May 18, 2013

Saturday Morning Essay: Liberalism Lives on in Berkeley: Brad DeLong, the Krugman of the West

Brought to you by Trader Joe's Dark Roast blend...

Brad DeLong of the Berkeley economics faculty tends to mirror his Princetonian mentor, Paul Krugman, in a somewhat sycophantic way, as the following passage suggests:

I would say that six years ago something like 80% of economists and commentators, certainly including me, shared Niall Ferguson's belief that the debt capacity of the United States government was limited and that rising debt would produce rising interest rates and rising inflation rates, and that old-fashioned Keynesian expansionary fiscal policies were of very limited utility in achieving economic prosperity. Today the 20% minority six years ago are all saying "we told you so"; We 60% in the middle are trying to figure out whether we were always wrong or whether simply the world changed in 2008 in a major way; And there are 20% dead-enders--including Niall Ferguson--who from my perspective at least continue to fail to mark their beliefs to market, in part because they think that doing so would require them to declare some form of intellectual bankruptcy.

Mr. DeLong, on his "Grasping Reality With Both Invisible Hands" blog (this, which I didn't think possible, is actually worse than "The Conscience of a Liberal"), often spills a lot of cyber-ink defending Paul Krugman from his many detractors.  He's kind of Mr. Krugman's bulldog or palace guard.  They share other tendencies, such as a fascination with America's military history.  Krugman's obsession is Ulysses S. Grant and the Civil War, and Delong is mad about World War II.  Right away, this tends to make me sympathetic to the Berkeley guy, aside from the connection to my alma mater.

DeLong's defenses of Krugman are vociferous and tendentious, in general, although the above quoted passage from a couple of days ago, which I quite like, is a welcome exception.  Here Mr. DeLong is admitting, in an appealing way, that he used to base his economic analyses of fiscal and monetary policy on the "Weimar" principle that you can't simply finance the federal government with printed money without running the risk of runaway inflation, rising Treasury rates, and budgetary breakdown, so that the government should not attempt a full-tilt Keynesian recovery (increasing the budget deficits in an effort to stimulate "aggregate demand").

What I think Mr. DeLong is forgetting is that Mr. Krugman was himself more or less of this school in the days when George W. Bush was President. I quoted the relevant passage in my "Mr. Krugman's Science" series.  From March 11, 2003, in his column "A Fiscal Train Wreck":

My prediction is that politicians will eventually be tempted to resolve the crisis the way irresponsible governments usually do: by printing money, both to pay current bills and to inflate away debt.  And as that temptation becomes obvious, interest rates will soar.

Well, in a "science" as flexible as economics, one can always dance away from such an analysis, if it later proves embarrassing, as it probably did, since Mr. Krugman based his decision to switch to a fixed rate mortgage at 2003 rates from whatever he had before.  I'm sure Mr. Krugman would point out that in 2003, America was not in a "liquidity trap," or something along those lines.  (I may take over the West Bay position of Mr. Krugman's Praetorian Guard, or Chief Eunuch at the Harem.)

But back to the estimable Mr. DeLong, who, in general, is a far more fluent and incisive writer than the economist he worships.  I suspect, given the clarity of his expositions, that Mr. DeLong is a very good teacher, with the only limitation on this accolade the recognition that the subject he teaches is complete and utter nonsense. He muses about an important point: did the "world change in some major way in 2008" ?

At first blush, that seems like a pretty dumb thing to say.  As in, what does it even mean?  What does "way" mean, for example?  Huh?  The world changed in a major way.  Did the Earth assume a cube shape, for example?  Did it begin revolving around the sun in the opposite direction?  Did it become 70% land and 30% ocean?  I would regard these changes as major. 

Mr. Krugman, going way back to 2009, defended his thesis by an instrumental argument; that is, he analyzed the way that quantitative easing actually worked and concluded that it could not be inflationary because the Federal Reserve's money creation simply plumped up the excess reserve accounts of the Primary Dealers. It did not find its way into the real economy (that's where you and I live). This was a very intelligent insight.  So what was the difference between Mr. Krugman's 2003 "banana republic" warning and his 2009 position, other than the fact that it was no longer Mr. Bush's ox he was goring?   I suspect the answer's simple: his Princeton colleague, Ben Bernanke, sat Mr. Krugman down and explained how quantitative easing actually worked.  It's good to have friends in high places.

This is not idle speculation, really.  Mr. Krugman is capable of missing the most obvious things in the world, such as the effect of modern automation (robots, etc.) on unemployment, and (the howler to top all howlers) that Americans used the fictional equity in their homes during the housing bubble to sustain the massive "aggregate demand" that Mr. Krugman now insists on using as a trend line for determining whether the economy is under performing.  Yes, Mr. Krugman missed that.

Quantitative easing is for the purpose of helping the federal government service its massive debt at manageable interest rates.  The Federal Reserve provides a giant secondary market for Treasuries and for junk debt such as mortgage-backed securities, so that Primary Dealers can buy this sketchy paper at very low rates knowing that the Fed will take it off their hands and submerge it into the enormous debt sink of the Fed's balance sheet if the paper promises begin to lose their face value.

Nothing "changed" in the world in 2008.  Something, instead, was revealed once again.  The great industrial economies of the Western world and in Japan have run out of steam because they're up against real world limitations brought on by the Limits to Growth.  The housing bubble game masked this reality for a while by allowing massive inflation in equities.  Now we're lumbering along in more or less the same fashion as a Disney brontosaurus stuck in a tar pit in "Fantasia," with similar prospects.  But party on, Garth & Wayne Paul & Brad, and keep writing like it really matters.

May 16, 2013

Nature Always Sides With The Hidden Flaw

Here at Waldenswimmer, we face Near Term Extinction so you don't have to.  No need to thank us; it's the way we roll.

Our hysterical story so far: it would appear there has been a slight omission from mainstream reporting in the United States; to wit, the climate change story has entered a new phase of seriousness which we might term the "Arctic Methane Problem."

As with all previous iterations of the climate change story, in America the Arctic methane angle must first travel through predictable rites of passage before it can engage the general public interest.  The first phase, of course, is Denial/Minimization. Andrew Revkin of the New York Times predictably fulfilled this function in late 2011 with a post on his Dot Earth blog entitled, in effect, "Apocalypse Not." Essentially, this writer and singer-songwriter (meaning: he has scientific credentials similar to my own) talked to a couple of scientists who assured him that methane emissions from the Arctic have been occurring for thousands of years, this is nothing new, let it go, etc.

As a note in passing:  there is something very adult-sounding about dismissing disaster scenarios, such as runaway greenhouse.   Yet I still wonder: is attitude exactly what is called for under these circumstances?  Granted, methane releases are commonplace all over the world.  It's the byproduct of anaerobic breakdown of organic matter by microbes. The frozen methane was nestled deep in the sediment of the Siberian Arctic Ice Shelf, was covered by mud, by 150 feet of water slightly above the freezing point, and then, at the surface up above, by a thick layer of Arctic ice. They've been there since the days the Arctic shelf was well above sea level, when the climate was much colder.

Think of all we had to do to wake those microbes up.  Warm the air with CO2, which melted the ice, which allowed sunlight on the dark water, which transmitted heat down to the Arctic shelf, which freed the methane to bubble to the surface at long last.1

Ira Leifer, University of California:   "The amount of methane that’s trapped under the permafrost and in hydrates in the Arctic areas is so large that if it was rapidly released it could radically change the atmosphere in a way that would be probably unstoppable and inimicable to human life." [11]  James Hansen adds: "It is difficult to imagine how the methane clathrates could survive, once the ocean has had time to warm. In that event a PETM-like warming could be added on top of the fossil fuel warming."

How did the Arctic Methane Problem sneak onto center stage without anybody (in America) noticing?

Well, a few notes from a personal perspective.  I can recall, a little over a year ago, the proceedings of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.  The convention received a pretty good write-up in the San Francisco Chronicle, since this area is not much under the influence of the Three Stooges of Climate Denial, Joe, Dana and Jimmy (Joe Barton of Texas, Dana Rohrabacher of Newport Beach and James Inhofe of Exxon Oklahoma).   A particularly interesting story concerned the voyage of Dr. Igor Semilitov, a Russian atmospheric scientist and veteran of many Siberian Arctic cruises. As Dr. Semilitov reported at the convention: 

"Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of metres in diameter. This is the first time that we've found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It's amazing," Dr Semiletov said. "I was most impressed by the sheer scale and high density of the plumes. Over a relatively small area we found more than 100, but over a wider area there should be thousands of them."
I had no context for such a report at the time.  Methane seemed like yet another technical sideshow to the main story line concerning atmospheric CO2.   Yet nature does indeed side with the hidden flaw. The flaw was this: inhibited as we have always been by the leadership such as that provided by George W. Bush ("the science isn't settled"), by the Three Stooges of Denial, and by the general indifference of Barack Obama, we have operated on the principle that so long as we got around to dealing with carbon dioxide levels by 2050 or so, by which date Barack Obama pledged a country which he will no longer lead to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (and probably to a definite closing date for Guantanamo at about the same time), all would be well, and any more urgent schedule was motivated by hysteria.  This was the operating principle.  Thus, we would go on dealing with the "recession," and with "energy independence" and the rest of it, and we could deal with global warming when the time was right.

Or so we thought.  In retrospect, that was a pretty simplistic and unrealistic view of a highly complex climate system, with many inputs, many feedback loops, and many unknowns.  I'm struck by the willingness of the Russian scientist to speculate a little bit, guessing that if he saw 100 methane plumes, there must be thousands more he didn't see.  That does make sense, but American scientists have been so intimidated by Denialism, by the fear of saying anything that hasn't already been proven true, that they would regard even such a logical induction as the daydreaming of a Greenpeace hippie.

So in September of this year, while the Russians are sailing around again checking for methane plumes, here in America we'll be continuing our argument about whether it's AGW, or just a natural cycle, that has led to a North Pole without a cube of ice.

May 15, 2013

We're At About 99 Monkeys

I was feeling satirical, looking around on the Web for stuff on Joe Barton, the Republican from Texas who persecuted those three climate scientists during the Bush Administration over the "hockey stick."  Some statistician with no climate science training wrote to Barton and said their analysis was full of holes, so Barton put out a request to see everything all three of these guys had ever done - all their research, all their papers, all their funding, all their notes, all their methods, etc.  Fortunately, a lot of people went to bat for them and called Barton off before he could do too much damage.  As a result, the blog (which is on my blog) was founded by Raymond Bradley and Michael Mann, who were the two main authors of the "hockey stick" analysis that was a part of the IPCC report way back in the early 1990's.  Barton, of course, like James Inhofe of Oklahoma, is on the payroll of Big Oil & Gas, and it was always Bush's idea of a sick joke to put people with no training in charge of the major "environmental" and energy committees, especially if they were openly hostile to AGW theories.

So as a man with a Kindle (and a PaperWhite at that), I got Bradley's book, "Global Warming & Political Intimidation," and began reading. Bradley goes very deeply into the methods used by climate scientists to determine temperature patterns in the days before thermometers and regular record keeping.  It's very, very complicated, involving "proxy" data sets like ice cores, corals, lake sediment, and tree rings, and then correlating these proxies on a worldwide basis to build a picture of past climate.  Fortunately, Michael Mann, a good Berkeley undergrad, Yale PhD in physics, applied math, and geology, knew how to do it, and his methods have held up well since their original publication in Nature.  But I got to thinking: how much more difficult is it to do this kind of work in this country with these Congressional morons looking over your shoulder trying to find the slightest hesitation or expression of doubt?  And how much does that chill the necessary research?  And did, in fact, the influence of people like Joe Barton, James Inhofe and Dana Rohrabacher doom the human race to near term extinction?

Hear me out on this one.  As a result of this official Denialism, what I most feared back in 2000, when Bush was elected, may in fact be coming to toxic fruition.  We could not afford those eight years (nor five more of Obama's go-along complacency), and disaster may lie in the not too distant future.  I started reading around on the Web, following Bradley's leads, and a major omission from American reporting began to take shape.  Russian and European scientists talk about it all the time, and it's on the news over there, but in America we have what you might think of as "Al Gore-ism," where nothing is ever said that might sound "hopeless." Our attitude about global warming is equivalent to the Victorian attitude about sex: it's okay, as long as you don't do it in the street and frighten the horses.

What I'm referring to is the problem with methane release in the Arctic Circle and in Siberia.  This has been given a once over lightly approach by the IPCC, and is essentially never mentioned in America's popular discourse.  A curious omission, since the survivability of Homo sapiens may be at stake.  For example, methane plumes from the Siberian permafrost were, up until about two years ago, about a meter across.  They were everywhere, and Russians for fun would dig holes in an ice-covered lake and then set fire to the escaping gas.  These methane plumes are now a kilometer across.  Methane is bubbling up out of the shallow waters (in general, less than 50 meters deep) of the East Siberian Ice Shelf, out of the permafrost (which is thawing) and from the shallow waters of the Arctic Ocean north of Canada. They were held in check for millions of years in the form of methane clathrates (a frozen state), and buried in the sediments beneath the permafrost and in the ice shelves.  With the Arctic warming, the ocean is transmitting heat to the submerged stores and the warmer climate in general in Siberia is thawing the permafrost.

The quantities are enormous.  CH4 has a life in the atmosphere of only 12 years, versus CO2, which is essentially permanent once it's up there.  Methane breaks down into CO2 and water vapor (mainly), so it winds up greatly adding to CO2 concentrations.  But it's what it does in the short run that may make all the difference.  In the short run it has a heat-trapping capacity which is 100 times that of CO2.  Ice core studies from the Younger Dryas demonstrate that the order of events, as the climate emerges from an ice age, is that CO2 concentrations rise first, and this sets up the warming which begins freeing up methane from exactly the places it's coming now.  When this process starts, it has the capacity to raise global temperature by 1 degree C per year. This is rapid transition, "non-linear" change, or runaway greenhouse, take your pick.  The correlation between massive methane release during such transitions and temperature rise is much more closely related than the relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature increase, at least according to the studies of some researchers who have looked at such historical data (or who have dared to look).

For what amount to political reasons, the conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has chosen to "lengthen out" the effect of methane over a 100-year scale, so that its heat trapping qualities can be correlated to CO2, which is usually measured over such a period.  Over 100 years, methane is about 22 or 23 times more powerful, but methane's far more powerful short-term effects have been given short shrift.

As Steven Chu said, once he quit working for Obama and could speak his mind again, we are right now on the verge of beginning the runaway phase of global warming.  CO2 is like kindling - it sets the stage, but as long as you only focus on CO2, you can get the idea that we need to do something now to avoid a problem in 2100 or so.  This may be tragically wrong.  The original Kyoto Protocol (and the Club of Rome) were right to sound the alarm when they did.  With complete cessation of fossil fuel burning by 1990, we might have headed this catastrophe off.  But we had guys like Barton, Inhofe and Rohrabacher giving our scientists a hard time, and making them pull their punches, so the worst CO2 emitter on Earth could carry on with business as usual.

Poke around on the Net and see what I mean.  Look at the website of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group. They want to create clouds above the Arctic for a massive albedo effect as a desperate measure to keep the water up there cold enough to hold the methane in check. Go to YouTube and key in "methane plumes in Siberia."  It's horrifying, the scariest stuff I've ever read.

The problem always was that it took the latest science too long to become established.  The usual process of research, writing, submitting, peer review, revision, resubmission, etc, and then eventual inclusion in an IPCC compendium meant that it could take 5 years for the latest research to see the light of day.  The atmosphere of Denialism made scientists leery of ever saying what they really thought about what they were finding out. It made the process much more conservative than it should have been, and it means the IPCC reports were always consistently underestimating the real scope of the problem.  And now we have methane plumes a kilometer across belching CH4 into the atmosphere, with gigatons to follow.

My desire to be satirical about this went right out of me.  I don't know what to think now. This all has the quality of a bad dream.

The suspicion is that there may be no Arctic sea ice at the end of this summer.  All that dark water, absorbing heat, thawing methane, trapping heat, leading to more thawing, in a death cycle of feedback loops. My fearless prediction is that in about a year, the problem of methane release will break through to general American consciousness, and then, for a while, we won't be talking about gun control or Kim Kardashian's butt implants. And when the problem becomes that obvious, I would advise Joe, Jim & Dana to maintain a very low profile.  Probably on a private island.

May 12, 2013

Waiting Out Benghazi With Barry Galbraith

My present method for dealing with Made-for-Madtime-TV scandals (Madtime TV is my designation for those cable television shows on MSNBC, Fox and CNN that cluster around the late afternoon hours and take whatever story-du-jour has captured the public imagination and beat it into senseless oblivion) is to wait them out.  You can fall for one of these manufactured "controversies," and breathlessly await the next breaking development as the story "builds;" or you can ignore the whole thing and wait for the sagging denouement in which it is admitted that there was never anything there in the first place.  Watching Bill O'Reilly or Rachel Maddow from one day to the next has the huge downside of wasting a tremendous number of hours of your life.  You do not know anything more at the end of your viewing sessions than you knew at the beginning, not really.  You only think
you do, and there are never any "general lessons" that you learn about anything, other than the state of our public discourse is more than faintly ridiculous.  And you already knew that.  Bill O'Reilly and Rachel Maddow run with these stories because they are in the business of attracting viewers to their boring shows; that is, it's a business.  If you thought that bulb planting was equally riveting, they would do an hour on that.

If you eschew these faux-controversies, a number of immediate benefits spring up and bloom in your life.  You don't have to watch John McCain's strange, lopsided face get further distorted into yet another paroxysm of insane rage, as he demands "answers" and vows "to get to the bottom of this." By itself, that's an extremely salutary development.  You don't have to deal with Hillary Clinton's hair enigma: why is she growing it longer now than really works at her age?  But best of all, you can do other things with your time.

For example, I've gotten into jazz guitar comping.  This is fun, and it can take you to places of musicianship you didn't know you could access.  It takes a lot of time, however, and you have to choose between Rachel Maddow's high-energy, frenetic shouting about something you don't quite follow, and doing something where you can actually make progress in personal development on a day-by-day basis.  I owe it all to Barry Galbraith, a great jazz guitarist and teacher who bequeathed a series of books to the practitioners of the music he loved.  You've never heard of Barry Galbraith, although he was an American and a genius at guitar arrangement and music theory, who lived a quiet, humble life and played with all the great jazz singers and musicians of his era: Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, you name it.  He arranged standards and collected a whole bunch of the very best in two books; sadly, only two books.  Another fellow came upon a trove of his hand-sketched arrangements of a bunch more and he published those on the web, although they're hard to read.  This fellow was amplifying the generous nature of Barry Galbraith's spirit. He knew that Barry's followers could never get enough of this stuff.

And Barry put together a couple of strictly pedagogical books to teach you how to comp, how to play, for example, a walking bass line with the voicing of chord notes for another group of standards where he hadn't done full-scale arrangements.  It's hard to describe how much fun it is to feel these arrangements come together under your hands.

I can't remember exactly how I first came across Barry Galbraith.  I think maybe I was looking on YouTube for videos of guys playing jazz guitar standards, and over and over again the notes below the video would mention that the arrangement was by Barry Galbraith.  Usually the player would call him the "great" Barry Galbraith, because by the time you learn one of his arrangments, that's how you feel about him.  Then one fellow mentioned that the arrangements could be found in those books I mentioned, and I sent away for them, and then I sent away for everything else Barry had ever published and now I own them all.  And I'm set for life, especially if I begin (as I will) printing out those chicken-scratched arrangments that fellow was nice enough to hoist up on the 'Net. And then I'll spend years figuring out all of those.

The larger idea being: there's something in your life that's life jazz guitar comping, something rich and personally nourishing, and it's not Bill O'Reilly gassing on for two or three months about whether the Benghazi attack was inspired by an anti-Muslim video shown in Cairo, or was (instead!) a covered-up terrorist attack on an American diplomatic post.  After watching Bill and Rachel for months on end talking about this nonsense, you'll feel limp, and cheap, and used, with absolutely nothing to show for it.

And if you wait long enough, you find out, in one article by Glenn Kessler in the Washington Post, that the Benghazi "consulate" was actually a CIA station installed there by the Agency to retrieve shoulder-launched missiles which had fallen into insurgents' hands, that it had almost nothing to do with the State Department, and the reason the story was "muddled" at first by Susan Rice was because the White House didn't quite know how to play the revelation that our "consulate" was a spook house, although the Libyan attackers obviously already knew.  There, I just saved you 200 hours of excruciatingly borning television.

And now back to Barry's comp of the great Jimmy Van Heusen's "Like Someone In Love."