Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Guess Which Country Leads the World in Carbon Emission Reduction?

Could it really be us?  Oh yes.  America has actually led all nations in reducing carbon dioxide emissions.  Coal consumption is at an all-time low and sinking fast.  We don't need no stinking carbon tax, right?  Or maybe our lack of emissions is due to a sluggish economy.  No matter the case, environmental groups are put in a bit of a rut.  Obama and the Democrats have glossed over it.  The above link is a good primer on the logistics of the situation.  The criticisms are right to an extent.  If fossil fuels are priced out of competitiveness without a carbon tax, then there is no real need for one.  However, while natural gas is much, much better than coal, it still pollutes and will still cause devastating global warming.  Further controversy today arises from the prevalence of fracking, which has still-unclear effects on nearby water supply.  And the other unfortunate truth is that a lagging economy (at least in the traditional GDP sense) is a great recipe for less pollution.  But that's another topic..

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Patriotism and Such

Ah, another post that is not about environmental economics.  Don't worry: it will be back.  In the spirit of Independence Day, I would like to offer some thoughts on the "American Dream" and the like.  Don't get me wrong; I love many things about this country.  "Amurica" is amazingly successful and prosperous, especially for such a large area.  And although I despise American politics, I will readily admit that they are not the worst among developed nations.  Italy elected Silvio Berlusconi three times as prime minister, basically the equivalent of voting for Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen for president.  Greece has just elected a bunch of loony socialists to the majority, while giving neo-Nazi fascists a quarter of the seats.  I could go further in describing the sorry travails of South Korean Parliament or Japanese ministers, but I want to focus on America.  I just want people to be realistic about what they say, and this goes for Democrats as well as Republicans.

Since I don't expect many conservatives to read this blog, I will focus more on the things that everyone says that irk me.  I will pay some lip service  to conservative dogma though.  No, we are not the greatest country in the world in every way.  We are neither the most free country nor the most wealthy country (per capita).  We do not have the best healthcare or the best education.  In fact, we are well behind most developed countries in these two crucial areas despite spending far more.  Enough of that though; most people living in the real world (which may not include a majority of Americans) know that we have vast room for improvement.  And I'm not sure exactly how any statistics back America's status as the hands-down greatest country in the world.  Of course, if any American politician asserted that Norway or Sweden were run better, then he or she would be chastised for a lack of patriotism.  In fact, the US ranks 23rd in inequality-adjusted HDI (Human Development Index).  Even disregarding inequality, we are measurably behind Norway and Australia.  I have no problem saying that the US is one of the greatest countries, but we are certainly not the best.

Okay, so over-the-top nationalistic fervor is disingenuous, but for the most part harmless.  As long as we still realize that there is room for improvement, it doesn't hurt to feel a little overly smug of our country.  I have no problem with having a day to celebrate (July 4th), although I doubt most people remember the history behind it.  Unfortunately, our self-infatuation goes beyond nationalism.  There is of course the obvious case of immigration, where liberals are quick to point out the racism and xenophobia of many Republicans. Arizona has gone crazy recently with its crackdown on immigration, and perhaps worse, banning ethnic studies.  There is also the wildly irrational fear of world governments (the UN for example).  God forbid that we have to interact with other countries.  Unfortunately, the sad reality is that many Americans are not willing to help the rest of the world, evidenced by the widespread lack of support for foreign aid.  We hear many liberals saying that we should focus on our own problems before helping out others.  I don't think one precludes the other; in modern society, improving the standard of living in any country will make America better off.  I think that trade globalization have been important steps towards a better world.

I am the first to acknowledge that there are some horrible tragedies in free trade.  Poor working conditions, corporate-supported terrorism (for example, Banana Republics), and vast environmental degradation have resulted from unfettered trading.  Of course there is cause for concern.  Unfortunately, the most commonly proposed "solutions" do nothing to remedy most of this.  Shuttering trade does nothing to improve working conditions; they will still have to make a living somehow.  There is no reason that the Chinese would be better off if they were working for local companies instead of American ones.  International trade has done far more to improve living standards despite the perceived awful conditions.  We must work to further the improvement, pressuring China and other countries to develop better regulations.  Limiting trade is only going to increase the likelihood of terrorism and conflict by further isolation countries.  Environmental exploitation is the biggest long-term consequence of trade, but this is an unfortunate result of rapid development.  We are sacrificing short-term improvement for the potential of vast long-term harm.  The practice of dumping all of our garbage in third-world countries is despicable; that is something that I believe needs to be cracked down on.  We need to handle our own toxic waste rather than shipping it off to China.  Unfortunately, the same people who say this will not support facilities here due to the health consequences.  Again though, there is no reason that we cannot have international trade without causing so much environmental destruction.

While we must be cognizant of the damages, we should not get carried away into blindly supporting everything American.  There is no reason that manufacturing should be done in America and not China.  There is zero reason that as compassionate, bigotry-free liberals, we should not embrace foreign workers as much as we care about Americans.  I cringe whenever I hear Obama (or anyone else) talking about the travesty of shipping jobs overseas.  The end goal for us, as people, should be to make the world a better place for everyone, not just America.  Other countries are not "stealing" our jobs; they are simply doing a better job competing.  I do not think that it is a bad thing if there is one more programmer in India, or a million more.  A loss of jobs is a result of overpopulation, not of outsourcing.  We should not impede the development of other countries by protecting American jobs or American manufacturing.  I don't think that there should be special tax breaks for American production or American companies.  We need to make things better, not necessarily make things American.  I see nothing wrong with outsourcing, nothing wrong with China beating us technologically.  The great thing about globalization is that every country benefits.  So yes, we need to do better, but not for the sake of being better than China.  We should applaud China's development and help it become more efficient and (especially) more sustainable.  As far as improving the situation for America, the only thing that is really going to make a long-term difference is better education.

Next time you're thinking about the greatness of America, whether it's tomorrow, this election season, or next July 4th, take a moment to remember our shortfalls.  And please don't chastise foreign workers just because they don't live in America.  After all, you would protest the anti-foreigner fervor inside the border as bigoted and racist.  You don't get a free pass outside the border.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


Well I don't think anyone (me included) has read this in a while, but I feel like making this rant.  I'm not super passionate about this issue, but I do feel that is important.  I'm still not going to go into any personal stories if any of you (well I guess just me) were wondering, but let us just say that the end of my first year of college is an appropriate time to bring it up.

It may come as a surprise, but I am not totally opposed to lowering the drinking age to 18.  As an aside, I have flip-flopped to believe that legalizing marijuana is a net benefit, almost entirely due to the likely reduction in gang violence.  I bring this up to show that my morals, which are severely anti-marijuana, are not the primary concern in my feelings expressed in this post.  I don't think that the benefits of legalizing marijuana or lowering the drinking age are as great as proponents suggest.  If you think that the prison population would magically vanish and gangs would simply go away if weed were legal, then you must be in a fantasy land.  Look at California, where it fairly easy to get hold of semi-legal marijuana.  I really do not know what steps we can take to really eliminate gang-related crime, so I will say that legalizing marijuana can be a start, but is definitely not a solution.  Fortunately, the hazards of alcohol are mostly direct than drug wars fueled by illicit substances.  Unfortunately, alcohol is one of the leading causes of premature deaths, especially among teenagers and young adults.

As much of an anti-partier as I may be in person, I do not realistically think that it is either wise or necessary to prevent parties from having alcohol.  However, this should not be seen as an endorsement of simply letting college students go wild and shrugging it off by saying, "Everyone does stupid things in college."  Now, having spent a year in the dorms, I can say that this is not even close to true.  There is a sizable minority that drinks as little as I do (that is, not at all).  Of the people who do drink, I'm sure there are plenty who are responsible and do not get overly wasted.  Unfortunately, our culture seems to endorse the extremes.  It is not overly concerning that 73% of college students drink (meaning that more than a quarter are completely sober).  However, the fact that more than half of underage young college students who do drink binge drink is alarming.  It saddens me that people (some of whom I know) feel the need to get drunk out of their minds ever, much less on a regular basis.  I will say that there is a place for alcohol, which likely has measurable health benefits, but we must remember that it is a drug.  Getting drunk is drug abuse just like having too much cough syrup is.  Once you lose a rational state of mind, there is no benefit to alcohol other than the possible near-term consequence of you not knowing what you are doing.  Is it really worth it to go crazy to forget your life problems only to wake up the next morning with a headache, the same problems you had before, and perhaps more issues with what you unknowingly did or said the previous night?

Okay, maybe you don't agree with me that losing your conscience is morally wrong or dumb.  The real danger is not the harm alcohol can do to you.  Maybe it's alright if people get themselves sick, hurt, maybe even die due to alcohol abuse or due to stupid decisions relating to it.  For example, apparently two young men died on Houseboats this year because they were so drunk that they decided to jump off the boat and subsequently drowned.  No, the real danger of alcohol is what it does to others.  Assault, rape, and unprotected sex are largely a result of drunkenness.  Less extreme but still disgusting is the vandalism and trash that inevitably follows a wild party.  If you want an example of that, look at Davis the day after Picnic Day.  Then there is of course drunk driving.  I may be a bit exaggerated in my panic over drug usage sometimes, but I feel that I am perfectly reasonable in having zero tolerance for driving under the influence.  I feel that once you get caught drinking and driving (or under the influence of any other impairing drugs for that matter), you forfeit your privilege to be on the road.  If you were truly being safe, you wouldn't have gotten pulled over in the first place.  There is no greater risk on the road than someone under the influence and there is little that us sober people can do if a crazy drunk screams past.  If you're driving under the influence, you deserve to lose your license permanently.  I have no sympathy for anyone who is driving drunk under any circumstances.    Of course, this must not be the only solution (insofar as it can even be seen as one) to our drinking problems.

I believe that our alcohol problems begin largely in high school, for some even dating back to middle school. Lowering the drinking age to 18 would have little effect on the legality of high school drinking.  A fundamental misunderstanding that people have is that kids (or semi-adults if you will) are actually often charged with underage drinking.  In fact, drinking is rampantly tolerated in college.  At UC Davis, parties often get shut down early, but I am not so sure if that is so much due to underage drinking as general disorder and noise violations.  Also keep in mind that being over 21 does not give you the right to go out and get drunk; there are still laws against public intoxication.  I am not so sure that having a drinking age is really a concern at all.  As long as alcohol is a legal non-prescription drug, I don't think that there is good reason to make it illegal for minors to consume, especially given that it is permitted for religious purposes.  Alcohol is neither as harmful physically nor nearly as addictive as tobacco, and to arbitrarily say that it is safe for consumption immediately after one turns 21 does not sound like sound science.  Rather than futilely attempting to eliminate alcohol from 15-21 year olds, we should focus on how to safely and responsibly handle alcohol for everyone.

I think that the key to safer alcohol is taking it off the spotlight.  Alcohol consumption should not be encouraged as it is in commercials today.  Alcohol must not be the centerpiece of parties, either in high school, college, or beyond.  If I have read correctly, alcohol has less of an effect when consumed with a stomach already full of food and water.  People should have the right to enjoy alcohol, but there is a limit to the behavior that is permissible in society.  We must adopt to a culture that does not encourage binge drinking, and curtailing advertisements that glamorize such behavior might be a start.  I also believe that it is a responsibility of bars to ensure a safe environment; they have every right to refuse to serve someone alcohol who is on the brink of violence.  There is a place for police to get involved with drunk people (men especially) considering the large role alcohol has in violent crimes from minor assault to rape to murder.  I don't think that alcohol should be banned or even severely restricted in sales, but our attitude towards it has to change.

There is of course an opportunity to tax alcohol at a higher rate, which I certainly supports.  However, let us not get carried away into thinking that taxing alcohol is going to solve many problems.  The issue is not even the total alcohol consumption; we're not really a country of severe alcoholics.  For the most part, alcohol-related incidents are due to the short term effects.  It does carry chronic health concerns, but those are mostly the deal of the imbiber.  Taxing alcohol more will lead to a decrease in consumption to an extent, but I doubt that it would lead to a significant decrease in assaults or drunk driving accidents.  A tax that is too high would encourage a black market on alcohol, something that has already happened in Russia.  Nevertheless, taxation is a great signal and an important component to the fight against alcohol abuse.  To sum it all up, I believe that we need better education, better law enforcement of intoxication laws and a zero tolerance driving policy, and an increase alcohol taxes.  These will serve to lower demand for alcohol and hopefully encourage people to moderate their single-session intake.  Hopefully we can make alcohol safer, healthier, and more enjoyable for everyone.

Feel free to contest anything I say.  I won't guarantee that I'm likely to change my views, but I have switched to support legalizing marijuana and I am no longer an enthusiastic supporter of the drinking age (or any for that matter).  Also if you happen to read this (you won't), give me suggestions on something else you want to see me write about, preferably something that I would at least be mildly interested in.