Archive | March 2013


The Supreme Court has overturned DOMA … but only for couples that own multiple firearms and sufficient ammunition to annihilate their critics.

The high court ruled that DOMA be replaced with ADOMA – the Armed Defense of Marriage Act. Writing for the majority, and wielding a Taurus .45/410 Judge revolver, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Any couple that expects defense of their right to marry had better be prepared to take out any fool that objects by themselves, instead of relying on the government to clear the streets on their behalf.”

Writing for the minority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor penned, “A wise Latina woman keeps her head down when she sees a crazy white man with a loaded gun.”

CFLs, LEDs and Mercury Isotopes

Last week, two coworkers were ranting about the rules for disposing of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). If one breaks, you’re supposed to open all the windows and leave the house. The mercury in CFLs is basically hazardous waste if it ends up in the soil or the water, and isn’t so great for your lungs, or your kids.

There are any number of take-back programs, but most people just toss CFLs in the trash, and some haulers don’t separate the trash anyway. After six years of selling them, Home Depot in Canada won’t take back dead CFLs anymore. I hope that’s not a trend.

You may recall when vendors urged us to save money by replacing our incandescent bulbs (lamps) with CFLs. The first batch of CFLs I bought at Lowe’s either broke easily or burned out quickly. We got past those early failures and now most of our lamps are CFL – except for the range hood lamp and some ceiling downlights that we like to dim. We have even gotten used to the slow brightening of CFLs. I hope we’re saving energy, but I still turn out lights as often as possible.

In articles like the New York Times’, New Reasons to Change Light Bulbs, we’re seeing a big push for people to switch to LED lamps:

Start buying LED light bulbs. …

LEDs last about 25 times as long as incandescents and three times as long as CFLs; we’re talking maybe 25,000 hours of light. Install one today, and you may not own your house, or even live, long enough to see it … get dimmer.

LED bulbs … convert 60 percent of their electricity into light, so they consume far less electricity. You pay less, you pollute less.

… LED bulbs also turn on to full brightness instantly. They’re dimmable. The light color is wonderful; you can choose whiter or warmer bulbs. They’re rugged, too.

I was familiar with commercial LED lamps from luncheon presentations by commercial luminaire vendors, but knew they were expensive. Just to see how well they worked, about a year ago I bought the Philips LED lamp that was recommended on The Wirecutter. We paid $24, but it now costs about $15. The Wirecutter crew is now evaluating even less expensive LEDs.

The quality of the light is very good, and we use it above the bathroom sink where it outshines three CFLs. My plan is to gradually replace dead CFL bulbs with LEDs, but our CFLs aren’t dying anytime soon.

Taking an extreme tangent, a team from Arizona State University led by Chris Mead was looking into the problem of identifying the residual mercury (Hg) from CFLs and noticed an otherwise unexplained variety of Hg isotopes.

In a Forbes Magazine article, Tiny Nuclear Reactions Inside Compact Fluorescent Bulbs?, Lewis Larsen, the entrepreneurial half of the Widom-Larsen theory of weak force interactions leading to a low energy nuclear reaction (LENR), suggested that the weak interaction predicted by Widom-Larsen may be responsible:

When viewed through the conceptual lens of the Widom-Larsen theory, Mead et al.s carefully collected Hg isotope data suggests that low energy nuclear reaction (LENR) transmutations may actually be occurring at extremely low rates in CFLs during normal operation, …

But if low energy nuclear reactions are so commonplace, why haven’t scientists noticed them before? In part because they haven’t looked. LENR activity is subtle, according to Larsen, and it can only be readily detected and measured through the use of extraordinarily sensitive mass spectroscopy techniques on stable isotopes.

Consequently, for nearly 100 years LENR processes have effectively been hidden in plain sight from the vast majority of the scientific community.

Larsen has already proferred W-L as an explanation for oxygen isotopes on the Sun, and has speculated that W-L may take place during lightning strikes. Hg is a somewhat noble element with full valences. There are quite a few unstable isotopes with very short half-lives and seven stable isotopes, which vary by number of neutrons. The electroweak theory usually involves emission or absorption of the lighter W and Z bosons, not the heavier Higgs bosons, so normally a weak interaction would not explain a full neutron change in atomic weight.

But W-L claims that protons can absorb electrons and change them into much heavier neutrons. The mass difference between the two particles is much greater than the energy of an electron, so W-L would seem to violate conservation of mass & energy, but enthusiasts claim it does happen. One excitable LENR advocate, Alain Coe, recently offered a calmer comment on a previous post with a link, Evidence that LENR is real. I’m not taking any more comments on that post, but you can read his argument and judge for yourself. English is not Alain’s native tongue, but he asserts over and over that LENR is absolutely true and proven science – and that anyone who disagrees simply hasn’t done enough research.

I’m curious as to how such a purely speculative claim rates an article in Forbes Magazine, which identifies Larsen as a physicist. As far as I can tell, Larsen has been an investment banker, an inventor, and is now the entrepreneur/owner of Lattice Energy, Inc, and Alan (or Allan) Widom is the theoretical physicist.

It’s No Fun, Being a Star’s Reach Alien

Star’s Reach Spoiler

I’m going to offer fair warning that this is a major spoiler of John Michael Greer’s very readable scifi serial Star’s Reach, which is set in an energy-depleted future.  If you want to read the story, leave now.

In Chapter 48,  Greer tells of some advanced aliens transmitting images of the other 38 alien species they’ve contacted to a small band of future Gaia-dwellers. Don’t think Klingon, think Horta:

One at a time, as the voice went on, pictures appeared on the screen. Every one of them had something toward the middle that must have been an alien, and something behind it that must have been an alien world, but that’s about all that I can say about most of them. As I write this, I’m remembering one of them, a little like an upside-down flower with seven long fleshy petals, or maybe they were feet. The petal-feet were orange and so was the body of the flower, where the petal-feet came together in a spray of long thin drooping spines. Around the top of the body, where the stem would be, were a couple of dozen stalks with bright blue cones on the end of them; I guessed they were eyes. The alien stood on what looked like yellow sand, or maybe it was snow, and something like yellow fog swirled around it. The reason I remember that alien is that it looked more like a human being than any of the others did.

In comments, Alan From Big Easy – who I recognize from the Oil Drum – objected:

*ALL* alien species … so utterly alien … Out of 39 evolutionary choices, not one close? Octopus eyes are much like ours.

There are a number of viable solutions – of which we are one. Out of 39, IMVHO, at least a dozen should be recognizable (intelligent horses perhaps – porpoises with hands, etc.)

Yeah, where are the Mos Eisely Cantina aliens? JMG responded:

Alan, octopi share our basic biology and live on the same planet we do. One of the points I want to make here is that aliens are far more likely to be *alien*, having vastly less in common with us than we think. Much of what makes us what we are presupposes a particular kind of planet, with its own distinctive chemistry, biochemistry, evolutionary history, etc.; the Burgess Shale reminds us that the common phyla we’ve got now are a small selection out of a much more diverse range of options, and a different planet with different physical conditions, its own unique biochemistry and evolutionary history, and so on, would start from different options in the first place and evolve intelligence in its own wholly alien way.

Now what is funny about that is that the aliens confess to the Earthers that we all do have one thing in common:

“More than four million of your years ago,” the voice said, “our species reached the stage of complex technology.” Something like a vast heap of soap bubbles and spiderwebs came into sight, glowing with points of light; I guessed it was a city, or something like one. “We made the usual mistakes, and suffered the usual consequences.” The image changed; the sky turned brown and murky, and another of the city-things came into sight, torn, lightless, empty.

So we see infinite diversity in infinite combinations of alien life forms, and the great bird of the universe smiles. But Star’s Reach is a parable. No matter how diverse the aliens look, all of their home planets must have finite supplies of energy, and they all must behave enough like twentieth-century humans that they inevitably overreach and run off a cliff of energy depletion and climate change. To indicate that some species managed in some way to avoid such a fate would ruin the moral of the parable.

Is such a fate inescapable? Well on his blog, in The Illusion of Invincibility, Greer makes a good case that we are headed there despite the recent claims of energy independence for the US.

The current fracking phenomenon, in other words, doesn’t disprove peak oil theory.  It was predicted by peak oil theory. As the price of oil rises, petroleum reserves that weren’t economical to produce when the price was lower get brought into production, and efforts to find new petroleum reserves go into overdrive; that’s all part of the theory.

If we could manage epidermal photosynthesis I’d say we’d probably do just fine without fossil fuels. But we’re not alien enough to do without soil, clean water and moderate weather to grow our food, and we’re attacking all of those to get just a bit more fossil fuel.

Putting Firearms Closer To Schoolchildren

I didn’t have much use for the 1994 assault weapons ban. The post-Sandy Hook proposal closed a few loopholes, but both seemed more based on a visceral reaction against weapons with a paramilitary look than a realistic desire to curb the availability of dangerous firearms.

Read the firearms enthusiast websites and you will soon run across this advice: the best gun is the one you have. All firearms are deadly, even .22 caliber target pistols, so I think it makes much more sense to address firearm ownership in general, treating firearms like motor vehicles: a useful tool in the right hands, but an accident waiting to happen in the wrong hands.

In, The N.R.A. Wins Again, Alex Koppelman sees the latest proposed assault weapons ban as a sacrificial ploy to make background checks more palatable:

Those gun-control supporters who tend toward the glass-half-full side of things can reasonably view this as Feinstein et. al realizing that the real goal of the post-Newtown anti-gun push was a law making background checks universal — that the ban was just a sacrifice offered up to ease that law’s path through Congress — and letting any Democrats nervous about the backlash against a pro-ban vote off the hook.

That may be true, and if so, the failure of the ban, and of universal background checks, and of straw purchase penalties and of anything except funding to put more security (meaning more guns) in schools is both very depressing and a strong argument in favor of home schooling.

Class-In Looks at the News

I was a bit young to really remember Edward R Murrow, but I do remember watching Walter Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley, John Chancellor, Eric Sevareid, Edwin Newman and a lot of very credible-seeming newsmen. I used to believe everything they said. Later, I watched David Susskind’s political talk show – even though my mother despised him – which challenged much of what the network news men assured us was the truth.

The comedy show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In poked fun of everything, including network TV news. Their “News of the Future” skit even picked Reagan as a future president. Beyond the Fringe, That Was The Week That Was and later, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, did the same thing to the BBC across the ocean, but didn’t predict Thatcher as PM as far as as I know. Nowadays, the Onion tries hard to parody a mainstream news media that is already a parody of reality.

Robert Parry asks, What Happened to the U.S. Press Corps? He identifies a range of topics as difficult to get past the editors if you were criticizing the government:

Reagan’s October Surprise
Salvadoran Death Squads
Iran Contra
Iraq War

Parry follows up with, Why the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt Should Be Fired:

So how could Hiatt still have the same important job at the Washington Post after being catastrophically wrong about the justifications for going to war – and after smearing war critics who tried to expose some of Bush’s lies to the American people? How could the U.S. news media be so upside-down in its principles that honest journalists get fly-specked and fired, while dishonest ones get life-time job security?

The short answer, I suppose, is that Hiatt was just doing what the Graham family, which still controls the newspaper, wanted done. From my days at Newsweek, which was then part of the Washington Post Company, I had seen this drift toward neoconservatism at the highest editorial ranks, the well-dressed and well-bred men preferred by publisher Katharine Graham and her son Donald.

In that vein, another former co-blogger, Michael Maiello often takes those defenders of privilege, David Brooks and Thomas Friedman, to task as he does in, Are We Selfish or Misled?

Back on the Daily Banter site, Chez Pazienza offers an explanation for CNN’s apparent sympathy for two Steubenville football players instead of the passed-out fifteen-year-old girl they finger raped and generally humiliated.

Emotion and stories that play on emotion — stories that seek a visceral reaction from viewers rather than a cold, analytical response — make for great TV. Television is a visual medium and the angle of the story with the best visual element will almost always win the day. And because the victim in the Steubenville rape case was shielded from the press and therefore wasn’t available to have her emotions splashed across the airwaves and otherwise exploited by the coyotes of the media — because she couldn’t be put on camera and we couldn’t see her cry — the focus of the story became the people whose reaction we actually could see: Trent Mays and Ma’Lik Richmond. Is this wrong? Yes. In a case like this, offensive? Absolutely. This, unfortunately, is how it is, though.

I get that news has become entertainment – and the Onion did beat them to this one – but I think there’s more to it. Taking the side of the jocks vs the townie almost seems like an echo of the Duke Lacrosse Case, which was a major rallying point and win for the ‘white makes right’ team. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Brit TV, but I’m seeing more and more classism in the US, and the media is feeding into it.

I’ll Be Working From Home Today

Or not. But I did edit some specifications at home last night. After predictions that we’ll all be telecommuting one day, a Yahoo executive has people talking about not working from home. So we’ll probably need those flying cars after all.

Rachel at the Wall Street Journal blogged, At Yahoo, Working from Home Doesn’t Work, but didn’t say if she wrote her piece at home watching HGTV or in a cubicle at work:

Yahoo is hardly the first firm to clamp down on remote working – late last year Bank of America was said to have restricted its flexible-work program by asking staff to come into the office more often, a move that it said would help boost collaboration.

In an editorial, Location, Location, Location, the NY Times weighed pros and cons:

Those at home were noticeably more productive, spending 9 percent more time on calls and handling 4 percent more calls per minute. Workers were sick less often, reported being happier and quit less frequently. … [but] The Stanford study found that the rate at which home-based workers were promoted dropped by 50 percent, seeming to confirm the cliché “out of sight, out of mind.” … Another negative effect — hard to measure but an article of faith among entrepreneurs and some executives — is the missed serendipitous encounters between employees at the office that lead to new products or strategies.

I’ve worked from home – but for myself. I kept scrupulous record of every minute I was and wasn’t working. I drove to meet with my client once a week. I loved it, and my wife loved it, but we had no health insurance, so it couldn’t last. I do appreciate collaboration, and serendipitous encounters, but I also appreciate concentrating on a task without background distractions. If I had a choice, I’d be working at home three days a week.

In, Working from home alone is the real culprit, Fortune thinks we’re wired to work alongside others:

It may seem strange that although Zappos uses technology to scale, we still rely so much on face-to-face interactions. It’s because our biology has evolved far, far slower than our technology. We are a social species, designed for in-person interactions in multiple locations, not just by email and phone calls or remotely from home, and also not just in conference rooms. We are designed to be in motion, and we are designed to be creative, to share ideas, and to innovate in multiple locations throughout the day. Getting to know people in different environments and contexts leads to higher levels of trust, better communication, and can ultimately contribute to a stronger and more innovative culture.

In, The Truth About Working From Home, several women execs think there must be a balance, and that Yahoo had drifted too far towards independence:

To harness the talent and creativity of this generation requires a hard-to-balance combination of imposed discipline and the creation of something they want to be a part of, Ms. Lord said. “I think actually that’s really what Marissa Mayer is trying to do,” she added, referring to the chief executive of Yahoo, which recently said it would require employees to work in-house. “It sounds like no one at Yahoo ever wanted to darken the doors of that place.” Which is why, she continued, Ms. Mayer “took the draconian route, and I don’t think I blame her for that.”

“Really shaking it up,” Ms. Mayzler said.

“She had to shake it up,” Ms. Lord said. “And then maybe she’ll create a culture that everyone’s really excited about — then she can give that flexibility back.”

Oh, and I wrote this at home, in bed, watching Castle on demand.

Forcing Lean and Green

In, Soda Bans and the Illusion of Choice, my former coblogger Doc Cleveland reacted to the overturning of the NYC soda ban:

This is a big win for Big Gulp Libertarianism, which derided the government soda ban as Nanny State tyranny, taking away individual’s freedom to make their own rational choices. But you know what else is arbitrary, capricious, and erodes individual freedom of choice? Marketing. Every food package you will ever encounter was designed to limit the exercise of your free will. Selling someone else a 64-ounce cola may be a rational individual decision. But buying a 64-ounce cola is not quite an act of unfettered free choice.

Should our government impose laws on unhealthy food marketing as vigorously as it regulates gambling, prostitution and certain drugs, or should it not limit our our diet choices anymore than, say, vehicle and firearm purchases … and certain other drugs? Both progressives and libertarians often argue that adults should be free to make their own choices about recreational drugs. Some extend that to include gambling or prostitution, but more seem invested in making marijuana legal. Many of the same progressives, but few libertarians, argue that there should be more proactive regulation of inefficient automobiles and vastly more regulation, or taxation, of military-style firearms. The difference might be that it doesn’t take much imagination to think that gas-guzzling SUVs and AR-15s might be a threat to society-at-large, whereas abusing drugs, or compulsively gambling is usually only destructive to yourself … and anyone that cares about you.

I thought Bloomberg’s soda ban was as flawed as the now-expired assault weapons ban. Both were largely symbolic and full of exceptions for industry to exploit. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are better, but include holes large enough for large footprint light trucks to drive through.

In a New York Times OpEd a former Kraft Foods executive discusses, How to Force Ethics on the Food Industry.

Even as awareness grew of the health consequences of obesity, the industry continued to emphasize cheap and often unhealthful ingredients that maximized taste, shelf life and profits. More egregious, it aggressively promoted larger portion sizes, one of the few ways left to increase overall consumption in an otherwise slow-growth market.

… the food industry knows it has a problem, potentially a very big one if the forces against it ever do coalesce effectively. So, in maneuvering for protection by managing public opinion and policy formation, the industry will always try to camouflage itself as just one of many causes in the growth of obesity. Just as the National Rifle Association points to mental illness and violent video games as a way to deflect attention from the inherent dangers of guns, food processors will wring their hands about physical activity and, yes, video games. We shouldn’t fall for it.

Mudd feels that his industry will have to be forced to change through legislation. I don’t think government should regulate everything, but I do think that government must step in when industry becomes overbearing. When I walk through some grocery stores and see almost nothing that doesn’t have some sort of health risk associated, I think the industry is out of control.

Construction is another industry that has been characterized by voracious consumption, but is undergoing more regulation. In, Business Imperative and Market Demand Driving Green Building Growth, McGraw-Hill reports a trend towards green building:

… firms are shifting their business toward green building, with 51 percent of respondents planning more than 60 percent of their work to be green by 2015.

They say that in 2008, only 13% of respondents and in 2013, only 28% of respondents had such expectations.

“This report confirms that the green building movement has shifted from ‘push’ to ‘pull’ — with markets increasingly demanding no less than green buildings,” said John Mandyck, chief sustainability officer, UTC Climate, Controls & Security. “By promoting greater efficiencies for energy and water, green buildings lower building costs while conserving the earth’s precious resources. This powerful combination of built-in payback with environmental stewardship creates a new value proposition that is accelerating green building in all regions of the globe.”

I find this report hard to believe. I’ve only seen a demand for green buildings in the public sector. Government and institutional clients have sought LEED-rated buildings. While a few private clients want us to meet LEED standards, few of them want to pay for the additional fees and paperwork necessary to earn a LEED rating. Material manufacturers have jumped on the LEED bandwagon enthusiastically, often making LEED compliance a centerpiece of their marketing. Builders have also adapted to LEED, but don’t do anything for free.

It is true that stricter code requirements have led to more insulation and greater attention to controlling air and vapor movement. Clients do worry about increased energy costs in the abstract, but few have demanded that designers reduce the expanses of window glass that characterize contemporary construction. Few clients have been willing to rearrange their spaces to meet any sort of intelligent passive solar design. But you don’t have to holistically design an energy-efficient building to call it green, and that has led to a lot of complaints.

Father of LEED not a fan of ‘green’ buildings

Rob Watson has been a sustainability rock star since the 1990s, when he created the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for the U.S. Green Building Council, now the gold standard for quantifying almost any building’s environmental virtues. … He’s no longer with the USGBC, but he’s still the father of LEED everywhere he goes — and in Atlanta this week, he offered a mixed appraisal of the movement he helped launch 20 years ago. …

“Hopefully we’re on our way to eliminating ‘green’ as a modifier,” he said. “There are good buildings, and there are bad buildings.” Good buildings save energy, water, time and effort, he explained — but perhaps most importantly to their occupants, they save money. “This is not a fad,” Watson added. “The bottom line of green is black.”

Watson makes sense in calling for efficiency, but is LEED the way forward to green or black buildings? Dr Joseph Lstiburek, a Canadian mechanical engineer who has written building science books for each North American climate zone, thinks LEED and green technology is gimmicky. In his talk, Adventures in Building Science, 1:09:53, he charts the energy efficiency of LEED vs non-LEED buildings and finds no difference.

To be fair, LEED is not intended to be strictly about energy efficiency – one can get credits for fewer volatile organic compounds, or more parking or even the bike rack that Lstiburek laughs about – all of which are valuable goals. But we do need a stronger measure of energy efficiency, not some sort of soda ban for buildings. So I might be shooting my profession in the foot, but I think we need even stricter consumption regulations for buildings.

Nuclear = Unclear

I was reminded of a bit of college bathroom graffiti while reading the latest articles about nuclear power. Two years ago, Fukushima was the latest Chernobyl, Germany began shutting down their nukes, and nations that didn’t began to reevaluate safety procedures. Some felt that the Daiichi meltdown was the wake-up call that would put an end to nuclear fission projects. Others pointed out that fission reactors were only commissioned and decommissioned at public expense, as private investors were unwilling to risk their own capital in risky ventures that always ran far over budget.

Now Japan is admitting that it wants electricity more than it fears radiation, the US nuclear weapons site Hanford is leaking radioactive waste, there are new designs for smaller nuclear fission reactors that leave waste for only 300 years instead of 300,000, but watchdog groups feel that small reactor research is a boondoggle.

Japan’s Economic Troubles Spur a Return to Nuclear

All 50 of the country’s reactors were shut down after the disaster, … Just two reactors have since been restarted. … This week, the CEO of Areva, which supplies fuel for Japanese nuclear power plants, predicted that two-thirds of the reactors in Japan will be restarted within the next several years, and that half a dozen may restart by the end of the year. … In December, the government lost power to Prime Minister Abe’s party, which promised to improve the economy and is emphasizing the need for nuclear power.

Nuclear Sludge Leaking at Hanford

Hanford is perhaps the dirtiest reactor site in the world with 1,000 inactive dumps, 100 to 200 square miles of contaminated ground water, and 50,000 drums of plutonium wastes in temporary storage.

DOE officials admitted in 1991 that managers dumped 440 billion gallons of radioactive liquids directly into the soil — using ditches, cribs, trenches and injection wells — and that hazardous waste had “fouled the Columbia River.”

Leaving aside the billions of gallons of nuclear poisons poured directly into it, the New York Times reported in Oct. 1997 that, “If leaks from the tanks reach the Columbia River through ground water, radioactive material would eventually be incorporated into the food chain and could expose people to radiation for centuries.”

Safer Nuclear Power, at Half the Price

A conventional nuclear power plant is cooled by water, which boils at a temperature far below the 2,000 °C at the core of a fuel pellet. Even after the reactor is shut down, it must be continuously cooled by pumping in water. The inability to do that is what caused the problems at Fukushima: hydrogen explosions, releases of radiation, and finally meltdown.

Using molten salt as the coolant solves some of these problems. The salt, which is mixed in with the fuel, has a boiling point significantly higher than the temperature of the fuel. The reactor has a built-in thermostat—if it starts to heat up, the salt expands, spreading out the fuel and slowing the reactions. That gives the mixture a chance to cool off. In the event of a power outage, a stopper at the bottom of the reactor melts and the fuel and salt flow into a holding tank, where the fuel spreads out enough for the reactions to stop. The salt then cools and solidifies, encapsulating the radioactive materials.

A venture capitalist in the article predicts that reactors can be built for less than 2 billion dollars, and believes that one could be privately-financed. MIT Technology Review posted this article, and Transatomic is an MIT spinoff company, so we may want to take these claims with a grain of molten salt.

Taxpayer Subsidies for Small Modular Reactors

In the Department of Energy’s materials on SMRs, the agency argues there is a “need and a market” in the United States for SMRs. In reality, no one is clamoring to buy an SMR because there is no assurance the electricity will be remotely competitive with power from other sources. New nuclear power today is uncompetitive by a very wide margin. To compete with today’s natural gas prices, SMRs would have to produce electricity at half the projected cost of conventional reactors. There is not the slightest indication they can do so.

Often attacks on one energy industry are quietly funded by a rival industry, but Taxpayers for Common Sense appear to be legitimately non-partisan. If the natural gas bubble bursts, however, nuclear energy will look a lot more attractive no matter how much it costs.

Minimum Rage

I don’t often have strong feelings about the minimum wage, but this article, Hidden Costs of the Minimum Wage, irked the hell out of me.

Economics Professor Casey Mulligan wants to cut the federal minimum wage, which he thought was a princely 7.55 per hour, but is actually 7.25 per hour. I’m guessing he has tenure, because those of us employed at will have already run the numbers in case we get laid off.

We [economists] agree that minimum wages do some economic damage, although reasonable economists sometimes believe that the damage can be offset and even outweighed by benefits.

More important, we agree that the extent of that damage increases with the gap between the minimum wage and the market wage that would prevail without the minimum. A $10 minimum wage does less damage in an economy in which market wages would have been $9 than it would in an economy in which market wages would have been $2.

What is the current market wage? From the comments section:

As any college student who is looking at internships knows, the current market wage is – – $0.00, whenever the employer can get away with it. This is a slack market, slack enough for employers to extract as much value for as little labor costs, as possible.

I read that most – but not all – minimum wage workers are students or other young people, many – but not all – living with their parents and many – but not all – working in service industries. Except for my first job, I’ve been well above minimum wage, so why should I worry about how much these workers earn? Because programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid and Food Stamps, funded by taxes, make up for some of what employers don’t pay.

Small government types want to take that tax support away with no corresponding increase in wages, and let the workers work for market wages – which you remember are just about zero – in a race to a third world economy. I don’t want to see that for both altruistic and selfish reasons. The selfish reasons are that while some of my clients are wealthy, they all sell to the middle class. If the middle class goes away, the hurt will eventually work its way around to me.

Back to what irked me:

But these are not normal times. The least-skilled workers are seeing their wages fall over time, largely because they are out of work and failing to acquire the skills that come with working.

What ivory tower is Mulligan inhabiting? Almost everyone’s wages are falling over time. As described in Hello From The Underclass,  many of the people that are out of work have twenty years of skills, but are now considered too old to be employable. They can’t even get minimum wage jobs.

I’ve run out of unemployment benefits and still have no job. I’ve interviewed for many, averaging one or two a month. For some openings I’ve been invited back for multiple interviews, which probably means I was a finalist, but I invariably lose out, often to the dreaded “internal candidate”. Sometimes I get feedback from a potential employer. I’m told I interview well and have a good skill set. But apparently that’s no longer enough. At other times, I’ve been told I’m overqualified or underqualified. “We don’t hire people who aren’t employed” is my favorite.

Did I mention I’m 59 years old? … I had an interview for a contract position last Thursday. It pays less than half of what I typically have earned over the last decade, but that’s fine with me. It is income. I haven’t heard back from them yet. I dread calling the contract agency to see what the status is.

The NY Times recently cut its Green blog. Why are they keeping this one, again?

Magical Third Options

I noticed a NY Times OpEd this morning, How Economics Can Help You Lose Weight. I figured it would be about buying less expensive, but healthier food, but it was actually about restricting choices.

… Xenophon argued that a general can strengthen his army’s position, perhaps counterintuitively, by doing battle next to a dangerous cliff. His soldiers, after all, would only have two choices: fight or die. The army farther from the cliff had a third option: to flee. This extra option, he said, made it less likely to persevere.

I have to interject that doing battle next to a cliff might seem like a good idea to the general, but as one of the troops, I’d rather not have my back to a cliff. Of course sometimes the battle has to be at the cliff.

[Economist Thomas] Schelling said that he eventually applied this theory to his struggle to quit smoking. He wanted to think of it as a battle with two choices — quit or die of cancer — but his nicotine-addled brain kept coming up with a third option: sneak one more cigarette and quit later. Of course, later never came. (“I was quitting for 20 years,” he said.) This theory also applies to weight loss. For years, I’ve known that the only way to lose weight was to permanently change my diet and exercise habits. But I was awfully good at coming up with third options, like buying diet books or eating Atkins bars that made me feel as if I were on the verge of weight loss even if I never jogged or ordered salads.

As I surveyed all my dieting options this time around, I realized that many companies based their entire business models on the impulse to believe in a magical third option. (Their marketing materials usually include the words “miracle,” “easy” or “suggested by Dr. Oz.”) …

… The real money, of course, is in the third, easy, magical-option category. All those diet bars, green-coffee-bean-extract capsules and other supplements earn close to $3 billion a year. Diet soda alone is a $21 billion business. Game theory suggests that if you want to truly change your behavior, commit and close off those options. But as basic marketing makes clear, the real money is still in the fantasy business.

I’d rather not be pushed off a cliff, but I’m not willing to drive off a cliff, either, so I tend to be very skeptical of options that sound too easy. My mind quickly jumped to other third options. With transportation we can keep driving everywhere and pay more, or drive less and find other ways to get around when necessary. The third option seems to be to keep motoring as usual, but substitute hybrids, electric vehicles or some sort of fuel cell cars. I believe that will eventually be a fantasy for all but the very wealthy.

With energy consumption the magical third options include drill-baby-drill, tar sands, tight oil, fracking and ethanol to keep the fossil fuel paradigm going. Other third options include massive solar and wind projects, biofuels, photovoltaic or some flavor of supposedly free nuclear reaction to keep the pervasive electric power grid paradigm going.

As to the point of the OpEd, dieting, Adam Davidson felt that his commitment to meal-replacement shakes eliminated his third options.

This, I realized, was the financial commitment. Unlike Atkins or Dr. Oz-approved products, Robard is not focusing on consumers who make guilt-reducing impulse buys. The company is technically a manufacturer, and its main revenue comes from its powders. Its growth, however, is predicated on persuading doctors to make long-term results-based commitments. Robard provides its medical customers with free services, from individualized training to an annual conference on developments in weight-loss science. In order to charge its large markup, Robard needs to ensure that its research services are tremendously valuable. The company’s financial incentives, in other words, were in line with my own personal goals. So far, I’ve lost 60 pounds.

It is great that Adam Davidson lost weight, but I don’t connect his economic argument to his commitment to the product. Wouldn’t he always have had the third option of sneaking in the occasional snack? It seems clear to me that he felt the company was on his side, and that their attentions helped him stay on the diet. It reminds me more of the brother who lost weight in the Atlantic article, The Perfected Self, which led to me trying out LoseIt. I’m not logging my calories and exercise on LoseIt anymore, but I’m doing the same things that worked while I was.