Monday, July 30, 2007

Forget the "Kyoto Protocols" and Get Ready for the "Harvard Protocols" to Mitigate the Threat of Climate Change

Great things are expected from great people and Great ideas are expected from great institutions. Harvard is raising the stakes here promising to deliver a new global climate treaty in return for a payment of $750,000 per year. The authors of this new treaty will need to have a subtle understanding of the political economy of interest group competition in each nation. In particular, how do you design an incentive program such that developed nations, developing nations, and poor nations are all willing to sign it? What international enforcement architecture are individual nations willing to expose themselves to?

Harvard To Help Develop New Global Climate Treaty

Aims to develop 'scientifically sound, economically rational, and politically pragmatic' plan

Published On 7/27/2007 12:13:50 AM


Crimson Staff Writer

The University announced a plan earlier this month to help develop a more effective and inclusive international treaty for reducing greenhouse gases following the expiration of the current treaty in 2012.

The plan, called the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements, will initially be led by professors in the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard Business School, and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. It is intended to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which began its agreed-upon 15-year existence in 1997.

The new plan will aim to reach a comprehensive and international alternative solution to the global warming problem by drawing on leaders and scholars from a “variety of venues” in science, academia, business, government, and non-governmental organizations, according to the plan’s co-director, Pratt Professor of Business and Government Robert N. Stavins.

“Although it is a Harvard-housed project, we will be working closely with the United Nations in New York, the European Union in Brussels, and the United Nations Foundation in Washington for the planning and execution,” Stavins said. “It is by no means Harvard preaching to the world.”

But the fact that it is a Harvard-based project does have its advantages, including the large resource pool that is the students, according to co-director Joseph E. Aldy, a fellow at Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C. think tank.

“We do recognize that there is a lot of talent, energy and interest among students,” Aldy said. “We hope to engage the student community and have students help work and contribute to the project.”

Aldy is also a former staff member for the President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, specializing in environmental issues.

The Kyoto Protocol is the current international global climate agreement that sets a carbon limit for its 35 participating industrialized countries. It was signed in 1997 under President Bill Clinton and was later rejected in 2001 by President George W. Bush out of concern that it would damage the U.S. economy.

The recently launched Harvard project, if approved, will work to produce a resolution through 2016.

“The Kyoto Protocol can’t just be renewed,” Stavins said. “Our intention with this project is to come up with a scientifically sound, economically rational, and politically pragmatic plan, and the current protocol, most of us would maintain, is none of these.”

To develop a more effective plan, the flaws of the Kyoto Protocol must be addressed, according to Harpel Professor of Capital Formation and Growth Jeffrey A. Frankel. But Frankel also stressed that many of the current protocol’s problems may not have easy remedies.

“There are shortcomings, such as enforceability, but for these there may exist no fully satisfactory solution,” Frankel wrote in an e-mail.

The two-year, $750,000 project grew out of a workshop held by the Harvard Environmental Economics Project last spring, which brought together 27 leading thinkers from around the world in the fields of economics, law, political science, business, international relations, and the natural sciences, according to a press release by the Kennedy School. Together, they developed six possible “alternative architectures” that would eventually help build the post-Kyoto Protocol international agreement.

According to Stavins, the crux of the agreement and its eventual approval lies in its ability to be credible to and include developing countries, namely China and India. Unfortunately, Stavins said, actually realizing this step remains difficult.

“The greatest challenge will be to bring all the countries in the world together, and eventually for them to agree on a particular policy architecture,” he said. “We can’t predict at all what the international deliberations will be like, but they will most certainly be a challenge because of the magnitude of the problem, the significant cost, and the long-term nature of the problem.”

While an international team to expand the project is still in the works, the project already has a solid steering committee composed of Harvard professors, including Frankel, Black Professor of Business Administration Forest L. Reinhardt ’79, and Daniel P. Schrag of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Former University President Lawrence H. Summers is also part of the steering committee.

—Staff writer Marie C. Kodama can be reached at

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Objectively Judging One's Intellectual Progress

Have you ever wondered whether your work is getting better over time? I'd like to believe that my research is getting better, but how do you test this optimistic claim? One method would be to look at where the work is appearing. I will have a paper in the next American Economic Review (joint with my favorite co-author).
Another empirical test is to go back and read your early work.

Last week as I cleaned out my Boston house, I found an old floppy disk. We have one last computer that takes 3 inch floppies and when I looked at the directories --- I found a Word Perfect version of my PHD thesis.

To amuse myself and to show my UCLA students that one's work can improve, I'm posting a copy of my
1993 University of Chicago Economics Thesis for you to skim.

In fairness to myself, each of these chapters were eventually published. One in the Rand Journal, one in Journal of Urban Economics and one in Economic Letters. The first two articles have each been cited over 10 times. But still, I can honestly say that 1993 was not my peak year!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Crime and Punishment: Hot Cars, Young Kids and Distracted Parents

I've always been interested in differential sentencing for the same crime. Here is an example of an academic study investigating this;

Sentencing in Homicide Cases and the Role of Vengeance
Author(s) Edward L. Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote
Identifiers The Journal of Legal Studies, volume 32 (2003), pages 363–382

Abstract Does the economic model of optimal punishment explain the variation in the sentencing of murderers? While there is strong support for several predictions of the model, we document that sentences respond to victim characteristics in a way that is hard to reconcile with optimal punishment. In particular, victim characteristics are important determinants of sentencing among vehicular homicides, in which victims are basically random and in which the optimal punishment model predicts that victim characteristics should be ignored. Among vehicular homicides, drivers who kill women get 59 percent longer sentences. Drivers who kill blacks get 60 percent shorter sentences.

NOW, here is a popular news item posted today on roughly the same subject.

Sentences vary when kids die in hot cars By ALLEN G. BREED, AP National Writer

Kevin Kelly is a law-abiding citizen who, much distracted, left his beloved 21-month-old daughter in a sweltering van for seven hours. Frances Kelly had probably been dead for more than four hours by the time a neighbor noticed her strapped in her car seat; when rescue personnel removed the girl from the vehicle, her skin was red and blistered, her fine, carrot-colored hair matted with sweat. Two hours later, her body temperature was still nearly 106 degrees.

What is the appropriate punishment for a doting parent responsible for his child's death? A judge eventually spared Kelly a lengthy term in prison. Still, it is a question that is asked dozens of times each year.

Since the mid-1990s, the number of children who died of heat exhaustion while trapped inside vehicles has risen dramatically, totaling around 340 in the past 10 years. Ironically, one reason was a change parent-drivers made to protect their kids after juvenile air-bag deaths peaked in 1995 — they put them in the back seat, where they are more easily forgotten.

An Associated Press analysis of more than 310 fatal incidents in the past 10 years found that prosecutions and penalties vary widely, depending in many cases on where the death occurred and who left the child to die — parent or caregiver, mother or father:

_Mothers are treated much more harshly than fathers. While mothers and fathers are charged and convicted at about the same rates, moms are 26 percent more likely to do time. And their median sentence is two years longer than the terms received by dads.

_Day care workers and other paid baby sitters are more likely than parents to be charged and convicted. But they are jailed less frequently than parents, and for less than half the time.

_Charges are filed in half of all cases — even when a child was left unintentionally.

In all, the AP analyzed 339 fatalities involving more than 350 responsible parties. July is by far the deadliest month, accounting for nearly a quarter of the total.

A relatively small number of cases — about 7 percent — involved drugs or alcohol. In a few instances, the responsible parties had a history of abusing or neglecting children. Still others were single parents unable to find or afford day care.

Many cases involved what might be called community pillars: dentists and nurses; ministers and college professors; a concert violinist; a member of a county social services board; a NASA engineer. And it is undisputed that none — or almost none — intended to harm these children.

"When you look at overall who this is happening to, it's some very, very, very good parents — might I say, doting parents," says Janette Fennell, founder and president of Kids and Cars, a nonprofit group that tracks child deaths and injuries in and around automobiles.

"But no one thinks it's going to happen to them. I think people are lying if they say that there wasn't one situation in raising their child that, `There but for the grace of God go I.'"

The AP's analysis was based largely on a database of fatal hyperthermia cases compiled by Fennell's organization. The AP contacted medical examiner's offices in several states where this most often occurs, and the group's numbers coincided almost exactly with recorded hyperthermia deaths.

Some of these children crawled into cars or trunks on their own, but most were left to die by a caregiver. Most often, it was a parent who simply forgot the child was inside.

Texas leads the nation with at least 41 deaths, followed by Florida with 37, California with 32, North Carolina and Arizona with 14 apiece, and Tennessee with 13. There were deaths recorded in 44 states — most in the Sun Belt, but many in places not known for hot weather.

The correlation between the rise in these deaths and the 1990s move to put children in the back seat is striking.

"Up to that time, the average number of children dying of hyperthermia in the United States was about 11 a year," says Jan Null, an adjunct professor of meteorology at San Francisco State University who has studied this trend. "Then we put them in the back, turned the car seats around. And from '98 to 2006, that number is 36 a year."

Few understand just how quickly a car can heat up, even on a moderate day.

According to one study, the temperature inside a vehicle can rise more than 40 degrees in the span of an hour, with 80 percent of that increase occurring during the first half hour. And researchers found that cracking the windows did little to help.

Children, often too young to escape, are particularly vulnerable because their immature respiratory and circulatory systems do not manage heat as efficiently as adults'. After a short time, the skin grows red and dry, the body becomes unable to produce sweat, and heat stroke kills the child.

Already this year, at least 16 children have died in hot vehicles from Hawaii to Virginia — including a 4-year-old New Orleans boy who died on Father's Day.

Since 1998, charges were filed in 49 percent of cases. In those that have been decided, 81 percent resulted in convictions or guilty pleas, and half of those brought jail sentences — the median sentence being two years. Parents were only slightly less likely to be charged and convicted than others, but the median sentence was much higher — 54 months.

In cases involving paid caregivers, 84 percent were charged, with 96 percent of those convicted. But while they are jailed at about the same rate as parents, the median sentence in those cases was just 12 months.

Women were jailed more often and for longer periods than men. But when the AP compared mothers and fathers, the sentencing gap was even wider.

Mothers were jailed 59 percent of the time, compared to 47 percent for fathers. And the median sentence was three years for dads, but five for moms.

"I think we generally hold mothers to a higher standard in the criminal justice context than in just family life generally," says Jennifer M. Collins, a professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law who has studied negligence involving parents and such hyperthermia cases. A large segment of society, she says, thinks "fathers are baby-sitting, and mothers are doing God's work."

In 27 percent of the cases the AP studied, the children got into the vehicles on their own. Those cases are much less likely to be prosecuted, though sometimes parents are punished for negligence — particularly where substance abuse is involved.

The AP identified more than 220 cases in which the caregiver admitted leaving the child behind. More than three-quarters of those people claim they simply forgot.

It's easy to forget your keys or that cup of coffee on the roof. But a child? How is that possible?

The awful truth, experts say, is that the stressed-out brain can bury a thought — something as trite as a coffee cup or crucial as a baby — and go on autopilot. While researchers once thought the different parts of the brain worked in conjunction with each other, they now realize that different portions dominate at different times.

"The value of the item is not only not relevant in these competing memory systems," says memory expert David Diamond, an associate psychology professor at the University of South Florida who also works at a Veterans Affairs hospital. "But, in fact, we can be more complacent because we tell ourselves, 'There's no way I would forget my child.'"

Harvard University professor Daniel Shachter, a leading brain researcher, says memory is very "cue dependent."

"And in these cases, the cue is often missing," he says. "When we go on automatic, it's very possible for us to ignore or forget about seemingly important things."

Like a baby.

Nationwide, about 60 percent of cases where the child was left unintentionally result in charges. But policies vary wildly from one jurisdiction to the next.

At least nine children in Las Vegas have died in hot vehicles since 1998, but charges were filed in only two of those cases. For several years, it has been the policy of the Clark County prosecutor's office not to file charges unless there is proof of "some general criminal intent ... to put the child in harm's way," says chief deputy DA Tom Carroll.

But in Memphis, Tenn., District Attorney General William L. Gibbons scoffs at the notion that he wouldn't charge someone — especially a parent — who claims to have simply forgotten a child.

"It frankly boggles my mind that a parent can forget that a child is in a vehicle for two hours," says Gibbons, whose office has prosecuted five cases involving nine parents and day-care workers since 1998.

Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court ordered Gibbons to grant pretrial diversion to youth minister Stephen McKim. McKim was late for a church meeting and forgot his 7-month-old daughter Mia in the back seat — even though the day care center was at the church.

Under diversion, the charge would be dismissed after two years if McKim successfully fulfills certain court requirements. Gibbons thinks that's getting off too easy.

"We're not talking in most cases about sending anyone to prison," he says. "We are talking about placing someone on probation, maybe requiring them to go to some parenting classes or something like that, and giving them a felony record as a result of what happened. And I think that's reasonable."

Not surprisingly, the harshest treatment is reserved for those who intentionally left their children. According to the AP's analysis, those people are nearly twice as likely to serve time than people who simply forgot the child. And on average, they received sentences that were 5 1/2 years longer.

In 2004, Tara Maynor was sentenced to 12 1/2 to 60 years in prison on two counts of second-degree murder after leaving her two children in a car for four hours outside a suburban Detroit beauty parlor while she got a massage and hairdo. She told police she was "too stupid to know they would die."

Just last month, Karla Edwards pleaded guilty in Aiken, S.C., to homicide by child abuse for leaving her 15-month-old son, Zachary Frison, in a car for nine hours in April 2006 while she worked at a home-improvement store. When Edwards was unable — or unwilling — to explain her actions, the judge sentenced her to 20 years.

But in many cases, police, prosecutors and judges must wrestle with whether to charge, try and punish an already grieving parent.

In Lexington, Ky., Fayette Circuit Judge James Ishmael said the question of what to do with Leon Jewell was perhaps the toughest of his career.

According to police, Jewell admitted buying beer and vodka at a liquor store on Aug. 1, 2005, and drinking in his SUV on the way home. When his wife returned home from work later that day, she found 9-month-old Daniel, the couple's only child, still strapped in his car seat.

Jewell pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter. Despite the prosecutor's recommendation of seven years, Ishmael placed the clearly remorseful and devastated Jewell on probation and ordered alcohol treatment.

But six months later, on what would have been Daniel's second birthday, Jewell got drunk and was kicked out of his treatment program. Ishmael sent him to prison for seven years; Jewel expressed his torment in a letter to the judge.

"When I was last before you (you) told me there are worse places than jail," he wrote. "And you are correct. Where ever I am is the worst place in the world. ... I have violated man's laws. I have violated God's laws."

Judges often attempt to craft creative penalties: An Idaho mother was ordered to make a video about her case to be used in birthing classes. In addition to spending eight months in prison, a Louisiana baby sitter was ordered to pay the dead girl's funeral expenses and to make a $500 annual donation to the hospital that treated her. Some day-care workers have been prohibited from supervising young children during their probation.

So what of Kevin Kelly? What did he deserve?

Would it influence your opinion to know that the day Frances died, May 29, 2002, the Manassas engineer was watching 12 children alone while his wife and oldest daughter were abroad visiting a cancer-stricken relative?

Does it matter that when he returned home that day, he'd asked two teenage children — both of baby-sitting age — to attend to their younger siblings while he went back to school for another daughter who was late getting out of an exam?

Or that during the next seven hours, he was accosted by an air conditioning repairman with news that he was going to have to spend several thousand dollars on a new unit? That he fixed lunch, did laundry, mended a gap in the fence that the little ones were using to escape the yard, drove to the store for parts to fix his air conditioner, took a son to soccer practice and fixed a leaking drain pipe in the basement?

Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul L. Ebert concluded that Kelly's failure to ask after Frances for seven hours rose to the level of a crime. Kelly was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. The jury recommended a year in prison.

But Circuit Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. had what he thought was a more humane solution. He ordered Kelly to spend one day a year in jail for seven years and to hold an annual blood drive around the anniversary of his daughter's death.

Kelly is still a convicted felon. He cannot vote, and his job was affected because he is barred from certain government properties.

But waiting in line recently at the All Saints Catholic Church to donate blood, he said he is happy for the chance to honor his daughter by helping to save lives.

"The judge was very, very merciful," he said as his red-haired children scurried around giving snacks and stickers to donors. "And I'm very grateful for what he did in allowing me to stay with my family and support my family."


EDITOR'S NOTE: AP researcher Monika Mathur performed data analysis for this report; National Writer Martha Mendoza also contributed.

Why Are New York City's Best Public Schools Better than Los Angeles' Best?

At the NBER Summer Institute meetings, one has the opportunity to talk and talk and talk some more. Now that I'm back in Los Angeles, I'm resting my voice after a lot of talking. I talked to people at the Environmental meetings, the labor meetings, the innovation meetings, and the real estate meetings. That's a lot of meetings.

I had an interesting talk with a leading education economist. I told her that Dora and I were frustrated by the Los Angeles Unified School District's inability to produce excellent public schools once kids reach 5th grade. There are a few excellent elementary schools. Given that many residential districts feature average home prices of 1.3 million dollars, you would think that property tax paid on such homes would yield enough tax revenue to build something good.

I wondered why New York City has several excellent public high schools but Los Angeles may actually have none. She argued that the explanation is historical. New York City's schools are older and were created in a less politically correct climate where it was okay to IQ test children and only admit them if they met some cutoff. She pointed out what would happen today if a public school in a Los Angeles where to say "to be admitted to this school, you must score X on this test." She pointed out that other older cities such as San Francisco also have some excellent public schools.

This "new city/old city" distinction is interesting. Ed Glaeser and I have argued that public transit ridership is higher in cities built before the car because of how this affected the city's urban form. I hadn't thought about how the city's local public goods are affected by the social norms at the time when it was growing.

If you reject this hypothesis, what would be your explanation? Ethnic mix of the city? Emphasis on the importance of education differing by city? It is true that many people in LA may value beauty over brains but I haven't figure out how to formally
test this claim!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

How "Green" is Renewable Energy?

Renewable Energy will require some land for wind turbines, solar panels and the like. Where is this land? What is the next best use of such land? Are these "input ratios" and land requirements fixed or could they decline as technological progress takes place?

Study: Renewable Energy Not Green
Sara Goudarzi
Special to LiveScience
Thu Jul 26, 8:35 AM ET

Renewable energy could wreck the environment, according to a study that examined how much land it would take to generate the renewable resources that would make a difference in the global energy system.

Building enough wind farms, damming adequate number of rivers and growing sufficient biomass to produce ample kilowatts to make a difference in meeting global energy demands would involve a huge invasion of nature, according to Jesse Ausubel, a researcher at the Rockefeller University in New York.

Ausubel came to this conclusion by calculating the amount of energy that each renewable source can produce in terms of area of land disturbed.

“We looked at the different major alternatives for renewable energies and we measured [the power output] for each of them and how much land it will rape,” Ausubel told LiveScience.

Land grab for energy

The results, published in the current issue of International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology, paint a grim picture for the environment. For example, according to the study, in order to meet the 2005 electricity demand for the United States, an area the size of Texas would need to be covered with wind structures running round the clock to extract, store and transport the energy.

New York City would require the entire area of Connecticut to become a wind farm to fully power all its electrical equipment and gadgets.

You can convert every kilowatt generated directly into land area disturbed, Ausubel said. “The biomass or wind will produce one or two watts per square meter. So every watt or kilowatt you want for light bulbs in your house can be translated into your hand reaching out into nature taking land.”

Small dent in landmass

Other scientists are not on board with Ausubel’s analysis and say that his use of energy density—the amount of energy produced per each area of land—as the only metric may not be the correct way to calculate the impact of energy from renewable resources on the environment.

“In general, I would say his use of energy density just does not capture the entire scope of issues and capabilities for all the different resources,” said John A. Turner, a principal scientist at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, who was not involved in the study.

Turner explains that if the entire United States were to be powered by solar cells with 10 percent efficiency, an area about 10,000 square miles would have to be covered by solar panels in a sunny place such as Arizona or Nevada.

“Now there’s 3.7 million square miles of area for the continental U.S.” Turner told LiveScience. “This represents a very, very tiny area. And that’s just one technology.”

“If you look at how much land area we’ve covered with roads, it’s more than double that. So yeah, it’s a large area, 100 miles by 100 miles, if you pack it into one thing, but if you scatter it across the country and compare it to all the other things we’ve already covered, it’s not an egregious area.”

Double use of land

Ausubel’s analysis concludes that other renewable sources such as solar power and biomass are “un-green”. According to his findings, to obtain power for a large proportion of the country from biomass would require 965 square miles of prime Iowa land. A photovoltaic solar cell plant would require painting black about 58 square miles, plus land for storage and retrieval to equal a 1,000-megawatt electric nuclear plant, a more environmentally friendly choice, Ausubel wrote.

However, new land doesn’t have to be put into use just for a solar plant. Some scientists say already existing infrastructures could be doubled up for use to cover such an area.

“We could do with just rooftops of buildings and homes, land area we’ve already covered,” Turner said. “We could meet 25 percent of our annual electrical demand by just putting solar panels on already existing rooftops of homes and businesses.”

“Similarly, wind farms use up a lot of land area but they only really take up 5 percent of the land they cover,” he explained. “The rest of it can be used for farming so it doesn’t really impact the land area that much.”

Going nuclear

Ausubel thinks that a better alternative to renewable energy resources would be nuclear power, which would leave behind far less waste than other alternatives

“There are three legs to the stool of environmentally sound energy policy—one is improved efficiency, second is increased reliance on natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration and the third is nuclear power,” he explained.

“Nuclear power has the proliferation issues, which are serious but the environmental issues are small. With nuclear energy the issue is to contain radioactivity, which has been successfully done.”

Turner agrees that nuclear power leaves a smaller carbon footprint, but he thinks that the waste issue associated with this technology is very serious.

“It’s unconscionable to dismiss the issue of nuclear waste," Turner said, “because you have to store that waste for hundreds of thousands of years and nuclear wastes are particularly damaging to the environment and have social impacts also.”

Similarly, Gregory A. Keoleian, co-Director for the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, thinks more in-depth analyses are needed before dismissing renewables and considering nuclear power as a viable option.

“I think the characterizations made that ‘renewables are not green’ and ‘nuclear is green’ sound provocative, but they do not accurately represent these technologies with respect to a comprehensive set of sustainability criteria and analysis,” Keoleian told LiveScience. “The treatment of renewable technologies [in this study] is shallow and the coverage of the nuclear fuel cycle is incomplete."

To capture the entire scope of issues and capabilities for all the different resources, scientists believe there need to be more studies and discussions.

“We have a finite amount of time, a finite amount of money and a finite amount of energy, and we need to be very careful about the choices we make as we build this new energy infrastructure,” Turner said. “I’d like to see something that will last for millennia and certainly solar, wind and biomass will last as long as the sun shines. “

Top 10 Emerging Environmental Technologies Power of the Future: 10 Ways to Run the 21st Century Quiz: What's Your Environmental Footprint?

Original Story: Study: Renewable Energy Not Green

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Famous Economists Ranked by Google Trends

At the NBER Summer Institute today, one researcher presented a nice figure using Google Trends to highlight mentions of the hybrid vehicle tax credit. Looking at this interesting time series graph, I wondered what funny insights this "google trends" tool could provide for trends in fame among economics. Below, I search for Paul Krugman, Jeffrey Sachs and Freakonomics.

The Red Line = Freakonomics
The Blue Line = Paul Krugman
The Mustard Line = Jeffrey Sachs

I must admit that I don't know what are the units on the vertical axis (I'm guessing it represents web searches) but still this is mildly interesting.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Boston's Charles River is Swimmable Again!

A Forbes editor was kind enough to tell me that it's "old news" that the greeness of older U.S center cities such as Boston, New York and Chicago is on the rise after decades of offering an environmental gross out. My point didn't merit publication in their "On My Mind" section. Maybe I should have suggested that they consider it for their "Out of their Mind" section? While my writing may stink, I take some consolation that the New York Times recognizes that this general point is newsworthy (see below).

I am now in Boston cleaning out my old house. It looks good and I am flashing back thinking through all of the good times we had here. We have found some very funny old pieces of our past. For example, I found a letter that my mother in-law wrote us the day before we married (ten years ago) outlining her recipe for having a happy marriage.

Tomorrow, I will attend the first day of the NBER Summer Institute meetings on environmental economics. Some of the papers actually look interesting and then I have to make a 10 min. discussion comment on a new paper investigation economic growth in regions and clusters as a function of agglomeration and convergence effects.

New York Times
July 22, 2007
A Boston River Now (Mostly) Fit for Swimming

BOSTON, July 21 — There were a few things swimmers needed to know before slipping into the Charles River for the big race on Saturday.

No diving start to this race, lest that stir up the toxic sediment at the bottom of the river.

Do not expect to see the river bottom. The water is too murky.

Be prepared to encounter bits of flotsam and jetsam.

And, as Ulla Hester, director of the first official Charles River Swim Race, announced shortly before the event: Because the water is dotted with a kind of bacterium known as blue-green algae, “there is a possibility of skin irritation.”

Ms. Hester assured swimmers there would be “showers to wash off” afterward.

After all, the Charles River, the brownish, brackish body of water between Boston and Cambridge, has been officially off-limits to swimmers for more than 50 years.

Small wonder, after a couple of centuries of being a de facto sewage dump and a cesspool for slaughterhouses, mills and other factories.

“The river was always a very dirty river, since the Industrial Revolution,” said Ben Martens, whose title of “Swimmable Charles Coordinator” for the Charles River Conservancy, a nonprofit organization, “gets a lot of laughs from my friends,” he said.

Beaches and floating bathhouses that were popular on the river in the early 1900s, especially with poor immigrant families who could not afford running water, were closed around 1955 when officials realized how polluted the water was.

And in 1995, when federal officials started grading the river’s cleanliness, the Charles was given a D.

But after a multimillion-dollar cleanup, officials pronounced the river — whose most recent grade was a B-plus — fit to swim most of the time.

Not that it is yet legal to do so. The polluted sediment has so far made it impossible to create a swimming beach.

But when two avid swimmers, Ms. Hester and Frans Lawaetz, asked for permission to organize a swim race, officials eventually agreed.

“I think it’s like the canary in the coal mine,” said Karl Haglund, a project manager for the Department of Conservation and Recreation. “If we can get the river clean enough to swim in then we know we’ve made significant progress.”

The swim was originally scheduled in September, but bacteria canceled it.

“I grew up a block from the river in Cambridge, and as a kid we always wanted to swim in it,” said Rick Ackerman, 59, of Portland, Me., the oldest swimmer on Saturday. “I built a raft once and sank in the water. It felt dirty and gritty and the rocks were slimy. This, today, it’s a leap of faith.”

Kiko Bracker, 38, a Boston veterinarian, fashioned a shark’s fin from foam insulation, a sign of his enthusiasm that “the Charles is looking better,” he said. “It’s not catching on fire this year.”

The swimmers warmed up to sun-themed songs — “Walking on Sunshine,” “Here Comes the Sun.” Not included in the soundtrack was the song “Dirty Water,” a 1960s hit by the Standells, that was written about the “River Charles” and is played at Red Sox games as a victory anthem.

All told, 69 experienced swimmers showed up Saturday for the mile-long race near the Longfellow Bridge.

“A lot of my friends thought I was crazy for doing this,” said Katie O’Dair, 40, an associate dean at Boston College. “But I feel confident that the water is clean. I hope it’s the first of many swims here.”

Mike Welsch, 48, whose back is tattooed with phrases and icons of the city — the Citgo sign near Fenway Park, the Boston Lighthouse, the Boston Marathon — said swimming the race “proves I’m a true Bostonian. I’ll tell you, I’ve swum races in the Hudson, the East River and the Harlem River, and this is just as clean as them.”

And Sebastian Neumayer, 24, who won the race with a time of 21 minutes and 37 seconds, pronounced the mid-70-degree water just fine.

“I didn’t see any mattresses,” he said, “so it’s all good.”

Monday, July 16, 2007

Is Public Transit Dangerous?

Paris is providing 10,000 bikes to help ease traffic congestion. Are you optimistic that this "treatment" will work? Will it scale up if the government then provides 1 million bikes? I'd like to know how many nasty, cold rainy days does Paris typically experience?

This German case study sketches another problem that sometimes arises on public transit. Now, when I lived in Boston and commuted by the #96 bus and the #73 bus --- this never happened.

"Too sexy for my bus," woman told

Mon Jul 16, 8:14 AM ET

A German bus driver threatened to throw a 20-year-old sales clerk off his bus in the southern town of Lindau because he said she was too sexy, a newspaper reported Monday.

"Suddenly he stopped the bus," the woman named Debora C. told Bild newspaper. "He opened the door and shouted at me 'Your cleavage is distracting me every time I look into my mirror and I can't concentrate on the traffic. If you don't sit somewhere else, I'm going to have to throw you off the bus.'"

The woman, pictured in Bild wearing her snug-fitting summer clothes with the plunging neckline, said she moved to another seat but was humiliated by the bus driver.

A spokesman for the bus company defended the driver.

"The bus driver is allowed to do that and he did the right thing," the spokesman said. "A bus driver cannot be distracted because it's a danger to the safety of all the passengers."

A Return Trip to Boston

Tomorrow, my wife and I fly back to Boston for the first time in 8 months. We will be cleaning up our house to prepare to move out of it and attending some NBER Summer Institute conferences. I will not be blogging for the next 10 days. Since this activity is not addictive, I'm not worried about going "cold turkey".

Do I miss the humid Boston summer? I will soon find out. We never did bother to get central air conditioning built into our home because we were never in Boston in the summers.

I will miss all of the economics conferences that go on in Boston. Many academic economists went to school at Harvard or MIT and you can tell that returning to Cambridge gives them a special thrill. Being at Tufts and working at the NBER, it was easy to walk 45 feet and say hello to these folks as they cycled through town. While Los Angeles has many advantages, its location (relative to other U.S cities) is not really conducive to conferencing on the east coast.

People on the east coast will be seeing less of me but at least they'll have this blog!

I am slightly curious about going through all of our old files we have accumulated over the last 6 years. We will be working the shredder disposing of large amounts of our past life.

We liked living in Belmont, MA and our son was happy there. On my own, I would switch jobs and Universities every 5 years just to meet new people and to see new things. I'm a big believer in diminishing returns! My wife disagrees with me because she knows that moves = transaction costs and I tend to forget about the transition costs.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Does the New Hybrid Lexus drive like a Porsche and sip fuel like a Prius?

What share of consumers really think about the "global consequences" of their purchases? Do consumers want to feel a "warm glow" about doing the right thing regardless of the true impacts caused by the product they choose?

The New York Times offers a review of the new Lexus. Ulrich does not seem to be convinced that this is a "green car". He points out that this hybrid Lexus has a worse fuel economy rating than many conventional Mercedes. Will consumers notice? What is the "hybrid" label worth?

July 15, 2007
Behind the Wheel | 2008 Lexus LS 600h L
Conspicuous Consumption With Green Illusions

IN “North Dallas Forty,” the shaggy 1979 gridiron film starring Nick Nolte, a lineman played by John Matuszak ranted memorably to a coach about the hypocrisy of pro football: “Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game.”

Toyota and Lexus would disagree, but their recent hybrid models, including the Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX 400h utility wagons, the Lexus GS 450h sedan and now the Lexus LS 600h L, similarly seem to be trying to have it both ways.

In recent advertisements, including one in the “green issue” of Vanity Fair, Lexus uses one hand to present the 400-plus horsepower of the LS 600h L and the other to pat its own back for saving fuel and planet alike.

The ads and the cars have convinced many, including some credulous journalists, of Lexus’s pitch: that a hybrid car or S.U.V. can drive like a Porsche and sip fuel like a Prius. But a closer examination proves once again that there’s no free lunch, even at the drive-through.

For more than a year, Lexus has suggested that the LS 600h L — as tested, a $121,000 hybrid version of its LS 460 L flagship sedan — would set a new standard for four-door luxury automobiles. Its pitch was that the car would perform like a V-12 supersedan while whipping V-8 rivals on fuel economy. Instead, the hybrid may have set a new standard for automotive hyperbole.

Behind its green Teflon shield, the Lexus proved to be just another overstuffed sedan that can barely top 20 miles a gallon — less, if you actually tap into all that power. If that’s saving the planet, Jor-El had better prepare the escape pod before it’s too late.

Before the enviro-brigade readies the guillotine, I hasten to add that this isn’t about hating hybrids. Electric propulsion is looking more and more like a winning technology. Companies from Toyota to General Motors are working to develop affordable lithium-ion batteries, which could deliver clean, efficient, renewable power in plug-in hybrids or purely electric vehicles.

I can’t believe that adding a cupful of electric juice to a fat barrel of V-8 muscle is what environmentalists have in mind.

On the performance front, forget about the Lexus hanging with V-12 sedans like the Mercedes S600. Turns out that the Lexus can’t even outrun its own nonhybrid version, the LS 460 L. Nor is it appreciably quicker than V-8 competitors that cost $20,000 to $30,000 less, like the Mercedes S550, the Audi A8 and the BMW 7 Series, or the similarly priced Maserati Quattroporte.

It must be noted that such decadent sedans are about more than straight-line speed. Park those high-wattage rivals beside the Lexus, and the modestly styled LS virtually disappears; challenge them on a twisty road and they all disappear from the Lexus by virtue of their sportier handling.

Spurred from a stop to 60 miles an hour, the LS 600h L clocks a swift 5.5 seconds, according to Lexus’s own testing. Yet the gas-only LS 460 L, with a mere 380 horsepower from a smaller V-8, reaches 60 in 5.4 seconds, nosing out the more powerful hybrid.

How is that possible? Check the scales, where the Lexus hybrid weighs in like Jared before his Subway diet.

The hybrid does add all-wheel drive, not available on the LS 460 L. But together, the heavy batteries and all-wheel-drive system burden the hybrid with more than 700 additional pounds, for a total of 5,049. Forced to motivate the added weight, the hybrid’s larger 5-liter V-8 — another environmental oxymoron — and dual electric motors makes acceleration a wash. (One motor drives the four wheels. The other starts the gas engine and recharges the batteries.)

Excess weight takes its toll on mileage as well. The hybrid got 21 m.p.g. — amazingly, 1 m.p.g. less than the nonhybrid version that I tested on the same urban roads and highways in and around New York City. That perfectly wonderful LS 460 L is blessed with one of the most fuel-efficient V-8s I’ve driven, a 4.6-liter smoothie.

But the Lexus hybrid’s biggest jolt comes from sticker shock: the LS 600h L starts at $104,715, about $32,000 above the LS 460 L. Laden with options for $121,000, the hybrid costs about $30,000 more than the comparable gas-only version.

Driven gently, the Lexus will indeed beat the mileage of its apples-to-apples V-8 rivals, but only by 1 m.p.g. to 3 m.p.g. A Mercedes S550 isn’t an egregious guzzler at an E.P.A.-rated 16/24 m.p.g., and I managed 19 m.p.g. during a recent test. And when I drove the Lexus in mildly spirited fashion, its mileage dropped to 19 m.p.g. It’s hard to see why such minuscule mileage gains would dazzle the type of person who’s ready to drop $100,000 on a car.

The E.P.A. rates the hybrid’s mileage at 20 m.p.g. in town and 22 on the highway. The nonhybrid is rated 16/24 under the same revised formula, which takes effect for 2008 and is intended to present lower, more realistic mileage estimates for most cars.

In its defense, the hybrid should save you a few bucks if you do a lot of city driving. But on the highway, the gas-only model was decidedly more efficient, and thus ended up doing 1 m.p.g. better over all. And in bumper-to-bumper traffic, where you expect a hybrid to excel, the LS 600h L mustered only 14 m.p.g., certainly nothing to marvel at.

The uneasy comparisons don’t end there. The gas-only version handled better and drove more smoothly.

The nonhybrid benefits from the world’s first eight-speed automatic transmission, which lifts mileage and operates with hushed aplomb. The hybrid’s continuously variable transmission, in contrast, has to busily calculate and divvy power from the gas and electric sources. It’s among the most seamless of its kind, but not as smooth or transparent as the Lexus eight-speed. And its manual-shift function is nearly useless. In trying to mimic the feel of sporty downshifts, it ladles on ever-higher levels of regenerative hybrid braking. To the driver, the sludgy effect feels like throwing anchors of various sizes out the window.

Lexus’s hybrid double-talk extends to emissions arguments. When the company says the Lexus hybrid is cleaner than average cars, people will assume that has something to do with global warming. But in this instance, that is not the case.

To its credit, the car’s super-ultra-low emissions vehicle rating (SULEV, if you will) is indeed cleaner than other V-8 models, but only if you are measuring the pollutants that form smog. (Even on the smog index, many gasoline models also achieve SULEV ratings or better).

But the critical earth issue today is conserving fuel and cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Those greenhouse gas levels are almost entirely a function of fuel economy: if you use more gas, you spew more carbon dioxide. So on that score, the 21 m.p.g. hybrid actually emits far more carbon dioxide than, say, a Mercedes-Benz diesel E-Class that can attain 30 m.p.g.

The LS 600h L also emits more greenhouse gases than the average new car that currently achieves 27.5 m.p.g. So a common Toyota Camry, among dozens of models, leaves a smaller carbon footprint than this hybrid land yacht.

One final ignominy: given the hybrid batteries and a separate air-conditioner for the back seat, the hybrid’s trunk measures a meager 11.7 cubic feet, smaller than that of a Kia Rio or other compact sedan. (Skip the rear air-conditioning in a Lexus LS 460 L, and you’ll enjoy a 50 percent larger trunk, at 18 cubic feet).

Jim Farley, general manager of Lexus, defended the car’s performance and green credentials. “If Lexus had to have a flagship, this is how it should be,” he said. “It’s the progressive person’s alternative. Hybrids are a huge platform for us at Lexus, and they’re only going to get bigger.”

Certainly, this hybrid Lexus is one of the quietest, most comfortable, best-built sedans around. It has every imaginable safety system and creature comfort. The navigation system is first-rate. The Mark Levinson audio system is amazing. And the optional ($12,675) Executive Package is the hands-down — or feet-up? — coolest feature. It includes rear seats that recline, heat and cool, along with a right-hand chair with a steeper recline, massage functions and a powered ottoman for the full mini-Maybach effect.

Yet every compliment you can lavish on this impressive ride, minus the all-wheel drive, applies equally to the nonhybrid version.

So why would anyone spend an extra $30,000 for this car? Certainly, the performance gains of 12-cylinder sedans aren’t always justified by their enormous premiums. Many people buy them for that V-12 badge on the fender, the exclusive message it sends. Ditto for the Lexus, but the roughly 2,000 people who’ll line up for the hybrid won’t be broadcasting their superior power, but their superior morals, however illusory.

If that’s not you, stick with the Lexus LS 460 L. Enjoy a back-seat massage and relax. You’ll know that you’ve got the better car — one that’s equally fast and frugal, but also weighs less and handles better.

You can actually park that terrific gas-only Lexus in the garage and have $30,000 to buy a Prius hybrid, with cash left over. Save the LS for special occasions and run errands in the Toyota at more than double the mileage. While Lexus plays the hybrid game, it’s the Prius that takes care of business.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Drought in the American West

Since moving to Los Angeles in January 2007, I haven't seen much rain. My UCLA colleague Glen MacDonald has written a nice piece for the Los Angeles Times sketching whether this is a blip or a preview of the future under climate change.

His piece raises an interesting piece of social science. If water planners observe the recent trends and predict that the drought will continue, how does this affect California water policy? Will investments in "reclaimed" water increase? Will water prices rise to send signals to consumers and golfers and lawn lovers? Will strawberry farmers be encouraged to sell some of their water to urbanites who need a shower?

Does "crisis" encourage efficiency? or will prices remain at "artificial" levels creating a shortage and a crisis as supply shifts in and demand shifts out with ongoing population and income growth?

So my deep "rational expectations" question is whether anticipation of an upcoming drought and water crisis leads to smooth actions to be taken today such that the "crisis" doesn't take place because consumers facing higher prices substitute and in aggregate this reduces demand per-capita?

Hot and dry -- for decades
A La Niña on steroids: It happened before, it could be happening again.
By Glen M. MacDonald, GLEN M. MACDONALD is a professor of geography and ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA.
July 13, 2007

IF YOU LIKE IT hot and dry and live in Southern California, you could be in luck. Our combination of an arid winter, scorching summer and host of wildfires may not be a short-term aberration. Consider the possibility of decades of dry, hot weather, stretching from Southern California to the headwaters of the Sacramento and Colorado river systems — the lifelines that allow us to flourish in our arid to semi-arid landscape. That is the nature of a "perfect drought," and new research regarding a past episode of climate warming tells us we could be on the brink of a new one.

Historical climate records show that such prolonged droughts can and do occur. The last one began in the late 1980s and ended in the early 1990s. California dried at the same time that the flow of the Colorado River declined by almost 40%. Oceanic and atmospheric measurements tell us that this blast of hyper-aridity was associated with depressed temperatures in the eastern Pacific, sort of a persistent La Niña condition. In 1992, the rain and snow returned. However, during 1990 and 1991 alone, the drought cost California an estimated $2 billion in agriculture losses, increased energy costs and damage to the environment. What if that drought had spanned decades?

Two interlinked phenomena are looming that could provide the ingredients needed to produce droughts lasting decades. A recent study led by Rich Seager of Columbia University examined the results of 19 climate models and found one very consistent and alarming result: Warmer temperatures are producing increased uplift of air masses in the tropics. As the air rises, it cools, the water vapor condenses and produces more tropical precipitation. Eventually, though, that air descends, warms and becomes drier.

This is bad news for those places where the air descends. Unfortunately, Southern California and the Southwest are such places. Seager and his colleagues have concluded that we are experiencing the "imminent transition to a more arid climate in Southwestern North America."

There is more bad news. A number of recent studies allow us to look at what happened during the last major episode of natural global warming. During the medieval period between about 800 AD and 1350 AD, there was a slight increase in solar radiation coupled with a decrease in volcanic activity. The result was widespread warming. Recent research by Connie Millar of the U.S. Forest Service suggests that annual temperatures in the Sierra may have increased by almost 6 degrees Fahrenheit during this time. Meanwhile, a warming climate in the tropical Pacific led to higher temperatures in the western Pacific and cooling in the eastern Pacific.

Think of this as La Niña on steroids, unusually strong and capable of persisting for decades to centuries. Western North America got a double whammy from the atmosphere and oceans and experienced widespread drought, decreased flows from the Sacramento River, the Colorado River and the Saskatchewan River in Canada, falling lake levels and increased fire activity.

Sound familiar? It gets worse. New independent research from the University of Arizona and UCLA indicates that during the 12th century, a particularly severe drought in Southern California was coupled with persistent low flows in the Sacramento and Colorado rivers, and this situation lasted about 60 years.

Could we now be facing another such arid span? Given the climate warming of the past decades and the projected warming over the next century, it is possible that we are already in one. So, even if this current dry spell breaks and we dodge the bullet for a few years, it is beginning to seem unlikely that we will avoid another protracted drought if the climate continues to warm as predicted.

What can be done? According to the recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it seems little can derail the global-warming ride we are on. It would therefore be prudent for local water districts, planning bodies, state officials and federal agencies to systematically consider some prolonged scenarios. Through such efforts, combining input from climate models and studies of past droughts, we can at least come up with a range of potential strategies. For us in California and the Southwest, the most pressing threat from climate warming may well be the next perfect drought.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Market for Lemons Revisited: The Case of the Cardboard Steamed Buns

Sellers sometimes have more information than buyers about product quailty and cost scrimping. Economists continue to debate how important such asymmetries are in insurance markets and used goods markets. Optimists say that potential buyers should anticipate these issues and get a "second opinion" from an arms-length inspector (such as a car mechanic they trust) before investing in a product whose quality is in question.

Recently, the world media has fixated on the quality of Chinese products. This article below details how one muckraking reporter learned the "truth" about what is in a steamed bun in downtown Beijing. How would you use repeated games and folk theorems and the value of reputation to mitigate this problem? Will China need undercover bun eaters hunting for cardboard buns and severely punishing the few "scapegoats" who are caught?

Beijing steamed buns include cardboard

2 hours, 46 minutes ago

Chopped cardboard, softened with an industrial chemical and flavored with fatty pork and powdered seasoning, is a main ingredient in batches of steamed buns sold in one Beijing neighborhood, state television said.

The report, aired late Wednesday on China Central Television, highlights the country's problems with food safety despite government efforts to improve the situation.

Countless small, often illegally run operations exist across China and make money cutting corners by using inexpensive ingredients or unsavory substitutes. They are almost impossible to regulate.

State TV's undercover investigation features the shirtless, shorts-clad maker of the buns, called baozi, explaining the contents of the product sold in Beijing's sprawling Chaoyang district.

Baozi are a common snack in China, with an outer skin made from wheat or rice flour and and a filling of sliced pork. Cooked by steaming in immense bamboo baskets, they are similar to but usually much bigger than the dumplings found on dim sum menus familiar to many Americans.

The hidden camera follows the man, whose face is not shown, into a ramshackle building where steamers are filled with the fluffy white buns, traditionally stuffed with minced pork.

The surroundings are filthy, with water puddles and piles of old furniture and cardboard on the ground.

"What's in the recipe?" the reporter asks. "Six to four," the man says.

"You mean 60 percent cardboard? What is the other 40 percent?" asks the reporter. "Fatty meat," the man replies.

The bun maker and his assistants then give a demonstration on how the product is made.

Squares of cardboard picked from the ground are first soaked to a pulp in a plastic basin of caustic soda — a chemical base commonly used in manufacturing paper and soap — then chopped into tiny morsels with a cleaver. Fatty pork and powdered seasoning are stirred in.

Soon, steaming servings of the buns appear on the screen. The reporter takes a bite.

"This baozi filling is kind of tough. Not much taste," he says. "Can other people taste the difference?"

"Most people can't. It fools the average person," the maker says. "I don't eat them myself."

The police eventually showed up and shut down the operation.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Foreign Real Estate Bidders and Superstar Cities

In Today's New York Times, David Leonhardt picks up on a theme that I've been arguing for a while now. Foreign buyers are bidding up housing prices in Superstar cities ranging from New York, to Vancouver to Los Angeles.

I emailed Ed Glaeser that this group represents a potentially important source of local demand in certain cities. Take a look at his new paper (see
* Housing Dynamics (May 2007) Edward L. Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko and you will see a complex setup but with this omission that the New York Times points out today.

"The upper end of the market has also been helped by an influx of well-off foreign investors whose buying power has grown with the recent decline of the dollar. Hard as this may be for an American to imagine, New York, San Francisco or Miami can now seem like a bargain, compared with London, Moscow or Sydney. Jason Haber, an agent with Prudential Douglas Elliman in Manhattan, said he had recently taught himself how to convert square feet into square meters — you divide by 10.8 — because of all of the international buyers traipsing through New York apartments."

These buyers are unlikely to be interested in suburban housing so it would interest me to see some academic work focused on exchange rates, foreign real estate prices and U.S center city real estate prices in "Superstar Cities".

Friday, July 06, 2007

Beauty Investment in Cities: Part II

Every week is exciting at UCLA. The director of UCLA's Institute of the Environment, Mary Nichols, has been appointed by Gov. Arnold to a key position in implementing the state's AB32 law on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. This is a very important job and the Gov. made a great appointment.

I've been spending part of my summer watching LA real estate prices. While I'm not a time series expert, I see a downward trend. My extrapolations tell me that I will be able to afford a $10 million dollar Beverly Hills house in the year 2040!

I've been begging the Anderson Forecast team to predict a real "house price" correction to help a renting family like mine get a "toehold" on the L.A American Dream!

In more exciting news, I see that the San Francisco Chronicle has beauty in cities on the brain. This dude seems to think its all a "keeping up with the Jonses" rat race. Is he right? Journalists get to have a lot of fun stating hypotheses without offering a formal test.

$4,000 a month just to get poor old body to 'normal'

Mark Morford

Friday, July 6, 2007

Manicure-pedicure when I remember it or when I'm feeling particularly grungy or when I'm with a lovely female friend or after I just had lunch and happen to be right next door to the friendly pedi place and I remember that my toes look like small sausages with overgrown teeth: 40 bucks.

Monthly haircut: 60 bucks. Disposable razor for intimate undercarriage grooming in shower: $1. Small pile of high-end skin lotions and eye creams and hair wax stick and whatnot: about 40 bucks. Daily vigorous yoga practice: free. (I teach the stuff, after all. Call it a perk.)

Occasional tanning sessions from world-famous salon known as random erratic San Francisco sunshine: free. Occasional amazing deep-tissue massages from strong gay masseuse who really works my shoulders and goes way up my thighs into God's country and back down again and is actually strong enough to rearrange my kidneys from the back: 80 bucks.

Total estimated monthly tab for my general bodily upkeep, not including accessories like boots and designer jeans and jewelry and food and sake and scotch and sex toys and books and music and love because that's a different point entirely: about 200 bucks, give or take. And, somehow, I look pretty OK. I think.

Apparently, this is a stupendous bargain. Apparently I should be enormously grateful I am not, say, female, or living in L.A. or New York or Miami, or in the fashion industry or the movie industry or the real estate industry or in PR or marketing or nearly any other professional high-end image-oriented industry, which means I do not have to get completely drunk every single week on the brutal vagaries of, say, InStyle magazine's Get This Look Now! section, nor must I have a dermatologist and a waxer and a personal trainer and a plastic surgeon and a Mexican pimple popper on speed dial. Which seems like a fairly good thing.

In other words, I should be thankful I'm not someone like Ginger Grace, the sweet, 40-year-old blond real estate agent from L.A. who was just profiled in the New York Times (along with a few others) regarding her astonishing and elaborate monthly beauty regimen, her general tuning and maintenance, what it takes for her just to get through the week.

Grace is, evidently, rather typical, just your average aging professional L.A. babe who calculates that she, like tens of thousands of reasonably successful youth-crazed professionals like her coast to coast, spends upward of $3,000 or $4,000 per month for general beauty treatments, "just for the basics."

Nope, not a typo. Three or 4 thousand. Not including clothes. Or food. Or rent. Or recreational drugs. Basics, which apparently include things like a hiking trainer (?) and Botox and semiweekly hair blowouts, pro makeup applications and tanning salons and weekly manicures and thigh tighteners, Zone Diet food deliveries and brow waxes and all manner of peel and tuck and slap and spank. And, indeed, Ginger looks pretty good overall, at least in the picture, which I gotta say for a grand a week you'd damn well better look good or something is deeply amiss.

Which of course, something very much is. I mean, isn't it?

Here's what I find fascinating and somewhat sad about the phenom of women (and increasingly, men) spending larger and larger piles of money -- a great deal more than 4 grand a month, BTW, if you're truly wealthy -- on expensive high-tech spa treatments just to look as if someone could walk up and eat raw sushi off your perfectly spotless, expressionless, wrinkle-free, inhumanly porcelain face: It isn't about sex.

Which is to say, you'd think it would be about sex, at least a little, that most people who spend more than their mortgage payment on grooming and put that much effort into zipping from spa appointment to cuticle scraping to hyperbaric chamber are trying to look, consciously or unconsciously, at least somewhat hot, are trying to really enjoy their bodies and maybe attract a mate, or just get laid, with the added bonus of making others of their sex totally jealous of their overall, you know, staggering hotness.

Yes, you might think that. But you'd be wrong.

The beauty mega-industries have apparently evolved well beyond the trifling ideas of sex appeal and mate hunting and now function in some odd neverland realm where status meets success meets some bizarre idealized exterior sheen, with the ultimate goal, as far as I can tell, of reassuring clients that they will not be quietly mocked. For looking old. Or tired. Or hairy. Or pale. Or untight. Or human. Or happy.

In other words, excessive and silly grooming regimens like Grace's now merely reflect the bare minimum of success, status, normalcy. Her monthly lubes and oils are just the baseline. Hey, everyone does it. Some do it a lot more. You don't actually have to be sexy, or smart or well put together or healthy, attuned, desirous, spiritual, likable. You just have to look as if you are. It's like some bizarre cocktail of alcoholism and Prozac and Zoloft and a hit of Adderall and maybe a few whippets; you gotta have a big fistful of it all when you get out of bed just to get to normal.

Clearly, the drive for beauty and youth is a topic both wildly complicated and culturally warped. Still, you could argue, as I like to do, that it's all about balance, about lightness, that it is absolutely possible to remain true to some sort of healthy spiritual path, full of divine integrity and sex and humor and intelligence and lust for life, and yet still happily enjoy a good pair of True Religions and a pedicure and a couple of massages a month along with a steam and an eyebrow wax and a tight Brazilian. I'm all for it.

But something appears to be getting lost in this new, weirdly overblown mutation. Maybe it's just another example of that fantastic inverse relationship our popular culture is adept at perpetuating: The more we spend on externals, the more we scrape and inject and try to enhance every body part, the further away we get from, you know, true attractiveness.

From the Self. From the heart. From deep beauty. From understanding what it really feels like to be in your own skin, which becomes rather impossible when that skin is so plucked and torqued and tanned it might as well be a shiny synthetic pork casing for an old hot dog.

It's a simple enough equation: The more superfluous work you do on the outside, the less you intuitively think you need to do on the inside, on the personality and the touch and the feel (which, by the way, explains the absolute sexual deadness of most fashion models -- which, if you've never had the displeasure, is much like having sex with a wall).

The great truism remains: By far the sexiest and most desirable (and yes, also the most successful, at least spiritually and emotionally) people I know actually do very little beauty work overall to get that way. They know the mix. They intuit the right balance. They seem to understand the biggest secret of all: Sure, enjoy the potions and regimens and silly luxurious exterior fluff. Just don't actually live there.

Mark Morford's column appears Wednesdays and Fridays in Datebook and on E-mail him at

This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Monday, July 02, 2007

The New York Times Stages a One Sided Debate on Roland Fryer's Incentive Program

In today's New York Times, Prof. Barry Schwartz writes an editorial about the "crowd out" effects of incentive pay. He cites some evidence that paying people for effort and for doing "good deeds" can have the unintended consequence of reducing effort and thus on net can backfire.

His "hard" evidence consists of examples from children in classrooms and Swedes surveyed about siting nuclear waste dumps. Are either relevant for Roland Fryer's setting of getting inner city public school kids to worker harder in school? Is there any "external validity" to the Schwartz examples?

That Schwartz believes that his "evidence" is serious evidence for ex-ante judging Fryer's program reveals something deep about the difference between psychologists and economists.

Why didn't the New York Times give Roland Fryer equal space to respond? I would guess that he would say that;

1. The current system isn't working
2. his incentive program will not be too expensive
3. given its possible positive consequences, it is worth trying --- at minimum it will give some kids some cash they wouldn't have gotten and it will give researchers some new data to test hypotheses concerning the possible treatment effects

I do think that the Fryer incentive program will increase student test score inequality. If I'm a low ability kid, even if I study 20 hours a day would I be able to reach the "bonus" scores so that I get some $? If I see my more talented motivated peers earning $, will I get jealous and perhaps violent? Will this lead to more violence in the schools due to jealousy?

Ideally Fryer would want to offer different kids different incentive hurdles but this would raise issues of how the baseline is set.

New York Times
July 2, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor
Money for Nothing


NEW YORK CITY has decided to offer cash rewards to some students based on their attendance records and exam performance. Diligent, high-achieving seventh graders will be able to earn up to $500 in a year. The plan is the brainchild of Roland G. Fryer, an economist who has been appointed as “chief equality officer” of the city’s Department of Education.

The assumption that underlies the project is simple: people respond to incentives. If you want people to do something, you have to make it worth their while. This assumption drives virtually all of economic theory.

Sure, there are already many rewards in learning: gaining understanding (of yourself and others), having mysterious or unfamiliar aspects of the world opened up to you, demonstrating mastery, satisfying curiosity, inhabiting imaginary worlds created by others, and so on. Learning is also the route to more prosaic rewards, like getting into good colleges and getting good jobs. But these rewards are not doing the job. If they were, children would be doing better in school.

The logic of the plan reveals a second assumption that economists make: the more motives the better. Give people two reasons to do something, the thinking goes, and they will be more likely to do it, and they’ll do it better, than if they have only one. Providing some cash won’t disturb the other rewards of learning, rewards that are intrinsic to the process itself. They will only provide a little boost. Mr. Fryer’s reward scheme is intended to add incentives to the ones that already exist.

Unfortunately, these assumptions that economists make about human motivation, though intuitive and straightforward, are false. In particular, the idea that adding motives always helps is false. There are circumstances in which adding an incentive competes with other motives and diminishes their impact. Psychologists have known this for more than 30 years.

In one experiment, nursery school children were given the opportunity to draw with special markers. After playing, some of the children were given “good player” awards and others were not. Some time later, the markers were reintroduced to the classroom. The researchers kept track of which children used the markers, and they collected the pictures that had been drawn. The youngsters given awards were less likely to draw at all, and drew worse pictures, than those who were not given the awards.

Why did this happen? Children draw because drawing is fun and because it leads to a result: a picture. The rewards of drawing are intrinsic to the activity itself. The “good player” award gives children another reason to draw: to earn a reward. And it matters — children want recognition. But the recognition undermines the fun, so that later, in the absence of a chance to earn an award, the children aren’t interested in drawing.

Similar results have been obtained with adults. When you pay them for doing things they like, they come to like these activities less and will no longer participate in them without a financial incentive. The intrinsic satisfaction of the activities gets “crowded out” by the extrinsic payoff.

An especially striking example of this was reported in a study of Swiss citizens about a decade ago. Switzerland was holding a referendum about where to put nuclear waste dumps. Researchers went door-to-door in two Swiss cantons and asked people if they would accept a dump in their communities. Though people thought such dumps might be dangerous and might decrease property values, 50 percent of those who were asked said they would accept one. People felt responsibility as Swiss citizens. The dumps had to go somewhere, after all.

But when people were asked if they would accept a nuclear waste dump if they were paid a substantial sum each year (equal to about six weeks’ pay for the average worker), a remarkable thing happened. Now, with two reasons to say yes, only about 25 percent of respondents agreed. The offer of cash undermined the motive to be a good citizen.

It is as if, when asked the question, people asked themselves whether they should respond based on considerations of self-interest or considerations of public responsibility. Half of the people in the uncompensated condition of the study thought they should focus on their responsibilities. But the offer of money, in effect, told people that they should consider only their self-interest. And as it turned out, through the lens of self-interest, even six weeks’ pay wasn’t enough.

Obviously, the intrinsic rewards of learning aren’t working in New York’s schools, at least not for a lot of children. It may be that the current state of achievement is low enough that desperate measures are called for, and it’s worth trying anything. And we don’t know whether in this case, motives will complement or compete.

But it is plausible that when students get paid to go to class and show up for tests, they will be even less interested in the work than they would be if no incentives were present. If that happens, the incentive system will make the learning problem worse in the long run, even if it improves achievement in the short run — unless we’re prepared to follow these children through life, giving them a pat on the head, or an M&M or a check every time they learn something new.

Perhaps worse, the plan will distract us from investigating a more pertinent set of questions: why don’t children get intrinsic satisfaction from learning in school, and how can this failing of education be fixed? Virtually all kindergartners are eager to learn. But by fourth grade, many students need to be bribed. What makes our schools so dystopian that they produce this powerful transformation, almost overnight?

Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, is the author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.”

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Green Consumers and the Race Between Quantity and Quality of Consumption

Who has a small ecological footprint? A poor person does because they can't afford much. If a rich person buys a lot of stuff but each of these purchases are "green", does this add up to a large footprint? The New York Times takes up this issue today.
Environmental economists have been thinking about this issue for a long time.

Hilton and Levinson in 1998 published a paper in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management where they looked at national total emissions of lead as a function of national income. Lead emissions mainly come from gasoline consumption. Permit me to introduce some algebra.

Define E= nation's total lead emissions
G = total gallons of gasoline consumed
e = a nation's lead emissions per gallon of gasoline consumed

Given this notation: E = e*G

For example, if a nation consumes 100 total gallons of gasoline (so G=100) and each gallon of gas produces 2 units of lead emissions (so e=2), then total emissions= 200.

The interesting part of the Hilton and Levinson paper was for 48 nations they demonstrated the "battle" between capitalism's impact on both the quantity of consumption (G) and the quality of consumption (e).

They showed that richer nations do consume more gasoline (G) so this should increase a nation's lead emissions as it gets richer;

BUT, they also show that "e" declines so sharply as a nation gets richer that total Emissions follow an "inverted" U shape (The environmental kuznets curve) with a turning point at roughly $11,000 per-capita.

What is my point? Richer nations greened their consumption by passing anti-lead emissions regulation and this quality effect offset the quantity effect that richer nations consume more gasoline. So using lead emissions as the measure of "sustainability" --- middle income nations were less sustainable than poor nations AND rich nations!

This example highlights that in aggregate, quality upgrades can help to offset the quantity of consumption --- is this a special example? The UCLA Institute of the Environment is working on this issue. Clearly, the New York Times thinks that it is an important question!

Sunday New York Times Style Section
July 1, 2007
Buying Into the Green Movement

HERE’S one popular vision for saving the planet: Roll out from under the sumptuous hemp-fiber sheets on your bed in the morning and pull on a pair of $245 organic cotton Levi’s and an Armani biodegradable knit shirt.

Stroll from the bedroom in your eco-McMansion, with its photovoltaic solar panels, into the kitchen remodeled with reclaimed lumber. Enter the three-car garage lighted by energy-sipping fluorescent bulbs and slip behind the wheel of your $104,000 Lexus hybrid.

Drive to the airport, where you settle in for an 8,000-mile flight— careful to buy carbon offsets beforehand — and spend a week driving golf balls made from compacted fish food at an eco-resort in the Maldives.

That vision of an eco-sensitive life as a series of choices about what to buy appeals to millions of consumers and arguably defines the current environmental movement as equal parts concern for the earth and for making a stylish statement.

Some 35 million Americans regularly buy products that claim to be earth-friendly, according to one report, everything from organic beeswax lipstick from the west Zambian rain forest to Toyota Priuses. With baby steps, more and more shoppers browse among the 60,000 products available under Home Depot’s new Eco Options program.

Such choices are rendered fashionable as celebrities worried about global warming appear on the cover of Vanity Fair’s “green issue,” and pop stars like Kelly Clarkson and Lenny Kravitz prepare to be headline acts on July 7 at the Live Earth concerts at sites around the world.

Consumers have embraced living green, and for the most part the mainstream green movement has embraced green consumerism. But even at this moment of high visibility and impact for environmental activists, a splinter wing of the movement has begun to critique what it sometimes calls “light greens.”

Critics question the notion that we can avert global warming by buying so-called earth-friendly products, from clothing and cars to homes and vacations, when the cumulative effect of our consumption remains enormous and hazardous.

“There is a very common mind-set right now which holds that all that we’re going to need to do to avert the large-scale planetary catastrophes upon us is make slightly different shopping decisions,” said Alex Steffen, the executive editor of, a Web site devoted to sustainability issues.

The genuine solution, he and other critics say, is to significantly reduce one’s consumption of goods and resources. It’s not enough to build a vacation home of recycled lumber; the real way to reduce one’s carbon footprint is to only own one home.

Buying a hybrid car won’t help if it’s the aforementioned Lexus, the luxury LS 600h L model, which gets 22 miles to the gallon on the highway; the Toyota Yaris ($11,000) gets 40 highway miles a gallon with a standard gasoline engine.

It’s as though the millions of people whom environmentalists have successfully prodded to be concerned about climate change are experiencing a SnackWell’s moment: confronted with a box of fat-free devil’s food chocolate cookies, which seem deliciously guilt-free, they consume the entire box, avoiding any fats but loading up on calories.

The issue of green shopping is highlighting a division in the environmental movement: “the old-school environmentalism of self-abnegation versus this camp of buying your way into heaven,” said Chip Giller, the founder of, an online environmental blog that claims a monthly readership of 800,000. “Over even the last couple of months, there is more concern growing within the traditional camp about the Cosmo-izing of the green movement — ‘55 great ways to look eco-sexy,’ ” he said. “Among traditional greens, there is concern that too much of the population thinks there’s an easy way out.”

The criticisms have appeared quietly in some environmental publications and on the Web.

GEORGE BLACK, an editor and a columnist at OnEarth, a quarterly journal of the Natural Resources Defense Council, recently summed up the explosion of high-style green consumer items and articles of the sort that proclaim “green is the new black,” that is, a fashion trend, as “eco-narcissism.”

Paul Hawken, an author and longtime environmental activist, said the current boom in earth-friendly products offers a false promise. “Green consumerism is an oxymoronic phrase,” he said. He blamed the news media and marketers for turning environmentalism into fashion and distracting from serious issues.

“We turn toward the consumption part because that’s where the money is,” Mr. Hawken said. “We tend not to look at the ‘less’ part. So you get these anomalies like 10,000-foot ‘green’ homes being built by a hedge fund manager in Aspen. Or ‘green’ fashion shows. Fashion is the deliberate inculcation of obsolescence.”

He added: “The fruit at Whole Foods in winter, flown in from Chile on a 747 — it’s a complete joke. The idea that we should have raspberries in January, it doesn’t matter if they’re organic. It’s diabolically stupid.”

Environmentalists say some products marketed as green may pump more carbon into the atmosphere than choosing something more modest, or simply nothing at all. Along those lines, a company called PlayEngine sells a 19-inch widescreen L.C.D. set whose “sustainable bamboo” case is represented as an earth-friendly alternative to plastic.

But it may be better to keep your old cathode-tube set instead, according to “The Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook,” because older sets use less power than plasma or L.C.D. screens. (Televisions account for about 4 percent of energy consumption in the United States, the handbook says.)

“The assumption that by buying anything, whether green or not, we’re solving the problem is a misperception,” said Michael Ableman, an environmental author and long-time organic farmer. “Consuming is a significant part of the problem to begin with. Maybe the solution is instead of buying five pairs of organic cotton jeans, buy one pair of regular jeans instead.”

For the most part, the critiques of green consumption have come from individual activists, not from mainstream environmental groups like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network. The latest issue of Sierra, the magazine of the Sierra Club, has articles hailing an “ecofriendly mall” featuring sustainable clothing (under development in Chicago) and credit cards that rack up carbon offsets for every purchase, as well as sustainably-harvested caviar and the celebrity-friendly Tango electric sports car (a top-of-the-line model is $108,000).

One reason mainstream groups may be wary of criticizing Americans’ consumption is that before the latest era of green chic, these large organizations endured years in which their warnings about climate change were scarcely heard.

Much of the public had turned away from the Carter-era environmental message of sacrifice, which included turning down the thermostat, driving smaller cars and carrying a cloth “Save-a-Tree” tote to the supermarket.

Now that environmentalism is high profile, thanks in part to the success of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the 2006 documentary featuring Al Gore, mainstream greens, for the most part, say that buying products promoted as eco-friendly is a good first step.

“After you buy the compact fluorescent bulbs,” said Michael Brune, the executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, “you can move on to greater goals like banding together politically to shut down coal-fired power plants.”

John Passacantando, the executive director of Greenpeace USA, argued that green consumerism has been a way for Wal-Mart shoppers to get over the old stereotypes of environmentalists as “tree-hugging hippies” and contribute in their own way.

This is crucial, he said, given the widespread nature of the global warming challenge. “You need Wal-Mart and Joe Six-Pack and mayors and taxi drivers," he said. “You need participation on a wide front.”

It is not just ecology activists with one foot in the 1970s, though, who have taken issue with the consumerist personality of the “light green” movement. Anti-consumerist fervor burns hotly among some activists who came of age under the influence of noisy, disruptive anti-globalization protests.

Last year, a San Francisco group called the Compact made headlines with a vow to live the entire year without buying anything but bare essentials like medicine and food. A year in, the original 10 “mostly” made it, said Rachel Kesel, 26, a founder. The movement claims some 8,300 adherents throughout the country and in places as distant as Singapore and Iceland.

“The more that I’m engaged in this, the more annoyed I get with things like ‘shop against climate change’ and these kind of attitudes,” said Ms. Kesel, who continues her shopping strike and counts a new pair of running shoes — she’s a dog-walker by trade — as among her limited purchases in 18 months.

“It’s hysterical,” she said. “You’re telling people to consume more in order to reduce impact.”

For some, the very debate over how much difference they should try to make in their own lives is a distraction. They despair of individual consumers being responsible for saving the earth from climate change and want to see action from political leaders around the world.

INDIVIDUAL consumers may choose more fuel-efficient cars, but a far greater effect may be felt when fuel-efficiency standards are raised for all of the industry , as the Senate voted to do on June 21, the first significant rise in mileage standards in more than two decades.

“A legitimate beef that people have with green consumerism is, at end of the day, the things causing climate change are more caused by politics and the economy than individual behavior,” said Michel Gelobter, a former professor of environmental policy at Rutgers who is now president of Redefining Progress, a nonprofit policy group that promotes sustainable living.

“A lot of what we need to do doesn’t have to do with what you put in your shopping basket,” he said. “It has to do with mass transit, housing density. It has to do with the war and subsidies for the coal and fossil fuel industry.”

In fact, those light-green environmentalists who chose not to lecture about sacrifice and promote the trendiness of eco-sensitive products may be on to something.

Michael Shellenberger, a partner at American Environics, a market research firm in Oakland, Calif., said that his company ran a series of focus groups in April for the environmental group Earthjustice, and was surprised by the results.

People considered their trip down the Eco Options aisles at Home Depot a beginning, not an end point.

“We didn’t find that people felt that their consumption gave them a pass, so to speak,” Mr. Shellenberger said. “They knew what they were doing wasn’t going to deal with the problems, and these little consumer things won’t add up. But they do it as a practice of mindfulness. They didn’t see it as antithetical to political action. Folks who were engaged in these green practices were actually becoming more committed to more transformative political action on global warming.”