Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Robert Putnam Gives Two Thumbs Up for the New Costa/Kahn Social Capital Book

Are you an academic who needs some praise for your work? Or are you well aware that your work kicks ass and you don't need any applause? Permit me to reveal my type. I'm an insecure guy who needs a pat on the back. That's why I went to the University of Chicago for graduate school. The coddling and hand holding offered there was always reassuring. The friendly faculty and students offered great emotional comfort. I am kidding but I am tickled by the the endorsements below for my new book with my favorite co-author. Robert Putnam speaks the truth!

Official Princeton University Press Page for Costa and Kahn's Heroes and Cowards

When are people willing to sacrifice for the common good? What are the benefits of friendship? How do communities deal with betrayal? And what are the costs and benefits of being in a diverse community? Using the life histories of more than forty thousand Civil War soldiers, Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn answer these questions and uncover the vivid stories, social influences, and crucial networks that influenced soldiers' lives both during and after the war.

Drawing information from government documents, soldiers' journals, and one of the most extensive research projects about Union Army soldiers ever undertaken, Heroes and Cowards demonstrates the role that social capital plays in people's decisions. The makeup of various companies--whether soldiers were of the same ethnicity, age, and occupation--influenced whether soldiers remained loyal or whether they deserted. Costa and Kahn discuss how the soldiers benefited from friendships, what social factors allowed some to survive the POW camps while others died, and how punishments meted out for breaking codes of conduct affected men after the war. The book also examines the experience of African-American soldiers and makes important observations about how their comrades shaped their lives.

Heroes and Cowards highlights the inherent tensions between the costs and benefits of community diversity, shedding light on how groups and societies behave and providing valuable lessons for the present day.

Dora L. Costa is the author of The Evolution of Retirement: An American Economic History, 1880-1990. She teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles. Matthew E. Kahn is the author of Green Cities: Urban Growth and the Environment. He also teaches at UCLA. Costa and Kahn are research associates at the National Bureau of Economic Research.


"This remarkable book is destined to become a classic in social science. It addresses issues of supreme importance and timeliness--loyalty, betrayal, heroism, cowardice, survival, the challenges of diversity, and the benefits of social bonds. It rests on rigorous statistical analysis of an extraordinary historical archive, and yet it is so readable as to be unputdownable. It deals with a single epochal event in one nation's history--the U.S. Civil War--and yet its lessons are highly relevant in many other eras and societies, including our own."--Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

"With its excellent blending of qualitative and quantitative data, this is a significant contribution to Civil War history and, more generally, to military history. It will be of great interest to economists, historians and general readers, especially the large number still fascinated by the Civil War."--Stanley L. Engerman, coauthor of Time on the Cross

"Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn are two accomplished scholars whose work offers substantially new insights, on why men desert and how this affects them; on the experience of black soldiers during and after the war; and on the migration patterns of war veterans. The research behind this book is based on data that has not previously been used by scholars, and their use of that data is imaginative and revealing. Heroes and Cowards is a significant contribution to our knowledge of how Civil War veterans coped with the stresses of war and their lives after 1865."--Roger Ransom, author of The Confederate States of America: What Might Have Been

"Heroes and Cowards is a remarkable and impressive piece of economic history, a unique book that will interest a large readership."--Louis P. Cain, Loyola University Chicago

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Serious Home Price Discontinuity at the Scarsdale/White Plains Border in the NYC Suburbs

My UCLA colleague Sandy Black wrote a great Harvard thesis. Google Scholar says that the paper has already earned 292 cites; Do Better Schools Matter? Parental Valuation of Elementary Education, SE Black - Quarterly Journal of Economics, 1999. In a nutshell, she looked at home price differentials for homes physically located very close to each other where the two homes were located in different school districts. She interpreted the equilibrium price differences of homes (quality adjusted) as representing how much the marginal household values good schools.

With this in the back of my mind, I returned to my childhood. I am a 1984 graduate of Scarsdale High School. While I am bum, I have been told that Scarsdale is a great school district. It certainly has expensive homes -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scarsdale,_New_York. Were the schools good? I actually don't believe this. The School System sought to create a risk averse set of professionals (i.e doctors, lawyers, dentists, bankers) and paid little attention to encouraging "creative" types. Very few professors were created by the Scarsdale schools.

What is my point? Go to this zillow website and take a look at the real estate price differential between homes located on the Scarsdale side of the border (averaging $1.2 million) relative to homes located 50 feet away on the White Plains border (averaging $550,000).

Type Farley Road, Scarsdale 10583 Here

Now that's an enormous border discontinuity! What is the Scarsdale address buying you relative to the White Plains address? The homes are 50 feet apart!

Discontinuities at political boundaries is always a fun fact to note.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Economists: Want to Raise Your Citation Count? Stay Alive!

How do you judge quality in your field? If you make airplanes, quality may mean that your planes rarely crash or fall apart. If you make hotdogs, quality may mean that people like how they taste and rarely have stomach problems the next day. In art, a painting that Don Trump really wants to buy is clearly high quality. But in economics, how do we know a quality professor when we see one? Is his salary a sufficient statistic? Or do we care about how many undergrads take his classes or how many PHD students he advises? Many economists fixate on citation counts. I was at a UCLA lunch a couple of weeks ago when it was remarked that Andrei Shleifer has a large "h-factor". In case you don't know, h, where author has written h papers that have each been cited at least h times. So Andrei is perhaps a "50". Well done Andrei, I would guess that I'm a 12.

Previous work has documented that more highly cited researchers get paid more. So, how can you raise your cite count? Perhaps writing good papers on key fundamental topics would help. If that's too painful for you, another strategy is merely to stay alive.

The Life Cycle of Scholars and Papers in Economics -- the "Citation Death Tax"

Joshua Aizenman, Kenneth Kletzer

NBER Working Paper No. 13891
Issued in February 2008
NBER Program(s): ITI

---- Abstract -----

The information content of academic citations is subject to debate. This paper views premature death as a tragic "natural experiment," outlining a methodology identifying the "citation death tax" -- the impact of death of productive economists on the patterns of their citations. We rely on a sample of 428 papers written by 16 well known economists who died well before retirement, during the period of 1975-97. The news is mixed: for half of the sample, we identify a large and significant "citation death tax" for the average paper written by these scholars. For these authors, the estimated average missing citations per paper attributed to premature death ranges from 40% to 140% (the overall average is about 90%), and the annual costs of lost citations per paper are in the range 3% and 14%. Hence, a paper written ten years before the author’s death avoids a citation cost that varies between 30% and 140%. For the other half of the sample, there is no citation death tax; and for two Nobel Prize-caliber scholars in this second group, Black and Tversky, citations took off overtime, reflecting the growing recognitions of their seminal works.

Download their paper

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Nudge: Richard Thaler Speaks at UCLA

Behavioral economics swept through UCLA yesterday. Richard Thaler was on campus to give a speech. Somehow inertia and procrastination affected the turnout. The event was held in a room that seats 400 people but only 60 people were there. Nobody in the Economics Department was told about the event (inertia?, procrastination?). I wandered in by accident. I was cutting through the business school to pick up my son from his school (next to Anderson) and I saw the posters advertising his talk and I walked in.

I had never seen Thaler talk before. Thaler and I were both Sherwin Rosen students and I was charmed that he actually has adopted several of Rosen's mannerisms. Selection or treatment? I don't care but for a few minutes I was transported back in time 20 years back to the University of Chicago. Now Rosen is unlikely to believe a word that Thaler was saying. His "big think" talk was a tribute to bounded rationality, bounded attention, bounded will power. I guess that the University of Chicago has changed since I was there?

Thaler has formed a dreamteam with the highly productive Cass Sunstein. Together they have written; Nudge . Can libertarian paternalism help to improve your quality of life? Do you need a slight nudge to make decisions that later in life you will be glad you made?

As I listened , I thought about the implications for climate change policy -- how would Al Gore harness the Sunstein/Thaler ideas to nudge forward climate change mitigation policy?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Energy versus Environment Tradeoff: Stark Evidence from Europe

Does demand create supply? Europe is building more coal fired power plants but wants to be "green" and reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. How clean is "clean coal"? Will "clean coal" become cleaner (soon enough) if enough coal fired power plants seek to sell power based on "clean coal"?

New York Times
April 23, 2008
Europe Turns to Coal Again, Raising Alarms on Climate

CIVITAVECCHIA, Italy — At a time when the world’s top climate experts agree that carbon emissions must be rapidly reduced to hold down global warming, Italy’s major electricity producer, Enel, is converting its massive power plant here from oil to coal, generally the dirtiest fuel on earth.

Over the next five years, Italy will increase its reliance on coal to 33 percent from 14 percent. Power generated by Enel from coal will rise to 50 percent.

And Italy is not alone in its return to coal. Driven by rising demand, record high oil and natural gas prices, concerns over energy security and an aversion to nuclear energy, European countries are expected to put into operation about 50 coal-fired plants over the next five years, plants that will be in use for the next five decades.

In the United States, fewer new coal plants are likely to begin operations, in part because it is becoming harder to get regulatory permits and in part because nuclear power remains an alternative. Of 151 proposals in early 2007, more than 60 had been dropped by the year’s end, many blocked by state governments. Dozens of other are stuck in court challenges.

The fast-expanding developing economies of India and China, where coal remains a major fuel source for more than two billion people, have long been regarded as among the biggest challenges to reducing carbon emissions. But the return now to coal even in eco-conscious Europe is sowing real alarm among environmentalists who warn that it is setting the world on a disastrous trajectory that will make controlling global warming impossible.

They are aghast at the renaissance of coal, a fuel more commonly associated with the sooty factories of Dickens novels, and one that was on its way out just a decade ago.

There have been protests here in Civitavecchia, at a new coal plant in Germany, and at one in the Czech Republic, as well as at the Kingsnorth power station in Kent, which is slated to become Britain’s first new coal-fired plant in more than a decade.

Europe’s power station owners emphasize that they are making the new coal plants as clean as possible. But critics say that “clean coal” is a pipe dream, an oxymoron in terms of the carbon emissions that count most toward climate change. They call the building spurt shortsighted.

“Building new coal-fired power plants is ill conceived,” said James E. Hansen, a leading climatologist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “Given our knowledge about what needs to be done to stabilize climate, this plan is like barging into a war without having a plan for how it should be conducted, even though information is available.

“We need a moratorium on coal now,” he added, “with phase-out of existing plants over the next two decades.”

Coal’s Advantages

Enel and many other electricity companies say they have little choice but to build coal plants to replace aging infrastructure, particularly in countries like Italy and Germany that have banned the building of nuclear power plants. Fuel costs have risen 151 percent since 1996, and Italians pay the highest electricity costs in Europe.

In terms of cost and energy security, coal has all the advantages, its proponents argue. Coal reserves will last for 200 years, rather than 50 years for gas and oil. Coal is relatively cheap compared with oil and natural gas, although coal prices have tripled in the past few years. More important, hundreds of countries export coal — there is not a coal cartel — so there is more room to negotiate prices.

“In order to get over oil, which is getting more and more expensive, our plan is to convert all oil plants to coal using clean-coal technologies,” said Gianfilippo Mancini, Enel’s chief of generation and energy management. “This will be the cleanest coal plant in Europe. We are hoping to prove that it will be possible to make sustainable and environmentally friendly use of coal.”

“Clean coal” is a term coined by the industry decades ago, referring to its efforts to reduce local pollution. Using new technology, clean coal plants sharply reduced the number of sooty particles spewed into the air, as well as gases like sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide. The technology has minimal effect on carbon emissions.

In fact, the technology that the industry is counting on to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that add to global warning — carbon capture and storage — is not now commercially available. No one knows if it is feasible on a large, cost-effective scale.

The Struggle to Be Green

The task — in which carbon emissions are pumped into underground reservoirs rather than released — is challenging for any fuel source, but particularly so for coal, which produces more carbon dioxide than oil or natural gas.

Under optimal current conditions, coal produces more than twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity as natural gas, the second most common fuel used for electricity generation, according to the Electric Power Research Institute. In the developing world, where even new coal plants use lower grade coal and less efficient machinery, the equation is even worse.

Without carbon capture and storage, coal cannot be green. But solving that problem will take global coordination and billions of dollars in investment, which no one country or company seems inclined to spend, said Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

“Figuring out carbon capture is really critical — it may not work in the end — and if it is not viable, the situation, with respect to climate change, is far more dire,” Mr. Sachs said.

There are a few dozen small demonstration projects in Europe and in the United States, most in the early stages. But progress has not been promising.

At the end of January, the Bush administration canceled what was previously by far the United States’ biggest carbon-capture demonstration project, at a coal-fired plant in Illinois, because of huge cost overruns. The costs of the project, undertaken in 2003 with a budget of $950 million, had spiraled to $1.5 billion this year, and it was far from complete.

The European Union had pledged to develop 12 pilot carbon-capture projects for Europe, but says that is not enough.

Many have likened carbon capture’s road from the demonstration lab to a safe, cheap, available reality as a challenge equivalent to putting a man on the moon. Norway, which is investing heavily to test the technology, calls carbon capture its “moon landing.”

It may be even harder than that. It is a moon landing that must be replicated daily at thousands of coal plants in hundreds of countries — many of them poor. There is a new coal-fired plant going up in India or China almost every week, and most of those are not constructed in a way that is amenable to carbon capture, even if it were developed.

Plants that could someday be adapted to carbon capture cost 10 to 20 percent more to build, and only a handful exist today. For most coal power plants the costs of converting would be “phenomenal,” concluded a report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Then there is the problem of storing the carbon dioxide, which is at some level an inherently local issue. Geologists have to determine if there is a suitable underground site, calculate how much carbon dioxide it can hold and then equip it in a way that prevents leaks and ensures safety. A large leak of underground carbon dioxide could be as dangerous as a leak of nuclear fuel, critics say.

As for its plant here, Enel says it will start experimenting with carbon-capture technology in 2015, in the hopes of “a solution” by 2020.

“That’s too late,” Mr. Sachs said.

In the meantime, it and other new coal plants will be spewing more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere than ever before, meaning that current climate predictions — dire as they are — may still be “too optimistic,” Mr. Sachs said. “They assume the old energy mix, even though coal will be a larger and larger part.”

An Efficient Plant

On many other fronts, the new Enel plant is a model of efficiency and recycling. The nitrous oxide is chemically altered to generate ammonia, which is then sold. The resulting coal ash and gypsum are sold to the cement industry.

An on-site desalination plant means that the operation generates its own water for cooling. Even the heated water that comes out of the plant is not wasted: it heats a fish farm, one of Italy’s largest.

But Enel’s plan to deal with the new plant’s carbon emissions consists mostly of a map of Italy with several huge white ovals superimposed — subterranean cavities where carbon dioxide potentially could be stored.

The sites have not been fully studied by geologists as yet to make sure they are safe storage sites and well sealed. There is no infrastructure or equipment that could move carbon into them.

The new Enel plant here opens its first boiler in two months. It will immediately produce fewer carbon emissions than the ancient oil boiler it replaces, but only because it will produce less electricity, officials here admit.

Unhappy Neighbors

In the towns surrounding Civitavecchia, the impending arrival of a huge coal plant, with its three silvery domes, is being greeted with a hefty dose of dread.

“They call it clean coal because they use some filters, but it is really nonsense,” said Marza Marzioli of the No Coal citizens group in the nearby ancient Etruscan town of Tarquinia. “If you compare it to old plants, yes it’s better, but it’s not ‘clean’ in any way.”

The group says that Enel has won approval for a dangerous new coal plant by buying machines for a local hospital and by carrying out a public relations campaign. Enel advertisements for the project show a young girl erasing a plant’s smokestack.

Most people who took part in a 2007 local referendum voted no, but the plant went ahead anyway, the group said.

The European Union, through its emissions trading scheme, has tried to make power plants consider the costs of carbon, forcing them to buy “permits” for emissions. But with the price of oil so high, coal is far cheaper, even with the cost of permits to pollute factored in, Enel has calculated.

Stephan Singer, who runs the European energy and climate office of WWF, formerly the World Wildlife Fund, in Brussels, said that math was shortsighted: the cost of coal and permits will almost certainly rise over the next decade.

“If they want coal to be part of the energy solution, they have to show us that carbon capture can be done now, that they can really reduce emissions” to an acceptable level, Mr. Singer said.

The Opportunity of a Lifetime: Live in Los Angeles and Boss Kahn Around

UCLA's Institute of the Environment is looking for a new Director. Mary Nichols was our director until summer 2007 but she has moved on to a very important policy job at California's Air Resources Board .

This job has several excellent attributes. Los Angeles is the best city in the U.S and you would get to see me and boss me around each day. Who could ask for more?

Institute of the Environment
University of California, Los Angeles

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) seeks outstanding candidates for the position of Director of the Institute of the Environment (IoE). The successful candidate will have the academic rank of Professor and will hold a named chair.

The IoE’s mission is to generate knowledge and provide solutions for regional and global environmental problems, and to educate the next generation of scholars and leaders. Through its local, national and international programs, the IoE employs innovative cross-disciplinary approaches to address critical environmental challenges such as those related to climate change, water supply and quality, air pollution, biodiversity, urban growth, and sustainability - with the goal of achieving stable human coexistence with the natural systems on which society depends. A central strength of the IoE is its ability to bridge science and policy.

The IoE currently has seven full time equivalent faculty members, six academic and professional staff and more than forty affiliated faculty members from many schools and departments including, Architecture, Engineering, Law, Management, Public Health, Physical and Life Sciences, and Public Affairs. These faculty members conduct multi-million dollar research programs through the IoE and teach in the IoE education program, which consists of a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science and a Minor in Environmental Systems and Society.

The successful candidate should be a distinguished scholar with a background in natural or social science and demonstrated administrative experience. The Director will provide vision, leadership and support for IoE research, educational, and outreach programs, and promote collaborative efforts among faculty to address and find solutions to local and global environmental challenges. The incoming Director will have the opportunity to shape and guide the IoE efforts in several areas targeted for future development, including hiring of new faculty, the establishment of a graduate degree program and the expansion of research in emerging fields of environmental science and policy.

Applicants should submit application materials including cover letter, a description of their vision for the IoE, curriculum vita, statements of research and teaching interests, 2-3 publications, and names and addresses of three references to:

IoE Director Search Committee Chair
c/o Ms. Tammy B. Allen
UCLA Institute of the Environment
619 Charles E. Young Dr. East
LaKretz Hall, Suite 300
University of California
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1496

Please use job number: 2155-0708-01 in all correspondence. For additional information about the IoE or about submitting an application, contact Ms. Tammy Allen (tballen@ioe.ucla.edu, 310-794-4908) or see www.ioe.ucla.edu. Review of applications will begin December 1, 2007 and will continue until the position is filled. UCLA is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer with a strong institutional commitment to the achievement of diversity among its faculty and staff.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The 10 Green Commandments

Free Riding isn't cool. The Nash Logic of relying on everybody else to do their share is looked down upon during Earthweek. In my role as intellectual middleman, I wanted to guilt you with 10 things you should be doing rather than reading this blog. I would have added an 11th here; you should release less methane.


10 Ways You Can Improve Earth's Health

LiveScience Staff

LiveScience.com Tue Apr 22, 8:55 AM ET

The scientific and political arguments surrounding the health of our planet can make the whole topic seem beyond the grasp of the individual. How fast is the climate changing? Exactly what effect to humans have? And what will the government do about it?

How we treat Earth also involves trillions of little decisions by billions of individuals.

That in mind, on this Earth Day, LiveScience presents 10 ideas for saving energy and otherwise cutting down on your impact on the planet. The list was compiled by the Earth Day Network organization and republished here with permission.

1. Change light bulbs
Highly efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) last for years, use a quarter of the energy of regular bulbs and actually produce more light.

Look for the government's ENERGY STAR label, which means the bulb has been tested for quality and efficiency. While each ENERGY STAR qualified bulb will cost more initially-anywhere from $3 to $9 a piece-remember that there are two price tags: what you pay at the register and what you pay in energy costs to over the bulb's lifetime. So you may pay more up front, but you will actually save hundreds of dollars in your household budget over the long term because of their long life.

While CFLs were harder to find a few years ago, they're now widely available and much more affordable. You'll find them at major home improvement and hardware stores-even grocery and some convenience stores.

Here's the impact. If every household in the U.S. replaced a burned-out bulb with an energy-efficient, ENERGY STAR qualified compact fluorescent bulb, the cumulative effect is enormous. It would prevent more than 13 billion pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere-which is like taking more than a million cars off the road for an entire year.

There are other, simple things with household lighting you can do to conserve: turn off unneeded lights, dim lights when you can and bring natural sunlight into your home when it is feasible.

But changing those old light bulbs and replacing them with ENERGY STAR qualified compact fluorescents that can last for a decade or more is by far the best thing you can do.

2. Drive differently, or drive a different vehicle

The sad truth is that your car emits as much carbon dioxide as your entire house. That's the bad news. The good news is that anything you can do to improve the fuel efficiency of your car will have an enormous impact on climate change. In fact, experts say that paying attention to fuel efficiency in your car may be the single biggest thing you can do to prevent global warming

Buying a fuel-efficient car (like a hybrid) is wonderful. In fact, replacing your gas-guzzling car with a fuel-efficient one is by far the best thing you can do, out of all your choices. But not all of us can do that-at least, not right now. Carmakers haven't sold enough hybrids in the U.S. yet to make them as affordable as they should be. That will change, but not for a few years.

So, in the interim, there are things you can do with the car you drive now to conserve energy and be more fuel-efficient.

Drive less. Every year, Americans as a whole drive more miles than they did the year before. Stop this trend, and we drive a stake in that trend. Telecommuting and public transportation are great options-once a week saves a ton of carbon dioxide a year-but even piling multiple errands into one trip helps. If you can walk instead of drive, even better.

Get your car tuned up. Just a simple tune-up often improves fuel efficiency by half. If 100,000 of us went out and got a tune up, we save 124,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

Slow down, don't race your car's engine, and watch your idling. All of these save on gas (saving you money) and have a big impact on burning gasoline.

Horribly inefficient SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks now make up more than half of the cars on American roads. The real tragedy is that automakers could double the current average fuel efficiency of SUVs if they wanted to, which would save 70 tons of carbon dioxide per car. The technology exists. Unfortunately, consumer demand does not.

3. Control your temperature

The bad news is that half of your household energy costs go towards just two things-heating and cooling. The good news is that means you have lots of room for improvement, and even small changes make dramatic improvements in household fuel efficiency.

Older heating and cooling systems are a third less efficient than the new systems. So replacing the old with the new is a wonderful idea, but not very practical for most of us. Things you can do right now to make sure you're setting the right temperature in your house include:

Tune up your heating system. This one thing every couple of years can reduce your heating costs by 10 percent a year.

Clean vents, close unused vents, and change filters in the vents. Again, just these simple things will save you 10 percent.

Buy a programmable thermostat, which can regulate different temperatures at different times of the day. And if you have one, use it! Right now, three-quarters of people who have programmable thermostats don't use them at all.

Add two degrees to the AC thermostat in summer, and two degrees in winter. If everyone did this, the cumulative impact is significant.

Make sure windows and doors are sealed. Again, this will dramatically improve your household fuel efficiency.

Of course, if you can stand it, by far the best approach is to avoid air conditioners at all. Ceiling fans, instead of AC, can reduce your cooling costs by more than half.

4. Tame the refrigerator monster

Did you know that your friendly refrigerator has a voracious energy appetite? It is, by far, the single biggest consumer of electricity in the average household, responsible for 10-15 percent of the electricity you use each month.

Older refrigerators, as a rule, are far less efficient than the newest ones-as much as 50 percent more efficient in many cases. But buying a brand-new, energy-efficient refrigerator is almost certainly not in the cards for most of us. Fortunately, other things will help.

Don't set the thermostat too high. Even 1 degree will make a big difference.

If your refrigerator is near a heating vent, or always in the sun, then change the location, cover up the heat vent near it or drape the window.

Turn on your "energy saver" switch near the thermostat.

Clean the condenser coil. This one, very simple thing can improve the efficiency of your refrigerator by a third!

Get rid of your second refrigerator. If you don't need it, don't waste the energy.

Make sure the doors seal properly, and keep the cool in.

5. Twist some knobs

The other big users of energy in your household are your hot water heater, your washer and dryer, and your dishwasher. Each, in its own way, can be inefficient. Here are some things to try:

Either turn the hot water heater down a couple of degrees, or turn on the "energy conservation" setting.

Buy insulation for your hot water heater at a local store and insulate the pipes as well.

Install a timer on your water heater to turn off at night and just before you wake up in the morning.

When possible, wash a few dishes by hand. Over time, that will save a few loads in the dishwasher, conserving energy.

Don't pre-rinse dishes. Today's detergents are powerful enough to do the job.

Wait until you have a full load to run the dishwasher.

Wash clothes in warm water, not hot. The clothes will be just as clean, and you'll cut energy use by 50 percent.

Don't over-dry your clothes. That will save 15 percent.

6. Plant smartly

While it is true that planting more trees will help in the short term because they essentially soak up carbon, they also release carbon dioxide when they die. So it just postpones the problem. But there are other reasons to plant trees-as wind breaks to save energy, and as shade to lower cooling costs. And even the short-term help while we get our act together is a good thing.

As for plants, do everything you can in your yard and garden to create ways in which plants use less water. Choose hardier plants, plant things in groups that need more water and put in mulch to help keep moisture in. When you mow your grass, make sure you do it smartly-with sharp blades, and only when the grass needs cutting. Finally, make sure you water your lawn sparingly. All of these will conserve energy.

7. Invest in green energy

Imagine if we ran out of fossil fuels tomorrow, what would we do? Well, we'd get our electricity from renewable sources-solar panels, geothermal and wind power sources. Many utilities now give consumers the option to buy "green power." Ask for it!

Learn the truth about nuclear power and natural gas as viable "green" options. They aren't. Radioactive waste will be a problem for tens of thousands of years into the future, and natural gas kicks out almost as much carbon dioxide as coal and oil. Natural gas can help us make a transition, but it isn't the solution.

Finally, if you invest, invest in green stocks and renewable energy companies through socially responsible funds. They perform just as well (if not better) than all of the unfiltered funds.

8. Go organic

Even with our vast reservoir of scientific knowledge about farming, most American farmers still spray a billion pounds of pesticides to protect crops each year.

Now here's the kicker: when chemical pesticides are used to kill pests, they also kill off microorganisms that keep carbon contained in the soil. When the microorganisms are gone, the carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. And when those organisms are gone, the soil is no longer naturally fertile and chemical fertilizers become a necessity, not a luxury.

But besides going organic-thereby saving the carbon release from soil-there are other simple things you can do with food that will also make a difference:

Eat locally grown food. If the food doesn't have to travel far, there's less carbon dioxide from the trucks that ship it.

Eat fruits and vegetables in season. Again, that saves the enormous transportation costs.

Plant your own vegetable garden. It's not as hard as you might think.

9. Buy recycled

This may sound simple, but it takes less energy to manufacture a recycled product than a brand new one. So if you and every other consumer buy recycled, you'll help create a market, and conserve energy along the way.

Because many manufacturers don't go out of their way to tout their recycled products, you should know that aluminum and tin cans, glass containers, and pulp cardboard have a fair amount of recycled content. So buy away!

Recycled is often considerably cheaper than non-recycled, so it's cost-effective as well as conservation-minded. For instance, recycled paper can be as much as a third cheaper than non-recycled paper.

Finally, before you buy, check to see if the product or its packaging can be recycled. The recyclable logo (three arrows forming a triangle) is fairly common now.

10. Be a minimalist

We know it's difficult, but in today's consumer economy, an easy way to conserve energy is to simply use-and buy-less. Every time you buy something, energy has gone into getting that product to you. So the less you buy, the more you save energy-wise. It's a simple equation.

This last item on our Top Ten list may, in fact, be the single biggest way to make a dent in the global warming problem. Again, we know it sounds obvious, but buying less things-some of which you just don't need-changes the energy equation across the board, on every single consumer product. If everyone used less, the impact would be large indeed.

So how about some specific things? Here are a few:

Buy in bulk. In short, bulk items use less packaging, which translates into less energy.

Buy one of something, not 21 of something. You don't need 21 pairs of shoes, if one pair works just as well.

Go through your closet. Donate or recycle what you really don't need, then make a pledge not to replace everything you just got rid of.

Buy quality products that will last longer. Over time, you'll obviously buy fewer products that way.

Be creative in what you use for work, play and leisure. You don't always have to buy new products for activities. Re-use in creative ways.
10 Was to Green Your Home
Quiz: What's Your Environmental Footprint? Top 10 Craziest Environmental Ideas Original Story: 10 Ways You Can Improve Earth's Health

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Lights Out

No lights were on this morning at my son's school. There was no blackout. Instead, the kids were learning a lesson in energy conservation. http://www.google.com/intl/en/earthhour/ . Do such salient lessons teach our children? I myself learned the lesson that I can't walk around without seeing where I'm going. I'm no Luke Skywalker --- without the Force I stumbled. In economics today, there is great interest in the long run returns to "early interventions". While you think of "Head Start", I'm now thinking about whether my 6 year old son will be a different person at age 25 or 30 because of his early environmental training at this school? Could there be a permanent "treatment effect" that he is more of an environmentalist as an adult because of this early green education? Who is the right control group for judging this claim? My son goes to a progressive school and progressive parents tend to send their kids to such schools.

A slightly unrelated twist. If you want to see a great economist debate the merits of California's solar power push, take a look here. Severin Borenstein's work on the economic value of residential solar panels and his debate with his critics

My mother always warns me against "wishful thinking". I wish we do live in a world with sharp learning by doing effects for green products. But, please show me the evidence. How does society benefit from the first generation of guinea pigs doing "the right thing"?

Monday, April 21, 2008

PETA Provides a Big Push for Fake Meat Innovation

Do we need a government sponsored "Manhattan Project" for natural resource related innovation when we have PETA leading the charge? Will people in Europe label the testtube creations "Frankefoods"? (see http://www.frankenfoods.org/). Will there be a market for this stuff? Who will be the guinea pigs eager to try this stuff? It sounds like the PETA people will not volunteer for that task (see below).

I am impressed to see "innovation tournaments" in the news. How much of his money are Bill Gates and W. Buffett setting aside to sponsor such "winner take all" competitions? What would Cornell's Robert Frank say about these inequality inducing incentive programs? Will only risk lovers participate? How do scientists form expectations of their probability of winning the competition? This is crucial for predicting how many science teams will enter the competition; clearly the probabiliy of a breakthrough is higher if more teams enter the competition. Are there negative unintended consequences? Could too many research teams enter this competition doing duplicate science as each bears the sunk costs of research? What would these research teams be working on if they weren't inventing the next spam?

Suppose a meat substitute was discovered, how much would methane gas emissions decline by? how much rainforest would be protected because of this discovery? Any ecologists with a good guess?

April 21, 2008

PETA’s Latest Tactic: $1 Million for Fake Meat

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wants to pay a million dollars for fake meat — even if it has caused a “near civil war” within the organization.
The organization said it would announce plans on Monday for a $1 million prize to the “first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices by 2012.”
The idea of getting the next Chicken McNugget out of a test tube is not new. For several years, scientists have worked to develop technologies to grow tissue cultures that could be consumed like meat without the expense of land or feed and the disease potential of real meat. An international symposium on the topic was held this month in Norway. The tissue, once grown, could be shaped and given texture with the kinds of additives and structural agents that are now used to give products like soy burgers a more meaty texture.
New Harvest, a nonprofit organization formed to promote the field, says on its Web site, “Because meat substitutes are produced under controlled conditions impossible to maintain in traditional animal farms, they can be safer, more nutritious, less polluting and more humane than conventional meat.”
Jason Matheny, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University who formed New Harvest, said the idea of a prize for researchers was promising. Citing the example of the Ansari X Prize, a competition that produced the first privately financed human spacecraft, Mr. Matheny said, “they inspire more dollars spent on a research problem than the prize represents.”

A founder of PETA, Ingrid Newkirk, said she had been hoping to get the organization involved in advancing in vitro meat technology for at least a decade.
But, Ms. Newkirk said, the decision to sponsor a prize caused “a near civil war in our office,” since so many PETA members are repulsed by the thought of eating animal tissue, even if no animals are killed.
Lisa Lange, a vice president of the organization, said she was part of the heated exchange. “My main concern is, as the largest animal rights organization in the world, it’s our job to introduce the philosophy and hammer it home that animals are not ours to eat.” Ms. Lange added, “I remember saying I would be much more comfortable promoting eating roadkill.”
Ms. Newkirk said the disagreement was natural, adding, “We will have members leave us over this.”
“People say animal rights people can’t agree,” she said. “Well, human beings can’t agree. In any social cause community, there are people who strive for purity.”
Her goal, she said, was more pragmatic. “We don’t mind taking uncomfortable positions if it means that fewer animals suffer.” In that way, she said, “in vitro meat is a godsend.”
For some already working in the field, the news was greeted with a wary welcome.
Henk P. Haagsman, a professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and an in vitro meat research pioneer, said he welcomed the prize competition.
“It will hopefully spark more interest to invest in the technology,” Professor Haagsman said.
But he said he would not like to see the field dominated by the animal welfare issue, since environmental and public health issues are such important “drivers for this research.” The Netherlands has put $5 million into in vitro meat studies.
Another scientist at Utrecht, Bernard Roelen, said via e-mail that he was “rather surprised” by news of the competition, but said that even with strong financing, it would be extremely difficult to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat before 2012. Professor Roelen added, “For me as a researcher, the announcement does not mean so much.”
Why not? “I do research because I want to understand fundamental mechanisms,” he said, “not to gain fortune.”

Friday, April 18, 2008

Food Prices and Social Unrest

Where is Lenin when you need him? Will there be a new cohort of populist politicians riding the commodity price spike to achieve a rise to power in poor nations? It would interest me if agricultural economists have convinced themselves of the relative importance of supply versus demand factors in explaining the recent rise in food prices.

Can public policy defuse this tense situation? Whose public policy? U.S policy or "world" co-ordinated policy? What is the political economy of which nations would be willing to join such a co-ordinated effort?

What arbitrage profits do the recent price spikes offer farmers and how will these opportunities affect their behavior? In aggregate will the poor in the developing world soon (how soon?) face lower commodity prices?

New York Times
April 18, 2008
Across Globe, Empty Bellies Bring Rising Anger
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Hunger bashed in the front gate of Haiti’s presidential palace. Hunger poured onto the streets, burning tires and taking on soldiers and the police. Hunger sent the country’s prime minister packing.

Haiti’s hunger, that burn in the belly that so many here feel, has become fiercer than ever in recent days as global food prices spiral out of reach, spiking as much as 45 percent since the end of 2006 and turning Haitian staples like beans, corn and rice into closely guarded treasures.

Saint Louis Meriska’s children ate two spoonfuls of rice apiece as their only meal recently and then went without any food the following day. His eyes downcast, his own stomach empty, the unemployed father said forlornly, “They look at me and say, ‘Papa, I’m hungry,’ and I have to look away. It’s humiliating and it makes you angry.”

That anger is palpable across the globe. The food crisis is not only being felt among the poor but is also eroding the gains of the working and middle classes, sowing volatile levels of discontent and putting new pressures on fragile governments.

In Cairo, the military is being put to work baking bread as rising food prices threaten to become the spark that ignites wider anger at a repressive government. In Burkina Faso and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, food riots are breaking out as never before. In reasonably prosperous Malaysia, the ruling coalition was nearly ousted by voters who cited food and fuel price increases as their main concerns.

“It’s the worst crisis of its kind in more than 30 years,” said Jeffrey D. Sachs, the economist and special adviser to the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon. “It’s a big deal and it’s obviously threatening a lot of governments. There are a number of governments on the ropes, and I think there’s more political fallout to come.”

Indeed, as it roils developing nations, the spike in commodity prices — the biggest since the Nixon administration — has pitted the globe’s poorer south against the relatively wealthy north, adding to demands for reform of rich nations’ farm and environmental policies. But experts say there are few quick fixes to a crisis tied to so many factors, from strong demand for food from emerging economies like China’s to rising oil prices to the diversion of food resources to make biofuels.

There are no scripts on how to handle the crisis, either. In Asia, governments are putting in place measures to limit hoarding of rice after some shoppers panicked at price increases and bought up everything they could.

Even in Thailand, which produces 10 million more tons of rice than it consumes and is the world’s largest rice exporter, supermarkets have placed signs limiting the amount of rice shoppers are allowed to purchase.

But there is also plenty of nervousness and confusion about how best to proceed and just how bad the impact may ultimately be, particularly as already strapped governments struggle to keep up their food subsidies.

‘Scandalous Storm’

“This is a perfect storm,” President Elías Antonio Saca of El Salvador said Wednesday at the World Economic Forum on Latin America in Cancún, Mexico. “How long can we withstand the situation? We have to feed our people, and commodities are becoming scarce. This scandalous storm might become a hurricane that could upset not only our economies but also the stability of our countries.”

In Asia, if Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of Malaysia steps down, which is looking increasingly likely amid postelection turmoil within his party, he may be that region’s first high- profile political casualty of fuel and food price inflation.

In Indonesia, fearing protests, the government recently revised its 2008 budget, increasing the amount it will spend on food subsidies by about $280 million.

“The biggest concern is food riots,” said H.S. Dillon, a former adviser to Indonesia’s Ministry of Agriculture. Referring to small but widespread protests touched off by a rise in soybean prices in January, he said, “It has happened in the past and can happen again.”

Last month in Senegal, one of Africa’s oldest and most stable democracies, police in riot gear beat and used tear gas against people protesting high food prices and later raided a television station that broadcast images of the event. Many Senegalese have expressed anger at President Abdoulaye Wade for spending lavishly on roads and five-star hotels for an Islamic summit meeting last month while many people are unable to afford rice or fish.

“Why are these riots happening?” asked Arif Husain, senior food security analyst at the World Food Program, which has issued urgent appeals for donations. “The human instinct is to survive, and people are going to do no matter what to survive. And if you’re hungry you get angry quicker.”

Leaders who ignore the rage do so at their own risk. President René Préval of Haiti appeared to taunt the populace as the chorus of complaints about la vie chère — the expensive life — grew. He said if Haitians could afford cellphones, which many do carry, they should be able to feed their families. “If there is a protest against the rising prices,” he said, “come get me at the palace and I will demonstrate with you.”

When they came, filled with rage and by the thousands, he huddled inside and his presidential guards, with United Nations peacekeeping troops, rebuffed them. Within days, opposition lawmakers had voted out Mr. Préval’s prime minister, Jacques-Édouard Alexis, forcing him to reconstitute his government. Fragile in even the best of times, Haiti’s population and politics are now both simmering.

“Why were we surprised?” asked Patrick Élie, a Haitian political activist who followed the food riots in Africa earlier in the year and feared they might come to Haiti. “When something is coming your way all the way from Burkina Faso you should see it coming. What we had was like a can of gasoline that the government left for someone to light a match to it.”

Dwindling Menus

The rising prices are altering menus, and not for the better. In India, people are scrimping on milk for their children. Daily bowls of dal are getting thinner, as a bag of lentils is stretched across a few more meals.

Maninder Chand, an auto-rickshaw driver in New Delhi, said his family had given up eating meat altogether for the last several weeks.

Another rickshaw driver, Ravinder Kumar Gupta, said his wife had stopped seasoning their daily lentils, their chief source of protein, with the usual onion and spices because the price of cooking oil was now out of reach. These days, they eat bowls of watery, tasteless dal, seasoned only with salt.

Down Cairo’s Hafziyah Street, peddlers selling food from behind wood carts bark out their prices. But few customers can afford their fish or chicken, which bake in the hot sun. Food prices have doubled in two months.

Ahmed Abul Gheit, 25, sat on a cheap, stained wooden chair by his own pile of rotting tomatoes. “We can’t even find food,” he said, looking over at his friend Sobhy Abdullah, 50. Then raising his hands toward the sky, as if in prayer, he said, “May God take the guy I have in mind.”

Mr. Abdullah nodded, knowing full well that the “guy” was President Hosni Mubarak.

The government’s ability to address the crisis is limited, however. It already spends more on subsidies, including gasoline and bread, than on education and health combined.

“If all the people rise, then the government will resolve this,” said Raisa Fikry, 50, whose husband receives a pension equal to about $83 a month, as she shopped for vegetables. “But everyone has to rise together. People get scared. But we will all have to rise together.”

It is the kind of talk that has prompted the government to treat its economic woes as a security threat, dispatching riot forces with a strict warning that anyone who takes to the streets will be dealt with harshly.

Niger does not need to be reminded that hungry citizens overthrow governments. The country’s first postcolonial president, Hamani Diori, was toppled amid allegations of rampant corruption in 1974 as millions starved during a drought.

More recently, in 2005, it was mass protests in Niamey, the Nigerien capital, that made the government sit up and take notice of that year’s food crisis, which was caused by a complex mix of poor rains, locust infestation and market manipulation by traders.

“As a result of that experience the government created a cabinet-level ministry to deal with the high cost of living,” said Moustapha Kadi, an activist who helped organize marches in 2005. “So when prices went up this year the government acted quickly to remove tariffs on rice, which everyone eats. That quick action has kept people from taking to the streets.”

The Poor Eat Mud

In Haiti, where three-quarters of the population earns less than $2 a day and one in five children is chronically malnourished, the one business booming amid all the gloom is the selling of patties made of mud, oil and sugar, typically consumed only by the most destitute.

“It’s salty and it has butter and you don’t know you’re eating dirt,” said Olwich Louis Jeune, 24, who has taken to eating them more often in recent months. “It makes your stomach quiet down.”

But the grumbling in Haiti these days is no longer confined to the stomach. It is now spray-painted on walls of the capital and shouted by demonstrators.

In recent days, Mr. Préval has patched together a response, using international aid money and price reductions by importers to cut the price of a sack of rice by about 15 percent. He has also trimmed the salaries of some top officials. But those are considered temporary measures.

Real solutions will take years. Haiti, its agriculture industry in shambles, needs to better feed itself. Outside investment is the key, although that requires stability, not the sort of widespread looting and violence that the Haitian food riots have fostered.

Meanwhile, most of the poorest of the poor suffer silently, too weak for activism or too busy raising the next generation of hungry. In the sprawling slum of Haiti’s Cité Soleil, Placide Simone, 29, offered one of her five offspring to a stranger. “Take one,” she said, cradling a listless baby and motioning toward four rail-thin toddlers, none of whom had eaten that day. “You pick. Just feed them.”

Reporting was contributed by Lydia Polgreen from Niamey, Niger, Michael Slackman from Cairo, Somini Sengupta from New Delhi, Thomas Fuller from Bangkok and Peter Gelling from Jakarta, Indonesia.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Limits to Growth? The Case of Harvard Undergrads

I'm in deep thought about the old debate between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon. What do prediction markets and futures markets have to say about whether the "smart money" agrees with the Oil Drum (www.theoildrum.com)? Even the New York Times appears to be in deep thought about basic identification questions. Are rising prices due to rising world demand or shocks to supply? Both? Neither?

I had naively assumed that if any institution was able to limit the costs of growth it would be Harvard. This editorial highlights how this institution has blocked entry to keep the supply and demand for beds in balance. It will interest me if any straight A students at Cornell sue for this denial of access. Does this parable have any implications for how to slow the world's consumption of natural resources? Do we choose to deny access to the "out groups"? Natural resource acquisition and getting into Harvard do differ that there isn't a market clearing price for buying into Harvard. Or is there?

Fear and Self-Loathing
I come to bury transfer admissions, not to praise them
Published On 4/18/2008 12:03:43 AM
Harvard Crimson

Members of the classes of 2009 and 2010, you’re it. When, late last month, Harvard’s admissions office pulled the plug on undergraduate transfer admissions for the next two years, it extinguished the possibility of future fresh faces for current sophomores and juniors. Tragic, perhaps, but apparently necessary, thanks to a campus-wide housing crunch. The overstuffed entering classes of recent years created a bubble that was sure to burst, and burst it did; thousands of would-be transfers’ dreams of ivy-encrusted greatness have been dashed.

The response, from some corners of campus at least, has been outrage. (At Harvard, whenever grievances are concerned, one must necessarily ignore the thousands of undergraduates who don’t give a damn.) This newspaper derided the move as “misguided and rash,” while unrequited applicants bemoaned an “unfair” and “heartbreaking” decision.

Applicants’ disappointment is entirely reasonable. They spent the time and money compiling a compelling application, never thinking that it might be doomed to languish, unread and in pieces, in a Harvard bureaucrat’s shredder. That sucks.

Axing transfer admissions has created a surfeit of sob stories, most of which ought to be neither trivialized nor ignored. But at the end of the day, the outrage from current Harvard students has been somewhat surprising. After all, it was out of attentiveness to undergraduates’ direct personal interests that the administration made the decision to banish transfers. Just three days prior to the move, rising seniors in Winthrop House had been casually informed that, thanks to a looming Malthusian crisis, the cushy senior suites they’d be expecting would be replaced by bunk beds and partitioned common rooms. The Crimson lamented this “surprise” as both “shocking” and “demoralizing.”

There aren’t enough beds for upperclassmen to begin with. As Cabot House Master Jay M. Harris told The Crimson, “every House is above capacity, there wasn’t an inch of space.” Adding transfer students only stands to compound a problem that has, in the words of The Crimson Staff, already caused the “unprecedented breaking of an unspoken pact that leaves the Class of 2009 feeling at worst, cheated and at best, ignored.” Space constraints have become “a matter of mental health.”

Yet just days after decrying the betrayal of the class of 2009, voices across Harvard’s campus changed their tune. If the previously-estimated “mere” 40 transfer admits for 2008-2009 were only just “accepted and spread out across all 12 houses,” this newspaper wrote, “the additional space constraints per house would be minimal.” (It is unclear whether or not they would also be “demoralizing.”) Other editorial writers demanded that Harvard “disclose some more compelling reasons” for a decision whose consequences are so “potentially life altering.”

The incongruity between undergraduate opinion on the consequences of the housing crunch and the decision to suspend transfer admissions is striking. Our self-interest demands that the College accept as few new upperclassmen as possible, at least until the great floods of ‘09 and ‘10 subside, so that there’s more room for us. Why, then, have some undergraduates been so quick to rush to the defense of this year’s aborted transfer applications?

Opposition is wrapped up in a deep sense of moral rectitude about the process by which the decisions were made and then communicated to applicants. If only the College had made up its mind sooner, then perhaps the time, energy, and money that applicants put into their application might not have been wasted. Opponents cite the costs of re-taking standardized tests and ordering transcripts, which won’t be recouped by prospective transfers, even though Harvard has agreed to refund the full application fee.

Undergraduates have also argued that the ultimate loser in this situation will be the College itself. Potential Harvardians who have “made different educational decisions”—by attending a community or 2-year college, for instance—will be excluded for as long as transfer admissions remain on hiatus. Choking off the flow of late-arrivals will, as one writer lamented, cheat Harvard of a much-needed supply of “congenial, self-satisfied enrollees more interested in making friends than meeting recruiters,” a group underrepresented among four-year Harvard undergrads.

Behind these sentiments lurks the endemic self-loathing that subtly defines many Harvard students’ view of their own success in the college admissions cockfight. We are selfish when it comes to rooming and selfless on the subject of transfer admissions because we’re embarrassed to be among higher education’s Elect, the less-than-ten percent of the applicant pool that did the impossible and got into Harvard.

Our embarrassment of riches is a cornerstone of Harvard culture; we don’t wear insignia clothing, we expertly understate our own talents and accomplishments, sometimes to excess, and we’re only ever keen to admit that we go to Harvard—“drop the H-bomb,” that is—when we’re trying to pick someone up at a bar. (It works. Sometimes.) Of course, we’re deeply (but secretly) pleased every time the Harvard admissions rate loses a point or two—we’re only human, after all. But as far as the rest of the world is concerned, we think that the whole charade of Harvard admissions is a wicked crap-shoot, that denying 93 percent of (presumably) well-qualified applicants the chance at a Harvard education is sinister, and that we need all the transfer students we can get.

The admissions-housing trade-off is a clear but unfortunate one. Thanks to Harvard’s residential ethos, if someone gets in, they get a place to sleep. As a consequence, we can’t have it both ways—these days, when having one’s own single is fast becoming an unattainable dream, every new transfer is a reason why Winthrop seniors will be living in common rooms and Dunster residents will continue to live in closets. And though making a show of our insecurities about our own success is certainly endearing, current undergraduates might forgive themselves a little bit of selfishness where personal space is concerned, at least.

Adam Goldenberg ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.


A Fair Review of Green Cities

I was at the Haas School at Berkeley yesterday giving a real estate seminar. Very constructive place in terms of feedback and my paper will improve! The number of reviews of my book on Amazon has doubled (from 1 to 2) and I wanted to share this. I believe that this was published in the Journal of the American Planning Association. Somehow, my title bugs people. Ed Mills (see his JEL Review from Dec 2007) wanted to deport me to the Soviet Union based on my title and Saleem is going to say that I'm not cut out to be an urban planner. On net, I believe that Saleem Ali's review is quite fair.

Interesting analysis but misleading title, April 15, 2008
By Saleem Ali (Vermont, USA) - See all my reviews

Ecological planning of cities is now assumed by many regulators to be a win-win proposition and numerous initiatives on the "greening of cities" are taking shape across the world. No longer are Curitiba in Brazil or Chatanooga in Tennessee the outlier case studies that frequented so many conference presentations. Cities are greening through multiple pathways and Matthew Kahn's new book Green Cities, attempts to understand this trajectory through the lens of economic analysis. The book's theoretical core revolves around the concept of the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) - an economic hypothesis that gained much currency in the nineteen nineties by suggesting that economic prosperity initially leads to environmental decline but that eventually a self-correction mechanism then leads to environmental controls. Kahn notes that he was led to write this book after reading the Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg's bestseller The Skeptical Environmentalist in which data that indirectly supported the EKC hypothesis was presented.

The author is, however, quite nuanced in his analysis and does not blithely support the Cornucopian view that self-correction will take place in all circumstances. He first delineates the key attributes of environmental quality in urban areas, based on a review of environmental economics literature. In particular, air quality, gasoline consumption and use of public transit are given prominence. The data suggests a compelling case for the EKC hypothesis for air and noise pollution. Cities that have passed a certain threshold of income tend to have more clean and less noisy surroundings per capita.

Kahn also acknowledges that the EKC analysis has its limitations since the spatial quality of growth of cities and migration demographics are not adequately captured in this analysis. While acknowledging this limitation, Kahn also misses some of the most salient attributes of "Green Planning," in terms of parks and pedestrian space or ecosystem-based water and drainage infrastructure that have been known to planners, at least since Ian McHarg's Design with Nature (1967).

As an economist, Kahn is perhaps too preoccupied with the aggregate trends and less concerned with understanding what has worked in the greening process itself in terms of community acceptance. This is where, Kahn would have been better served by venturing beyond urban economics and also exploring the vast literature on environmental planning and consumer psychology. Indeed, the true mark of sustainability in cities is that the well-intentioned efforts at pollution reduction and green design can in fact be sustained through changes in political office.

Some of the chapters in the book hint at this integrative analysis by providing some data on consumer preferences and voting behavior such as the analysis of Proposition 185 ( a tax increase on gasoline) as a function residential distance form the business center. However, the confluence of political factors, social pathologies, and planning constraints that can lead to such behavior are not adequately considered. The literature on Green Urbanist movements would also have been important to consider in this regard (Beatley, 2000).

There is also a significant temporal disconnect between greening efforts that follow the path of economic development and the planning process itself. Plans for greening are often developed several years in advance of implementation and whether or not economic development is synchronous with that planning horizon is not clearly presented in the book.
Referring to the planning literature, Kahn would find that even some of the indicators for sustainability have been studied in great detail by planners as well and might be quite useful for his own quantitative analyses (Berke and Conroy, 2000). Furthermore, the quiet success stories in the developing world can often get missed in macro analysis of this kind. For example, what would explain the relatively green policies in Bogota, Colombia that also defy the conventional EKC trajectory.

Despite these shortcomings, Kahn has provided an important contribution to the analytical discourse on the greening of cities. He has successfully managed to present relatively esoteric economic methods for an informed policy audience within the span of a short paperback book, which is itself an achievement.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Career Choice: Cosmetic Plastic Surgery versus Economics

Today, the New York Times is filled with interesting stuff. You can click on the two links below but I want to talk about this glamorous plastic surgeon named Dr. Prasad. His interactions with strangers on planes are a little bit different than mine. It looks to me that he is trying to increase the demand for his services with chit chat with strangers. I don't think that I do that. I only talk to strangers on planes if they are reading something interesting. When people learn that I am an economist, they start talking about "Macro" (i.e home price dynamics, future interest rates, my best guess of the stock market's closing value a year from now). I then start to sketch the Kydland and Prescott RBC model and my favorite calibration parameters. Let's set B=.97. They then fall asleep and leave me alone.
In contrast to me, this Dr. has dudes and ladies stripping on airplanes.

I think this simple example below highlights heterogeneity and self selection and comparative advantage in the labor market. I would like to see this strange dude do economics and I have no interest in performing surgery on anything but my nightly dinner.

Before we get to the dude, here are 3 really interesting links.

Energy Idea Competition

Cholera in 19th Century NYC

Beijing to Shutdown City activity before Olympics

April 15, 2008
Memo From Surgeon: Office Hours Don’t Include Midflight

IN my years as a cosmetic surgeon I have found that people will go to great lengths to achieve a certain ideal of beauty or masculinity.

I travel about once a month throughout the United States or overseas for meetings or to lecture. I enjoy people and generally find myself chatting with seatmates. But once a seatmate finds out what I do for a living, I have had some strange encounters.

In a medical office setting, there are specific protocols that are followed. We don’t talk about patients in the hallways, and everything is designed to keep a person’s reason for a visit private.

But on a plane all bets are off. Modesty takes a leap out the window. And no one really cares about privacy. Not only will very attractive people tell me every single thing they don’t like about their looks, sometimes they will try to show me those body parts that for modesty’s sake — and airline rules — really should remain within the confines of clothing.

On a recent flight to Los Angeles, the takeoff was delayed, and I passed the time chatting with a gentleman seated next to me.

Since we weren’t going anywhere soon I left my seat to stretch my legs and to use the restroom. As I was making my way down the aisle, I recognized a woman seated behind me. She is a local television reporter and I see her face all the time on the local news.

Anyway, this woman stood up as well and started following me. As we approached the facilities, I offered to let her go first. But she wasn’t budging. Instead, she started talking to me about surgery.

She said she had overheard my conversation with my seatmate and was thinking of having “something done.” She wanted to know if I could go into the stall with her so she could undress, and then get my opinion about that body part she didn’t like.

I politely but quickly declined, explaining that it would be inappropriate. I did give her my card and told her to call me. She is now a patient.

It’s not only women who reveal their dissatisfaction with their bodies. Men aren’t immune from chatting me up. But it is interesting to see how they approach me. Where women are very open about their perceived problems, men ease into the subject. Their favorite subject: hair transplantation.

On a recent trip a man asked me if my hair was real. I had just removed a ski cap and my hair was looking very full because of static. Despite telling the fellow my hair was homegrown, we wound up talking about hair transplants and other options.

A few men have asked about liposuction and chin implants. And a few brave men have asked me about penile extensions. Once I explain that surgery, however, most men are so horrified, they rarely follow up with an office visit.

I’m not going to lie about what I do for a living. I think doctors have a responsibility to help people where and when they can. But at 30,000 feet, there are limitations. So please keep body parts covered until you get to the office. At the end of the flight, you, me, my insurer and our fellow passengers will be a lot more comfortable.

By Dr. Amiya Prasad, as told to Joan Raymond. E-mail: joan.raymond@nytimes.com

Monday, April 14, 2008

Noisy Cairo

Is noise pollution in cities an important costly externality? Rich country cities' aren't very noisy. I do admit that 2am garbage pickup in Rome did wake me up but we did not have air conditioning at our apartment and in the summer our windows were open. New York City has really high fines for honking horns. I haven't seen any evidence that they enforce these laws. I argue in my Green Cities book that economic development helps to solve the noise externality problem in cities.

I have never been to Cairo but this sounds annoying. this is a textbook case of scale overwhelming the commons without improvements in technology or the rule of law reiging in the "polluters". Is this an equilibrium? Will some Egyptian Mayorial version of Rudi Giuliani figure out a way to solve the noise problem?

New York Times
April 14, 2008
Cairo Journal
A City Where You Can’t Hear Yourself Scream
CAIRO — Egyptians in this capital city say it is harder and harder to be heard and to have a voice, but they are not talking politics. Well, not only politics.

What they are talking about, or rather yelling about, is noise, the incredible background noise of a city crammed with 18 million people, and millions of drivers who always have one hand on the horn and a rules-free way of thinking.

“Whenever I talk to people, they always say, ‘Why are you screaming?’ ” said Salah Abdul Hamid, 56, a barber whose two-chair shop is on the corner of a busy street on the north side.

Mr. Hamid was, of course, screaming.

It was 4 p.m. in Rhode al Farag, a typical Cairo neighborhood teeming with people and shops and cars and trucks and buses and horse-drawn carts. From his shop, the landscape of sound revealed a chorus of people struggling to make a living, trying to assert themselves in a city, and in a country, where they often feel invisible.

Noise — outrageous, unceasing, pounding noise — is the unnerving backdrop to a tense time in Egypt, as inflation and low wages have people worried about basic survival, prompting strikes and protests. We’re not just talking typical city noise, but what scientists here say is more like living inside a factory.

“It’s not enough to make you crazy, but it is very tiring,” said Essam Muhammad Hussein, as he sat in a cracked plastic chair outside the corner food shop his family has owned for 50 years. He was shouting as he talked about the noise, though he did not seem to realize it.

“What are we going to do?” he asked. “Where is the way out?”

This is not like London or New York, or even Tehran, another car-clogged Middle Eastern capital. It is literally like living day in and day out with a lawn mower running next to your head, according to scientists with the National Research Center. They spent five years studying noise levels across the city and concluded in a report issued this year that the average noise from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. is 85 decibels, a bit louder than a freight train 15 feet away, said Mustafa el Sayyid, an engineer who helped carry out the study.

But that 85 decibels, while “clearly unacceptable,” is only the average across the day and across the city. At other locations, it is far worse, he said. In Tahrir Square, or Ramsis Square, or the road leading to the pyramids, the noise often reaches 95 decibels, he said, which is only slightly quieter than standing next to a jackhammer.

“All of greater Cairo is in the range of unacceptable noise levels from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” Mr. Sayyid said.

By comparison, normal conversation ranges from 45 to 60 decibels, a chain saw registers 100 decibels and a gunshot 140. Because the decibel scale is logarithmic, every 10 decibels equals a tenfold increase in intensity.

Noise at the levels commonly found in Cairo affects the body. It can cause elevated blood pressure and other stress-related diseases. It can interfere with sleep, which almost always makes people more irritable. “People need a chance to sleep, to have a chance to think, in quiet,” said Dr. Nagat Amer, a physician and researcher with the national center.

But quiet is in short supply, especially in densely packed neighborhoods like Rhode al Farag, where the streets are alive 24 hours a day with people struggling with one another to eke out a living. In the last six weeks, 11 people have been killed in fights in lines to buy some of the cheap subsidized bread many rely on to feed their families.

While noise is never cited as a reason for the spasms of violence, it is a silent enemy that makes the pressures of life that much harder to cope with, people on the streets here said.

“The noise bothers me and I know it bothers people,” said Abdel Khaleq, driver of a battered black and white taxi, as he paused from honking his horn to stop for passengers.

“So why do you do it?” he was asked.

“Well, to tell you I’m here,” he said. “There is no such thing as logic in this country.”

And then he drove off, honking.

In general terms, the noise is a symptom of an increasingly unmanageable city, crowded far beyond its original capacity, officials at the National Research Center said. The main culprit is the two million cars, and drivers who jam the city roads every day.

But Egyptians also like to live loud, preferring community to private space, mourning a death and celebrating a wedding with a good dose of noise. Muezzins’ calls to prayer wail from loudspeakers in the minarets of thousands of mosques in the city. The problem is there are more people now, more cars, more competition for a sale, more jockeying for a spot on the road. And with that much more, there is less consideration for the person behind or next door, social commentators said.

“We like to live our life with people around us — there is no privacy,” said Ahmed El-Kholei, a professor of urban planning at Monufiya University in the Nile Delta north of the city. “This is not a bad thing in itself, but the way it is expressed is wrong. Before, when someone held a funeral, the neighbors would postpone a wedding out of consideration. Today, you see the funeral and the wedding all howling in the microphones at the same time.”

Still, Egyptians do not, as a rule, complain about noise.

“What noise?” asked Madbouly Omran, who has run a small nut stand on Rhode al Farag Street since 1970.

The trucks rumbled by. A pickup truck hit its air horn. Taxis honked.

Moustafa Abdel Aleem, who works in the booth with Mr. Omran, said, “The noise is not something I want, but I can’t do anything about it; it’s forced on me.” So he turned on the radio in search of a song he liked, and of course, turned the volume up.

In a nation where about 40 percent of the population survives on about $2 a day, people understand the struggle to feed a family. In Rhode al Farag, men worked on cars in the street, butchered meat in the street, blasted radios and turned up television sets. Like shellshocked war veterans, residents sat out on the street, sipping tea, oblivious to the cacophony.

Even when it came to the shop run by Mahmoud Faheem, people did not complain. Mr. Faheem rents out concert-sized speakers, and he displayed his speakers on the street, offering the entire block a never ending thump-thump of dance music. “Let him eat bread,” said Atef Ali, 45, the owner of a food shop next door, using an Arabic phrase to explain why he did not complain, even while he detested the music.

And so the people shout, and shrug.

They shout to be heard, and shrug because they say there is nothing they can do but join in, honking, banging, screaming, whatever they need to do to make it through the day — or the intersection. The noise is the cause and the reaction, they say.

“Life is like this,” said Ahmed Muhammad, 23, who makes his living delivering metal tanks of propane to homes. He hangs four tanks off the back of a rusted bicycle, then rides with one hand on the handlebars, the other slamming a wrench into one of the tanks to announce his arrival to the neighborhood. “Making money is like this,” he said. “What am I going to do? This is how it is.”

Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Audacity of Environmental Optimism

I am back from my talk at the Santa Fe Institute. I had a great time and met some fascinating people. SFI's scholars are in deep thought about complex system dynamics. A city can be thought of as a complex system. Where the math gets tough is thinking about "feedback loops" , "cumulative causation" and increasing returns to scale in determining a city's dynamics. Translated into english, consider the example of public transit. If a city builds a small public transit system (i.e one rail line), this system is unlikely to attract firms to locate near its stations or to encourage people to substitute from car transport to public transit. If the city builds an enormous rail system (think of NYC), these green outcomes are more likely and this outcome could actually be self-fullfiling. Anticipating that more people will commute using the rail system, firms locate near the station stops and nice restaurants locate there. Such firm's choices make using public transit more appealing because it now takes you where you want to go. So , in this simple example there are two different equilibrium. The second option would be much more costly and the optimism listed above is not a guaranteed outcome. So, as you can see making policy choices ex-ante depends on how you view the system as evolving and this creates a demand for Santa Fe Institute's talents.

Turning to the ecological footprint. This sounds like a funny TV show. It is a shame that I don't own a TV. I like the review's final sentence. At least this Times' reviewer is smart and subtle.

My causality question is; "if you watch this show, will you be shamed into changing your behavior? Is this effect a short run effect or will watching this show shrink your footprint forever?"

What power does information have on behavior when the consequences of your actions do not have immediate effects on your standard of living? If I inform you that a Chinese restaurant's food will make you sick, you will immediately not go there. But if I tell you that eating its food causes extra methane, you may still go there. In the second case, you don't bear the costs now and the costs are borne by all.

April 12, 2008
Television Review | 'Human Footprint'
Americans as Addicts of Consumerism

What pigs we are.

Or to put it even more directly, the “average American” consumes 1.7 tons of pork in a lifetime, according to one of the myriad facts and figures in “Human Footprint” on the National Geographic Channel.

This two-hour production, having its premiere on Sunday, with Elizabeth Vargas of ABC News as anchor, is never more than a commercial break away from another armload of weighty statistics.

Many are painstakingly illustrated by the average lifelong mass quantities of diapers (3,796), pints of milk (13,056), bananas (5,067), beers (13,248) and so on. In some cases a little product placement goes a long way, as when a prominent bread maker’s logo can be seen on a grand total of 4,376 loaves.

Later the filmmakers imaginatively use 28,443 yellow rubber duckies to dramatize a lifetime’s worth of showers at the expense of 700,000 gallons of water.

No special effects were used for any of these displays, National Geographic says. The signature overhead shot, in all its glory, is of 12,129 hamburger buns and 5,442 hot dog rolls arranged in the shape of the American flag. Be still, my thumping heart. But where’s the apple pie?

The statistics were compiled in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo, and the Earth Institute at Columbia University. They’re based on a life expectancy of 77 years 9 months, and a United States population rounded to 301 million. “Human Footprint” tracks supposedly typical consumers from diaper-wearing infancy to medication-dependent old age.

Not surprisingly, Americans continue to out-big-foot everyone else when it comes to consumption. Although only 5 percent of the global population, Americans are said to use more than one-quarter of the world’s energy.

Ms. Vargas dutifully spews out the stats like an old-school adding machine. But it all gets more than a little wearying, once the wow factor has receded. All right, all right, enough with the prolonged shower of a lifetime’s worth of 19,826 eggs sent splattering into an unsightly “omelet of a lifetime,” as she says.

The script is serviceable although at times a bit hackneyed.

“As much as we relish our hot dogs, that’s nothing compared to our love affair with the hamburger,” Ms. Vargas says at one point. She adds, “It’s an ugly fact that Americans spend more on beauty than on education every year.”

The review copy of “Human Footprint” is notably skimpy on what exactly to do about all of this — or how harmful it might be. National Geographic’s program materials say the final cut will incorporate public service spots and “Web pointers” with “suggestions for reducing your human footprint” and its attendant carbon dioxide emissions. Ms. Vargas, for her part, tells viewers that it would be a good idea to lower thermostats, use new energy-saving light bulbs and unplug appliances when not in use.

Parochially speaking, it might be good to keep one consumptive statistic in mind. “Human Footprint” says that each lifetime reader of The New York Times uses 40,040 pounds of newsprint.

Read into that what you will, but let’s not get carried away with any crazy starvation diets.


National Geographic, Sunday night at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.

Malcolm Brinkworth, executive producer for Touch Productions; Clive Maltby, producer, director and writer; Produced by Touch Productions for the National Geographic Channel; Howard Swartz, executive producer for the National Geographic Channel.

WITH: Elizabeth Vargas.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Blogging Hiatus

I am going AWOL for a few days to participate in a sustainability conference at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico . Some of the core ideas I will talk about are here:
www.hks.harvard.edu/rappaport/downloads/policybriefs/greencities_final.pdf. I'm hoping that there will not be podcast. While I like the idea of a historical record of my talk, I don't like the idea of being held accountable for what I say. People who know me know that I like to speak without constraints or feeling self conscious. Tape recorders and video machines somehow make me feel that I'm not at a bar with my friends. I have heard so many boring public speakers and I'm determined to never being boring. But, the urge to not be boring raises the possibility of saying some really weird stuff and I'm certainly guilty of that.

Today at the UCLA Institute of the Environment, the President of Shell Oil showed up for lunch. Mr. Hofmeister is a very smart guy and very good on his feet. He could be a college prof but I guess he chose a different path! It was quite interesting to listen to him talk about how he is making strategic bets on different energy sources in the presence of uncertainty of the future price of energy and regulatory uncertainty such as what will be the implications of California's AB32 for his business.

I came away from the meeting thinking that academic economists need to spend more time with business people. Is the reverse true?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Death of the NYC Congestion Charge: Different Views of a Hicksian Pareto Improvement

Economists like policies where the winners win more than the losers lose. But, we often see cases where such "hicksian pareto improvements" do not become policy. Yes, the losers weren't compensated or didn't expect to be compensated or lacked the imagination to forsee that they could have benefited from the new policy.

Here is an interesting set of letters. The relevant urban economics is the belief that the winners from this congestion charge policy would have been rich center city residents (higher speeds, greener city, and diminishing returns to income) while the losers would be "car dependent" middle class suburbanites and outer-borough people.

New York Times Letters
April 9, 2008
The Defeat of Congestion Pricing
To the Editor:

Re “$8 Traffic Fee for Manhattan Fails in Albany” (front page, April 8):

The defeat of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s revolutionary plan to limit the role of the automobile in the nation’s largest city will mean an annual loss of $13 billion to the city’s economy in lost time and wasted fuel, the loss of $354 million in federal mass transit aid, including 367 new buses, as well as improved air quality.

What has been lost is a cleaner, quieter, quicker city. The plan was unpopular especially outside of Manhattan. The New York State Legislature, unlike the City Council, was apparently unwilling to look at the long-term benefits, but focused instead on the short-term politics.

We have lost a historic opportunity for the people of this city. Who knows when it will come again?

Peter H. Kostmayer
President, Citizens Committee for New York City
New York, April 8, 2008

To the Editor:

Bravo to the Assembly for batting down Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan. It’s difficult to see this as anything but a tax on the lower-income citizens. If the goal was to reduce traffic in the city, a monetary charge is one of the most inequitable means of achieving it, but I don’t recall any discussion of alternatives.

Mr. Bloomberg began his tenure as mayor with admirable, egalitarian action cutting city expenditures across the board. No group was spared, not even education. But beyond his fiscal sensibilities, the rest of his administration has been marred by changes that seem to cater to his personal ideals — intolerance for smoking, fatty food and now traffic.

This most recent endeavor is the most troubling because it so clearly favors the upper classes (yes, there are classes in America).

Of all the annoyances associated with living in New York City, traffic is already the most avoidable. The alternative is the good old trusty M.T.A. It’s available to all citizens, tourists and business travelers, rich or poor. And if the wealthy would like to keep public transportation beneath them, the helicopter is there to serve.

Aaron D. Ipsa
New York, April 8, 2008

To the Editor:

As I waited for the subway in this morning’s rush hour (and had to let three express trains pass before one arrived with enough room for new passengers) and waited for my crosstown bus (the M34, rated among the slowest in the city), I could not help but reflect on the damage wreaked upon our city as a result of the petty egos of members of the New York Assembly.

They claim to care about global warming, pollution, congestion and the residents of New York. What they really care about is open to question. After refusing to vote on this important issue in the open, it is clear that democracy is not among their core beliefs.

Barbara D. Paxton
New York, April 8, 2008

To the Editor:

I am deeply troubled by Albany’s standing in the way of New York City’s plan for congestion pricing. But as I rode my bicycle to work this morning across the Brooklyn Bridge, all but flying past commuters trapped in their cars in traffic, I took heart in realizing that the failure of vision in rejecting congestion pricing is the car commuters’ loss more than mine. They remain trapped in a mid-20th-century dream of freedom that has turned into a nightmare.

New York City must push ahead reapportioning its street space for people rather than cars with dedicated bus lanes and bicycle paths separated from traffic running into the core of the business district. Rising gas prices and perhaps a carbon or gas tax as well as more limited parking will have to suffice to discourage driving.

Gary Eckstein
Brooklyn, April 8, 2008

To the Editor:

Re “$8 Traffic Fee for Manhattan Fails in Albany” (front page, April 8) and “Mr. Silver Does It Again” (editorial, April 8):

Yes, congestion pricing would have been good for mass transit and the environment. But instead of pointing fingers and playing the blame game, let’s carry out the good ideas that the mayor and the City Council can agree on without an Albany vote or federal aid.

Let’s send a message to the suburbanites shopping on weekends with higher meter fees and permits for Manhattan residents. Let’s send a message to the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, and introduce car-free weekends in his district on Mott Street and then expand them to other crowded pedestrian destinations like Bleecker Street in the West Village and Fifth Avenue. Let’s close enough east-west streets to through traffic to efficiently connect the West and East Side bikeways with each other and the middle.

Big ideas are great, but the accumulation of lots of little traffic-congestion mitigation ideas will be as good or better. It’s the least we can do.

Edward Rosenfeld
New York, April 8, 2008

To the Editor:

Re “Bloomberg Tactics Were Highhanded on Traffic Plan, Lawmakers Say” (news article, April 8):

Although there are myriad reasons congestion pricing failed to pass, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s secrecy among the most prominent, the claim that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s attitude was imperious is not without merit. His Honor basically scolded foes of congestion pricing without offering much in the way of inducements.

Mr. Bloomberg might want to learn a lesson his success in business should have taught him: one attracts more with honey than with vinegar.

Adam Stoler
Bronx, April 8, 2008

There is also a hilarious article today about the "costs of density" on the NYC commuter train. Read this:

April 9, 2008
A Noisy Train, a Fed-Up Rider and a Day in Court
All John Clifford wanted was a peaceful ride to work on the 7:39 to Pennsylvania Station. He would get to the Long Island Rail Road station at Long Beach early every weekday morning, board the train, stake out a five-seat section to rest his bad back, and prepare to read his newspaper and eat his breakfast.

But all around him, there would be chaos. One woman putting on full makeup while listening to her iPod and talking to friends. Another inviting guests to a barbecue and talking about personal problems. Men chatting on cellphones. They were treating the ride as a social situation, he testified in court on Tuesday, forming cliques and getting to know each other by name.

He asked the passengers to keep it down, but the chatter continued. In March 2007, Mr. Clifford had had enough. He shouted an obscenity at a passenger talking on his cellphone and slapped the hand of another, and was arrested. On Tuesday, he found himself in Manhattan Criminal Court, telling his tale.

“I stand up for my right to be let alone,” Mr. Clifford, a retired New York City police sergeant, declared from the witness stand at his nonjury trial on charges including harassment and assault.

To his accusers, Mr. Clifford, 60, was a bully who hogged five seats and had told one passenger, Donna DeCurtis, who had talked loudly, that he knew her name and where she lived, and that “I can make your life hell.” He had been arrested before, the prosecutor said, though, until now, the charges had always been dropped.

After one of those arrests, Ms. DeCurtis testified on Tuesday, “everybody just stood up and applauded.”

But Mr. Clifford testified that, deep down, many of his fellow passengers were grateful, but were too scared to speak up. “When I sit on the train it’s quiet,” he said. “I get up, people come over and shake my hand. They say: ‘Thank you. I wanted to rip her throat out.’ ”

Outside court, he compared himself to Rosa Parks, fighting for his right to sit where he wanted in peace.

“Look what happened to her,” he said, pointing out that Parks was punished for her stand against discrimination. In court, however, he sometimes sounded like the Miss Manners of the railroad, blaming the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the railroad’s parent agency, for not enforcing its own etiquette rules, which restrict noise to 70 decibels under some circumstances.

He had bought a noise meter and found that the train alone measured 70 decibels. “When you’re talking across the car it goes to 80 decibels,” he testified.

Although he seemed like a perfect client for a civil rights lawyer, he chose to represent himself. He has a law degree.

Dressed in a blue Oxford shirt, wearing glasses, and with close-cropped gray hair, he looked lawyerly as he was sworn in to testify. Mr. Clifford said that he routinely took up a section of five facing seats because he was 6-foot-4 and suffered from backaches. It was, he said, the only place where he could cross his legs to ease the pain. He offered to show his scar from a back operation to Judge Larry Stephen, who declined.

“Do I admit to being domineering?” he testified. “Yeah.”

He described his usual routine on the 7:39 or the 8:03 from Long Beach to his job as a private investigator in Manhattan: “I eat. I mind my own business. I read my paper. I get to work.” Interfering with that routine, he said, was “this clique that think it’s their absolute right to talk as long and as loud as they like.”

Only one clique? the prosecutor asked.

“There are different cliques throughout the train,” he replied. “Throughout every train.”

He said that in October 2006, Ms. DeCurtis deliberately provoked him by talking to one of her friends across the aisle.

“They’re talking from one side of the train to the other,” he testified. “That aggravates me. I can’t concentrate. I can’t catch up on current events, and it gives me a headache, so I tell them off.”

Judge Stephen gently interjected, “You can move to another car, can’t you?”

“The problem is, Your Honor, there are no seats,” Mr. Clifford replied.

He admitted that he had threatened to make Ms. DeCurtis’s life hell, but said he knew personal details about her only because she had talked about them so loudly to her friends.

“But you have to realize some of your conduct is inappropriate?” the judge asked.

“Your Honor, it only becomes inappropriate when people themselves won’t behave,” he said.

Mr. Clifford faced charges of misdemeanor assault, attempted petit larceny, harassment and disorderly conduct.

He admitted that he had cursed at a passenger, Nicholas Bender, who was talking on his cellphone, then slapped the hand of another passenger, Lydia Klein, as she tried to give her business card to Mr. Bender — but only after she slapped his hand first. The prosecutor said Mr. Clifford was trying to steal the information on the card, hence the larceny charge.

“He is not a white knight, he’s Darth Vader,” said Mary Weisgerber, the prosecutor, in her closing argument.

But after it was all done, Judge Stephen acquitted Mr. Clifford of all charges. The judge said he had discounted most of the testimony against Mr. Clifford because all but one of the witnesses had “an ax to grind.”

“While the court does not condone the defendant’s manner of getting people to remain quiet or silent on the Long Island Rail Road,” Judge Stephen said, “I see no crimes having been committed beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Railroad officials said they were disappointed. “Some of our customers feel as if they have been abused by Mr. Clifford’s behavior,” said Joe Calderone, a spokesman for the railroad. “We will not tolerate aggressive behavior by Mr. Clifford if he seeks to impose his own standards of conduct on others. We will not hesitate in the future to call on police if necessary to protect the safety of our customers and employees.”

As Mr. Clifford left the courtroom and stepped outside to light a celebratory cigar, he pronounced the judge “excellent” and even complimented the prosecutor for finding one neutral witness.

On Tuesday evening, he took the A train to the Grant Avenue-Pitkin Avenue station in Brooklyn, where he picked up his car for the drive home to Long Beach — not because he was afraid to take the commuter railroad, but because the subway was more convenient, he said. He celebrated at Shines bar.

“Believe me,” Mr. Clifford said, “I am no hero. Rosa Parks is a hero. I’m just a knucklehead.”

Al Baker and C. J. Hughes contributed reporting.