Thursday, August 10, 2006


An Australian economist points out some unpopular truths:

One thing I hate about politicians is the way they pretend to indulge us rather than level with us. They rarely tell us the unvarnished truth about what problems they can fix and what they can't, preferring to string us along. They act as though they can fix everything, which encourages a culture of complaint and a focus on the alleviation of symptoms rather than a search for fundamental solutions.

Take all the whingeing about the price of petrol [gasoline]. No pollie's prepared to tell us that since the problem is a global shortage of oil, the rise in price is a healthy development because, by encouraging both producers and consumers to adjust their behaviour accordingly, it offers the best solution to the problem. Fortunately, neither side of politics is silly enough to embrace the populist cry for the temporary relief of symptoms that would come from cutting the tax on petrol - which would increase local demand without adding to supply.

A related issue on which the pollies have always lacked frankness is traffic congestion. They won't admit there are no painless answers to peak-hour delays. It's not practically possible to eliminate congestion. The best we could hope for is to slow down the rate at which it's getting worse. In his book Still Stuck in Traffic, Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution in Washington reveals just how ignorant of the nature of the problem politicians have allowed us to be. He argues that traffic congestion isn't the problem. Actually, it's the solution to the problem - the only solution the public finds acceptable.

The real problem is that we all want to live together in big cities and travel to and from work or school at pretty much the same time of day. Now, it makes economic sense for us to live in cities and it makes social as well as economic sense for us to want to work when others are working. But the problem is greatly compounded by our desire to live in low-density suburbs and to travel in our own cars - by ourselves. So the demand for road space at peak times of the day greatly exceeds the supply of space available. The result is traffic congestion, which is merely a way of rationing the space on a first come, first served basis. It's a queue, in other words.

We all think of ourselves as having a democratic right to drive to work if we want to, but what the pollies never have the courage to point out is that, by exercising our private right to drive, we impose "social costs" on other people. There are costs for other motorists - in the form of slower journey times and increased fuel consumption - and costs on the rest of the community, in the form of air and noise pollution.

The standard economists' solution to this is to make private individuals bear the social costs of their actions by charging them to use main arteries at peak times. You'd keep increasing the charge until you'd eliminated the congestion. But no government in the world has done this. That's partly because technology hasn't yet advanced to the point where a fool-proof charging system is practical. Mainly, however, it's because the public would vigorously object to such a charge. We hate the idea because it would disadvantage people who couldn't afford the charge (which is true), because we believe we're already paying enough tax and because we much prefer to leave the cost of congestion hidden from view.

See the point? When demand exceeds supply we have to ration. And when you won't ration by price (which is what economists advocate) you have to ration by queue. So congestion isn't the problem, it's the solution to the problem - the only solution we're prepared to accept, our unending complaints notwithstanding. By hiding the cost of congestion - by paying it in time rather than money - we understate the cost of our preference for living in low-density patterns and we end up overinvesting in highways. Both things lead to urban sprawl, which increases energy costs, infrastructure costs, vehicle kilometres travelled and air pollution.

In theory, the problem of excess demand for peak-hour road space can be tackled either by reducing demand or by increasing supply. As we've seen, the public shies away from demand-side solutions because they impose costs directly on the individual. We prefer supply-side solutions because they impose costs on the community (and we can kid ourselves that others will pay, not us). Hence the perennially popular solution of trying to reduce congestion by building more tunnels and expressways. The problem with it is that any success you have in reducing congestion and travel time is soon lost because it induces more demand from people who'd prefer to drive to work. There must be some ultimate limit to this additional demand, but to reach it would require a huge expansion of expressways, involving the disfiguring of many landscapes and the destruction of thousands of homes. It would also be impossibly expensive and wasteful (because of all the hours of the week when the extra expressways were underutilised).

So building better roads offers no realistic solution to congestion - a conclusion both public and pollies seem to be coming to in reaction to the modern practice of allowing private operators to build the new expressways and then charge directly for their use.

What about reducing road congestion by increasing the supply and quality of public transport? Not a bad idea, particularly since it's been so long neglected and in view of our need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the dearth of public transport in outer suburbs suggests it would be an expensive business to make more than a modest impact on road congestion. And to some extent you'd be shifting the congestion from road to rail and bus.

So what hope is there? Well, it turns out that a lasting rise in the price of petrol might have a significant effect in reducing the demand for peak-hour road space by shifting people to public transport and encouraging ride-sharing. Downs says in his book that cutting the number of lone drivers would reduce congestion more than any other single change



Cheap journalism at the Associated Press reveals little about accuracy. "The nation's top climate scientists are giving "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore's documentary on global warming, five stars for accuracy," announces the Associated Press. But what does that really mean? Well, for starters, it's the polling equivalent of grade inflation as five stars doesn't mean 100 percent accuracy.

"The former vice president's movie - replete with the prospect of a flooded New York City, an inundated Florida, more and nastier hurricanes, worsening droughts, retreating glaciers and disappearing ice sheets - mostly got the science right, said all 19 climate scientists who had seen the movie or read the book and answered questions from The Associated Press."

But that's small potatoes when forced, by implication, to accept that there are only 19 "top climate scientists" in the entire United States. The AP, apparently, "contacted more than 100 top climate researchers by e-mail and phone for their opinion. Among those contacted were vocal skeptics of climate change theory. Most scientists had not seen the movie, which is in limited release, or read the book."

So why doesn't the headline say - "nation's top climate scientists have not seen Gore warming movie" - which is the salient lede in this bit of amateur polling? Or even "some climate scientists ok Gore movie's accuracy." The answer is that neither of these headlines makes for a compelling story.

But even if you accept the newsworthiness of 19 climate scientists, it is important to ask what is the probability that this very low response rate has resulted in selection bias? In other words, were those scientists who read the book or saw the movie more likely to agree with it from the outset - especially as Gore's position is no secret?

It's hard to imagine those who disagreed with the movie's widely-publicised claims lining up to pay for a lecture on science from an ex-politician. And the impression that the AP succeeded in polling only those who agreed with Gore's arguments is underlined by the quote from one scientist who, after watching a special presentation of the movie said, "Al, I'm absolutely blown away."

STATS is not in a position to evaluate the rightness or wrongness of what Gore claims, or what those scientists who gave it two thumbs almost vertical said in response. But we know a meaningless poll when we see one.

And the AP's story follows on an op-ed in the June 26 Wall Street Journal by Richard S. Lindzen, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, which was both critical of Gore's movie and the idea of a consensus among scientists about the causes and nature of global warming.

Given that Lindzen has long criticized the consensus view of global warming, one wonders whether he was among the AP's list of the 100-top climate scientists. If so, one would have expected him to have had something to say about the movie. And if he was not on the list, then why not?

Statistical Assessment Service


Galileo got crosswise with Pope Urban VIII. Robert Oppenheimer didn't see eye-to-eye with Edward Teller. Every original thinker has a bete noire who torments and goads him. For William Gray, a lean, six-foot-five emeritus professor at Colorado State University and one of the world's leading experts on tropical storms, the bugaboo on the horizon is another tall, charismatic fellow named Albert Arnold Gore Jr. You can call him Al.

Sitting in his office on the northwest edge of Fort Collins, Gray thumbs through Gore's An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It, the coffee-table companion book to the documentary of the same name. Gore has been making the rounds of talk shows and bookseller conventions promoting both efforts. Turn on cable news and there he is, reciting the we're-in-deep-shit message he's been delivering by slide show for years, now bolstered by a website ( and startling computer graphics that depict the earth being ravaged by a gauntlet of man-made catastrophes over the next few decades.

Gray doesn't believe in the planetary emergency. Never has. Still, he picks his words carefully. A few weeks ago, a Washington Post article quoted him comparing Gore's convictions about global warming to Hitler's beliefs about the Jews, a burst of rhetorical overkill he says he sincerely regrets. So he's going to try to sound a diplomatic note here, even though the book, which some colleagues have asked him to review, strikes him as a piece of outright hysteria. "I admire Al Gore," he says. "There's no doubt, with over six billion people, we have a lot of environmental problems in this world. He's pointing them out. That's fine. But that doesn't mean it's all due to global warming, or that you're going to solve these problems by cutting back on fossil fuels."

The tone seems conciliatory enough. But soon Gray is out of his seat, pointing out features on a map of the world pinned to the wall, reading passages from Gore's book aloud, scribbling lines of convection on a yellow legal pad. "This is a slick propaganda book," he declares. "The pictures are very good. But there are factual errors."

He's off and running. The people who are spreading the global-warming alarm, including the scientists, just don't understand the way the atmosphere works, he says. The ones who see a link between increasing ocean temperatures and more intense hurricanes in recent decades don't understand the ocean or hurricanes. The global computer models projecting that heat-trapping greenhouse gases will warm the earth between three and seven degrees Fahrenheit in the next hundred years -- melting polar ice, flooding shorelines and disrupting weather patterns everywhere -- are fatally flawed.

Now 76 years old, Gray is an old-school meterologist who prefers observational data to computer modeling. "I could assemble fifty of my colleagues who are very skeptical about global warming," he says. "The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] never talks to us, but I have a bit of an obligation, at my age -- I was trained to tell the truth. There's a lot of hogwash in this. If I don't speak up, I'm not doing my job."



Many people would like to be kind to others so Leftists exploit that with their nonsense about equality. Most people want a clean, green environment so Greenies exploit that by inventing all sorts of far-fetched threats to the environment. But for both, the real motive is to promote themselves as wiser and better than everyone else, truth regardless.

Global warming has taken the place of Communism as an absurdity that "liberals" will defend to the death regardless of the evidence showing its folly. Evidence never has mattered to real Leftists

Comments? Email me here. My Home Page is here or here. For times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


No comments: