Economics of global warming

Economists are not trained in climate science, so there is no reason to ask one of us about how much carbon dioxide will warm the planet, but economics is an important part of climate policy–this is our collective response to the threat of global warming.  There are at least three important areas where economists have contributed to the debate about what to do about the threat of global warming that most climate scientists are predicting.

  1. Examining the economic damage of higher temperatures.
  2. Modelling how to trade off present costs versus future benefits such as a costly investment in carbon abatement now versus its future benefits in terms of the healthier, more productive world people will enjoy later.
  3. Explaining the political economy of why special interest groups, like Big Oil, are able to prevent popular actions to fight global warming, particularly in the three biggest oil producing nations: the United States, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.

This post will examine the first two of these areas. The third area, political economy, will be examined in a later post.

1. The Economic damage of higher temperatures.

The tropics have noticeably different weather from the temperate zone because in the temperate zone, the sun never climbs up to be straight up in the sky in the summer. The summer is warmer not because the earth is farther from the sun (as many people erroneously believe) but because the sun shines on the land more directly when it is closer to vertical in the sky and that is why the topics are hotter than the temperate zone. Because excessive heat has been bad for productivity, the topics are noticeably poorer than the temperate zone. The richest part of South America, Africa, and Australia are in their southern parts in the temperate zone. Africa has a second rich region which is the temperate Mediterranean coastal nations. The richest part of India is the temperate north and the richest part of East Asia are the temperate zones of China, Japan, and Korea.

Landlocked areas are also cursed because they are blocked from trade, so central Asia is poor due to being cut off from trade by sea and central Africa and the landlocked middle of South America are doubly cursed by tropical heat and being cut off from trade. Sachs, Mellinger, and Gallop wrote a popular essay for Scientific American about this research that is one of my all-time favorite essays in economics.

There are some exceptions in the tropics where landlocked regions are more productive than coastal regions such as the mountainous plateaus of Mexico and Central America, the Andes, the mountains of Indonesia, and the mountainous region around the Great Lakes of Africa. The reason again is temperate climate. Every thousand feet of elevation reduces temperatures by 3.3 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit depending on the humidity.

Higher temperatures reduce both agricultural productivity and human productivity. They increase disease burden because there is an entire class of deadly tropical diseases and parasites like malaria and dengue fever that are easy to eradicate outside of the tropics. Of course, excessively cold temperatures are bad too, but excessive heat is worse. Here are some studies:

The optimal average temperature for total national income (GDP) is about 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Another study found that the optimal average temperature for per capita income within the USA is about 58 degrees Fahrenheit:

The optimal average growing-season temperature for corn productivity is about 80 degrees Fahrenheit:

The optimal average temperature for math student productivity is about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Air conditioners have had a dramatic effect at raising productivity in warm states like Arizona and Florida.

Profanity is minimized at about 72 degrees Fahrenheit.

Colder is almost always better for preventing rape!

Fortunately, the invention of the air conditioner has revolutionized society and made people much better at dealing with hot weather as the following graph shows. Before 1959, temperatures over 89 degrees Fahrenheit in America caused deaths to spike as the red line shows below. Since then, the spread of air conditioners and improved medical care has dramatically reduced the mortality rate during hot summers as demonstrated by the yellow line.

Here I have just looked at research into the effects of different temperatures in the past, and we can see that higher temperatures are costly even across the normal variation that the world has previously experienced.  The conclusions of this body of research is that a hotter planet would be less productive overall even though there is a possible exception that a warmer planet might be fine for arctic regions like Canada, Russia, and Scandinavia. But there are lots of other enormous costs like worse storms, rising sea levels, higher food costs, and air pollution that will even hurt the arctic regions.  Even a small amount of global warming will make more of the tropics uninhabitable and it will make most of the Unites States more like the tropics.  If global warming gets as bad as the more pessimistic half of climate scientists think, most of the globe could become nearly uninhabitable.  I hope Canada, Russia, and Scandinavia are getting ready to welcome a lot of immigrants!

Below is a map showing the countries that one study estimates might possibly gain if there is moderate global warming (in blue) versus the nations that will almost certainly lose (in shades of pink).

econ impact of climate.PNG

That is simply based on the historical response of economic output to temperature and using projections from non-pessimistic climate scientists of a modest increase in temperature.  This is an extrapolation of how rising temperatures would affect the world’s income.  If the more pessimistic climate scientists are right, then we could ALL lose in a big way.  It is a gamble.

2. How to trade off present costs versus future benefits.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson thinks that global warming is merely a scientific issue. He wrote that the “earth needs… a one-line constitution: All policy should be based on the weight of evidence.”

Global warming policy has to begin with weighing the evidence that it is happening, but after we see that it is happening, we still have to make economic judgments about weighing the costs and benefits of doing something about it. That isn’t merely a scientific issue and requires ethical judgments about what is the best action.  For example, put together a list of the most cost effective ways to reduce global warming which hinges on scientific evidence.


I’d guess that they are optimistic about not including any cost for some of these solutions, but to have a significant impact, we’ll need to spend money now which will produce benefits for decades in the future.  How do we evaluate costs that are going to have to be borne in the present versus benefits will be garnered across the eternal future of the planet.

Economists have spent lots of time thinking about how to trade off costs now versus benefits later because this is the same question for every investment–an investment always costs money in the present and the hope is that it will be worth it because it will generate future profits that will more than pay for the present cost. How much future profits an investor should demand is determined by the net present value formula which hinges upon the selection of a discount rate.

The discount rate is the percent of the future that one just doesn’t count at all. For example, suppose you know that you will be fined $100 in ten years. How much do you value that future cost right now? One way of answering that question is to think about how much you would pay today in order to eliminate the future cost.

If you would pay $95 today to avoid the $100 cost in ten years, then your discount rate is VERY low because you value the future more than most people. If you would only pay one cent today to avoid $100 in ten years, then you don’t count most of the future value relative to today.

If this is the maximum you would be willing to pay now to avoid a $100 cost in ten years…

…Then this is your annualized discount rate. =The percent (per year) that you don’t count future costs and benefits.

1 cent


















This esoteric question about discounting rates is the crucial issue that makes the biggest difference in the economic cost benefit analysis of whether or not it is prudent to pay money now to reduce the future costs of global warming. Most economists think the discount rate we should use in these calculations should be between about 1% and about 3% and 75% of expert economists think it should be below 2%. President Obama took little action against global warming partly because he used Bill Nordhaus’ preferred discount rate of 3% which means that he thinks we should care about the future over 33% less than most economists. Nordhaus is a bit of an outlier in having a higher discount rate than most economists, but he is considered an expert in the field and won the 2018 Nobel Prize largely for his work on it.

Trump’s administration eliminated the problem of global warming from official US cost-benefit analysis by simply raising the discount rate to 7% which means that we simply don’t care about most people who will be alive after fifty years in the future. The graph below shows how much difference the choice of discount rates makes.

In 50 years, today’s college students will be about 70. The above graph means that:

  • Stern values your future life as 50% less valuable than lives today. (That is what the red line means.)
  • Obama values your future life as 72% less valuable than lives today. (That is what the purple line means.
  • Trump values your future life as 97% less valuable than lives today. (That is what the green line means.

The graph below shows what difference the discount makes for what climate policy we should use. If we use Stern’s discount rate of 1%, then it would be prudent to take dramatic action now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If we use Nordhaus’ number, then we should take modest action. If we use Trump’s number, then burn, baby, burn!

Posted in Environment, Globalization & International

Affirmative action for the rich

There are several ways that rich kids buy advantages for college.

First is years of expensive high-quality education that begins in exclusive private preschools that cost more than full tuition at most private colleges. Then add in expensive summer camps that cost more than a year of in-state university tuition (without financial aid) and the various other educational enrichment opportunities like the Semester At Sea cruise ship programs that circle the world’s oceans teaching students about the history, culture, and geography of the world by letting them experience it first hand at ports of call.  The average kid really does learn a lot more  in America’s best schools than in our average schools, so this makes a big difference.

Second is being a big college donor because most colleges lower admissions standards for the children of big donors. This isn’t as bad as it sounds because at least the money could in theory be used to lower the costs for low-income students. In practice, elite schools have very few students from families earning below the median income because their talk they don’t really care about economic justice, but at least this kind of corruption of the admissions process is relatively transparent (since everyone knows who gave money and that their kids get perks) and the money does help other students.

Third is through athletics, especially elite sports like fencing, sailing, rowing, and polo. There just isn’t much competition in these kinds of sports of the rich because only rich people can afford to compete. Many if not most kids who play sports at elite schools would never have qualified academically to get in.

Fourth: Buy more time to take the SAT or ACT so that your kids can boost their scores. This is a relatively new game that began in 2003 with,

an important change to the way untimed testing is reported to the colleges. [Previously], the SAT and the ACT offered untimed testing to students with learning disabilities, provided that they had been diagnosed by a professional. However, an asterisk appeared next to untimed scores, alerting the college that the student had taken the test without a time limit. But… this asterisk was found to violate the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the testing companies dropped it. Suddenly it was possible for everyone with enough money to get a diagnosis that would grant their kid two full days—instead of four hours—to take the SAT, and the colleges would never know. Today, according to Slate, “in places like Greenwich, Conn., and certain zip codes of New York City and Los Angeles, the percentage of untimed test-taking is said to be close to 50 percent.”  Taking a test under normal time limits in one of these neighborhoods is a sucker’s game—you’ve voluntarily handicapped yourself.

That is from Caitlin Flanagan and you should read the whole thing. In areas like Washington DC where a large percentage of students taking the SAT have a “disability” they score higher than students who don’t have a disability. In most of the country, very few SAT-test takers get extra time due to disability, and in those places the kids with a disability do worse than the other kids as one might expect.

Fifth: Although the four mechanisms above already give a big unfair advantage, sometimes they still aren’t enough. The new FBI sting reveals that there is an entire industry for defrauding the admissions process further by bribing coaches to put kids on their teams, fabricating resumes full of imaginary extra-curricular activities, boosting GPA by padding transcripts with grades from online courses that the students did not actually attend, and hiring professional test takers to get any ACT score you want to pay for. Again, read Caitlin Flanagan’s article for a fascinating insider’s look at the culture that engages in this most extreme form of college admissions privilege. The parents committing these frauds are often professionals in occupations that the rest of us rely upon and have to trust such as investment brokers, doctors, accountants, lawyers, and top managers.

Posted in Labor, Public Finance

The political economy of farm policy

Below is a map of farm subsidy payments. These are the addresses where farm “welfare” checks were sent and the bigger circles show addresses that got sent up to ¼ million dollars in 2007 alone. This map comes from an Environmental Working Group project that used to have a now-defunct website with an interactive map showing the exact location where the government sent every single farm “welfare” check across the entire United States.  You could even see where my mom’s relatively small check was sent.  Yes, having grown up on a farm, I am a welfare child.

Unfortunately, they must have gotten sued by farmers because they now only show a map of the total welfare checks send in each state. Before they took down their map, I made a screenshot of their map of Manhattan Island in New York City:

No, this isn’t a map of rooftop gardens getting subsidies. This is a map of absentee landowners who live in skyscrapers and get government checks because they have invested in farmland. The government farm checks generally go to the owners of the land rather than to the farmers who actually work the land.

Last year produced a similar map, but they limited their data to farmland owners who got checks worth more than $100,000 from the government in 2018.  Here is their heat map of the nation’s big checks:

I hope they can keep it online without getting pressured by farm owners who want to censor this kind of information. Below is a zoom-in on the Los Angeles area. Some of these addresses got more than a half million dollars from the government in 2018. As you would expect from the fact that all these addresses are receiving government checks worth over $100,000 per year, most of these addresses are in elite, expensive places to live with median home prices well over a half million dollars.

And rich absentee landlords in New York City and Los Angeles didn’t get the biggest farm “welfare” checks. The top three biggest recipients between 1995 and 2017 were rice farmers and they spent millions of dollars in documented lobbying from 1994-2018. But what is documented is only part of it.  In addition, they undoubtedly give additional dark money contributions that cannot be tracked, and the individuals who own these farm organizations also give individual contributions directly to politicians which are hard to track so the lobbying amounts below could be just a drop in the bucket of total lobbying expenditure by the farmers involved with these organizations.

Agricultural Welfare Recipient Address Total Government “Welfare” Check Amount Documented Lobbying Expenditure
Riceland Foods Inc Stuttgart, AR $554,343,039 $538,000
Producers Rice Mill Inc * Stuttgart, AR $314,028,012 $340,000*
Farmers Rice Coop Sacramento, CA $146,174,314 $980,000

*Data only available for years 2002-2018

Adam Andrzejewski also compiled the numbers and points out that the big money is not going to small traditional family farmers:

Since 2008… the top 10 farm subsidy recipients each received an average of $18.2 million – that’s $1.8 million annually, $150,000 per month, or $35,000 a week… 12 members of Congress collected up to $637,059 in subsidy payments last year alone.

The reason America has farm subsidies is that many Americans do not know about them and the subsidies are popular among Americans who are aware of them. Americans supported subsidizing farmers by 61%-yes versus 39%-no in one recent poll and in a 2018 Politico poll only 30% of Americans wanted to reduce farm subsidies. One reason many Americans support farm subsidies is that they mistakenly think most of the money is going to salt-of-the earth, hardworking, poor farm workers. For most of human history, the average farm worker was poorer than the average non-farmers, but for the first time in history that is no longer the case in America.

Before 1997, the average farm household was always lower income than the average non-farm household, but according to the USDA, that reversed in 1997 and in the most recent years, farm households have received well over ¼ more income than non-farm households:

Plus, the median farm household is much richer in wealth than the median American too. In 2017, the median wealth of farm households was $912,000, so almost half of all farm households were millionaires. In fact, 96 percent of all farm households owned more wealth than the U.S. median household.

Mancur Olson’s theory of political economy explains farm subsidies

American farmers not only benefit from direct government welfare checks (“subsidies”). They also benefit from government policies that restrict imports that could bring prices down. For example, according to an estimate from Iowa State University sugar quotas that limit imports of cheaper sugar from abroad may cost American consumers about $3.5B annually because the price Americans pay is often double or triple the price of sugar abroad as this graph from a Brazillian sugar lobbying organization shows

Sugar just doesn’t grow well in the US.  It grows best in tropical nations like Brazil and US sugar producers are limited to producing sugar in two ecological regions that are simply much less productive than the topics. America has sugar cane growers near the Gulf of Mexico in Florida and southern Louisiana, but this is a marginal region for sugar cane at the very northern limit of where it can survive and not as productive as it is in the tropics. Americans also grow sugar beets in the northern prairies but again, they just aren’t nearly as productive as tropical sugar cane.

The irony is that America is a democracy and American farmers are a small minority—about 1% of the US electorate. A democracy is often demonized as a “dictatorship of the majority” in which a majority can trample on the rights of minority groups like farmers. And yet American farmers have succeeded in using the democratic system to take money out of the pockets of all Americans who eat by raising prices through quotas and tariffs and they take money out of the pockets of all American taxpayers in the form of the farm subsidies that they get. How is this possible?

Mancur Olson’s theory turns the logic of democracy on its head. He argues that minority groups are better at getting subsidies than a majority in a democracy and the reason is due to the math. In the case of the sugar quota, there are about 329 million Americans who lose $3.5B because of higher prices. That is only $10.65 per person in America. When I ask my students if they are going to put up with this injustice, most of them usually say they don’t care about losing ten bucks per year. For rational American voters, many other political issues are much more important such as education policy, health policy, abortion, gun rights, unemployment, etc. Sugar import quotas is simply not a top political priority for anyone except the approximately 5,000* sugar farmers in America. Consumers can be rationally ignorant/apathetic about our sugar policy because the money is so small and we have bigger problems in our life that we need to put more focus on.

Although sugar producers do not get the full amount that consumers lose because of the deadweight losses of the quotas and the costs associated with selling import permits, but even if they only get a third of the amount consumers lose, the sugar policy is still worth $117,000 per sugar farmer on average. That kind of money is enough to make them passionate about sugar policy – more passionate than they are about other political issues like health, abortion, or gun rights. Although 10,000 sugar farmer votes isn’t enough for politicians to take much notice, it is better than the zero votes in opposition and more importantly, politicians REALLY notice the money the sugar lobby pays them.

The majority of the quota profits go to the biggest sugar farmers who can afford to spend big bucks on lobbying politicians. In particular, according to The Stigler Center, the billionaire Fanjul family gets 63 percent of the quota for imports and has 187,000 acres of sugar cane:

According to a review of state election records by the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times, the sugar industry—led by United States Sugar and Florida Crystals—gave $57.8 million in direct and in-kind contributions to state and local political campaigns between 1994 and 2016.8) Florida Crystals and its affiliates contributed $12.4 million in the same period. In the current election cycle, the Fanjuls raised approximately $100,000 for the congressional campaign of retired Army Sergeant Brian Mast in Florida’s 18th District…

The Fanjul brothers also work with the rest of the sugar industry, and together they donate to politicians in big numbers: according to the Center for Responsive Politics, between 1990 and 2016, the sugar industry spent over $40 million on contributions to politicians.) … The Fanjul brothers and their extended family also make direct contributions. Since 1990, they made contributions of $5 million to a variety of causes together, including a $100,000 donation by Alfy Fanjul to the Clinton Foundation.)

The sugar barons pay very close attention to US sugar policies because the sugar quota is the most important factor in determining their profits and they are willing to invest a couple percent of those ill-gotten gains in buying political influence. The Center for Responsive Politics maintains a database of lobbying expenditures from the Senate Office of Public Records. The big sugar companies documented spending over $12 million on lobbying in 2018.

In addition to this industry money that is recorded by the Senate, there is likely to be more “dark money” contributions and political money contributed directly by some of the 10,000 individual sugar farmers to their local politicians that isn’t tracked here. For example, the Fanjul family corporation gave $2.6 million in 2016 which is included in the above graph, but individual Fanjul family members directly gave additional money that isn’t included as part of the sugar lobby. For example, Jose Fanjul gave over $100,000 of political donations in the ’09-’10 election cycles and there are many more members of the Fanjul family like Alfonso, Alexander, Andres, and Raysa. Plus there are many more sugar farmers who also give political donations as individuals that aren’t tracked as part of the sugar lobby in the graph above.

The political system favors concentrated financial interest groups (wealthy people) who can afford to give political donations over diffuse financial interests (non-wealthy people) who do not have the economies of scale to get noticed by politicians. It is hard to get Americans to care about the $12 they lose to the sugar industry, but even if you could get Americans to care about the issue, the transactions costs of organizing them into a lobbying organization would probably cost over $12 per American which is all that it would be worth to eliminate the bad sugar policies in the first place, so we are stuck.

PR is a crucial component of how Mancur’s theory works

The Economist Magazine wrote, “the fewer farm voters there are, the more important the “farm vote” has become.”  This is true, because back when farmers were 90% of the population, if they had tried to get subsidies from the other 10% they amount of the welfare check per farmer would have been worthless, but now that farmers are closer to 1% of the population, every dollar they take from everyone else is worth 99 dollars to each farmer.

So if this math gives a concentrated financial interest group more power than a diffuse interest group, what limits the power of the wealthy group in a democracy? If sugar farmers can take $3.5 billion from Americans who eat sugar, why not $300 billion? The key for special interest group success in fleecing the majority is that the minority must either:

  1. Be unnoticed by the majority of voters.


  2. Convince the majority of voters that they deserve the subsidies.

Most Americans do not know anything about sugar policy, but if the sugar lobby got too greedy and tried to get $300 billion from consumers, we would start to notice, so they have to be careful to avoid unwanted publicity. As an insurance policy, lobbying organizations such as The Sugar Alliance also do PR work to try to convince the public that sugar protection makes America strong and hard-working American sugar farmers deserve the help.

The Stigler Center reports that they also do PR work to try to make Americans love sugar more:

the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists in the 1960s to produce research that downplayed the connection between sugar and heart disease, and instead laid the blame on saturated fat. According to The New York Times, the documents, released by a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, suggested that five decades of scientific research into the interconnection between nutrition and heart disease “may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.”

The recent revelations were in line with the industry’s repeated attempts to play down the health risks involved with increased sugar consumption. In the 1970s, as scientists and media began to connect sugar with illnesses such as obesity and diabetes, the Sugar Association— an industry trade group—ran a successful PR campaign that even led the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association to approve sugar as part of a healthy diet.

Over the years, the industry has also invested heavily in lobbying and political contributions, using its influence with legislators to deter regulatory oversight. In 2003, for instance, when the World Health Organization recommended that people reduce the amount of sugar they consume, American sugar companies threatened to appeal to Congress to cut the WHO’s funding.

American farm subsidies also hurt poor countries

As James Meek at the Guardian points out, US farm subsidies subsidize US farm exports to the detriment of poor foreign producers. For example, many poor African nations like Benin rely upon cotton farming for most of their export earnings which they need to pay off their national debt and buy manufactured products. The US subsidies for US cotton have caused international cotton prices to drop which impoverishes Benin and then the US government gives Benin foreign aid to help them develop, but the US government could help Benin more by simply stopping subsidizing US cotton.

In 2001-02, according to calculations by Oxfam and the Washington-based Environmental Working Group, US cotton farmers received subsidies of $3.9bn – almost twice the entire GDP of Benin. In a feat that would have made a Soviet economist blush, American cotton farmers got more in subsidies that year than the total market value of their crop.

Farm protectionism is even crazier in some other rich democracies

Imagine putting nearly 1/2** of the US population into an area smaller than California and filling up most of the flat parts with the Appalachian Mountains until only about 15% of the land area is level enough for agriculture or habitation. That is what Japan is like. It is hard to be self-sufficient with so many people on so little land and the Japanese have long been somewhat reliant on food imports. During World War II, the Allied naval blockade limited imports which contributed to widespread famine in Japan which has helped motivate the Japanese people to tolerate extreme protectionism for their farmers in the name of national security. Their goal is to be somewhat self-sufficient so as to never again suffer that kind of food scarcity. As a result, Japanese consumers are stuck with some of the highest food prices in the world.

Here are some examples of food prices in Tokyo, that E. Kwan Choi collected in March 2003,

Apples, ¥298 (or $2.49) eachapples Cantaloupe, ¥5800 (or $48.33) eachcantelope Watermelon, ¥2980(or $24.83) eachwatermelon

They also sell cubic watermelons priced at from $80 up to $700:

They fit well in small Japanese refrigerators and don’t roll off of the counter!

*When I first wrote about this a decade ago, I found data estimating that there were 10,000 sugar farmers, but when I searched this time, I found an estimate from the Census that there were only 4,516 sugar farmers in America in 2014. I rounded up to 5,000 for simplicity above.

**The population of Japan was about half the US population when I was a kid.  Now it is closer to a third of the US population because Japan’s population is shrinking while the US continues to grow due to higher birthrate and immigration.

Posted in Globalization & International

How climate skeptics are distributed across America

The Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies has data about public perceptions on the facts of global warming. As of 2018, almost twice as many Americans believe global warming is caused by humans as those who disagree (57% to 32%):

Estimated % of adults who think global warming is mostly caused by human activities, 2018

Several things correlate with perceptions of global warming. One is the presence of Hispanics who are much more worried about global warming than most other cultural groups in America. Therefore, areas with a large percentage of Hispanics are more worried about global warming:

The presence of oil and gas extraction is correlated with skepticism about global warming. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” Here is an EPA map showing where oil and gas facilities are located. By and large the exploration wells (in green) are areas that are relatively skeptical about global warming.

The refineries (blue triangles) don’t seem to be correlated with public opinion, but refineries are attracted to urban areas where they can attract educated workers and these areas tend to be more worried about global warming. For example, although 70% of Americans believe that global warming is happening, and that is the majority opinion in virtually every county in the US, only 49% of Americans accurately realize that most scientists believe in global warming and they are concentrated in rural, low-education areas.


Estimated % of adults who think global warming is happening, 2018


Since 70% of all Americans believe global warming is happening you would think that they would think that most scientists agree with them and the reality is that somewhere between 95% and 99% of scientists believe it is happening (depending on the study). But a majority of Americans believes that scientists DON’T thing global warming is happening!


Estimated % of adults who believe most scientists think global warming is happening, 2018


The big outliers are the major cities and especially university towns. Most major cities ARE university towns, but some small rural cities are also the home of large universities like the University of Nebraska and the University of Kansas and Kansas State University which pop out with greater understanding in their respective states.

As this map from CityLab demonstrates, most college students attend college in big cities because that is where most people live:

The other counties that are exceptionally knowledgeable about global warming are home to university towns where that is the biggest industry in town:

To recap, one thing that is correlated with Americans being led to believe that oil and gas extraction have nothing to do with global warming and that global warming isn’t happening anyhow is…

  • The presence of local oil and gas extraction companies.

Things that are correlated with a more accurate understanding of the scientific consensus about global warming are…

  • Lots of Hispanics.
  • Urban population.
  • Local universities.
Posted in Environment

Is it counterproductive to prepare Bluffton University students for a mass shooter on campus?

Bluffton University is located in a ridiculously low-crime town compared to the average American town.  My wife lost her wallet twice and both times it was returned by a stranger with all the cash.  My family mostly bikes to get around town for work, school, and shopping and we never lock our bikes during the day.  In 11 years, we have only had a problem three times when one of the boys left his bike outside overnight and the first two times someone just rode it to the Bren-Del dormitory at Bluffton University.  I reported the thefts to the police and I would be happy to press charges if I catch someone “borrowing” a bike because it would be better to keep that kind of thing in check rather than to force everyone to have the daily hassle of carrying and using a bike lock around town.

Bluffton is the kind of place where the police immediately text everyone in town when they discover that someone vandalized a couple of car tires on the way to school in the morning.  In contrast, when I lived in Chicago, I didn’t even discover that there was a murder one block away from my home until I was talking with some neighbors a few days after the fact.  I guess the murder wasn’t dramatic enough to generate media attention.  Nobody in my old neighborhood even bothered to file police reports on the kind of petty vandalization that generates all-town police alerts in Bluffton.

Even though Bluffton is extremely safe, Bluffton University students (and their parents) have been worried about college shooters due to media hype and they have been putting pressure on the administration to address the issue with our students.  The statistics lead me to believe that it is a waste of time at best and may even be counterproductive at worst.

It is important to put the risks of a mass shooter in context with all the bigger risks that students face.  For example, according to the NIH, about 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related injuries every year and “between 1.2 and 1.5 percent of students indicate that they tried to commit suicide within the past year due to drinking or drug use.”  “Approximately 1,100 [college] students die by suicide each year” according to Suicide Prevention Resource Center.  If Bluffton students are representative of students nationally, we should be seeing several suicide attempts every year.  In contrast, school shootings are really rare.  I don’t know of official statistics, but the Huffington Post reported that in 2013, there were 18 deaths from shootings “on a college campus or close enough to campus for a school to believe the incident posed a threat to students” and that was in a year with enough high-profile shootings to warrant a news article about the issue.  Most years seem to have less than that.  The biggest year according to Wikipedia was 2007 when the Virginia Tech tragedy helped boost the national total to 34 college deaths.  There are fewer campus shootings in America even in the worst year than the average number of lightning deaths in America (48/year).


The US has had school shootings for about as long as the US has had schools, but kids have always been safer in school than away from school.  Plus, students should be told that the US murder rate has been dropping for two decades and is now approximately as low as it has ever been in all of American history. As VOX reported, Americans fear violent crime much more than is justified by reality. The violent crime rate was over three times higher back in the early 1990s than its level in recent years.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans think violent crime increased over the past year, even though violent crime has been on a general decline for two decades, according to a recent Gallup surveycrime rate vs perception

This is one reason the US still leads the world in imprisoning people. Politicians can still take some tough-on-crime stances simply because most Americans have no idea what the reality is on this issue.

To help meet the popular demand to ‘do something’ about campus shootings, a couple years ago the Bluffton faculty and staff saw a professionally-produced video that showed a bunch of scary situations on a college campus.  It looked like a product of industry efforts to militarize America’s police and that Mother Jones magazine has been documenting for years. The militarization of US policing comes from several demand side issues.  First we really did have a crime wave in the 1970s and 1980s that most people thought would continue, but it didn’t.  Secondly, as video cameras have gotten cheaper, there are more and scarier videos of shootings that are now always available on TV news and social media.  Then Americans demanded more police protection after 9/11/2001  because they thought that 9/11 was the beginning of a new era of dramatically increased domestic terrorism, but it turned out to be a one-off event too.

Fear of other forms of terrorism are similarly counterproductive.  The risks to Americans are minuscule and according to Stephen Pinker (interviewed by Julia Belluz), overreaction to 9/11 killed more Americans than the attacks did.

The greatest damage the resulted from the attacks was self-inflicted, in our individual and national overreactions to them. The psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has shown that after 9/11, 1,500 Americans died in car accidents because they chose to drive rather than fly, unaware that a car trip of twelve miles has the same risk of death as a plane trip of three thousand miles.  And of course the attacks sent the United States into two wars that have taken far more American and British lives than the hijackers did, to say nothing of the lives of Afghans and Iraqis.


There was an increased supply of funding to militarize our police forces too because defense spending slowed in the 1990s due to the end of the cold war and that caused congress to look for other business to give their favorite defense contractors.  They turned to supplying the police (and then homeland terrorism).  One federal program to help defense contractors transition into supplying the domestic police market was called Program 1033.  The Ferguson crisis was at least partly due to Ferguson’s overly-militarized police department which escalated the situation.  The defense contractors who supply our police now have an incentive to increase the public worry about mass shootings and terrorism in order to justify selling military-grade SWAT equipment to local police departments and the result was that they produced nearly Hollywood-quality videos to distribute to schools about the dangers of school shootings.  This is the kind of video that made it to a Bluffton faculty meeting a couple of years ago.

The Washington Post reports that, “school security has grown into a $2.7 billion market — an estimate that does not account for the billions more spent on armed campus police officers.”

The Post sent surveys to all the schools that had shooting deaths between 2012 and 2018 to ask if additional training or security equipment would have prevented the deaths.  The result:

Only one school suggested that any kind of safety technology might have made a difference. Many had robust security plans already in place but still couldn’t stop the incidents…

The survey responses are consistent with a federally funded 2016 study by Johns Hopkins University that concluded there was “limited and conflicting evidence in the literature on the short- and long-term effectiveness of school safety technology.”

Nobody knows how to best respond in an active shooter situation partly because shooters will adjust their tactics in response to what they experience in drills. Even the professionals have no idea what works and different security training vendors give the opposite advice from one another.

America’s excessive obsession with rare dramatic violence isn’t just encouraging police overreaction.  It also actively leads to copycat killings.  For example, the media coverage of the 1999 Columbine shooting directly inspired at least 74 violent plots by copycats.


Fortunately, there has been a little movement towards reducing the excessive hysteria that the media generates about mass shootings.  Mother Jones documented several media efforts to reduce reporting that leads to copycat shootings and the FBI is also working on it. Schools should also do their part to get students and faculty to worry more about huge threats like suicide, alcohol, and car accidents and less about the miniscule threat of campus shooters.  In fact, getting everyone on campus to watch dramatic videos of fictional mass shooter situations could make risks worse by making the idea salient to someone unstable.  Past videos of mass shooters have inspired perpetrators to plan attacks and active-shooter preparedness videos could help unstable plotters think about how to defeat the countermeasures presented in the videos.

Besides, the kind of countermeasures the videos recommend for unarmed faculty and student are pathetically weak in response to an active shooter and because the businesses who make the videos really want to sell defense equipment and services, they don’t have much incentive to make you feel safe.  There just isn’t much the average person can do to in defense against a determined killer with guns.  It takes a lot of training to be able to use a weapon effectively (as the Daily Show humorously illustrated), so even if we gave guns to all our students, most wouldn’t be able to do much to stop a suicidal killer.  The kind of suicidal person that becomes a mass shooter cannot be deterred like a normal person.  But we don’t live in fear of lightning strikes, and there isn’t any more reason to fear mass shootings in schools.  We should be much more afraid of getting in a car or the drinking in the bar.

We must be doing something wrong because the number of school shootings keeps going up even though America keeps spending vastly more resources on the issue:

US Naval Postgraduate School

Nowadays, to make active shooter drills ever more realistic, police are firing at teachers by surprise, execution style, with rubber bullets from real guns that are so powerful that they raise welts and draw blood.

The result of this kind of theater is predictable:

students are increasingly reporting feeling traumatized by the prospect of terror and violence in their classrooms. The National Association of School Psychologists found that “depending on circumstances, some lockdowns may produce anxiety, stress, and traumatic symptoms in some students or staff, as well as loss of instructional time.”

Lockdown drills have other limitations, too. As Campbell reported last year, the annual lockdown drills Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had been holding for more than a decade weren’t enough to stop a shooter. In fact, the shooter was an expelled student who had likely been through those lockdown drills himself.

Mass shootings isn’t the only problem that is rapidly rising among students.  Suicides are also growing rapidly:

Between 2009 and 2017, the number of high schoolers who contemplated suicide reportedly increased by 25 percent. Deaths by suicide among teens increased by 33 percent in that time period

Although small towns like Bluffton are really safe overall, they are exactly the kind of place where mass shootings tend to happen, and school shootings in particular.  According to CityLab, 60% of mass shootings have happened in small towns and rural areas even though less than 29% of Americans live in them.

And that shows all mass shootings.  School shootings are a much rarer subset of mass shooting and they are even more predominate in small towns.

This is a scourge that exists nowhere else in the world but in America and although it is a very minor cause of mortality even in America, it is only getting worse, so maybe we need to rethink our approach and look at how every other country succeeds at minimizing this kind of problem.

Posted in Violence & Peace

1/3 of Bloomberg articles are written by artificial intelligence!

Artificial intelligence and automation is taking over more and more jobs. Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo recently produced research confirming that:

the recent stagnation of labor demand is explained by an acceleration of automation, particularly in manufacturing, and a deceleration in the creation of new tasks… if the origin of productivity growth in the future continues to be automation, the relative standing of labor… will decline.

That isn’t particularly surprising, because everyone knows about what has been happening to manufacturing employment.


But the NYT reports that more and more journalism is actually being written by robots now including nearly 1/3 of Bloomberg articles.

“robot reporters have been prolific producers of articles on minor league baseball for The Associated Press, high school football for The Washington Post and earthquakes for The Los Angeles Times… Last week, The Guardian’s Australia edition published its first machine-assisted article, an account of annual political donations to the country’s political parties. And Forbes recently announced that it was testing a tool called Bertie to provide reporters with rough drafts and story templates… The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones are experimenting with the technology to help with various tasks, including the transcription of interviews… Patch [is] a nationwide news organization devoted to local news, [with] 110 staff reporters and numerous freelancers who cover about 800 communities… In a given week, more than 3,000 posts on Patch — 5 to 10 percent of its output — are machine-generated… “One thing I’ve noticed,” Mr. St. John said, “is that our A.I.-written articles have zero typos.”

Kelsey Piper reported on a new kind of AI that learned how to write fake news articles and fake product reviews. The most impressive part is that it learned to do this all by itself by reading what humans have written in the past and although it can only write fake news, it is very good at it.

Google demonstrated last summer that Google Assistant can make phone calls and book appointments while sounding just like a human (though the company promised it won’t use deceptive tactics in practice).

Artificial intelligence is so common, we don’t even recognize the numerous examples of our interactions with robotic brains. For example, Facebook uses artificial intelligence to serve up content to try to get you addicted to their services and Amazon uses artificial intelligence to get you to buy more of their products.  Even Netflix customizes the images on their homepage for every user to try to get people to spend more time watching Netflix.  They don’t just randomly serve up content at all.  It is all very calculated.

Every Google search is taking advantage of advanced artificial intelligence too. The other day my father-in-law, Leonard Wiebe, was talking about how one of his friends never wanted to schedule a meeting on Superbowl Sunday and that got us thinking. If you wanted to know when the Superbowl would be held in a year, how would you find out? Nowadays the answer is as easy as a Google search. Google’s artificial intelligence finds answers to questions.

But how would you find the answer without the internet? In the old days, you had to rely upon human intelligence.  You could ask a librarian, but most librarians would probably need a lot of time to find the answer and some would have given up.  It would probably be faster to call a human operator to get the toll-free number for the NFL and then ask a human receptionist at the NFL. Those jobs are gone forever; replaced by computers. We all benefit equally from the cheaper, better services that computers provide, but it has not boosted most people’s incomes.  It has only boosted the incomes of a tiny proportion of people and particularly those who own a handful of tech companies. For example, Gizmodo reported that,
“Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple move more money than many medium-sized nations.” Gizmodo reporter Kashmir Hill tried to live without their services and found that it is almost impossible to live without them nowadays because the human we used to rely upon for information have lost their jobs and everyone has reoriented their daily life to use intellectual property or computer servers run by these big five.

Needless to say, the owners of those companies have become fabulously wealthy and by eliminating numerous other jobs, they have contributed to widening inequality in America in the process of amassing enormous power.

If these five companies collectively decided to overthrow the American government, I have no doubt that they could do it by coordinating a populist electoral revolt that could elect a new political party with enough control to re-write the constitution.  Similarly, in China, the government controls more than the equivalent of Amazon, Facebook, and Google which gives the Chinese government incredible power to prevent revolt by controlling the information that the Chinese people see.

Posted in Globalization & International, Inequality

Go to college to get an MRS degree.

As a kid I heard the joke that Mennonite women in my mother’s generation went to college to get an MRS degree and indeed, my own mother dropped out of college soon after she got married. Of course, my dad dropped out then too, so perhaps he was also sent to college to find a good Mennonite spouse.  Surprisingly the data shows that there is probably more reason for Americans to go to college in order to get married now than ever before. That is because, as Pew shows, marriage is in decline, but just for Americans without a college degree.

The graph shows a little tiny decline for adults with college degrees, but that is probably mainly due to the rising median age of first marriage.

How much later will the median age of marriage go in another fifty years?

Naturally, college graduates marry later because they usually wait until after graduation at least. Divorce rates have also diverged by education. College graduates are doing better now than in 1990 whereas everyone else keeps getting worse:

College education isn’t preserving marriage merely because young couples are meeting their spouses in college. People are increasingly meeting their spouses using dating applications rather than in person. Todd Schneider analyzed 63,000 New York Times wedding announcements and found that less than 30% of those couples met in school and the frequency of meeting via online dating apps is rapidly growing.

The success of college graduates at marriage is in large part due to college graduates having more income because, increasingly, marriage is just for rich people:

It isn’t that non-rich Americans just don’t want to get married. “80 percent of never-married Americans say they want to marry“. Perhaps rising income inequality is causing the decline in the family? The Institute for Family Studies summarized a few of the researcher who have made that link, but there seems to be more data on the related issue of how education impacts the family. For example, the majority of births of American high school dropouts are outside of marriage whereas only 6% of births to college-educated women are outside of marriage.

Better luck in love is just one of many reasons to go to college.  Another little-known reason is longer lifespan!

Posted in Labor

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