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Steve Sexton

The Science May Be Settled, But the Economics Isn’t

The world’s scientists affirmed last week their increasing certainty—95% confidence—that humans are causing global warming by emitting greenhouse gases.

With human culpability all but certain and the potential for warming by 4.5°C in 100 years, economists can’t decide what should be done about it, or even whether any substantial effort should be undertaken to stop it.

In delivering a keynote address to a large group of economists this summer, Harvard’s Marty Weitzman described climate change as a hellish problem that is pushing the bounds of economics.

A year earlier, addressing an annual meeting of environmental economists, MIT professor Robert Pindyck suggested there was no strong economic argument for costly, stringent policies to halt expected warming. In contrast to the near certainty of climate science predictions, Pindyck said the economics of climate change is not well charted and that the case for aggressive climate policy relies on assumptions not supported by consensus.

10/11/13

The Price of Air Travel

The cost of air travel is going up, and airlines are counting on us not to notice.

I’m not talking about airfares, which have actually declined in real terms over the past decade, despite inching up in the past few years. And I don’t mean the ancillary fees to check a bag, check in at the airport, speak to a live agent, or pick your seat, though these, too, are going up. Instead, I’m talking about the cost of delays and schedule disruptions that waste travelers’ time and force them to travel earlier to their destinations or risk missing important meetings and events. 

Air travel in the U.S. is becoming less reliable and less resilient to shocks like isolated storms that can ripple through the system and impact passengers thousands of miles away. If anti-trust authorities approve the merger between American and US Airways, we should expect things to get worse.

7/30/13

How Shale Gas Can Benefit Us and the Environment

It took less than an hour for Apple to sell out the initial supply of its new iPhone 5. It’s thinner, lighter, faster, brighter, taller than its predecessors, and yet it costs the same. That’s called progress.

Elsewhere, progress is met by protest rather than praise.

A suite of technologies has brought vast supplies of previously unrecoverable shale gas within reach of humans, dramatically expanding natural gas reserves in the U.S. and around the world. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have produced a fuel that can at once promote a cooler planet and an expanded economy, essentially eliminating the tradeoff between climate change mitigation and the pursuit of other public projects and, perhaps, economic growth. But unlike the iPhone, the productivity gain embodied in shale gas technologies doesn’t attract a cult following and its benefits get obscured. 

9/28/12

How Will California's Parks Do Under Private Management?

California embarked this week on a grand experiment in common property resource management when, in order to help close a gaping budget hole, it turns over dozens of state parks to private firms and community coalitions.

Seventy of the state’s 278 parks were set to close July 1. But a last-minute change to the state budget will keep all but five open, though many will not be managed by the state. At least six parks will remain open under corporate contracts with firms like American Land and Leisure, which operates campgrounds in 12 states. Dozens more have been rescued, at least temporarily, by local municipalities, private donors, and non-profit organizations.

Economists have long-held that the tragedy of the commons — any individual has too little incentive to protect from exploitation a non-excludable resource he holds in common with potentially countless others — could only be overcome by state intervention or private ownership.

7/3/12

How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor

The American Medical Association resolved this week that “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods.”

The association has long-held that nothing about the process of recombinant DNA makes genetically engineered (GE) crop plants inherently more dangerous to the environment or to human health than the traditional crop plants that have been deliberately but slowly bred for human purposes for millennia. It is a view shared by the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., the European Commission, and countless other national science academies and non-governmental organizations.

6/22/12

Could It Be That U.S. Farm Policy Isn’t Making Us Fatter?

Leaders of the food reform movement insist on a wholesale remaking of U.S. agriculture, blaming government policy for industrial farming that supposedly adds food miles to our diets and inches to our waistlines. But their solution, a system of local “foodsheds,” wouldn’t save on greenhouse gas emissions and may well be worse for the environment, an argument advanced by economists here and elsewhere. Now it also seems that the federal farm program blamed for worsening obesity has actually kept us skinnier. 

That is the finding of agricultural economists Bradley Rickard, Abigail Okrent, and Julian Alston, who report (ungated) in Health Economics that “agricultural policies have discouraged food consumption and mitigated the effects of other factors that have encouraged obesity.”

4/9/12

How High Gas Prices Triggered the Housing Crisis

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum made headlines last week when he suggested that high gas prices made mortgages unaffordable, causing the recent housing bubble to burst and sending the economy into recession. It may sound far-fetched, but it is precisely the theory that I and a pair of coauthors presented in a working paper released five days before Santorum’s remarks.

We are actually a bit more nuanced, arguing that unexpectedly high gas prices triggered the collapse of the housing market — igniting a fire fueled by easy credit, lax lending practices, and speculation. It is a provocative claim and one with broad implications, but it is also a claim supported by economic theory and empirical evidence.

The federal government’s Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission asserted in its 2010 report that “it was the collapse of the housing bubble . . .that was the spark that ignited a string of events that led to a full-blown crisis in the fall of 2008.” And a broad, if not unanimous, consensus among economists suggests that the ongoing economic malaise was induced by a financial crisis caused by the housing crisis. Relatively less well-understood is what caused the housing crisis in the first place.

3/8/12

In Defense of the Christmas Tree Tax that Isn't a Tax at All

Millions of Christmas trees will be hauled away this week — some will enjoy a useful life after death and many others will end up in the dumps. But record numbers of Christmas trees will also be boxed up and stored in closets till next year. And that has many Christmas tree growers feeling in the dumps, ever more so after anti-tax crusaders trashed a plan to rescue their declining industry by labeling it “Obama’s Christmas Tree Tax.”

The $0.15 fee on the sale of fresh Christmas trees hardly seems like the stuff of political scandal. But announced in November—just days before many Americans would make the trip to tree farms in search of the perfect tree—and branded by conservatives as an assault on Christmas and a sign of government overreach, the story quickly gained traction, with the Drudge Report driving nearly a million visitors to the Heritage Foundation, which broke the story. Before long, mainstream news outlets were reporting that the administration had caved to conservative backlash and decided to delay the “Christmas tree tax” indefinitely.

1/3/12

Is There a Rooftop Solar Bubble? And Is It About to Burst?

Government efforts to boost affordability and expectations of unsustainably high investment returns generated a booming market destined to crash.

I’m talking, of course, about the market for rooftop solar, which has grown exponentially in recent years.

Most people are aware of the government subsidies that offset 30 percent or more of the installation cost of commercial and residential rooftop solar—more than $10,000 for a typical solar home in California. Less known is that those up-front savings, as big as they are, still aren’t enough to generate the double-digit investment returns that solar promoters promise. In fact, for residential solar panels to pay for themselves over their 20-25-year lifespans, households and businesses must receive a second, hidden subsidy for their solar electricity generation that is far too high to be justified by economic fundamentals, and that cannot be sustained in the long run. In California, some residential solar electricity fetches a price nearly four times its energy value.

12/23/11

The Inefficiency of Local Food

Two members of Congress earlier this month introduced legislation advancing a food reform movement promising to help resolve the great environmental and nutritional problems of the early 21st century. The intent is to remake the agricultural landscape to look more like it did decades ago. But unless the most basic laws of economics cease to hold, the smallholder farming future envisioned by the local farming movement could jeopardize natural habitat and climate change mitigation efforts, while also endangering a tenuous and temporary victory in the battle against human hunger.

The “Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act” sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine, throws about $200 million to local farm programs. That’s a rounding error in the $3.7 trillion federal budget. But the bill follows on a federal rule that gives preference to local farms in contract bidding for school lunches. It also builds on high-profile advocacy by Michelle Obama, who has become a leader of the food reform movement, joining the likes of Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and famed-chef Alice Waters. The bill’s introduction came as the world population hit 7 billion, a milestone that provides a stark reminder of the challenge agriculture faces to feed a world population expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050.

11/14/11

Lessons of the Listeria Outbreak: Do Locavores Make Us Less Safe?

As the death toll from listeria in cantaloupe reached 25 this week, marking the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness in a quarter-century, some industry insiders are placing blame on the local foods movement. On economic grounds, they may have a point.

The contaminated melons were traced to a self-described small farm in Colorado that the FDA said had “poor sanitary” conditions. The FDA reported Wednesday that it found listeria in numerous areas of the farm’s packing facility, including a floor drain, a produce dryer, and a conveyor belt. Standing water and poorly designed equipment created “the perfect environment for listeria growth and spread,” according to one FDA expert. The farm claimed to have passed an outside audit just days before the outbreak that has sickened more than 100 people and devastated the cantaloupe industry. Farmers in California are plowing their crops under because of the collapse in demand.

10/20/11

The Orwellian Efficiency of a "Being Fat" Tax

The Danish policymakers who implemented the world’s first “fat tax” last week are remarkable not for their directness in addressing the growing Western challenge of obesity, but for their indifference to the plight of the poor, their deference to political correctness at the cost of economic efficiency, and their willingness to punish certain segments of society.
The Danes may have been the first, but headlines throughout the western world assessed the likelihood of other countries to follow, including this one. A fat tax in the U.S. (or the U.K. for that matter) would add to the growing thicket of regulations across local and federal jurisdictions intended to address weight gain and the external costs that obesity imposes on society— both through higher private insurance premiums and ballooning government outlays for the uninsured.
Whether the tax will improve health outcomes is an empirical question that won’t be answered for several years or more.

10/10/11

Green-Collar vs. Blue-Collar Jobs: A Difference in Name Only?

Amid ongoing inquiries into the prudence of government loans to failed solar firm Solyndra, and a spate of other bad news on the green jobs front, there is growing concern that the green economy may not be the juggernaut President Obama promised when he vowed after his election to invest $150 billion to generate “five million new green jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced.” To counter critics, the administration is greenwashing large swaths of the economy—defining “green jobs” down to the point that they are virtually indistinguishable from what we used to call “manufacturing jobs.”
Green jobs are central to arguments that new environmental regulations should be pursued even in a down economy. Supporters of the policies, like California’s carbon cap-and-trade system, claim that even if the cost of regulatory compliance causes job losses in the traditional economy, the regulations will create jobs in the green economy. And green jobs are better jobs, as the President says: high paying, reliably American, and yielding environmental benefits.
Success of the green economy supports the economic defense of environmental policy, which may explain why administration officials were on Capitol Hill last week defending the notion that millions of Americans, from bus drivers to car makers, are employed in “green jobs.”

9/27/11

Examining the EPA Cave-in: Does the Broken Window Fallacy Apply?

Did President Obama get the economics wrong earlier this month when he abandoned stricter air-quality rules, wagering environmentalist loyalty in a bid to avoid job losses from strict new ozone standards? Paul Krugman thinks so, calling the decision to wave off the EPA a “lousy decision all around.” But is Krugman right?
The short-run job-creating move, Krugman contends, would have been for Obama to promulgate the new ozone regulations, which would have forced firms in hundreds of counties across the country to replace and upgrade capital in order to comply with new, stringent pollution abatement requirements. He asserts that because the U.S. economy is in a liquidity trap, wherein conventional monetary policy is insufficient to induce firms to spend, the regulations could have accomplished what the Fed cannot. In such a “world of topsy-turvy,” as Krugman says, the usual rules of economics are thrown out, and even the “Broken Window Fallacy” ceases to hold.

9/12/11

Your End of Days: Would Life-Length Testing Save the Government Money?

A Spanish company announced this summer that it can help determine when people will die by using a blood sample, a $700 test, and research that earned three American geneticists the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2009. Though the test has its critics, and though it won’t offer an exact date for one’s death, it does promise to reduce uncertainty about longevity by examining a tiny part of DNA that reveals biological age as opposed to chronological age. Successive generations of the test are likely to improve in predictive power.
Our ignorance about an individual’s longevity is the source of a number of problems. Many of them are personal, but some have implications for society writ large, and taxpayers in particular. So one wonders: if the government can make you confront the calorie content of your diet, can it also make you confront your mortality?
If the government were to mandate “life length” testing, it could help resolve the intractable lifetime savings problem. Pervasive under-saving among households is a result of our impatience, to be sure, but it is certainly also a consequence of the fact that no one knows how long his savings need to last. Save too much and you miss out on having fun when you’re alive. Save too little and you end up broke and reliant on the social safety net that taxpayers fund.

9/2/11

Mandating Calorie Counts: Has Libertarian Paternalism Gone Too Far?

Staring at the menu board on a recent and rare trip to a California fast-food chain, I was stunned by the cost of a milk shake: 880. Eight dollars for a milk shake, really? Well, no. That was the cost in terms of calories. But I would have gladly traded that in dollars and cents to be spared the knowledge of how many calories my post-triathlon race reward would cost me. Feeling sufficiently guilty once confronted with the calorie content, I downsized and saved a couple hundred calories. But I left feeling dissatisfied and unambiguously worse off.
This kind of experience could be coming to a restaurant near you by January, when the FDA plans to roll out mandatory calorie labeling regulations approved by Congress in the same bill that authorized ObamaCare. At chain restaurants with more than 20 locations, you won’t be able to avoid the calorie information, which is prescribed to be posted on menus and menu boards near prices and printed at least as large. So much for the days of blissful ignorance.
While the calorie labeling law is intended to improve health outcomes for individuals, it is effectively a government-mandated guilt trip and a sign that libertarian paternalism—the seemingly benign notion that “choice architects” can “nudge” people to make better decisions for themselves—has gone too far.

8/26/11

Carbon Taxes in Canada, Solar Shutdown in Massachusetts: Climate Lessons For California

Recent news delivered two different verdicts on two different climate policy experiments, both of which carry lessons for California and its delayed carbon reduction plan. The first, a revenue-neutral carbon tax in British Columbia is “a winner.” So says The Economist. But the second, the Massachusetts front of President Obama’s green jobs initiative, is a failure. What else to conclude from this week’s bankruptcy filing by Evergreen Solar, a recipient of millions in federal stimulus dollars and state subsidies?
There are lessons in both stories for lawmakers in the U.S., especially our environmental policy frontiersmen in California, who in 2013 will impose the only carbon policy outside Europe to rival that of our northern neighbor in its seriousness and aggressiveness.

8/19/11

Why California's Push for Rooftop Solar is a Foggy Idea

Would you trust your neighbors with billions of dollars of public money to invest in a clean energy future? If you live in California, this isn’t a hypothetical question.
California Gov. Jerry Brown last month announced his intention to rely on “tens of thousands of little decisions” by Californians to develop a 12 giga-watt renewable energy infrastructure by 2020. In remarks at a UCLA clean energy conference, Brown embraced distributed solar generation in order to avoid the pitfalls that often encumber large-scale renewable energy projects, including the capital costs of transmitting energy from far-flung deserts and hilltops. Furthermore, rooftop solar panels and Cameron-esque windmills also pose little threat to desert tortoises or sacred Native American sites, so they are less apt to be caught up in the kind of litigation that has delayed major renewable projects.
But energy policy that relies on distributed generation has its drawbacks. Perhaps most notably, it forsakes economies of scale. It also places infrastructure investment decisions in the hands of homeowners, who, as this space has suggested, may not make socially optimal—or even individually rational—choices.

8/11/11

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