is a key element of every con, and if Musk isn’t a con man, he sure does a great impression of one.

One key tell of that is that whenever people start expressing doubts about Tesla, Musk has some grandiose announcement about the next new big thing, even though he hasn’t delivered on the last new big thing, or even the new big thing before that. That’s a classic con man trick.

This is also a vital part of the Tesla funding model. In addition to subsidies, Tesla relies heavily on customer deposits for funding. In order to get those deposits, Tesla has to make promises on production that it has not been able to keep. But enough people are dazzled by Elon’s pitch that they fork over the cash that he needs to keep the endeavor aloft.

I read an investment report that referred to such types as “loss tolerant investors.” That’s a polite way of saying “suckers.”

A major Elon fail would put the con model at risk. So despite the fact that the initial reaction to the deal has been incredulity and outrage, and despite the fact that that reaction was utterly predictable, Musk has plunged ahead. That should give you some idea of his desperation.

In the announcement of the bid, Tesla served up a load of argle-bargle that should make any PR person blanch:

Tesla’s mission has always been tied to sustainability. We seek to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transportation by offering increasingly affordable electric vehicles. And in March 2015, we launched Tesla Energy, which through the Powerwall and Powerpack allow homeowners, business owners and utilities to benefit from renewable energy storage.

It’s now time to complete the picture. Tesla customers can drive clean cars and they can use our battery packs to help consume energy more efficiently, but they still need access to the most sustainable energy source that’s available: the sun.

The SolarCity team has built its company into the clear solar industry leader in the residential, commercial and industrial markets, with significant scale and growing customer penetration. They have made it easy for customers to switch to clean energy while still providing the best customer experience. We’ve seen this all firsthand through our partnership with SolarCity on a variety of use cases, including those where SolarCity uses Tesla battery packs as part of its solar projects.

So, we’re excited to announce that Tesla today has made an offer to acquire SolarCity. A copy of Tesla’s offer is provided below.

If completed, we believe that a combination of Tesla and SolarCity would provide significant benefits to our shareholders, customers and employees:

  • We would be the world’s only vertically integrated energy company offering end-to-end clean energy products to our customers. This would start with the car that you drive and the energy that you use to charge it, and would extend to how everything else in your home or business is powered. With your Model S, Model X, or Model 3, your solar panel system, and your Powerwall all in place, you would be able to deploy and consume energy in the most efficient and sustainable way possible, lowering your costs and minimizing your dependence on fossil fuels and the grid.
  • We would be able to expand our addressable market further than either company could do separately. Because of the shared ideals of the companies and our customers, those who are interested in buying Tesla vehicles or Powerwalls are naturally interested in going solar, and the reverse is true as well. When brought together by the high foot traffic that is drawn to Tesla’s stores, everyone should benefit.
  • We would be able to maximize and build on the core competencies of each company. Tesla’s experience in design, engineering, and manufacturing should help continue to advance solar panel technology, including by making solar panels add to the look of your home. Similarly, SolarCity’s wide network of sales and distribution channels and expertise in offering customer-friendly financing products would significantly benefit Tesla and its customers.
  • We would be able to provide the best possible installation service for all of our clean energy products. SolarCity is the best at installing solar panel systems, and that expertise translates seamlessly to the installation of Powerwalls and charging systems for Tesla vehicles.
  • Culturally, this is a great fit. Both companies are driven by a mission of sustainability, innovation, and overcoming any challenges that stand in the way of progress.

Note the appeal to enviro-vanity. “Shared ideals.” “Culture.” Vague synergies: “including by making solar panels add to the look of your home.” Are they serious? Is that the best he can come up with? “Customer-friendly financing products.” Another joke: the unviability of the Solar City financing model is exactly what put the company into its current straits. So extending this unviable financing model to autos is somehow going to do wonders for Tesla? The release mentions charging systems. A few years ago Elon promised thousands. There are currently 616 worldwide, and Elon has faded his original promise to provide free charging: Model S customers will have to pay.

Further, there’s no explanation of how marrying one cash bleeder to another cash bleeder is going to address either company’s fundamental problem . . . which is that they are cash bleeders. Buying Solar City exacerbates the Tesla cash bleeding problem, rather than ameliorating it: the mating of hemophiliacs is unlikely to turn out well.

Indeed, Tesla bleeds cash like a Game of Thrones battle scene. Hence the need to rush out the Model S (and collect deposits) while huge questions about production remain. Hence the repeated returns to the equity markets to issue new stock.

Which will now be harder, because paying for Solar City in stock–and hence diluting existing shareholders substantially–mere weeks after a big equity offering will make investors to whom Musk will have to sell stock in the future to meet his voracious needs for money think twice: will he take their money then dilute them again a few weeks or months later?

This move looks very short sighted, and it almost certainly is. But Musk is doing it because he needs to address very pressing immediate concerns, and he’ll worry about the future ramifications when the future comes.

Musk has made a living off of suckers. Suckers in government (including most notably the federal government, and the states of Nevada and California) who have lavished huge subsidies based the dubious environmental benefits of electric vehicles. Suckers enamored with the technology and performance of Tesla vehicles–despite the questions surrounding Tesla’s ability to produce those vehicles.

To keep the suckers coming, Musk has to perpetuate his image as the Great and Powerful Oz. A major fail–like the bankruptcy of Solar City–threatens to pull back the curtain and demolish that image. Musk needs to prevent that from happening. He needs to buy time, and to buy time, he is having Tesla buy Solar City.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. The proposed purchase of Solar City reeks of desperation, because it facially makes no business sense, and is explicable only as a way to keep a con alive.

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June 12, 2016

More Media Idiocy and Dishonesty on Venezuela (and Climate Change)

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,History,Politics — The Professor @ 12:12 pm

Venezuela’s economic and social collapse brings out the most idiotic “reporting” and commentary from the mainstream media. They are desperate to explain away the catastrophic failure of an avowedly socialist polity. They are also eager to recruit the country’s crisis to advance other progressive agendas, most notably climate change.

I thought I had read peak Venezuela stupid earlier this week in an Bloomberg article. (More on that below.) But I now know that I have seen peak stupid, because nothing can be more idiotic than this from a New York Times reporter:

And there’s no way that the Venezuelan government could print that much money to keep up with inflation. So what happens – they don’t. And there’s not enough money. There’s a shortage of money, just like there’s a shortage of electricity and water. It means, you know, paying for things and doing everything in your day-to-day life has become very, very challenging.

Hilarious! Who knew that hyperinflation occurs because the there’s “a shortage of money”?

This is New York Times economics “thinking” in a nutshell: that is, 180 degrees from reality.

News for Mr. Casey, courtesy of Milton Friedman: “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon in the sense that it is and can be produced only by a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output.”

The corollary is that hyperinflation can be produced only by an extremely more rapid increase in the quantity of money.

Boy, I guess money was really short in Zimbabwe a few years ago (inflation rate 79.6 billion percent in 2008–Venezuela has some catching up to do!)

The rest of the interview with Mr. Casey proves that he is not short of economic comedy gold. John Hinderaker at Powerline has deconstructed it thoroughly, so I don’t have to. The implication is blindingly obvious: anyone who relies on the NYT for economic insight can find it only if they follow one rule: conclude the opposite of everything the Timesman (or -woman) says.

One would hope for better from Bloomberg (its Twitter handle is @business, after all), but one would be disappointed. For while the NYT tells you that hyperinflation in Venezuela is due to the lack of printing press capacity, Bloomberg tells you that the crisis is due to the “wilting away of the state.” (Wait–Marx told me that was a feature, not a bug! WTF?)

Yes, the Venezuelan state is collapsing. But it is collapsing not because of climate change or other factors beyond its control. It is collapsing because its previous hyperactivity wrecked the economy and destroyed civil society. Perhaps the adverse consequences of the drought was the death knell, but that was only possible because Chavism had already undermined society’s capacity to absorb another shock. It’s like blaming pneumonia for the death of an AIDS victim. Yeah, it’s what killed him, but it wouldn’t have killed him if his immune system hadn’t already been ravaged.

This attempt to blame Venezuela’s crisis (and Syria’s–the article is a twofer!) on climate change is beyond annoying because it fails to identify honestly the source of the state’s “lack of adaptive capacity”:

“Powerful groups, especially in corrupt states, use their power to capture resources,” says Homer-Dixon. “You get a polarization of wealth, a weakening of state capacity, and urban stress.” Although these kinds of changes are indirect effects of a drought, they are often the tipping point for social conflict. “We are seeing these things around the world now,” Homer-Dixon says. “As environmental stresses get worse, [their effects] become more common.”

Global water shortages are predicted to decrease global gross domestic product by as much as 14 percent by 2050, according to a recent report by the World Bank, which predicts that this “severe hit” will spur conflict and migration across the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. Even resource-rich countries previously considered to have stable economies, such as Brazil and Russia, have become more susceptible to environmental disequilibrium. Last year production of coffee, one of Brazil’s most important commodities, fell 15 percent as a result of drought. A lack of rain in Russia this fall damaged a quarter of its cereal crops. The last time the country’s harvest failed, rising global prices contributed to the Arab Spring in countries dependent on imported grain. [What? Um, there have been droughts for like forever. And steep declines in agricultural output are a historical norm. Further, Russian grain output is likely up this year. FFS. Agricultural output variability has been the norm since humans first scratched the ground with a stick. Before that, even: variability in the amount of stuff to gather predates the agricultural revolution.] Even Islamic State’s political power may soon be affected by drought. As water levels in Lake Assad in Syria plummet, Raqqa, the group’s stronghold, is facing severe shortages. Last year, Islamic State’s press officer, Abu Mosa, told Vice News that it would consider attacking Turkey to gain access to additional water resources.

Climate science has an explanation for why environmental forces can have this kind of destabilizing effect. Angel Muñoz, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton, says, “Risk is just a multiplication of hazard by vulnerability.” Muñoz, who grew up in Venezuela and moved to the U.S. to study climate risk management, explains that a drought is a hazard, but what actually created this year’s mess was Venezuela’s lack of what he calls “adaptive capacity.” The drought was predicted months before it began—neighboring Colombia started water rationing in September 2015. Although Venezuela has far more natural resources than its neighbor, Colombia is not in such dire straits. “A society’s vulnerability is at least as important as the hazard,” Muñoz says.

As a result, when weak states [!] face environmental catastrophes like drought, “you might see the collapse of authoritarian regimes, as you did during the Arab Spring,” Homer-Dixon says. “But they’re probably going to be replaced with something just as bad, because a deeply divided society is still dealing with a materially stressed situation.”

The point is that authoritarian regimes–which invariably use their authority to control the economy and undermine private contract and markets–are brittle. That’s why they have less adaptive capacity. Some shock is the proximate cause (in the USSR, it was the decline of oil prices in 1986), but statist systems are brittle because in their mania for control they destroy the resilience of emergent orders.

Brittleness is different than weakness. The “weak state” formulation suggests a polity like Somalia or Afghanistan where the government’s writ does not extend beyond the capital, if it extends even that far. Or medieval Europe. The problem with Venezuela and Syria is that the state’s writ runs everywhere.

Regardless of the science regarding climate change, and in particular the science of attributing to climate change a particular type of event that has occurred on earth since far before recorded history, it is beyond dishonest and manipulative to ignore the real anthropogenic factor at work here: the destruction of a society’s adaptive capacity by a hyperactive state. If Venezuela is on the brink of anarchy, it is because the state was too strong, not because it was too weak.

What is particularly perverse is that climate change is being used to justify intense statist intervention on a global scale. This despite the fact that as the case of Venezuela (and other socialist paradises) demonstrates, humanity (and nature) have much to fear from a hyperactive state. The Bloomberg article is particularly dishonest because it insinuates the exact opposite.

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June 2, 2016

The Smelly Little Orthodoxy of Warmism, Hating Free Intelligence and Free Debate

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:01 pm

One of the most disreputable tactics of those who sound alarms about anthropogenic climate change is to conscript any weather-related disaster to advance their cause. Case in point: the recent wildfires in and around Fort MacMurray, Alberta, Canada:

Experts say climate change is contributing to the wildfires raging across Canada, and the increasing frequency of such fires may overwhelm one of Earth’s most important ecosystems, the boreal forest.

In just over a week, an out of control blaze has charred more than 2,290 square kilometers (884 square miles) of land and forced the evacuation of 100,000 people from Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada.

Dominated by conifers like pine and spruce, the boreal forest sweeps across Canada, Russia, Alaska and Scandinavia making up about 30 percent of the world’s forest cover, and absorbing a big chunk of carbon from the atmosphere.

As crucial as the boreal forest is at reducing the impact of human-driven fossil fuel emissions, it is also increasingly fragile, and expected to become hotter, drier, and more prone to fires in the future.

“Western Canada, including in particular the region in Alberta containing Fort McMurray, has warmed quite a bit more than the global average,” said scientist Michael Mann, author of “Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change.”

With the Arctic region warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, climate model projections place central and western Canada in the “bullseye of enhanced warming,” he told AFP.

Michael Mann. Of course.

The past months have seen a strong El Nino which has caused anomalous weather throughout the world, and in the western hemisphere in particular. It has brought heavier than normal rains to some areas, and drought to others. My immediate suspicion was that El Nino contributed to the warm dry conditions, low snow pack, etc., that set the stage for the Alberta fires. And indeed, that’s the case.

It’s also necessary to put this in perspective. Even in normal years, there are fires in the boreal forests of Canada. Indeed, about 29,000 square kilometers burn in Canada each year. When I looked at the height of the fires, the Fort MacMurray fire had consumed about 2900 square kilometers, or about 10 percent of the annual average in Canada. This also represents about .015 percent of Canadian boreal forest area.

The fire got attention not so much because of its size, but because it occurred in a populated area (something of a rarity in that area), and one that happens to be a major oil producing center.

But the cause is too important to let facts interfere with the narrative. The fires were dramatic, and to the credulous it is plausible that global warming is to blame. So Mann et al could not let this opportunity pass.

Exploiting weather to raise alarms about climate is not the only disreputable tactic these people employ. Another is to attempt to intimidate through the legal process those who dare challenge their orthodoxy. This tactic has reached a new level in California, where a bill with the Orwellian title “California Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act of 2016” has cleared committees in the state Senate:

“This bill explicitly authorizes district attorneys and the Attorney General to pursue UCL [Unfair Competition Law] claims alleging that a business or organization has directly or indirectly engaged in unfair competition with respect to scientific evidence regarding the existence, extent, or current or future impacts of anthropogenic induced climate change,” says the state Senate Rules Committee’s floor analysis.

What does “engage in unfair competition with respect to scientific evidence” even mean? As an industrial organization economist by training, and practice, I know that the concept of “unfair competition” is slippery at best even in a straightforward economic context, and (speaking of Orwellian) that unfair competition laws have been used primarily to stifle competition rather than promote it. How unfair competition concepts would even apply to scientific debate is beyond me.

But that’s not the point, is it? The point of this law is to utilize another law that has proved very convenient at squelching competitors in the name of competition in order to squelch debate about climate change and climate policy. This is antithetical to science yet is done in the name of science: it is also a perfect example of the thuggery that the warmists routinely resort to when they cannot prevail in an open discussion.

When writing about Dickens, Orwell said something that relates to this issue as well:

It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.

The smelly little orthodoxy epitomized by Michael Mann and Kemala Harris (the AG of CA, and soon to be Senator, who is a leader of the movement to prosecute climate change dissenters) indeed hates free intelligence, and free debate. And nineteenth century liberals, for that matter.

Have the progressives (particularly in California) who shriek about Peter Theil using the legal system to go after Gawker uttered a peep of protest against the employment of the far heavier hand of the state to silence debate about climate change? Not that I’ve heard. Free speech for me, but not for thee, is their motto.

Those who claim that science is undeniably on their side should have no fear of debate, and should not feel compelled to use coercion to stifle that debate. That they do means that they lack confidence in the truth of their message and their ability to persuade. It also means that they have a hearty disrespect for the ability of the American people to listen to and evaluate that debate with intelligence and fairness. In other words, what we are seeing in California is another example of a self-anointed elite that heartily disdains the hoi polloi, believing that it is their right and obligation to use any means necessary to impose their beliefs.

This is a recipe for social strife, especially since the climate change debate is by no means the only place where this attitude is regnant. This is precisely why battle is now raging between elitism and populism. Sad to say, that battle is likely to become even more intense in the coming months and years.


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May 29, 2016

To the NYT It Would Be News That Socialism Causes Economic Catastrophe

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 2:05 pm

Venezuela is on the verge of economic collapse and social disintegration. Here’s the NYT’s diagnosis:

The growing economic crisis — fueled by low prices for oil, the country’s main export; a drought that has crippled Venezuela’s ability to generate hydroelectric power; and a long decline in manufacturing and agricultural production — has turned into an intensely political one for President Nicolás Maduro. This month, he declared a state of emergency, his second this year, and ordered military exercises, citing foreign threats.

Do you see what’s missing? Not a single mention of socialism, Chavism, Bolivarian socialism, etc.

Other countries have suffered similar shocks without descending into dystopian chaos like Venezuela. Many countries in South America, for instance (notably Columbia and Brazil), have suffered from the decline in commodity prices and the drought, and are doing poorly economically, but are not plagued by empty store shelves, myriad shuttered factories and stores, and the imminent threat of social violence. Brazil has suffered from a lack of hydropower due to the drought, but has imported LNG to keep the lights on. Venezuela can’t afford to.

Further, Venezuela’s descent into catastrophe started long ago, and serious problems were clearly manifest in 2014 and before when the price of oil was over $100/bbl and the drought had not reduced hydropower output.

Venezuela’s current crisis had its roots with Chavez’s triumph in the 2002-2003 general strike, and the subsequent firing of 18,000 PDVSA employees. In the years that followed, foreign investors were expropriated, as were domestic businesses, all in the name of socialism. The government has imposed price controls on an every widening array of goods. As shortages increased and inflation spiked, the government increased the scope of price controls and enforced them in a draconian way, including through the dispatching of red shirted goons to seize offending businesses.

The results of all this should have been eminently predictable: shortages and a collapse of economic activity. It is those policies that caused the “long decline in manufacturing and agricultural production.”

If the NYT read it’s own freaking archives, it might have realized that this problem was looming well before the oil price decline and the drought:

Venezuela is one of the world’s top oil producers at a time of soaring energy prices [hahaha], yet shortages of staples like milk, meat and toilet paper are a chronic part of life here, often turning grocery shopping into a hit or miss proposition.

Some residents arrange their calendars around the once-a-week deliveries made to government-subsidized stores like this one, lining up before dawn to buy a single frozen chicken before the stock runs out. Or a couple of bags of flour. Or a bottle of cooking oil. (Emphasis added.)

Mind well the date of the article: April 21, 2012. Four years ago. When the Brent price was about $118/bbl.

This title of the NYT piece is hilarious: “With Venezuelan Food Shortages, Some Blame Price Controls.”

Hey, NYT: by “some” do you mean people with an economics IQ of above 80? (A category which would exclude the editorial staff and most of the news room.)

What is happening in Venezuela is a perfect illustration of something that Adam Smith recognized 240 years ago. It takes perverse government policy to turn an adverse supply or demand shock into shortages and economic catastrophe:

Whoever examines with attention the history of the dearths and famines which have afflicted any part of Europe, during either the course of the present or that of the two preceding centuries, of several of which we have pretty exact accounts, will find, I believe, that a dearth never has arisen from any combination among the inland dealers in corn, nor from any other cause but a real scarcity, occasioned sometimes perhaps, and in some particular places, by the waste of war, but in by far the greatest number of cases by the fault of the seasons; and that a famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconveniences of a dearth. (Emphasis added.)

That is a perfect description of what is happening in Venezuela.

But various economic morons on the left (but I repeat myself) like Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Sean Penn, and Danny Glover (to name just a few) have been cheering Chavism and Bolivarian socialism for attacking the inequalities spawned by capitalism red in tooth and claw. In a perverse way, it has indeed succeeded in reducing inequality–by making everyone largely equal in their abject misery.

Perhaps there is a silver lining to the food shortages. They reduce the need for toilet paper, which ran out long ago (due to price controls, naturally).

The New York Times prides itself on carrying all the news that’s fit to print. Apparently the news about the impact of price controls hasn’t reached it yet, even though observant folks picked up on it about the time of Diolcetian’s Edict on Prices, a mere 1715 years ago.

This economic cluelessness by the NYT is precisely why its criticism of me doesn’t bother me. Such boundless economic ignorance (which is shared by a vast swathe of its readers, including notably Elizabeth Warren) renders its criticism meaningless. Anyone so stupid, or so ideologically blinded, that they fail to recognize that Venezuela’s problems have everything to do with perverse government policy has nothing to say about economics that is worth paying the slightest heed.

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December 21, 2015

Adam Smith Goes to Syria: How Bad Government Policies Turned Drought Into Famine

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,History,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:39 pm

The myth that global warming caused a drought which caused the civil war in Syria has been flogged repeatedly by the left, especially in the lead-up to the Paris farce: another example of the “elites” letting no good crisis go to (political) waste. As I discussed in March, there was indeed a drought in Syria, but no credible scientific evidence links the drought to climate change.

Droughts happen. What turned the drought into catastrophe in Syria was the depletion of groundwater by previous government-driven efforts to spur production:

Syria was such a successful producer that it became a net exporter of wheat for the better part of two decades — almost unheard-of in a region where most governments imported cheap wheat from abroad. According to ICARDA Director General Mahmoud Solh, the increased productivity netted the Syrian government more than $350 million a year . The country also kept a strategic reserve of wheat — usually about 3 million metric tons, enough to get it through a lean year or a price spike. In this most stable of dictatorships, nobody dreamed of a war.

But all that productivity came at a price. To produce these remarkable gains, Syria’s agricultural sector “mined” groundwater to irrigate farms. Experts predicted that this would lead to severe water Shortages. When a four-year drought struck in 2006, devastating 60 percent of Syria’s agricultural lands, the country’s groundwater was already depleted.

(This sounds a lot like Soviet agricultural malpractice.)

This brings to mind Adam Smith’s argument that bad government policy turns “dearths” caused by nature into famines:

The seasons most unfavourable to the crop are those of excessive drought or excessive rain. But as corn grows equally upon high and low lands, upon grounds that are disposed to be too wet, and upon those that are disposed to be too dry, either the drought or the rain which is hurtful to one part of the country is favourable to another; and though both in the wet and in the dry season the crop is a good deal less than in one more properly tempered, yet in both what is lost in one part of the country is in some measure compensated by what is gained in the other. In rice countries, where the crop not only requires a very moist soil, but where in a certain period of its growing it must be laid under water, the effects of a drought are much more dismal. Even in such countries, however, the drought is, perhaps, scarce ever so universal as necessarily to occasion a famine, if the government would allow a free trade.

It as not just the  Syrian government that contributed to spiraling food prices which created popular unrest in the Middle East that culminated in 2010-2011 (which the Muslim Brotherhood exploited in Egypt and Syria in particularly): US government policy contributed to the problem. In particular, US biofuels mandates that stimulated the production of ethanol drove up the price of corn by an estimated 30 percent, and as Brian Wright has shown, drove up all other grain prices as well (because corn is a substitute for other grains in both consumption and production). (I strongly recommend reading at least the introduction of the Wright paper: I’d quote in detail, but the online versions embed some devious feature that makes it impossible to copy-and-paste.)

It is sickly ironic that policies intended to reduce global warming pushed by the same crowd that falsely blame the Syrian drought and subsequent civil war on global warming (a) do nothing to reduce global warming, and (b) have done far more to exacerbate poverty and create social unrest  in the Middle East than global warming ever has or ever will.  Ethanol is an unmitigated disaster environmentally, economically, and socially. Yet the people Thomas Sowell trenchantly calls “the anointed” colluded with agricultural lobbies in the United States (encompassing both growers and processors) to inflict this monstrosity on the world.

How dare they–how fucking dare they–presume to lecture anyone on their obligations to “save the planet” and help the poor? Through biofuels policies alone they have inflicted huge misery and privation, and yet they have the audacity to try to exploit one of the consequences of these policies in order to ram more of their brilliant ideas down our throats.

Haven’t they done enough? Can they please now just go away?

Alas, we won’t be so lucky. These are our elites, after all, and we are stuck with them, like a case of malaria. And they are actually proud of stupid policies like biofuel mandates. There is no stupid that can equal the stupid of not just not learning from mistakes, but reveling in them.

Do you still wonder why the Trump phenomenon exists? The global reaction against the elites, of which Trump is just the most prominent example, is yet another baleful consequence of the failure of these so called elites. The reaction may be as bad as the disease, but let the blame fall where it should: squarely on the shoulders of those condescending fools whose allegedly good intentions have paved a superhighway to hell.

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September 18, 2015

Skepticism is the Preeminent Scientific Virtue: Certitude is a Leading Scientific Sin

Filed under: Climate Change,Politics — The Professor @ 6:39 pm

One way to identify a scientific paradigm in crisis is an attempt by its adherents to crush those who dissent. These efforts become all the more frantic, the more advanced the crisis becomes.

We may be witnessing such a moment now. Jumping on a proposal made by Senator Sheldon Whitehorse (D-CO) in a WaPo oped, a group of noted climate scientists have signed a letter addressed to the Attorney General supporting a RICO investigation of those individuals and organizations who are climate change skeptics and deniers. Whitehorse compared those who dispute the climate change consensus to the tobacco scientists who disputed the cancer-smoking link, who were RICO targets in the early-2000s.

This is a perversion of science in the name of science. Certainty, faith, and conformity are the domain of religion: Skepticism and doubt are the domain of science. Skepticism is perhaps the preeminent scientific virtue: certitude is the leading scientific sin.

Indeed, the sociology of modern institutionalized science, with its dependence on government funding, tends to produce excessive consensus, and is rife with mechanisms that suppress challenge. Skepticism and doubt need defending and nurturing, not stigmatizing and outright repression.

The whole climate change debate is framed in a logically fallacious way because it is posed as a false choice: is anthropogenic climate change true or false? I believe that it is true, but that is a trivial answer to a trivial question. The more interesting questions involve the magnitude of the effect, and the costs of alternative means of mitigation or adjustment, and on these issues there is much room to be skeptical about the much vaunted consensus.

The consensus is based on models. Very large, complicated models of coupled, complex systems. I know enough about models to know that one should always be skeptical of them. One should be particularly skeptical of large models. And one should be especially skeptical of models of coupled complex systems (non-linear) with myriad feedbacks. By their very nature, such systems defy modeling, especially where computation is involved because computational tractability almost always involves linearizing the non-linear.

Climate models are all these things, so doubt and skepticism are more than warranted: they are mandatory. Climate is filled with poorly understood feedbacks and processes that are handled-if they are handled at all-by crude parameterizations (a polite way of saying SWAG: scientific wild assed guess). Furthermore, their empirical validity is doubtful, at best. The longstanding inability to predict the behavior of the tropical troposphere is one example, but even more tellingly, the failure to predict the recent temperature plateau is a massive empirical failure.

Alarm bells should also be triggered by the repeated fiddling with historical temperature data. Especially since that fiddling always seems to work in one direction: past temperatures are pushed downwards to increase the upward trend.

A confident science would relish the challenges of skeptics, secure in the knowledge that it will prevail because theory and evidence are on its side. A frightened and insecure science-especially one dominated by scientists fearing for their funding and their academic sinecures-responds by attempting to throttle those who criticize it. That’s what we are seeing now, with these efforts aided and abetted by politicians and journalists (e.g., jackholes like Jake Tapper-who would be a jakehole, I guess-and his performance in Wednesday’s GOP debate).

It is particularly risible to see scientists who dominate journals, dominate the peer review process, dominate the funding review process, dominate the universities and research departments, and who secure the lion’s share of government funding, whine about the dread threat posed by a few (and they emphasize that they are few) dissenters from the consensus. The constellation of organizations and funders that support the climate change consensus dwarfs that which the scientists and Whitehorse claim threatens science and truth. The letter reeks of projection by the signers. It’s very Russian.

Again, a confident science, a correct science, in control of all the commanding heights of the modern scientific establishment, should have nothing to fear. But we see the elephant quaking before the mouse, demanding that it be squashed.

But it is perhaps the fact that they have a lot to lose that explains the ferocity of the response to anyone who threatens them.

The endorsement by politicians of inquisitorial means is to be expected. That’s how they roll. The endorsement by scientists of inquisitorial means to be applied to other scientists is an abomination.

Update: When not applied to its original targets, the mafia, RICO is almost always a tool of government extortion and intimidation. I am reminded in particular of the Giuliani prosecutions of Michael Milken in the 1980s. Even in criminal cases it is almost always a perversion of justice. To invoke it in a scientific dispute is beyond outrageous.

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