Streetwise Professor

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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August 26, 2015

Donald Trump Can Only Aspire to Match Obama’s Economic Ignorance

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:00 pm

Yesterday I said Trump and O’Reilly were in a cage match to determine the world champion of economic ignorance. There is another contender of course, the current occupant of the office to which Trump aspires. Actually, I would say that Obama is the undefeated reigning world champ, and that the O’Reilly-Trump set-to was merely to see who might contend for the title in the future.

Obama’s gobsmacking ignorance-served up with a heaping side of superciliousness-was on full display at the “Clean Energy Summit” in Las Vegas on Monday. Time is finite, and my energy is only intermittently renewable, so I can’t possibly deconstruct these vaporings in detail. So I will limit myself to a few high-level comments:

  1. Obama’s claims that his policies on renewable energy and carbon will make a meaningful impact on climate is a massive fraud that would land you or me in jail. Obama’s own EPA acknowledges that the policy will reduce global mean temperatures by an imperceptible and irrelevant .02 degrees by 2100. Farenheit? Celsius? Who cares? It matters not. It is rounding error on any scale.
  2. Obama’s mantra is all about the jobs that his renewables policies are creating and will create. Jobs are costs, not benefits.
  3. Further, Obama is clueless about the seen vs. unseen. To the extent that these policies raise the cost of electricity, they will have adverse consequences on wealth and income in consuming sectors, and in sectors that could produce electricity more efficiently, but for the subsidized competition from renewables.
  4. And yes, these policies will increase costs. Renewables are intermittent and diffuse and therefore require backup resources to ensure reliability; there is often a long distance between renewable sources and demand, meaning that new investments in icky transmission are required; and there is often a negative correlation between renewable production and electricity demand (e.g., the wind usually stops blowing when it’s really hot). Just look to Germany, with its Energiewende fiasco if you have any doubts. There is a strong correlation between electricity costs and fraction of electricity from renewables, and although this could be due in part to an endogeneity issue (those with more costly electricity sources utilize more renewables), this does not explain the entire effect.
  5. Obama and other boosters of renewables boast about falling costs of solar. Wind is conspicuously absent from this discussion, even though it represents the bulk of renewables generation. Further. Fine! When these inexorable efficiency gains make solar economical as a large-scale source of electricity, it will be able to compete without subsidy. This is no reason to subsidize now. This technical progress in solar argument is a non sequitur of the first magnitude.
  6. Obama and other boosters rave about capacity additions attributable to renewables. Well, due to the intermittence issue, capacity utilization is very low. It takes a lot more than 1MW of renewable capacity to replace 1MW of thermal or nuclear capacity. Indeed, if the wind ain’t blowing, all the windmills in the world can’t replace one conventional plant.
  7. Obama’s ignorance is on full display when he claims that conventional electricity generation was not characterized by “a lot of innovation.” This is just a crock. Compare heat rates of plants 20 years ago to those of today: in California, for instance, thermal efficiency has improved by 17 percent over the last 13 years. Heard of combined cycle, Barry? There has been considerable innovation in electricity generation. Well, not at the light switch plate, which is probably the extent of Barry’s familiarity with the electricity value chain.
  8. Obama mistakes opposing subsidies with being anti-free market. Welcome to bizarro world. And, as is his wont, he did so in an Alinskyite fashion, demonizing his opponents (the always handy Koch Brothers) in a very personal way.

I could go on, but that would be an S&M exhibition, and this is (usually!) a SFW site.

Suffice it to say that in Las Vegas Obama gave a demonstration that proves that when it comes to economic illiteracy, Trump can only aspire to fill Obama’s shows.

And yeah. Take a moment to absorb just what that means.

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August 15, 2015

Is Elon Musk’s Flim-Flam Beginning to Unravel?

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics — The Professor @ 7:03 pm

I’ve long been an Elon Musk skeptic.  He struck me as Harold Hill-esque con man, and an aspiring cult leader.

Izabella Kaminska at FT Alphaville has come to the same conclusion. (I appreciate her giving extended play to my posts on Musk, and for pointing out that I’ve “never bought the hype.”) Her last sentence says it all, in a rhetorically questioning kind of way: “Who was it again that said “the bigger the lie, the more it will be believed”?”

Exactly.

There are some major cracks beginning to show in the Musk facade. The most telling is the fact that one Musk entity-SolarCity-sold $165 million in bonds (that are backed by the cash flows from SCTY’s solar installations) to another Musk entity, SpaceX (which just experienced an embarrassing spacecraft malfunction.) When money is taken out of the left pocket to put into the right pocket, eyebrows should be raised. Especially when the explanation is this lame:

So why is SpaceX buying these up? According to SolarCity’s Vice President of Financial Products, Tim Newell, the answer is “very straight forward.” The bonds offered SpaceX an attractive rate of return for a one-year investment compared to other investment options out there. SpaceX carriers a fair amount of cash at times, noted Newell, and the company wanted to put that cash to work in the short term with a high degree of reliability

Sure. If it’s offering such a great rate of return, why isn’t anyone else buying it? And why does it have to offer a better rate than “other investment options out there”? A more plausible story is that the bonds weren’t selling, or that they would only sell at yields Musk didn’t want to pay, so  he had to use one of his companies to prop up another. Those kinds of shell games can only last so long.

Moreover, some executives have left, most recently the head of service, who is taking a leave of absence. This follows the departure of the CFO (announced in June).

Then there is the recent Tesla earnings report, which showed that despite the massive subsidies it has received, it still can’t earn a GAAP profit and, and is burning cash at a hellacious rate, $565 billion million* in the last quarter alone. Further the company revealed that it almost certainly will miss its sales target of 55,000, perhaps by as much as 10 percent. The introduction of the Model X is being pushed back yet again. The company had been counting on China for future growth. Performance there had been disappointing, and China’s current economic troubles (which include a huge automobile inventory overhang) make it an unlikely future savior.

But Musk responded in his typical supercilious fashion:

Rather sanctimoniously, the carmaker said that it would prioritise “a great product” over quarterly numbers. Investors have probably understood that by now. Just in case of doubt, Mr Musk followed up on the earnings call with: “We don’t want to set high expectations . . . Winning needs to feel like winning.”

Just a suggestion: channeling one’s inner Charlie Sheen is probably not a good idea.

There is also a medium-to-long term risk for Tesla, and a deliciously ironic one (though it is somewhat hedged by SolarCity). Specifically, Musk is a anthropomorphic anthropogenic climate change true believer who touts electric automobiles as a way of combatting it. The EPA’s recent proposed regulation of CO2 is also targeted at climate change. Though by its own admission will do virtually nothing to ameliorate temperature increases, the regulation will make electricity much more expensive: that’s a certainty. Estimates are in the range of 10-20 percent. That makes electric cars that much less attractive. Higher energy costs will also reduce income, leading to lower demand for Tesla vehicles, but will also reduce the demand for petroleum, which will lead to lower gasoline prices which will also negatively impact demand for Teslas: the EPA regulation will therefore cause both income and substitution effects that are harmful to Tesla (though again SolarCity will benefit from the EPA plan). Meaning that one green dream will cannibalize another.

For those who see Tesla as more of a battery company than a car company, higher electricity prices hurt the storage battery business too.

But no doubt Elon will turn his attention to doing what he does best: importuning the government to subsidize him. I lay heavy odds that we will see an effort to increase or extend subsidies to electric vehicles with the specific purpose of offsetting the effect of EPA regulations on the sales of electric cars. Just watch. If the markets are becoming less enamored with Elon, there are still plenty of suckers for his shtick in government.

*Thanks to commenter Highgamma for catching this.

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August 3, 2015

Adding to Atlas’s Burden: The EPA’s CO2 Rule

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:41 pm

Acting under the aegis of its most malign agency, the EPA, in its unbending effort to hamstring the US economy, the Obama administration today released its long dreaded CO2 rule. The Rule mandates a 32 percent decrease in CO2 emissions by 2030. This outcome will be achieved by a dramatic reduction in the use of coal powered generation, and its replacement by renewables.

The administration touts its generosity by pointing out that compliance with the Rule has been extended by 2 years.

Great. We get screwed in 7 years, instead of just 5. Gee. Thanks. How thoughtful. You really shouldn’t have.

The Rule is tarted up with a cost-benefit analysis which purports to show massive benefits and modest costs. The benefit is in the form of improved health, in particular through the reduction in respiratory ailments.

But every step of this analysis is literally incredible. Consider the steps. First is an estimate of how the regulation affects climate. The second is an estimate of how climate affects health. The third is an estimate of the value of these health benefits. None of these calculations is remotely plausible, or even is it plausible that they can be made realistically, given the incredible complexity of climate and health.

And note the bait and switch here. The Rule is touted as a solution to the Phenomenon Once Known As Global Warming. But the Rule itself admits that the effect on temperature will be point zero one eight degrees centigrade by 2100. This is effectively zero, meaning that the “Climate Change” benefit of the Rule is zero.

The health benefits come from reductions in particulates from coal generating plants. So why not regulate particulates specifically?

This all points out that cost benefit analysis for large federal rules is basically Kabuki theater. Some laws require this analysis, but since courts give so much deference (under Chevron) to agencies, that this analysis is not subject to any serious scrutiny. Consequently, the process is ritual, not a serious check on agency discretion.

The Rule is grotesquely inefficient even if you believe this Making Shit Up And Calling it Science!® “cost-benefit analysis.” An efficient rule would achieve its results at lowest cost. But the command-and-control EPA rule does not do this.

Originally, the Rule was expected to lead to a substitution of natural gas for coal. But we can’t have that, can we, given that natural gas is a fossil fuel (even if Nancy Pelosi doesn’t think so)? So the current rule encourages the use of renewables.

The economics of renewables (especially wind) are atrocious. They are intermittent and diffuse. Intermittency strains reliability, and requires maintaining backup generation. Germany (and other countries, including Spain) have gone all in on renewables, and it has been a disaster. Energiewende has saddled Germany with high costs and lower quality power that has imposed great costs on German manufacturing. (Fluctuations in wind and sunlight induce fluctuations in frequency that wreak havoc with precision manufacturing processes.) California is already on the verge of reliability problems when the sun sets during winter months due to a sudden drop in solar generation (aka the swan problem) that requires a sudden ramp up of conventional generation: but the supply of solar during daylight hours undermines the economics of conventional generation. Wind power in Texas is leading to frequent bouts of negative prices which reduce the profitability of conventional generation necessary to maintain reliability.

The Rule acknowledges reliability issues, but the response is totally inadequate:

[T]he rule requires states to address reliability in their state plans. The final rule also provides a “reliability safety valve” to address any reliability challenges that arise on a case-by-case basis.

That’s just great. EPA says: “Yeah, we know renewables create reliability issues. Not our problem! You figure it out, states.” Note that this is problematic because the electrical grid is interconnected, meaning that retiring a coal plant in one state can have serious effects on reliability in numerous other states. So how do individual state plans efficiently address these inherently interstate issues? And as for the “safety valve”, the case-by-case analysis is likely to be cumbersome and costly.

Let’s get down to cases. By its own calculations, the proposed Rule will have a risible effect on global temperature. Therefore, there is no cost benefit justification for the control of CO2 per se, the ostensible purpose of the rule. If there are substantial benefits from reducing particulate emissions, then tax these emissions at a rate commensurate with these costs and let utilities and others find the most economical way of complying.

But that’s not the point, is it? Obama and the EPA don’t want efficiency. They have an intense ideological animus against fossil fuels, and a romantic attachment to renewables: many of the Democrats’ largest donors are have a strong investment in renewables. Pigouvian approaches would likely result in the failure to litter the landscape with bird blending windmills and massive solar panels, so they prefer command and control approaches instead.

And did I mention that Obama insinuated that if you oppose the Rule you are racist?

This new Rule is a piece with the last 6 plus years of grotesquely inefficient legislation and regulations. Frankendodd. Obamacare. Net Neutrality. Each of these add huge amounts of new weight that the Atlas of the American economy must bear. An economy subjected to such burdens will survive, but it will not thrive. The EPA’s new Rule will provide no meaningful benefit, and any benefits that it does generate will be gained at excessive cost. But that is the Obama way. That is the leftist way.

 

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June 11, 2015

The Ethanol Mandate is Enough to Drive Me to Drink

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:13 pm

About 19 months ago I wrote about RINsanity, i.e., the United States’ nutty ethanol (and other biofuel) program. RINsanity has long outlived the phenomenon (Lin-sanity) that inspired the neologism. A couple of weeks ago, the EPA announced the ethanol and biodiesel quotas . . . for 2014. Who said time travel is impossible? That Einstein. What an idiot!  (The EPA also announced quotas for 2015 and 2016.)

In a nutshell, despite protestations to the contrary, the EPA largely conceded to the reality of the E10 “blend wall” (the fact that the vast bulk of auto engines are incapable of burning fuel with more than 10 percent ethanol), and announced quotas that were (a) smaller than the market expected, and (b) smaller than the statutory amounts that Congress specified in its farseeing omniscience 10 years ago. At the same time, the EPA decreed larger quotas for biodiesel.

As a result, the market did the splits. The price of ethanol RIN credits that count towards the ethanol quota plunged, while the price of biodiesel RIN credits that count towards the biodiesel quota rose. Scott Irwin and Darrell Good have all the gory details here. (Those are the guys to follow on this issue, folks. I’m just kibitzing.)

As a result, pretty much everyone is upset. The nauseating biofuel lobby is screaming bloody murder because the ethanol quota is too small, and is threatening to go to court. Those holding ethanol credits are fuming due to the forty plus percent price decline.

This all points out the dysfunctional nature of environmental markets in which the supply is set by some opaque politicized bureaucratic process unhinged from economic reality. (The European CO2 credit market is another classic example.) The Congressional mandate set quotas (supplies) years in advance based on forecasts of future fuel demand that turned out to be wildly incorrect. So the EPA played Mr. Fixit, and through some unknown process, divined what Congress meant to do-really!-and announced some surprising numbers that caused prices to plummet.

The EPA’s reaction? It is shocked! Shocked! to find gambling going on at Rick’s (ethanol served here!):

The EPA didn’t intend for the program to create a speculative market, and an agency spokesperson declined to comment on RIN price movement.

“RINs are used to demonstrate compliance under the Renewable Fuel Standard program,” the EPA said. The agency manages an electronic system that tracks the RINs, but not their prices on the open market.

Earth to EPA! Earth to EPA! (And hey-aren’t you supposed to be earth’s stewards? So what are you doing orbiting Pluto?): if you create a scarce resource (ethanol credits) a market-and yes, one with speculation!-will appear. This is inevitable as the sun rising in the east. Another unintended but metaphysically certain event.

Indeed, the kind of speculation that these markets foster is particularly bizarre, because of the necessity of speculating on the feedback between the market and the EPA’s decisions on the amount of the scarce resource it creates. A big part of the RIN prices is market participants’ expectations about what the EPA will decide. If the EPA’s decision takes the market price into account, in some unknown (and almost certainly unarticulated) way, the reasoning chain becomes mind-numbingly complex very quickly. Mr. Market guesses what the EPA will do. That affects prices. The EPA takes the price, and guesses what this says about what the market knows about fundamentals . . . and what the market thinks about what the EPA is going to do. It adjusts its decision accordingly. Market participants have to make judgments about the feedback between the price and the EPA’s decision, which can affect the EPA’s decision, and on and on, ad infinitum. (This is analogous to Keynes’s beauty contest metaphor, and Soros’s theory of market “reflexivity.” Sign of the apocalypse alert: I gave Keynes and Soros a favorable mention in a single blog post.)

That’s no way to run a market, but the alternatives are  likely worse. One alternative would be to set quotas for years far into the future, and then not adjust them based on the evolution of other fundamentals that cannot be foreseen when the quotas are set.

It’s pretty clear that events like have just rocked the biofuel world are an inherent part of the system. Somewhat arbitrary, inherently difficult to predict (in part because they are politicized), and “reflexive” decisions are a major determinant of supply. These decisions are made at discrete times. It is extremely likely that there will be disconnections between the quantity the market thinks the EPA will select and what the EPA actually chooses. Given the inelasticity of demand for energy products, these supply surprises lead to big price impacts.

All of which goes to show that a better use of ethanol is imbibing it to cope with the craziness of a faux market.

Of course it’s not just that the market is crazy: it’s crazy that there is a market. Ethanol is an economic and environmental and humanitarian monstrosity. Yes, ethanol would play a role without subsidies or mandates. But a much smaller role. Forcing and inducing its use is costly, not environmentally beneficial, and raises the price of food, which hits the poorest the hardest. So this crazy market shouldn’t exist in the first place. I think I need another drink.

 

 

 

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