Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Books of Summer

My last final exam was yesterday. The school year is over, and summer beckons like an endless realm of bright, golden possibilities.

Which means it's time to put together the summer reading list.

It's actually going to be a pretty short list. That's partly due to the voice of experience, and partly because I'm still waiting to see what's on other people's summer reading lists. Tyler Cowen has done a nice one before, and in general lists should be popping up like mushrooms on the Internet pretty quick now. So for the time being, I am limiting myself to the following:

1) Thinking Strategically, by Dixit and Nalebuff.
Game theory. This one actually came from Tyler Cowen's list a year or so ago. I've read just enough to know that I want to finish it.

2) The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama.
I know just enough about Obama to be convinced that he is easily our best choice out of the current crop, and I want to know more so I picked this up. On my first foray, I was initially put off by his tone in the book; there seems to be a pompous quality to his writing. But then in a moment of insight I realized that Obama hears himself speaking when he writes. He writes prose like he writes a speech, and sentence structures that work well in public speaking are often clunkers in print. I understand the error; it's very common and I've done it myself. No harm done now that I understand what's going on.

3) By the Sweat of Thy Brow, by Kranzberg and Gies.
This is a history of "how mankind has conceived of and organized work." It's a traditional, literary-style, history book. There is no economic theory in here that has ever had acquaintance of algebra, let alone calculus, or set theory, or general equilibrium models, or whatever godforsaken, formalist horrors may now lurk in the pages of the The Journal of Economic History. This one is just for fun, and at first glance it reads like it will be just fun. It's also dear to my heart because it's the only one of my three summer books that came from the Santa Cruz Library annual book sale, where used books are offered for $1.50 a pound. Which means that this little volume cost me 98 cents. I can't begin to describe the happiness I'm experiencing from my consumer surplus here.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Obama and Regulation

There is a nice little piece about the endorsement of Obama by Paul Volcker and three former SEC chairmen over on Teagan Goddard's CQ Politics site. As the article mentions, this endorsement was unfortunately overshadowed by the Edwards endorsement, but I think that it gives us more information about what to expect from an Obama Presidency, and the news is good. According to John Cranston, the author of the article, former Fed chairman Paul Volcker has now signed onto the endorsement, which means that three of the four signatories are Republicans, two of them appointed to their posts by Reagan and one by Bush 43 himself.
You might think that this indicates that Obama has an anti-regulatory streak, or has been signalling an intention to pander to Wall Street, but you'd be wrong. According to the article, each of these men "leaned hard against the anti-regulatory wind when they were charged with overseeing U.S. financial markets" and otherwise showed a willingness to act "as guardians of the interests of individuals and the economy generally" against special interests. And hey, really, that's all I'm asking for in a regulator.
I try to be cynical about politicians, and that's not hard to do, but little signs like this make me hopeful about an Obama Presidency. I guess it's time to go give him another $25.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Let's Not Do Anything Rash About Global Warming

I found this photo of Houston in a story on io9. The story, by Annalee Newitz, describes how ozone in the atmosphere, while bad for the atmosphere, does create some beautiful sunsets.

I sense that Ms. Newitz wrote with a certain degree of irony. However, speaking as an economist, I must insist that all efforts to mitigate global warming be immediately placed on hold until we have done further research. We can't be taking rash actions without knowing all the facts, and we won't know all the facts until we know the extent to which utility is being increased due to the ability of pollution to improve sunsets. Blindly stumbling forward without further studies would be irresponsible, and constitute a craven surrender to the enviro-fascist conspiracy. If anyone would like, I could provide a graph with some curves and numbers to prove my point.

Thanks to io9 for the story, and thanks to eschipul for the photo.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

From Steampunk to Solarpunk

For awhile now, I've had the thought that an economy based on renewable energy might return to using sailing ships as working cargo ships.

Apparently some other people had the same thought, and those people have actual engineering skills, access to capital, and a desire to work really hard for money. The ship pictured here is the Beluga Skysail, a hybrid cargo ship which uses sail power to supplement the ship's engines. According to the press release from SkySails GmbH, the German corporation which makes the sail system, they expect ships using their system to achieve fuel savings of between 10%-35%, "depending on the route and weather conditions." The Beluga Skysail made its maiden voyage in March, making a two-month trip from Germany to Venezuela, the United States, and Norway, and achieving 20% fuel savings over the course of the trip.

So, in honor of the Beluga Skysail's maiden voyage, I'm going to suggest a new literary genre: solarpunk.

I think the best way to explain solarpunk is by contrasting it to the science fiction and fantasy genre called steampunk, from which the idea of solarpunk derives. Steampunk stories describe alternative futures or worlds in which steam technology (and Victorian technologies in general) were not pushed aside by oil-based technologies. For example, in many steampunk stories, mechanical devices have not been replaced by electrical ones, since without oil the world never developed the capacity to generate the massive amounts of electricity that we take for granted. Given that premise, a lot of the fun of steampunk comes from technological conflations between the modern era and the Victorian era, like computers that are not based on electronics but on continued development of Charles Babbage's mechanical Difference Engine. More fun comes from injecting modern, cynical attitudes towards government, capitalism, and traditional morality into neo-Victorian worlds that still, superficially, respect all of those institutions, along with the Crown and the importance of good-breeding.

Solarpunk also conflates modern technology with older technology, but with a vital difference. In the case of steampunk, the focus on Victorian technology serves as a guideline for imagining an alternative world. In the case of solarpunk, the interest in older technologies is driven by modern world economics: if oil isn't a cheap source of energy anymore, then we sometimes do best to revive older technologies that are based on other sources of energy, such as solar power and wind power. That is why the Beluga Skysail is the official, honorary cargo ship of solarpunk.

Obviously, a major difference between solarpunk and steampunk is that solarpunk writings, and solarpunk technologies, need not be imaginary, and I some hope of eventually living in a solarpunk world. And a potential similarity between the genres is that both can share a cynical, film noirish sense of politics. I personally find it extremely unlikely that a transition to renewable energy can be accomplished without some serious political fights between the good citizens of the world and the corrupt forces who will inevitably attempt to sabotage the transition for their own personal gain. The current political efforts to subsidize the production of ethanol as an alternative to fossil fuels is only the latest example of corruption that needs to be stopped.

Finally, no literary genre is complete without an actual work of literature. For this role I nominate Norman Spinrad's Songs From the Stars. This is, admittedly, a very minor work of science fiction but is built around the idea of a technologically-sophisticated society which restricts itself to four, renewable forms of energy: muscle, sun, wind, and water. I read this book over 25 years ago, and while the story is very forgettable, I have never escaped the vision of personal flying machines that cobbled their lift and energy requirements together from a combination of helium-filled glider wings, wind power, and a prop driven by good old bicycle pedals, chains, and gears. You can't get a whole lot more solarpunk than that.

Thanks goes to JohnnyRook on Daily Kos for turning me on to the Beluga Skysail.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Welcome to the Republic

Hello and welcome. This is my stream of consciousness about the economics, politics, and technology of the new commonwealth that seems to be appearing as we begin the 21st century. I hope you enjoy it.