March 22, 2023

Legislators Squandering Money

They could’ve really helped the homeless.

At the beginning of the pandemic Vermont used federal COVID funding to vastly expand a program providing emergency shelter in motels. Made sense since fear and lockdowns led to an unemployment spike and the motels had no guests. The program now supports about 1800 families and doesn’t have room for all who are eligible under current rules.

Motels, who have traveling guests again, have been withdrawing from the program despite extremely generous reimbursement rules because of damage to rooms and the difficulty of housing at least some of the homeless. The pandemic is over. Unemployment is near an all-time low. The federal funding ends March 31st. There have been repeated warnings to recipients that support for some of them is ending and help has been available to find other housing.

Over Governor Scott’s objection, the legislature appropriated 21 million state dollars to keep the full program alive until May 31st when eligibility will be restricted to those most in need including, according to VTDigger, “people fleeing domestic violence, families with children, those aged 60 and over, pregnant people, people with disabilities, and certain households that recently lost their housing.” Ironically, since there are not currently enough rooms for all, some of those in the most needy category won’t be able to get shelter until the less needy move out at the end of May.

The $21 million is being wasted. Although it postpones the day when the less needy need to find alternatives, it does nothing to address Vermont’s long-term housing problems nor does it address the drug and mental health crises which, pandemic and housing shortage aside, have increased the number of people requiring some kind of shelter. It’s always difficult to end an emergency aid program because of those who quickly become dependent on it even after the emergency is over. A helping hand quickly becomes an indispensable crutch. But we can’t afford emergency programs if we can’t end them once the emergency is over.

“Advocates” say that Vermont has the highest homeless rate in the nation and that there are more people seeking emergency housing now than before the pandemic. However, you can’t judge demand for something by the amount of it you can give away. Vermont also has among the lowest number of people living without shelter (good thing in our climate). The more free rooms are available, the more people will want to move into them even if they have other alternatives. Anecdotally, people have moved to Vermont because these rooms are available.

There are two parts to our housing problem: lack of supply partly because of restrictions on “land use” (aka development including building houses) and drug and mental health problems, which leave some people unable to live on their own even if there is space available for them. It’s not safe for indigent families to be in shelters with those who can’t control their behavior no matter how much the latter also need help. The increasing reluctance of motels to support this program is partly because they now have other sources of revenue but also because of the damage and danger from those who need institutionalization.

If the $21 million were used as a downpayment on the long-term mental health facilities which Vermont is sorely lacking, it would’ve have helped both those who require institutionalization and those who need safe shelter. The federal money is drying up; squandering the remainder leaves us less able to deal with the very real problems we have. The rest of the legislative session deals mainly with budget. Unfortunately, there will be many other opportunities to fritter away the remaining federal COVID windfall on band aids rather than tackling problems which will be with is when the federal dollars are gone. It’s a time to watch legislators closely and speak up loudly.

BTW, the money spent bailing out uninsured depositors at Silicon Valley and Signature Banks is emergency spending we never should have done and will also breed further dependency, this time by the affluent. #Wealthfare is far less justified than welfare. Both the left and the right have plenty of bad governance to complain about this week.

See also:

Confessions of a Stimulator

I’m From the Government and I’m Here to Help Them

Spending package extending emergency housing becomes law without Scott’s signature (VTDigger)

March 16, 2023

Why We Can’t Wipe Out COVID and Flu

And why that shouldn’t have been a surprise.

The facts (as known today)

The speedy development of the mRNA vaccines for COVID was a great accomplishment; the vaccines saved many lives and even more hospitalizations. What they did not do is provide herd immunity; they did not drive COVID out of the general population the way that vaccines for polio and smallpox have done for those diseases. Even if every human had been vaccinated as soon as the vaccines were developed, COVID would still be with us. Similarly, even if we all had contracted COVID last year, we’d still be at risk this year.  Here’s why:

  1. Viruses like flu and COVID evolve very rapidly and their effectiveness survives many mutations. The polio virus mutates more slowly (1986 study) and almost all its mutations destroy its ability to penetrate human cells. An article published in 2015 reporting a Mount Sinai study says: “The field has long understood that key parts of the gene code for the measles virus remain unchanged over time, while similar genes in flu viruses constantly change, despite the two both being RNA viruses that infect the lungs. Specifically, the new study found that measles is much less able than the flu to survive genetic changes to the viral surface…”.
  1. We are not the only animals to get flu-like diseases; they go back and forth between human and non-human populations. Even if every human were immune, there would still be a reservoir of the virus in birds, bats, or other animals ready to infect humans again as soon as It mutated sufficiently to evade prior immunities. Neither smallpox nor polio are found in other animals.
  1. Nasal COVID can be infectious without making the nose’s owner “sick”. All viruses need to enter a living cell to replicate. The nose is a “frontier”; all sorts of stuff gets in there. Our immune systems are fairly tolerant of strange particles in the nose because they can’t afford to overreact on the frontier. The immune system goes all guns out for invaders in organs which are supposed to be sterile or nearly so. COVID can reproduce in our noses and quickly get back out to infect other people without making us sick. Since vaccines work by enhancing the immune system, they are less effective in the nose than in other organs because that’s the way the immune system has set its priorities. Even if we’re vaccinated or have been infected previously, we can be spreaders through nasal infection without feeling sick ourselves. Whatever immunity we have helps prevent a nasal infection from spreading to other organs. Diseases like polio, smallpox, and measles don’t replicate in the noise so they must defeat the internal defenses of our immune systems before we become infectious.

What happened

I was as close to first in line as I could get for every available COVID shot and booster. I don’t regret that for a minute. At close to eighty I’m at high risk if I get a bad case but have little reason to worry about as-yet undetected long-term risks of the novel vaccines with which we’ve had only a few years’ experience. However, I also wrote that COVID vaccination should be required for most workers. I was wrong about requiring COVID vaccinations even though the requirement for vaccinations against polio, smallpox, measles and other disease have saved many lives and should, in my opinion, stay in place.

All vaccinations protect the vaccinated person to some degree. Vaccinations against diseases like polio and smallpox, which have not been able to evolve to evade vaccination and acquired immunity, protect not only the person who gets the shot but also those in the population who cannot safely be immunized and those very few for whom immunization doesn’t work. Even a democratic society which values individual liberty has the right and responsibility to require vaccination when that requirement can lead to herd immunity and protect the vulnerable.

When I heard that COVID vaccinations were 95% effective, I thought that we could quickly wipe COVID out as a threat. Wrong! I should’ve known from the flu example that the virus would quickly mutate and remain a population threat. There is risk in every vaccination and especially in a very new vaccine developed in haste and using a new technique (mRNA). It was and is clear that COVID is a major threat only to us geezers and some other people with co-morbidities. That’s why we were given priority access to the vaccine. People should have been allowed – as many people were – to make their own risk/reward decisions given that there was no chance of totally eliminating COVID. There should not have been mandates.

There were a couple of blissful months after my first shot and booster where I thought I was immune. Mary and I took a seven-week nearly maskless trip around the country. We were lucky and did not get breakthrough cases. We probably would have taken the trip even if we had understood that the vaccinations would not remain completely effective. We probably were protected by our vaccinations (or we may have had COVID and never knew it). Nevertheless, we were made over-confident by over-hyping of the vaccine by most of the public health establishment.

From Dr. Fauci down, the reasons why COVID shots would not confer herd-immunity must have been well-known. The results of the studies cited at the beginning of this post had been available for years. He and much of the public health establishment chose not to make that clear because they wanted everyone to get inoculated. Well-meaning people like me jumped on the requirements bandwagon because we knew how effective mandatory vaccination for polio and other diseases has been.

The problem isn’t that some of the first recommendations and prognostications on COVID were wrong; that was bound to happen in the face of a novel disease. Credibility was lost because public leaders didn’t acknowledge their uncertainty even as they changed their advice and they claimed there was a “science” which had all the answers even though those answers changed from one news conference to the next. When debate was most needed, we see from the twitter files that the government was trying to assure that dissent – even from highly qualified sources – was never seen.

Misinforming the public (to be polite) is not an acceptable way to accomplish public policy objectives. It is not acceptable for experts to exaggerate because they are afraid they are not being listened to; government policy built on induced panic or misinformation is not good policy; and the press does NOT have a responsibility to either amplify exaggerated claims nor to suppress contrary voices.

Now what?

The sad result is that anti-vaxxers like those who have helped keep measles and polio alive have been given new credibility. The Centers for Disease Control in particular and the medical establishment in general have lost credibility. The great accomplishment of developing the COVID vaccine at warp speed has been sullied just because the vaccine was oversold. Government has lost trust it will need for the next pandemic or other emergency.

The first step in preparing for the next possible pandemic is understanding both the origins of this one and what we did right and wrong in responding. If that search for understanding is partisan – as it is so far, we will learn little and further damage the credibility the CDC et al will need next time.  If the press picks sides, the credibility of the press will sink even further. On the other hand, if we realize that science requires rigorous review and revision and if the public is informed both of new learnings and continuing uncertainty and if the press can keep editorial out of news reporting and concentrate on the medical rather than political implications of new discoveries, then we can begin to repair the credibility which has been squandered.

Meanwhile I will get the next booster available and am happy to get a COVID shot every year even if it’ll only be 70% effective.

See also:

Pandemic Lesson #1: “The Science” Must Always be Challenged

Pandemic Lesson #2 – Experts Are Too Narrow to Make Policy

We Should’ve Said “Requirement” Rather Than “Mandate”

Most Workers Should be Required to Get Vaccinations (I was wrong)

Essential Workers Should be Vaccinated

Public Health Agencies Are Retooling as COVID-19 Response Winds Down. A Slim Majority of Adults Trusts Them to Manage Another Pandemic (Morning Consult)

March 14, 2023

I’m From the Government and I’m Here to Help Them

There’s no such thing as a free bailout.

Disclosure: I would probably have lost money indirectly if the Fed had not bailed out uninsured depositors at Silicon Valley Bank (SVB). Nevertheless, I don’t think there should have been a bailout. We will (almost) all lose from this escalation of #wealthfare and #cronycapitalism in the not very long run.

There are actually two bailouts going on: one for uninsured depositors at SVB and Signature Bank and the other for bankers and bank investors at other banks who made the same mistakes which SVB and Signature did but who will now be held harmless by a special Federal Reserve program which shields them from the consequences of their mismanagement.

The Uninsured Deposits Bailout

It is true that this part of the rescue is not a bailout of bank executives and shareholders like TARP during the last recession. Executives at the two failed banks are out of work; the bank investors are out their capital. However, it is a bailout of those who had uninsured balances at the banks. They benefited from the higher than average interest rates paid by the two banks and access to loans offered by the banks to companies (and their executives) which promised to do all of their deposit business with the bank. The companies took a risk to get these benefits. With hindsight, too much risk. We are only entitled to the gains of capitalism if we actually bear the risk of loss.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has restored the full amount of all bank balances to all SVB and Signature depositors. Normally all insured deposits (up to $250,000 per account) would be available immediately and uninsured deposits would be paid proportionally from whatever the bank or its assets were sold for in bankruptcy. Typically at least 50% of the uninsured deposits are available immediately and much of the rest (usually all of it) dribbles in over time as assets are liquidated.

The FDIC used cash from its insurance fund both for its intended purpose of reimbursing insured deposits and for the “emergency” purpose of restoring all uninsured deposits. It is true, as Janet Yellen says, that this is not “taxpayer” money. The fund is quite properly established from fees paid by banks directly and by us depositors or borrowers indirectly. However, the fund will have to be increased to cover this unintended use. That means bigger fees to banks so lower interest rates on deposit accounts and or higher interest for loans. We won’t pay for this bailout as taxpayers; we’ll pay for it as bank depositors and borrowers. There’s no such thing as a free bailout.

Had Washington not blinked, it is quite possible that Silicon Valley would have taken effective and proper steps to protect its own ecosystem with its own money. Responsible VCs (and those who were just self-interested) were working through the weekend to make sure that short-term funds for payroll and the like were available to the companies they invested in. Just as J.P. Morgan used to get his cronies together to save the banking system they had a stake in, tech titans might well have prevented the companies with uninsured funds from catastrophe. That is the way capitalism is supposed to work. But, once the FDIC took responsibility, Silicon Valley tycoons could keep their own purses shut.

The Real Bank Bailout

The Federal Reserve also announced a bank bailout program which will save the jobs of irresponsible bank executives and the funds of bank investors just as TARP did 15 years ago. The Bank Term Funding Program uses the Treasury’s (our) exchange-stabilization fund to make loans to banks based on insufficient collateral  to avoid the banks having to take the same sort of losses which drove SVB into receivership. These banks, like SVB, bought treasury securities which have declined in value as the fed pushed interest rates up. The Fed will nevertheless lend them money as if the decline in value had never happened. This is an out-and-out subsidy. It uses our money to keep these banks “solvent” even though they are really underwater and unable to meet withdrawal demand.

If this doesn’t make you mad, think of it this way. If you bought a 10-year treasury bond two years ago and suddenly needed the cash, you’d have to sell your bond at a significant loss just as SVB did since rising interest rates have pushed down the current value of the bond. The Fed deliberately raised interest rates to fight inflation. Many of us have paid some price for this. However, mismanaged banks no longer pay this price. They get a get-out-of-bankruptcy-free card at our expense. They can monetize their bonds as if rates had never gone up. If they can’t pay back their loans at the end of a year and aren’t bailed out again (wanna bet in an election year?), we’re on the hook for the losses.

At the very least the Fed ought to decree that, so long as a bank has loans outstanding under this program, no executive bonuses or dividends to shareholders can be paid.

And So…

The Fed raised interest rates to tame inflation. Might or might not have been the right decision but the motivation was good and in line with the Fed’s mission. They wanted to cool the job market to slow wage increases (questionable socially but traditional policy). Now it turns out that they didn’t really want to lose identifiable politically connected jobs in Silicon Valley or in the banks. They’d prefer more diffuse less-traceable job losses throughout the economy.

Will we have an Occupy Silicon Valley Movement? Will the Tea Party rise again? In this case the #cronycapitalism center is wrong and the anti#wealthfare fringes on the right and left are correct. We really don’t have to repeat the mistakes of 15 years ago, which have damaged capitalism, general prosperity, and civil discourse.

See also:

Election Analysis: It Was TARP that Boiled the Tea

March 01, 2023

A Chat with ChatGPT

It is not a truth teller.

Like you, I’ve heard about the artificial intelligence chat engine ChatGPT. I’m a nerd so had to try it. Got a free subscription at Tested by going to the playground and asking about myself because I’m sure I understand that subject at least as well as the chatbot. Here’s our conversation. My comments on the conversation (not shared with ChatGPT) are in brackets [  ]:


Me: Where is Tom Evslin?

ChatGPT: Tom Evslin is currently living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Helium Systems, Inc.

[Neither of these things are true. I haven’t lived in the Bay Area since a vagrant month in Berkeley in 1961. I’ve been the Chairman and CEO of several companies but have never been associated with or even heard of Helium Systems. The company does exist (thank you, Google) and lists three founders but does not list either a Chairman or CEO.].

Me: Tom Evslin does not live in the San Francisco Bay area.

ChatGPT: He is also the founder of ITXC Corporation, a leading global provider of voice-over-IP (VoIP) services. He is also a venture partner of Polaris Partners, a venture capital firm.

[I was the founder of  ITXC Corporation, and it was a leading global VoIP provider. I’m not a venture partner of Polaris Partners. ITXC was partially funded by an Israeli VC firm named Polaris.]

Me: Why do you think Tom Evslin lives in the Bay Area?

ChatGPT: Tom Evslin likely lives in the Bay Area due to its thriving tech industry, which provides an ideal setting for his work as an entrepreneur, investor, and executive. The Bay Area also boasts an impressive network of venture capital firms, which can provide additional support and resources for his business endeavors. Additionally, the Bay Area is a hub for creativity and innovation, making it the perfect setting for someone with a wide range of interests.

[These would all be good reasons for me to live in the Bay Area, but I don’t. ChatGPT apparently interpreted my question as “why would Tom Evslin choose to live in the Bay Area?” rather than what I meant which was “what would lead you to think he lives in the Bay Area?” You gotta be careful how you phrase a question to a robot.]

Me: Why do you think Tom Evslin is chairman of Helium Systems?

ChatGPT: Tom Evslin is likely the chairman of Helium Systems because of his extensive experience in the tech sector. He is a highly successful entrepreneur, investor, and executive, and his expertise can be beneficial to the development of Helium Systems. Additionally, his background in providing VoIP services makes him well-suited to lead a company that is focused on communication technology.

[These would be good reasons and I’m glad ChatGPT appreciates my background. But I don’t work there.]

Me: Who is the CEO of Helium Systems?

ChatGPT: The CEO of Helium Systems is Tom Evslin.

[At least it’s consistent.]

Me: What evidence do you have that Tom Evslin is CEO of Helium Systems?

ChatGPT: Tom Evslin is listed as the Chairman and CEO of Helium Systems on the company's website. Additionally, his profile on Polaris Partners, a venture capital firm, states that he is the CEO of Helium Systems. He is also mentioned in a press release from Helium Systems, where he is credited with being the CEO and Chairman.

[None of this is true even though it sounds like a good answer.]

Me: What is the URL of the website which lists Tom Evslin as Chairman and CEO of Helium Systems?

ChatGPT: The URL of the website which lists Tom Evslin as Chairman and CEO of Helium Systems is:

[This page does not exist although does.]

Me: That URL does not exist.

ChatGPT: The correct URL is

[This page doesn’t exist either but note that both URLs look legit and someone who didn’t check them might have accepted them as evidence.]

Me: What is the URL of Tom Evslin's profile at Polaris Partners?

ChatGPT: The URL of Tom Evslin's profile at Polaris Partners is:

Me: That URL does not exist.

ChatGPT: The correct URL is

[This time ChatGPT didn’t even bother to invent a new URL.]

Me: What is the URL of the press release which says Tom Evslin is the Chairman and CEO of Helium Systems?

ChatGPT: The URL of the press release which says Tom Evslin is the Chairman and CEO of Helium Systems is:

Me: That URL does not exist.

ChatGPT: The correct URL is

[Neither of these exist although there are other press release on prnewswire which mention me and this is what the link probably would’ve looked like if there’d actually been a Helium Systems announcement.]


A few random thoughts (by me, not ChatGPT):

ChatGPT could pass for a human. It succeeds at what we nerds call the Turing Test.

ChatGPT gives credible but not necessarily correct answers.  I might have lived in the Bay Area. The non-existent URLs are based on real websites. This is not surprising since the programming antecedents of this technology include the algorithms which check your grammar and make suggestions when you are typing in a word processor. You don’t expect that software to do anything but guess and don’t accuse it of lying if it guesses wrong.

ChatGPT makes up a lot of stuff. It was mainly trained by reading gigabytes of stuff on the web. Some was true. Some wasn’t. It apparently learned how to make stuff up which sounds true. Not surprising given what it was schooled on. This actually tells us as much about the web as it does about ChatGPT.

Don’t use ChatGPT to do your office or school homework unless you check everything it says. Unlike Google, it doesn’t volunteer a source link for its assertions. Of course, a source link doesn’t prove authenticity but does give you a place to start looking.

I’ve known human assistants who are no more accurate than ChatGPT and their grammar isn’t usually as good.

BTW, GPT stands for “generative pretrained-transformer” according to Wikipedia.

Everyone who is using ChatGPT is helping to train it further, particularly if they up or down vote the answers. There are other artificial intelligence programs and will be many more. But a powerful first mover will have an increasing advantage similar to what Google has in search because of accumulated feedback making it increasingly useful and therefore attracting more use and more feedback.

February 23, 2023

Peak People

by a past peak person.

Peak oil, they said, was coming. Instead fracking was invented and oil has become more abundant. Peak food, Malthus instructed us in 1798, would shortly lead to global starvation and other catastrophes. World population then was around one billion; it is now eight billion and much better fed than in Malthus’ day. In his 1968 book The Population Bomb biologist Paul Ehrlich predicted hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in the 1970s, 65 million Americans would die of starvation in the 1980s, and that England would disappear by 2000. None of that happened.

All these predictions were based on population exploding into catastrophe.

Now we have a different problem. We’re running out of people. The UN forecasts world population will peak in the 2080s and then decline. Much of the population growth between now and then is because of longer life spans. We already have plenty of geezers like me and we’ll have even more; but the supply of younger more productive people, whom we geezers need to take care of us both financially and physically, is already in decline.

We’re already in trouble! Nurses are in critically short supply and the problem is getting worse. Ditto daycare workers. In Vermont there aren’t enough people to deliver the mail. In general and everywhere in the developed world, there are shortages of what we used to call blue and pink collar workers, people who do things with their hands besides click a mouse, people in jobs which are very hard to automate. Even if fertility increases again, it’ll take several generations for population growth to resume.

Given the imminence of peak people, most of our assumptions about the future are wrong. Here are some new speculations:

The age of abundance is coming. It will be increasingly easy to provide sustainable and abundant everything for a declining population even when living standards continue to rise. Recycling will provide an increasing share of raw materials as demand declines. For example, when less cars are needed for each successive generation, the lithium in old batteries will be more than enough to make new ones without mining more of the rare metal.

Climate change is a short-term problem. Doomsday climate scenarios, just like the apocalyptic food forecasts of Malthus and Ehrlich, are based on the false assumption of the population balloon inflating until it pops. Not happening. Short and medium mitigation for rising seas and higher temperature will be sufficient until the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stabilizes. As less cropland is needed and expanding forests take CO2 out of the air, the next century may worry about global cooling. Note: there is also a chance that we have over-estimated human effect on global warming and that it will continue or accelerate for non-anthropogenic reasons.

“Creating jobs” will cease being a political raison d'être. It’s workers we need, not unfilled jobs.

We’ll pay a bounty to immigrants.

Workfare will have a new vogue.

Wages will shift to reward hands-on jobs richly.  We’re not short of white-collar workers except those with special skills like doctors, engineers, and (for now, at least) computer programmers. Work from home, which has often meant not working very hard at home, has shown us that we probably had far too many white-collar workers to begin with. Artificial intelligence can substitute for many knowledge workers. Want to make money, learn a skill.

There will be a significant transition problem because of the imbalance between retirees and workers. Public assistance will have to be limited to the indigent. We geezers who can afford it will have to part with wealth to get care from a shrinking workforce; heirs beware.

College as we know it will disappear. Takes too many productive years out of the workforce; doesn’t teach useful skills. Career-long learning, however, will be a necessity in a fast-changing world.

Real estate won’t dependably increase in value.

What else? I’m probably missing the most important consequences of peak people; it’s hard to imagine a world turned upside down.

See also:

Malthus Was Very Wrong

Factfulness: Malthus is Wrong – Fortunately

Why Paul Ehrlich got everything wrong (by Noah Smith)

February 15, 2023

Building Market Rate Housing is the Path to More Affordable Housing

Moving chains study shows why.

We have a dilemma: government can’t afford to build or even subsidize all the affordable housing which is needed. Here in Vermont as in many other places both low-income and middle-income families are being priced out of housing. Street homelessness has many causes beyond economics; but in this post I’m taking only about the price and availability of housing for purchase or rent, not mental illness or drug problems.

Hundreds of millions of dollars of public money have been put into subsidies and tax breaks for building affordable housing. Legislative demand to spend even more keeps growing along with the affordability gap.  Builders say they can’t afford to build low-income housing without subsidies. Communities resist new low-income housing, making it more difficult to build – and more expensive. The people whom we need to work here can’t afford to live here.

If something is in great demand, prices generally go up and new supply emerges until demand is satisfied at a price buyers can afford and which gives sellers (builders and landlords) a return on their invested capital.

Why isn’t the free market working to provide housing? It’s time to rethink our approach. A study published by the Journal of Urban Economics, “City-wide effects of new housing supply: Evidence from moving chains” supports that building market rate housing may be the best way to increase the supply of affordable housing:

“The supply of new market rate units triggers moving chains that quickly reach middle- and low-income neighborhoods and individuals. Thus, new market-rate construction loosens the housing market in middle- and low-income areas even in the short run. Market-rate supply is likely to improve affordability outside the sub-markets where new construction occurs and to benefit low-income people…

“In addition to the direct effect of increasing the housing stock in the neighborhood it is built in, new market-rate housing may have more far-reaching indirect effects through a moving chain process. As new residents move into the newly constructed units, they vacate their old units. These vacant units then get occupied by a new set of residents whose old units become vacant and so on. Through this process, new market-rate housing can have moderating price effects not only in its immediate neighborhood, but also in the city’s lower-income neighborhoods, by effectively loosening the housing market in these areas through vacancies.”

Market rate housing, by definition, is housing which requires no subsidy because rents or purchase costs are sufficient to incent its development. Market rate housing is built by private capital so doesn’t make a demand on scarce government resources. But, also by definition, market rate housing will not be affordable for everyone. The study shows (in Helsinki so not directly applicable everywhere) the chain of people moving up.

“In sum, the probability that a chain reaches zip codes in the bottom quintile (bottom half) of the income distribution is about 31% (66%). That is, for each 100 new, centrally located market-rate units, 31 units get created through vacancy in bottom-quintile income zip codes and 66 units in bottom-half income zip codes.“

This is the way the car market works. We don’t build subsidized low-income cars; we build new cars. The people who buy the new cars sell their old cars to people who are trading up. After a few trades the cars which become available are at the right price for lower-income purchasers including those who need their first car to get to their first job. Except in times of supply-chain disruption, we don’t end up with a shortage of cars. Ironically, people who can’t afford housing often end up sleeping in their cars.

Market rate housing can be built more quickly than subsidized housing both because it doesn’t need to wait for a government program or appropriation and because there is less resistance from neighbors than to housing which is perceived as bringing down property values. May not be very nice but it’s true.

However, here in Vermont currently very little land is available for market rate housing smaller than a McMansion because of both restrictive zoning and obsolete land use laws. One answer is allowing development on parts of failed farms (more on that here). More on zoning in a post to come.

Pouring subsidies into building low-income “affordable” housing has not made an appreciable dent in the shortage of either middle-income or low-income residences. The most effective steps government can take to provide housing across the spectrum is to remove zoning restrictions, update land use plans to recognize that not everyone wants to live in urban centers, and speed permitting.  Private capital will then be available to build market rate housing whose new owners and tenants will leave chains of more and more affordable housing behind them.

See also:

Building Affordable Housing is NOT a Good Way to Get More Affordable Housing

Vermont Needs More Forest and More Housing

February 07, 2023

Vermont Needs More Forest and More Housing

Sacred Cows Are in the Way.

Bare capitolIn the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Green Mountains weren’t. Extensive logging, hillside sheep farming, and clearing for homesteads left both hills and valleys bare. Periodic flooding was a terrible problem. Burlington was still a major shipping point for logs but most of came from Quebec. Tourists preferred the still-wooded mountains in New Hampshire and New York.

But, by 1850, sheep farming in Vermont had already lost out to competition in the western US and all the way west to Australia and New Zealand.  Dairy was in its ascendancy as the railroads opened up new markets for Vermont milk through the East. Contrary to legend, there are no hill cows with shorter legs on one side to facilitate sloped-grazing. Many of the hillside farms were simply abandoned by owners who bought land in the valleys if they could and helped settle the American west if they couldn’t. The first town forests were pieced together from abandoned lands with tax liens, which would never be satisfied. Slowly the trees marched back down from the ridges.



Tree growthThe forests continued to grow vertically and horizontally, mostly through natural reseeding of former farm and industrial land, through the year 2000. It reached a new peak of about 76% coverage. As you can see on the graph on the left, however, we are now slowly losing forest to development.

We now realize the importance of forests. They take enormous amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air and make the soil richer by storing carbon there. They reduce flooding. They clean the water which percolates through them. They provide lumber, the greenest building material except perhaps for sod, and habitat for countless species. It’s fun to play in the woods. We need more forest, not less.

We need habitat for people, too. We can and should make it easier to build housing in towns and cities, but not everyone wants an urban life or finds employment there. Many people who might move to Vermont for the jobs we can’t fill now want to leave city life. Many of the Vermonters who would like to stay want to be rural. How can we have both more housing and more forests?

In 1987 Vermont, realizing that housing and conservation are indivisible issues, created the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) whose mission is in 10 VSA Chapter 15:

(a) The dual goals of creating affordable housing for Vermonters, and conserving and protecting Vermont's agricultural land, forestland, historic properties, important natural areas, and recreational lands are of primary importance to the economic vitality and quality of life of the State.

(b) In the best interests of all of its citizens and in order to improve the quality of life for Vermonters and to maintain for the benefit of future generations the essential characteristics of the Vermont countryside, and to support farm, forest, and related enterprises, Vermont should encourage and assist in creating affordable housing and in preserving the State's agricultural land, forestland, historic properties, important natural areas and recreational lands, and in keeping conserved agricultural land in production and affordable for future generations of farmers.

The VHCB has had a huge role both in preserving both farms and forests and in building affordable housing. During the pandemic the state funds allocated to the Board have leveraged truly huge amounts of federal funds which require a match. Nevertheless our housing shortage is growing and our forests are shrinking.

Part of the problem is that, with a finite amount of land, you can’t protect everything you have and still grow. The objectives in (a) above are in competition with each other. If the VHCB had been established in 1890, it would have been trying to keep the sheep farms in operation. If it had succeeded (which it wouldn’t have), the hills would still be bare and the forests wouldn’t have regrown.

Although there are still successful dairy farms in Vermont, Vermont dairy as a whole is in the situation sheep farming was almost two centuries ago. According to Vermont Auditor of Accounts Doug Hoffer, the State of Vermont spent $285 million between 2010 and 2019 on programs to support dairy farming. During that period the number of dairy farms declined from 1015 to 636. Some of the decline is due to consolidation but most is simply farms going out of business.

IMO the state programs are counter-productive and have actually hurt the industry they are meant to help. The underlying problem is that there is not enough demand to support a price for milk greater than the cost of production in Vermont. Keeping money-losing farms in business makes it harder for those with better economics to succeed. The more milk that is taken off the market by farms going out of business, the better the chance of the most efficient farms being able to flourish. At best, the state programs are postponing the inevitable. At worst, they’re exacerbating the problem of oversupply.

We can keep most Vermont farmland productively in agriculture if we do what has been done so many times before: change to a profitable crop. Failing dairy farms can be converted to a combination of forest land and housing. Vermont will look different with more trees and less open pasture, cornfields, and hay fields along its highways; but adaptation is necessary.

If the combination of revenue from some development, wood harvesting, and carbon credits for the carbon sequestered by the trees is large enough, the land can be sold for enough to allow selling farm families a happy retirement – or a chance to go into the forestry business. My hope is that with some change of regulations and permitting reform, private capital and the opportunity for profit can make this conversion to a wood crop a sustainable program without the need for constant subsidy. The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board is in an excellent – although contentious – position to balance the goals it was given by the legislature. Some legislation will be required to make clear that, although keeping the land dairy farms are on productive is essential, preserving them as dairy farms is not.

See also:

Failing Dairy Farms Are an Opportunity to Grow Back Better

Trees Are the Right End of the Stick for CO2 Reduction in Vermont


January 30, 2023

Average is Not Normal – But It Can Be Better

The Bible tells us so.

Remember the famous seven fat years and seven lean years in Genesis?  Crops may well have been “average” over the whole fourteen-year period. Trouble is that none of those years individually was average. Fortunately dream-reader Joseph knew what was coming. Granaries were built and stocked during the fat years. Egypt became the grain-seller to the whole region during the lean years. The granaries were a very good way of smoothing the food supply through the variations of climate.

Last week I posted that “Average Is Not Normal”, especially in weather. Variation is normal. It is unlikely that any particular day will have a high temperature which is exactly the same as the historical average for that day. It is unlikely that any year will have an average amount of precipitation, especially in California. It is normal to deviate from the average. Even if average is not a good way to predict the particular, “average” can be a very useful concept in long-term planning so long as we understand what we are talking about.

There are many types of average including arithmetic mean, median, and geometric mean, all of which  have their uses; in fact median is better for predicting particular events than mean. In this post when I say “average” I’m talking about just the arithmetic mean, the number you get if you add a bunch of quantities and divide by the number of quantities.

If, on average, there is sufficient food produced, then there won’t be a famine if you have the foresight to build the infrastructure to store the food from the fat years to feed the lean years (assuming you start in the fat years). If, on average over a period of years, there is enough rain in a region, there will be enough water every year if water can be saved during rainy years for use in dry years. There also doesn’t need to be flooding so long as there is somewhere to put water during a deluge. Nature helps some with water stored underground and in lakes and ponds which change size with the seasons and the years. Here in Vermont we have flood control dams and artificial lakes behind them for just this purpose.

California used to build dams and reservoirs, too. They especially needed them to support a growing population and more agriculture because almost every year there is either a drought or deluge year and they tend to come in clusters. Like most of the US, California stopped doing big projects in the 1980s when-well intentioned environmental laws and regulations made it all too easy to use process and litigation to tie up any project almost forever; but California didn’t stop growing and the climate didn’t stop being variable. There isn’t enough infrastructure in California to smooth the variability even though, on the average, there’s enough water to support the population, industry, and agriculture.

I saw California’s Lt. Governor on TV boasting about all the money California has spent to prevent climate change as if climate variability were stoppable as an act of will and as if the “normal” climate in California were not highly variable. What she didn’t mention was the money California hasn’t spent mitigating the effects of climate as the population in danger has grown enormously.

According to an article in the LA Times, the Sites Reservoir, which could retain enough water to supply 4.5 million California households for a year, was first conceived of in the 1950s. It was abandoned in the 1980s as America’s era of building big came to an end. Now it’s being resurrected with the support of Gov. Newsome, who says it’s something he’s long supported.

Nevertheless, the reservoir is meeting fierce “environmentalist” opposition. Ron Stork, senior policy advocate for Friends of the River complains that it ”…enables elected officials to say, ‘Look, we’re doing something about megadrought.’ It becomes their solution to climate change.” Cut through the BS and Stork doesn’t want the effects of climate to be mitigated. Floods and droughts are useful in motivating panic-driven schemes to “stop climate change”. He would have objected to Joseph building granaries on the same grounds; the granaries do nothing to prevent the climate change Joseph predicted and take funds from some really useful sacrifices to the climate god.

Unless lots of laws and regulations are changed, opponents will be able to delay this project almost indefinitely even though it has the support of the Governor and planning money has been appropriated. If Egypt had our current system of project regulation and endless litigation delay, they would’ve starved during the lean years because the granaries never would’ve gotten built. To be fair, climate change denial would also have led to starvation in Egypt.

Deviations from average are normal. Sometimes they are precursors to long term climate change; sometimes not. Where we can predict oscillations of weather patterns, especially where the population affected by these oscillations has grown enormously, we must act to mitigate these effects. We know how to do that. Humans have known how to carry surplus from fat (or wet) years to lean (or dry) years since biblical times. We can make an average amount of water available every year regardless of average rainfall hardly every happening in any one year.  It does no good at all to mourn for the mythical “average” year. It is essential to build the infrastructure we need when we need it. In California’s case that was at least 70 non-average years ago.

See also:

Average is Not Normal

Regulatory Reform Urgently Needed for Renewable Energy

January 23, 2023

Average is Not Normal

A six-foot man can easily drown in a river which is “on the average” five feet deep.

In the US each woman averages 1.64 children during her childbearing years. Does that mean that a “normal” woman has 1.64 kids? Of course not. One kid, maybe two, maybe three, maybe more. A fractional kid, however, would be very abnormal.

Every night our local tv weather people say tomorrow’s high temperature is going to be so many degrees above or below normal. But they don’t really mean normal even though that’s what it says on the graphic; they mean “average”. And average and normal aren’t the same thing. Here in New England ten degrees above or below average is still “normal”. It is highly unlikely that the high on any particular day will be exactly the average; not as unlikely as 1.64 children but not likely either.

In a New York Times article on whether the recent rain and snow will cure California’s drought, Peter Gleick, co-founder of and senior fellow at the Pacific Institute, a research organization specializing in water issues, complains “We don’t seem to get average years anymore.” In fact there is scarcely ever a weather year which is average anywhere. This is especially true in California where drought and deluge have alternated since long before humans have had any effect on climate.

Gleick is credited with inventing the terms “weather whiplash” and “megadrought.” He acknowledges further down in the article that the weather typically changes year over year in California; but he apparently likes to describe weather in apocalyptic terms, perhaps in order to justify “extreme climate action”. The reason I’m ranting about the difference between “normal” and “average” is that I think the distinction is intentionally blurred when talking about weather in order to promote climate hysteria.

According to the New York Times meteorologists are also concerned. From an article with the wonderful headline: Bomb Cyclone? Or Just Windy with a Chance of Hyperbole?:

The widespread use of colorful terms like ‘bomb cyclone’ and ‘atmospheric river,’ along with the proliferating categories, colors and names of storms and weather patterns, has struck meteorologists as a mixed blessing: good for public safety and climate-change awareness but potentially so amplified that it leaves the public numb to or unsure of the actual risk. The new vocabulary, devised in many cases by the weather-science community, threatens to spin out of control.”

An op-ed in The Times provides a long term perspective:

“I’ve been through a handful of floods, and they needed no hype: 1964, 1969, 1982 to 1983, 1986, 1995, 1997, 2005, 2017. A flood year always breaks the drought years, or so my grandfather the raisin farmer told it. Drought is California. Flood is California. In the wettest years, rain and snowmelt coming down the rivers produce some 200 million acre-feet of water. In the driest years, they produce 30 million. Between the extremes lies an average year, which happens so infrequently that it is a myth we tell ourselves. As long as we keep faith in the average, it is us and not nature in command.”

I’m the first to insist that climate changes; it always has and it will as long as earth has an atmosphere. Nor do I deny that we are capable of accelerating climate change and have already. Hysteria is a terrible way to deal with anything, however – especially things as important as climate and energy policy. Drought is normal for California. Floods are normal for California. An “average” year would be abnormal (although not alarming).  A long-term change in the average may signal an actual change in climate. A day or year which differs from the average signifies nothing – although may still be something we have to deal with.

Average is not normal. End of rant.

January 14, 2023

The Debt Ceiling Compromise We Need

Cover Only APPROPRIATED Expenditures!

Today Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announced that the US will run out of borrowing authority (again) on January 19th and needs to have the debt limit lifted by Congress before summer when the Treasury will run out of shortterm tricks to keep paying Uncle Sam’s bills. Moderates in both parties are afraid that the Republican right, fresh from its victories in the Speakership fight, will block a debt-limit increase.

The Wall Street Journal, which is firmly part of the establishment middle on this issue, explains for the hundredth time “Raising the debt limit doesn’t incur new government spending, but instead authorizes the Treasury to borrow to pay for expenses Congress separately approves.”  That’s a good argument but the facts are wrong.

A small part of the reason that the government is running out of debt authority faster than anticipated is that we haven’t collected student loan payments in years. This forbearance was not appropriated by Congress. It was first declared by Trump during what was an emergency, then extended by Trump and Biden as the emergency waned and unemployment practically disappeared. Biden has declared permanent forgiveness for huge amounts of college debt without any authorization from Congress nor appropriation to cover what it costs the Treasury to go without these repayments. The forgiveness is tied up in lawsuits but the forbearance on collection – regardless of ability to pay – goes on and on. If the debt ceiling is raised, the raise will allow money to be borrowed in our name to cover these UNAPPROPRIATED costs.

So here’s the good government compromise:

  • Raise the debt ceiling to over what Congress has appropriated;
  • Be specific that money can’t be spent which hasn’t been appropriated; that prohibition includes the boondoggle of forgiving the debt-incurred by relatively affluent people to attend over-priced colleges. (BTW, there already are many duly legislated programs to forgive college debt for those in certain professions and with low income).

Compared to the total deficit, unfunding unappropriated expenditures will only go a small way towards an affordable budget. Congress has duly appropriated exorbitant amounts. Nevertheless, using the debt limit to rein in unappropriated expenditures can be an important first step to restoring both congressional authority and responsibility.

January 09, 2023

Energy Superabundance is Within Our Reach

Cheap and abundant energy is the answer not only to climate concerns but also to vastly higher living standards for all.

Solar and wind generated electricity has gotten cheaper by orders of magnitude in the last couple of decades; fracking has made oil and gas cheaper (remember the fear of peak oil?) except when we decide to restrict drilling. We know how to build small, even safer, and relatively inexpensive nuclear fission plants. Tidal electrical generation has hardly been tapped but will be.  There is tremendous potential for geothermal energy as well as the use of hydrogen produced by hydrolysis. We may well be on a twenty-year countdown to practical use of fusion as a clean energy source.

Our use of energy has become much more efficient. I get the same light from a 6.5-watt LED bulb that I used to get from a 100-watt incandescent bulb. Electric cars require less energy to move them than their gasoline predecessors, assuming an efficient source for the electricity they consume. Modern induction electric motors use much less energy than their predecessors. Heat pumps in all but very cold climates are more efficient ways to both heat and cool than traditional furnaces, radiant electric heat, and earlier air conditioners (which have always been heat pumps). More efficient use of energy reduces the cost of everything we use energy for as well as keeping energy demand and cost lower.

There’s no question that lower cost energy means more use of energy, sometimes even more money spent for energy in the aggregate (this phenomenon is known as Jevons Paradox after William Stanley Jevons who first wrote about it in his 1865 book The Coal Question). There’s also no question that standard of living including adequate food, mobility, clean water, temperature control and most other material things we value goes up with the availability of affordable energy. Climate alarmists are right to point out that people emerging from poverty will use much more energy than they used to when abundant energy was not available to them.

Climate alarmists also worry that world population growth leads to an unrelenting and unsustainable growth in energy demand. That particular Malthusian nightmare should be allayed by the now acknowledged fact that world population is on track to stabilize and then even decline this century, largely because women who have a choice don’t usually choose to have many babies and because more and more women are able to make that choice thanks to education, emancipation, birth control, and affluence. We will all use more energy in the future but there will be less of us.

Researchers Austin Vernon and Eli Dourado at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University have written a fascinating paper “Energy Superabundance: How Cheap Abundant Energy Will Shape Our Future”. They meticulously document superabundant energy as a cure for much which ails us. A few examples:

  1. Water. We know how to desalinate sea water; the only obstacle is the cost of the energy required. Without that obstacle water will be readily anywhere remotely close to the sea. We can also extract water from the air. Really takes a lot of energy but becomes a practical solution inland if energy is cheap enough.
  2. Housing. Think how much more land becomes available if the cost of transportation is near zero (yeah, I know, suburban sprawl). Think how many places become habitable with more fresh water and inexpensive cooling and heating – even if the climate continues to change. Think how much of the cost of building is directly or indirectly the cost of energy.
  3. Agriculture. Water, of course, is key. But indoor agriculture, so-called vertical farms, are practical where land is scarce if artificial light is cheap enough to compete with sunlight. Indoor marijuana growers, who use enormous amounts of electricity, already know that. But cheaper electricity is required for crops which don’t command as high a price.
  4. The Environment! Given superabundant energy which does not add greenhouse gas to the atmosphere, we can use that energy to remove atmospheric CO2 and either sequester it or use it to make plastics or netzero fuels. Once CO2 removal is cheap enough, there need be no net addition to greenhouse gas in the atmosphere when fossil fuels are used wherever they are the most practical alternative. Problem solved!

How do we get to that nirvana of superabundant energy. The authors of the paper say:

“To achieve this level of energy abundance, we need to remove the obstacles to building in the physical world. Power plants and transmission lines continue to be plagued by red tape from environmental review requirements, the siting process, and veto players at the local, state, and federal levels. Transportation infrastructure that is needed to allow us to step into our newfound energy prosperity suffers from similar issues. Smart policies like congestion taxes that could increase throughput and therefore increase demand for transportation languish because of a lack of political will. A high-speed tunnel that would connect DC and Baltimore in 15 minutes is languishing in environmental review. New aircraft types face regulatory obstacles at the Federal Aviation Administration.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was spun off from the Atomic Energy Commission in 1975. In the entire history of the agency since then, it has never approved a reactor license from start to finish, from initial application to beginning of operations. Without reform, the obstacles to miniaturizing nuclear technology to achieve a portable source of high-density power are significant.”

My hope is that 2023 will be the year when the quest for superabundant energy and all its benefits replaces climate hysteria as a driver of public policy and private investment. We’d get a long way along the path if we fix our “build nothing never” permitting process. Happy New Year.

See also:

Ezra Klein: The Dystopia We Fear Is Keeping Us From the Utopia We Deserve

Noah Smith: Why Paul Ehrlich got everything wrong

The Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough is Very Good News

Malthus Was Very Wrong

January 03, 2023

Two Lessons Half Learned in 2022

Can we avoid dystopia?

In Lionel Shriver’s dystopian novel The Mandibles: a Family, 2029-2047, the US falls into chaos when it learns that it can’t just print money forever and that ignoring China’s (so far fictional) invasion of Taiwan led to international helplessness for the US.

Fortunately, perhaps, we learned in 2022 that there is a consequence to infinite federal largesse financed by the Federal Reserve creating money. The ridiculous theory that money can be printed in infinite amounts without adverse consequences (Modern Monetary Theory) has been discredited. The Fed has learned the lesson and is reversing its free money, zero interest rate policy. However, there is no sign that political Washington has learned the same lesson. The only bipartisan acts Congress is capable of are huge spending bills full of special interest handouts like the recently passed $1.6 trillion Omnibus Bill passed last month and the ironically named $738 billion Inflation Reduction Act from earlier in 2022. The collision between Fed policy and congressional vote-buying may well lead to a recession – which will, of course, be an excuse for more spending. A lesson half-learned.

If left unanswered, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would have had disastrous consequences for freedom and world order. Most credit goes to Ukraine for its incredibly brave defense. However, President Biden has so far done a very good job of rallying America and most of the free world to arm the fighting Ukrainians and reduce Russia’s economic ability to fight this war. Current NATO members have recognized the threat; Sweden and Finland are prepared to join and strengthen the alliance. IMO we should be giving Ukraine more advanced weapons; but we have come a long way from the socks (or was it gloves?) that President Obama sent after Russia’s invasion of Crimea. There are still many Americans calling for a compromise (give part of Ukraine to Russia); others inexplicably side with Putin. Europe is paying a hard price as it weans itself from Russian oil and gas and not all Europeans want to pay that price.  Can’t call this a lesson learned until Putin is defeated and seen to be defeated.

There are many more lessons to be learned from 2022 (blogs to come); but we will be a long way towards avoiding Lionel Shriver’s path to dystopia if the two lessons above guide us in 2023.

Happy New Year.


See also:

Dystopia, The Novel

The Dynamo of Democracy

December 20, 2022

The Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough is Very Good News

It will soon be condemned by the renewable-industrial complex.

For more than 50 years, scientists have hoped to use nuclear fusion to produce electricity in great quantities, cheaply, and without environmentally harmful byproducts. Progress has been painfully slow until two weeks ago when Livermore Labs announced that an experiment produced about 50% more energy from a target mass than the energy directed at that mass to get it to fuse. The experiment was very expensive and the amount of net energy tiny so don’t expect a nuclear fusion plant in your neighborhood soon. Nevertheless, the experiment proved that the fusion process, which produces the energy of the sun, can be replicated on earth other than explosively as in a hydrogen (fusion) bomb.

If we have reliable limitless clean energy at an all-in price less than today’s electricity, concerns about human-caused global warming would (or at least should) disappear. No more coal, oil, natural gas, or even wood burned at power plants so no greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from electrical generation. No need for nuclear fission plants and the radioactive waste they produce. With enough cheap electricity available (assuming we do get around to building a better electric grid), no reason not to electrify most transportation and thermal processes including space heating, smelting, recycling, fertilizer, and other chemical production. In fact, with enough cheap electricity we can even put excess carbon in the atmosphere back into the ground so no reason not to use some fossil fuels where their energy densities make them more practical than batteries. In fact, we won’t need batteries in the electrical grid since fusion energy can be produced 24x7 and during all seasons. And, of course, no need for fields of intermittently-operating solar panels or huge wind turbines. We wouldn’t even have to nag people to stop using energy to save the planet.

This should all be good news, right? Well, not quite. Suppose you’re in the solar energy or nuclear energy or battery business. Should subsidies continue to flow to you or should we have a Manhattan project to commercialize nuclear fusion given evidence that it can be harnessed? Do we need mandates for electric cars in advance of a grid and power source sufficient to keep them running or should we just let automakers and auto buyers follow the economics as electricity gets cheaper and cheaper? Ditto electric heat pumps. Even if it’s 20 years before significant amounts of the world’s energy are produced through fusion, what today seem like over-ambitious goals for decarbonization by mid-century will easily be met while still allowing the developing world to develop and without cratering existing lifestyles.

The renewable-industrial complex doesn’t like competition (most of us business people don’t). Before 2008 natural gas was considered a good transition fuel for decarbonization since it produces half the GHGs per kilowatt generated than coal and only 75% as much as oil. The renewable-industrial complex wasn’t afraid of natural gas because it was very expensive and America’s known reserves were being depleted. We were about to build import terminals which would make natural gas even more expensive. Then the commercialization of fracking made natural gas much more abundant and much cheaper. In the real world this abundance had wonderful environmental consequences because natural gas replaced coal as America’s electrical generation power fuel of choice without any mandate except comparative cost. After 2008, natural gas was demonized.

Since natural gas was and is a cheaper way to reduce GHG emissions than unsubsidized renewables (although their price is coming down), a relentless propaganda campaign against fracking, the technology which made gas and oil cheaper and more abundant, began and convinced most of the unintelligent intelligentsia that Europe should stop drilling (and buy from Russia) and that the US should discourage drilling and not build needed pipelines even though replacing coal with natural gas is still the fastest way to reduce emissions.

It's not time to bet all our chips on fusion but we should be upping the ante with more government-sponsored basic research like that which Livermore Labs does and less subsidies elsewhere. Government can help encourage private investment in fusion by NOT sprinkling grants around to politically favored commercialization schemes. Otherwise productive human energy goes into grant-seeking rather than engineering.

If there is now serious progress towards commercial fusion (it’s my bet there will be), serious opposition will emerge from rival energy vested interests including fossil fuels, nuclear fusion, and the very effective renewable-industrial complex. There are legitimate arguments now that we don’t know how long it will take to commercialize fusion. There will be a cacophony of mostly spurious arguments about dangers that fusion somehow poses as there have been against fracking. We should leave those arguments blowing in the wind and let nuclear fusion create a new age of abundance.

See also:

Don’t let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

Fracking Saved Our Freedom

December 14, 2022

Burning the Ships After Landing

Mental health, policing, and energy are examples.

In 1519 Hernan Cortes burnt his ships in Vera Cruz to prevent any attempt by his soldiers to return to Cuba instead of conquering the Aztecs. “Reformers” like this strategy also. If you shut the mental hospitals, kinder more effective ways of dealing with mental illness will happen. If you fire the cops and release offenders, the root causes of crime will be dealt with. If you shut down the nukes and stop drilling, renewables and drastic conservation will immediately happen. Trouble is that the world doesn’t usually work that way despite Cortes example to the contrary.

Mental Health

The book and movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest helped turn America against large “mental hospitals”. The horror of some of these institutions had long been documented. We decided to shut these places down and end the misery and abuse of patients. The theory was that modern psychiatry and drugs would allow the inmates to lead lives in the community or in pleasant local institutions. Deinstitutionalization became the rule; large institutions like the hospital in Waterbury, Vermont were emptied out and not replaced as they fell into decay.

The problem is that theory was wrong. The community institutions were never built, to a large degree because of community resistance. People with acute mental problems are not very good at taking the drugs prescribed for them – and are easy marks for those selling drugs which make their problem worse. Psychotherapy is hardly a quick or certain cure. Housing is hard enough to obtain and maintain for those with moderate income; it is impossible for those with severe mental problems. Our cities are spotted with filthy homeless encampment. Emergency rooms are increasingly dangerous for both patients and staff because the mentally ill are bought there and then remain.  Although most people with untreated mental illness are more danger to themselves than others, too much violence is committed by mentally ill people who are a known and repeated offenders. New York City is now returning to involuntary incarceration of schizophrenics for public safety reasons although it is not clear what institutions they’ll be sent to.

Mental institutions should have been reformed. Involuntary commitment will always need safeguards. Perhaps community health centers should be built regardless of local opposition. But the large mental hospitals should have remained in operation while being reformed and until alternatives were actually available. Now we are faced with reconstructing them or locking the mentally ill in with the general prison population. We burnt the ships too soon.

Criminal Justice

Well-meaning people, appalled by some horrific instance of police misconduct, forced cuts to policing with the belief that the public would be protected by “addressing the root causes of crime” and sending social workers to deal with threatening situations. Nice theory. But we haven’t reduced the root causes of crime. Partly because of the mental health crisis, social workers are demanding police protection for calls they used to make on their own. Offenders are imprisoned less; they have more opportunity to reoffend; they do reoffend. We appear to need more police – and we have less. We have more crime. We burnt the criminal justice ships before we had any way to go forward.


Large nuclear power plants frightened people – although they have the best safety record of any energy source and are carbon-free. Germany shut down almost all of its nukes; so did Japan for a while; the US did not recondition older nukes or replace them with newer designs. Like Vermont Yankee, the old plants are shutting down without a clean replacement for the power they generated.

Fossil fuels make a contribution to climate change. Europe pretty much stopped drilling for oil and natural gas. The United States hasn’t built needed pipelines and has disinvested in fossil fuels. Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it was clear that sufficient renewables, energy storage, and transmission facilities were not available to replace the shuttered nukes and depleting fossil fuel sources. The energy shortage might be even worse had the pandemic not slowed growth. Putin saw the energy fix we’d left ourselves in and it emboldened him to defy Europe. We burned the energy ships when we still needed them.


Real problems like abusive and ineffectual mental hospitals, crime and police misconduct, and energy production’s effect on the environment must be dealt with. Burning the ships before alternatives are in place historically makes problems even worse.

BTW, Cortes returned to Cuba in a reinforcement ship.


December 06, 2022

It’s The Subsidence

Parts of Pakistan are sinking ten times faster than seas are rising.

Recently-flooded Pakistan is the poster child for “reparations” to be paid to third world countries by the developed world for the damages caused by climate change. However, the scale of the disaster is largely due to poor governance in Pakistan and local practices that won’t be cured by shoveling cash to the same kleptocrats who have swallowed up past foreign aid without improving the lives of their citizens. Almost all press accounts of the disaster fail to mention that so much water has been pumped out from under the areas which flooded that the land is sinking, a process called subsidence, much faster than seas are rising,

The monsoon rains were the worst in 40 years and may have been exacerbated by global warming (responsible scientists don’t attribute individual weather events to climate trends). There is more glacial runoff into the rivers of Pakistan than there used to be, certainly a function of higher temperatures. The seas are slowly rising. However, the disaster was preordained by the flood of people moving into the affected areas recently and deep drilling for water both to support expanded agriculture on the alluvial soil and water-hungry manufacturing in cities like Karachi, parts of which are sinking five times faster than the surrounding sea is rising. As the aquifers are depleted, the sandy soil compresses and the land above sinks. Earthquakes hasten the settling process as does the weight of new structures.

Until recently it has been almost impossible to distinguish rising ocean levels from subsiding land since the sea reaches further in both cases. However, satellite-based measurements now give us an extremely accurate measurement of both sea and land level. An article published by Voice of America in 2019 titled “Cities Sinking in Pakistan's Baluchistan Provincediscussed the sinking problem but without explicitly predicting the flooding:

“Local and American experts warn unchecked groundwater extraction in major urban centers in Pakistan's Baluchistan province has triggered the sinking of the land at a rate of 10 centimeters a year, causing cracks in buildings, roads, and agricultural fields.

“The land subsidence is occurring in numerous locations in northern parts of Baluchistan, including districts of Qilla Abdullah, Pishin, Mastung and the provincial capital of Quetta, the largest population center in the province [nb. an area very hard hit by flooding.]

“The area is arid and groundwater is the only source of water for domestic and agricultural use, said Professor Din Muhammad Kakar of the University of Baluchistan.

“’We have drawn a lot of water from the subsurface and the over-exploration of the groundwater has triggered the phenomenon of land subsidence since 2010,’ said Kakar, who is dean and chairman of the department of seismology.”

The alluvial plain is just above sea level and historically floods frequently; that’s why the soil is rich and doesn’t become depleted of nutrients. People build just above the most recent flood level (and sometimes below it). When the land sinks, the next flood of the same magnitude will reach more land than the one before it. When there is a forty-year flood through land which has sunk and become many times more populated since the last major flood, there is predictably a disaster. That’s what happened in Pakistan.

Subsidence is a major threat in many places beyond Pakistan.  A recent study measured subsidence worldwide:

“Satellite data indicate that land is subsiding faster than sea level is rising in many coastal cities throughout the world. If subsidence continues at recent rates, these cities will be challenged by flooding much sooner than projected by sea level rise models. We measured subsidence rates in 99 coastal cities around the world between 2015 and 2020 using satellite data. Subsidence rates are highly variable within cities and from city to city. The most rapid subsidence is occurring in South, Southeast, and East Asia. However, rapid subsidence is also happening in North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. Human activity—primarily groundwater extraction—is likely the main cause of this subsidence. Expanded monitoring and policy interventions are required to reduce subsidence rates and minimize their consequences.”

An article in The Washington Post about the barriers built to mitigate flooding in Venice goes on and on about whether the wall will be effective as the sea rises. Buried at the end of the article is the main reason for recent flooding in Venice: the land the city is built on is sinking, largely because of water extraction.

It's politically popular to attribute all disasters to climate change. Ignoring other natural and man-made causes of catastrophe – like subsidence, makes it impossible to take effective avoidance and mitigation measures. No matter how many Teslas we drive or how many dollars we pay in reparations, Pakistan and many other countries will suffer increasingly severe floods so long as water is being pumped out from under collapsible sandy soil.

See also:

How Bad Governance Exacerbated Pakistan’s Flooding (from Foreign Policy)

How NOT to Convince Anyone about Global Warming (about subsidence in Norfolk, VA)

November 28, 2022

Note to Legislature: First Do No Harm

The price of home heating oil has almost doubled since you passed the Global Warming Solutions Act.

Just before we knew Covid was hitting us in February of 2020, the Vermont House overwhelmingly passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) in order to reduce greenhouse gas emission. The average price for home heating oil in the US that February was $2.89/gallon. Advocates of the bill felt that this price was too low to give Vermonters an economic incentive to switch off fossil fuel; but a legislature which faces reelection every two years doesn’t dare just openly add a huge tax to raise the price of home heating. Instead the legislature set up an unelected council to come up with schemes to force a switch from fossil fuels.

In 2021, when the price of home heating oil was still under $3.00/gallon, the council duly proposed the Clean Heat Standard, a scheme to force natural gas, propane and heating oil dealers to either switch their customers to “renewable” heating sources or purchase clean energy credits. Either way, users of fossil fuel would end up subsidizing those who switched to renewables. The cost of fossil fuel would go up; the price of renewables would be lowered by yet more subsidies. The price difference would incent the fuel switching the legislature wanted without the necessity of any legislator voting directly on a price increase for home heating.

Governor Phil Scott vetoed the bill and fortunately that veto was upheld (by just one vote). However, thanks to President Biden’s fossil-fuel-hostile policy with an assist from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, fans of higher fuel prices have gotten more than they dared hope for. The average price of home heating oil in the US was $5.43 in the week ending November 21, 2022 – almost twice the price when the Vermont House first passed GWSA! There’s a good chance that price will go even higher this winter.

If you believed that higher prices were needed to save the planet, you’ve got them. Vermonters are currently worried about heating their homes. They would gladly adopt alternatives which are cheaper than oil or propane. No need to raise the price of oil further, is there? Of course not.

So what should this legislative session do to reduce Vermont’s net emissions?

At first glance the voters seem to have sent a mixed message. They gave Democrats and Progressives, many of whom emphasized environmental action, an even greater super majority with which they might override vetoes. On the other hand, these same voters also reelected Republican Phil Scott, who vetoed the Clean Heat Standard, with a margin greater than that any Republican Governor has had since Democrats reemerged in the State half a century ago.

A reasonable interpretation of the apparently mixed message is that we voters would like to see climate action which does not push soaring energy prices even higher. Fortunately we have such an alternative.

Trees remove atmospheric CO2 by using sunlight to break it down and then storing much of the resulting carbon in the tree and in the ground, a process called sequestration. Removing a pound of CO2 from the atmosphere has the same effect on climate as avoiding a pound of emissions. CO2 sequestration by trees is fast emerging as a practical way to reduce greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and net emissions. The 2018 UN IPCC Report lists reforestation as the cheapest alternative per pound of CO2 removed from the atmosphere compared both to other ways of removing CO2 and to strategies for reducing emissions. Plans from the recent COP 27 climate summit rely heavily on forest preservation and restoration.

Vermont is over 75% forested. In 2018 (the last year we have information for), Vermont forests REMOVED 5.2 MMT CO2-e (metric tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere. (I and others have argued that this number should be much higher this number is estimated according to standards and methodologies which are generally accepted nationally and blessed by the UN so let’s go with it). Forest management with an emphasis on carbon sequestration (which does NOT preclude logging) could easily increase this number by 20% over the next decade. Huge progress towards the goals in the GWSA.

“There are up to 536,000 acres of opportunity in Vermont to restore forest cover for climate mitigation. Reforesting these areas with approximately 291 million trees could capture 1.65 million tonnes of CO2 per year, equivalent to removing 355,000 cars from the road.” [sic. The funny spelling means that these are metric tons – 1000Kg each]. This quote is from Reforestation Hub, a website run by the Nature Conservancy. Much of this land is in already abandoned or failing dairy farms. Farmers would gain by having a new market for the land.

At most we must reduce 1.28 million tons to meet the 2025 goal in the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA).  We can get there easily.

The feds are making billions of (our) money available for forest management and reforestation under both the recently passed Infrastructure Bill and the Inflation Reduction Act (sic). This year the legislature and the governor can and should concentrate on using those funds effectively towards climate goals by establishing forest management and reforestation programs. That’s the kind of cooperation and climate action we voters would like to see.

See also:

Draft Report Says We’re Well Along the Way to Our 2050 Net Zero Goal

Trees Are the Right End of the Stick for CO2 Reduction in Vermont

Governor Phil Scott(R) Wins Huge Victory in Dark Blue Vermont

November 22, 2022

Trump Was the Middle Finger of the Proletariat

Trumpenfinger by Jack Morris

The Trumpenfinger to the elite wasn’t meant to be pretty.

I’m being optimistic in using the past tense about the former president. I do hope he’s fading from the political scene. However, there are important reasons why almost half the voters supported him in 2016 and 2020 and why so many remain loyal to him today. We ignore those reasons and those votes democratically cast at our own peril and, yes, at the peril of democracy.

Start with the Trump policies which have carried on into the Biden administration.

Trump said immigration was out of control; I thought that was xenophobia. Didn’t think we needed a wall. But immigration is out of control. Border towns have been given the impossible burden of millions of people pouring in. Liberal “sanctuary cities” whine when a few busloads are sent their way. Biden triedT to continue Trump’s COVID-prevention excuse to turn migrants away at the border; but a federal judge has just ruled that out. Hispanic voters increasingly support Republican efforts to stop illegal immigration.  Yes, there should be a better path to citizenship. Yes, we need workers. But part of the signal sent with the Trumpenfinger was that elites were, perhaps deliberately, ignoring the problem of a broken border and the effect on real people.

Trump said the US had struck bad trade deals in the interest of globalization. He pointed to China as an example of a country taking advantage of our liberal trade rules. Again he was accused of xenophobia and racism. Biden has doubled down on a hostile China policy. Apparently the people pointing the Trumpenfinger were right.

This is not just a left-right thing at all. Corruption in the “bipartisan” middle is what enraged both the left-wing Occupy Wall Street and the right-wing Tea Party movements when not only banks but also bank investors and over-compensated bank officers were bailed out during the great recession. Lately the only bipartisan bill which passed was the Chips Act, a subsidy for some of the most successful corporations in the world which make computer chips – and whose executives and investors can be counted on to remember their friends with campaign contributions. Neither Republicans nor Democrats, who each had a turn at controlling the presidency and both houses of congress, have managed to repeal the outrageous carried-interest tax loophole for venture capitalists. Trumpenfinger! But Trump didn’t get rid of it either. Lately President Biden decided that the Americans most in need of relief are those who attended over-priced colleges on credit

Hilary Clinton called the people who didn’t agree with her “deplorables”. Understandably, they gave her the Trumpenfinger. “Liberals” say that those who don’t agree with them on abortion are in favor of enslaving women; those who don’t agree that the US is and always has been a fundamentally racist society are extreme racists; those who don’t want sexuality discussed in school until at least fourth grade are irremediably homophobic; those who are openly patriotic are fascists; police should be abolished in the interest of reducing crime (this from people living in buildings with doormen and enclaves with private security). The Trumpenfinger is an understandable response.

January 6th was inexcusable. Trump egging on people and then claiming the secret service wouldn’t “let” him join them is deplorable – and cowardly. Trump, the messenger, decided that he was the indispensable messiah. That doesn’t work either.

Trump should, and hopefully will, fade away. He is no longer a useful vehicle for other politican’s ambition. Some of the message he was elected to bring has been absorbed. We endanger democracy, however, if we ignore the rest of the message or denigrate our fellow citizens who delivered the Trumpenfinger to shatter our complacency.

November 14, 2022

Governor Phil Scott(R) Wins Huge Victory in Dark Blue Vermont

But has an even huger job ahead of him.

Ron DeSantis won newly red Florida by 19 points. Republican Governor Phil Scott won reelection here in Vermont with an historic 47-point margin over his Democrat opponent! This was apparently the highest margin for any Republican governor in the country and a modern-day record for a Republican in Vermont. In 2020 Vermont was the first state to be called for Joe Biden and gave him a larger percentage of its vote, 66%, than any other state. The first senate race called in the country last Tuesday was the election of Peter Welch(D) as Vermont senator. The Green Mountain State, home to Bernie Sanders, elected all Democrats to other statewide offices. Abortion rights were on the ballot here and won overwhelmingly. But none of this stopped Republican Scott from being reelected with an even greater margin than he had two years ago after leading the state calmly and excellently through the pandemic and being one of the first governors to terminate his own emergency powers.

Scott is scarcely a Trump Republican. As early as 2016 he made clear that he would not vote for the Donald even though he was his party’s nominee.  He spoke in favor of the abortion rights amendment to the Vermont constitution. He has signed some tighter gun control legislation as well as opposing some. He worked hard to prevent masking and school closures from becoming divisive social issues.

Scott is quoted in VTDigger: “Vermonters spoke loudly, and clearly. They want their leaders to focus on the economy, affordability and protecting the vulnerable. They want centrists, moderation and balance. They want us to be able to debate the issues with civility, seek consensus where possible, compromise when necessary, and agree to disagree when no compromise can be found.”

Vermonters apparently also want some balance. Scott cast a record number of vetoes as governor. Amazingly some were upheld even though Democrats and Progressives together had a “veto-proof” majority in both the house and the Senate. At the same time that Vermonters gave Scott his huge victory, they also increased the Democratic and Progressive majority in the House of Representatives and maintained an overwhelming left-leaning Senate majority.

These majorities are why it will be very hard for Scott over the next two years. The Democrats and allies are already discussing, of course, the legislation they plan to pass without having to worry about a veto. This legislation includes potentially huge unfunded mandates, “environmental” legislation which will both drive up energy costs significantly and, IMO, be bad for the environment, and housing schemes which will result in higher housing costs and less availability of housing.

In the past there was some negotiation between the Governor’s office and legislative leaders over potential legislation since there was always a chance that a Scott veto would be upheld – as some were. With an even larger majority, there will be less inducement to compromise; and legislation will be more partisan and ideologically driven. Initiatives from the Governor are not likely to receive much attention but are needed to provide positive solutions to very real environmental, workforce, and housing problems.

We Vermonters must let our legislators know that they do want thoughtful rather than ideological legislating. Hopefully we’ll get the “moderation and balance” that Scott talked about. And hopefully the rest of the country will as well.

See also:

Leadership in Extreme Disruption

November 03, 2022

Most of Us Will Be Somewhat Disappointed by Election Results

Will we accept them?

The only certainty about Tuesday’s election is that almost half of us are certain to be disappointed by the results. If Rs win the House and Ds keep the Senate, more than half of us will be disappointed. Local results have the potential to add each of us to the disappointed ranks.

So are we going to act like Donald Trump and Stacey Abrams and refuse to recognize defeat? Are we going to question the legitimacy of those we didn’t vote for? Are we going to blame fraud, lies, media bias, advertising, the Russians, or someone else? Are we going to help assure that elected leaders fail or will we hope they succeed for the good of the country even if we’d like to replace them in the next election?

There have been and will be fraud, lies, media bias, advertising and the Russians at least exist. There should be recounts in close elections. There should be swift and thorough investigations of fraud and suppression allegations with prosecutions of any guilty parties resulting. Faith in elections must be constantly validated.

Media bias and lying politicians of all stripes have been with us since the birth of the republic – and in its predecessors. They don’t invalidate elections. We’re the jury and we must decide whom to believe about what. That’s the way democracy (and advertising) works.

In these very polarized times (but not most polarized times – we did have a civil war), it’s easy for people on either side to be incredulous that the other side really won. “Everybody I know voted for HRC. Trump could have only won because the Russians got to the deplorables.” Or “Everybody I know voted for Trump. Biden could only have won because of boatloads of fake ballots and rigged voting machines.”  

Back when I was a kid in Brooklyn, we knew the Dodger’s woulda won if we wuzn’t robbed by duh tree blind mice (umpires). We didn’t take ourselves too seriously, though, and learned to wait ‘til next year.

Voting is the best defense of democracy; neither side has a monopoly on either democratic virtue or totalitarian vice. Policing elections against both rigging and intimidation is essential and is nothing new. Accepting the fact that your fellow citizens decided to vote differently than you and everybody you know wants them to act is what ultimately makes this country work. Then you wait for next year and work like hell to vote the bastards out – assuming you haven’t changed your mind.

Good luck to the USA Tuesday. May the best people (or the lesser of evils) win every race.

See also:

Democrats and Republicans Both Fear the Next Election Will be Stolen

Are You Ready to Accept Defeat at the Polls?

October 24, 2022

Oil Companies Profit Because We Shut Off Russian Competition

They can’t be allowed to sit on their assets.

The Wall Street Journal has a story about President Biden’s feeble attempt to increase US oil production by promising to refill the strategic reserve at a low price. Up until now he has discouraged drilling and promised to end the use of fossil fuels. He’s complained about oil company profits; but what’s he’s actually done is made it easier for them to profit greatly by restricting new supply in the absence of Russian competition. According to the WSJ:

“Energy executives and analysts expressed doubts the plan would spur a large increase in production in the short term…. They hope to capture high oil prices while they are in place. Rising drilling costs and pressure from investors to limit production and return excess cash to shareholders are also dimming the outlook for production growth…”

Time for the oil companies and the President to get off the dime. More US oil needs to flow immediately - both to keep driving, trucking, and heating costs down domestically and to preserve Europe’s ability and will to forgo Russian oil. This is cold war 2.0 (let’s hope it stays cold for us) and profiteering is not acceptable, especially from companies which are being protected from competition. Three steps’ll do it:

  1. An immediate huge sale of oil and gas leases on federal land but only to those who will both drill immediately on the new leaseholds and increase production from their current holdings. This is an offer that the oil company investors won’t be able to say no to because they run the risk that their competitors will get the leases.
  2. Expedited permitting – really expedited – but, again, only for those who will increase production now on existing and newly permitted locations. If some permitting is being expedited, some will get delayed. Those who don’t want to increase production can wait.
  3. A windfall profits tax. I’m a free-market fiscal conservative. However, since we’re protecting these companies from Russian, Iranian, and Venezuelan competition, they are not operating in a free market. They are benefitting from the embargos. Because our goal is increased production, companies should be able to escape the excess profits tax by plowing those profits back into immediately increased drilling.

The first two steps can and should be taken by executive order. The President, who has been very strong in his support of Ukraine, needs to defy the extreme left of his party and get the oil flowing that’ll let us and our allies deny Putin his energy weapon. The third step takes Congressional action which should happen in the lame duck session after the election. Some on the right will object to the windfall profits tax. Some in the middle will try to protect the oil companies. The left won’t want an exception for more drilling. Nevertheless, when Americans get their oil bills this winter, there’ll be plenty of public support for making sure oil companies don’t get to profiteer during a war by sitting on their assets.

See also:

OPEC Plus Wants $100/Barrel (So Does Big Oil)

The Dynamo of Democracy

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