Saturday, December 15, 2007

Sometimes You Do Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

I found this story (found over at Cafe Hayek) about the emergency management strategies of big box chains to be unspeakably cool:
Along with traditional measures, such as wind speed, rain levels and satellite images, McDonald relies on hurricane-tracking software that uses 12 models to predict whether potential storm tracks lead toward Wal-Mart stores or warehouses.
In some cases, retailers have become so deft at handling emergencies that local governments turn to them. Washington state recently assigned an administrator to coordinate with the private sector in emergencies. Schortal of Home Depot said he had a get-to-know-you conference call with the woman a few weeks ago.

"Next thing you know, we're texting each other and exchanging calls for the real thing," he said.


Last weekend Jennifer and I went to the Sugarloaf Craft Festival, where among other things, we bought a couple of hats from an outfit called The Mouse Works. As we were cutting the tags off our purchases we noticed that as a result of the owner's efforts to be environmentally friendly, he generated just a single bag of garbage in 2004. Naturally, the first thing I wanted to know was, what was in that bag? Was there a single event sometime during the year that generated the unrecyclables, or did he accumulate them steadily over the course of the year? It seems strange to me that he was able to get so close to zero waste without reaching exactly zero. It's a bit like the fine-tuning problem in cosmology.

I think solid waste is a more serious problem than people realize, and certainly more serious than some environmental issues that get a lot more play in the media. Part of the problem here is that solid waste disposal is heavily subsidized in most places, so throwing stuff away is ridiculously cheap relative to the actual costs of operating a landfill. It's those rotten old negative externalities again.

We generate about a bag and a half of garbage per week, which seems pretty good relative to our neighborhood. I suspect there are quite a few things that we throw away that actually could be recycled, if only we knew the exact rules for what the recycling company will and will not take. As it is we only recycle the obvious cans, plastic, and glass. Maybe we should start experimenting. We also tend not to recycle things that would require extensive washing before we could put them in the bin. It's not obvious to me that running trash through the dishwasher so that we can recycle it is a net win, environmentally speaking.

As part of my research for this post I conducted an informal survey of our solid waste generation habits (i.e., I pawed through the trash until Jennifer told me to stop). The number one component seems to be junk mail. A lot of that could be recycled (and there is a lot more that we do recycle), but I was under the impression that glossy paper and envelopes with cellophane address windows don't recycle. Maybe it's time for a little experimentation at curbside pickup time. The other big component is packaging, mostly cardboard and cellophane. If we got rid of those two, then we could probably cut our trash output to 1/3 or 1/4 of what it is now.

Now, if you will excuse me, my wife tells me I have a year's worth of garbage (by mouse works standards) to take out.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Free Trade and Fair Trade on EconTalk

This week's EconTalk sees the return of my favorite guests, Mike Munger, to talk about Free Trade and Fair Trade. Munger has the best quote of the podcast (arguably any podcast) when he says, "I'm a big coffee drinker. Sometimes I apply it topically."

Apart from Munger's offbeat sense of humor, the interview is one of the best discussions I've seen in a while of the mechanics of how trade creates wealth for the parties involved and why attempts to channel extra wealth to one of the parties through Fair Trade premiums don't always work out as expected. They also address the common misconception that trade is a zero-sum process in which nations compete to capture as much as they can from a fixed-size pool of jobs. It's well worth a listen, if you have 58 minutes to spare.

Old-time futurism

Alexander Rose, from the Long Now Foundation points us to an article from the Ladies' Home Journal, published in 1900: "What May Happen in the Next 100 Years." Some of the predictions seem remarkably prescient, such as "Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance" or "Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world." Others, comically wrong ("Everyone will walk 10 miles a day"). A few are just bizarre, especially the author's obsession with gigantic food (peas as large as beets, strawberries the size of apples, and "One cantaloup [sic] will supply an entire family." WTF?)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the author is most accurate where he is extrapolating from well established technologies of the day. Predicting that the telephone, telegraph, and railroad would all get better is pretty safe. His population forecasts are pretty good, but they are a bit high because he failed to predict the drop in fertility rates that accompanied industrialization. He does less well with technologies like aviation, which had not yet taken hold, vastly underestimating their prominence. Technologies yet unimagined in 1900, such as transistors and integrated circuits, are completely absent from his predictions, and when it comes to cultural trends he is all over the map.

Contemporary futurists can take some lessons from these predictions. Incremental improvements to existing technologies are easy to predict, but tend to underestimate the scope of technological progress. The real revolutions will come from new technologies not in common use today. Some of them, like aviation in 1900, may be right on our doorstep. And people will remain as stubbornly unpredictable as ever.

There is one thing, however, that I feel pretty confident about: no giant fruits and vegetables, ever. You can take that one to the bank.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Virtually Everyone is Sincere, but They Still Can't Agree

Over at EconLog, Bryan Caplan makes a discovery:

Since the publication of my book, I've been meeting a much wider range of people.
What have I learned? Primarily, I'm more convinced than ever that virtually everyone is sincere.
This is not terribly surprising to me. Robert Heinlein said it a long time ago: "Your enemy is never a villain in his own eyes Keep this in mind; it may offer a way to make him your friend," and he doubtless ripped that off from somewhere else much older. So, if we're all sincere, why do we disagree so vehemently, particularly about issues of politics? Caplan continues:
Even when you've got undeniable facts on your side, your opponents probably think that those facts don't matter...
I think Caplan is on to something here, but I think he doesn't go far enough. Often you won't even be able to get your opponents to agree on the facts in question. What fraction of taxes are paid by "the rich"? Does the Canadian health care system make people wait a long time for treatment or doesn't it? These are strictly positive questions that should have answers that everyone can agree on. Yet, when you listen to people argue about the issues surrounding these questions, often their versions of the facts are so different that if you didn't know better you'd conclude that they must live in two very different countries.

Even if we could agree on the facts, there would still be plenty of room for disagreement over the normative aspects of the problem, but if you can't agree with your opponent over the basic facts surrounding the problem, then the argument probably isn't worth having in the first place.