Monday, March 20, 2017 Blog

Measure what you value. Uphold high (mileage) standards. Beaufort takes on plastic. Pro-science congresspeople. Cool oceans protect reefs. Be kind to spiders. Gas tax redux. Plastic seawalls. My mistake.

by Andy Hollis


If you don’t know who Simon Kuznets was, you were probably an English major or a psychology major.  You were almost certainly not an econ major.

Professor Kuznets invented National Income Accounting, which brought us the world’s most widely used measure of economic well-being, Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  National Income Accounting systematized the evaluation of economic activity in America.  Its misuse is also one of the reasons we are in so much trouble today.

This editorial from argues that GDP’s perverse treatment of nature must change.  (Catastrophes like tsunamis and hurricanes register as additions to GDP, due to the massive costs of recovery.  Conservation is either ignored, or negative, in GDP terms.)  The authors suggest replacing GDP with one of the many alternative measures that consider the depletion of natural resources as a reduction in wealth, like the Inclusive Wealth Index or the U.N.’s Human Development Index.

This may seem like an arcane point, but it is not.  Some wise, unnamed person said, “We value what we measure.”  The converse is also true.  We do not value what we do not measure. If it is considered axiomatically disastrous that GDP will only grow by 2%, vs., say, 5%, over a given year, it is almost impossible to question whether that is really such a bad thing.

If 5% growth is driven by the sale of women’s hats decorated with the feathers of the last snowy egret, and we don’t measure snowy egrets, or of Thneeds made from the last Truffula trees, which we also don’t measure, how can that be good?  Yet GDP (as we currently interpret it) says that it is.

I have to mention that Professor Kuznets won a Nobel prize in economics for his work.  This is, similarly, not entirely a good thing.  The prize has been given to too many people whose contributions to human welfare have later proven to be less than salutary.

Consider, for example, Professors Robert Merton and Myron Sholes, who won Nobels in 1997 for their options pricing model.  Less than one year later, deploying said model, their hedge fund, Long Term Capital Management, lost $4.6 billion dollars almost overnight and had to be bailed out by 16 of the world’s largest banks to avert a global financial crisis (like the one that subsequently occurred in 2008).

So the lesson is, make sure you measure what you value, not the other way around, and when someone approaches you sporting a Nobel Prize in economics, keep your hand firmly on your wallet.  (This is not true with poetry, in case you are approached by Bob Dylan.)

Some things we can measure easily and unambiguously provide clear and substantial benefits for the economy and the environment – fuel efficiency standards, for example. This next piece, a Post and Courier op-ed by law professor Cass Sunstein, criticizes the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken them.

Sunstein explains that although the standards are expensive on the front end, they yield net benefits in fuel savings, public health and more, amounting to $14 billion annually.  He reminds us that the Reagan administration attempted to withdraw airbag requirements, only to be rebuffed by the U.S. Supreme Court because the rationale for withdrawing them was flimsy and inadequate.

There is no doubt that regulations should be given a rigorous once over, and those that don’t produce clear benefits should be revoked or amended.  But the process has to be justified on more than the fact that the regulated industries just don’t like ‘em.

Speaking of regulations, it makes a difference, in our form of democracy, who imposes them.  This is called Federalism. (For more on that subject, go see “Hamilton.”)

Generally, regulations with local impacts should be under the purview of local governments.  That was the problem with the Legislature’s attempt this year to prohibit local governments from banning plastic bags (the pollution from which is decidedly local, but also global).  This article from the Beaufort Today reports that a group called Lowcountry Citizens Ready for Change has launched a petition drive encouraging the town to ban single use plastic bags.

I have mentioned in previous e-mails that such bans have been imposed across the globe, from California (Yes, I know California is a state and I said local governments should have jurisdiction.  Let’s just say California is different.), to Bhutan, (which has the most stunningly clean rivers and streams in the world), to Folly Beach.  It would be great if Beaufort would set a standard for environmental responsibility and cleanliness among medium sized and larger towns and cities in South Carolina!

On the global side, but with monumental local impacts, a group of Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives is urging action on climate change.  As this article from Grist reports, 17 members of the House (it’s a start…) have submitted a resolution acknowledging the human contribution to climate change and calling for “economically viable” mitigation measures.

Given that the costs of failing to act are astronomical, this would certainly encompass programs like a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme.  I said this last week, but it’s worth repeating.  When America faced severe threats to freshwater ecosystems and mountain forests from acid rain, Republican President George H.W. Bush initiated the cap and trade program that successfully curbed SO2 emissions.  The same bipartisan approach should be taken with CO2.

The leader of the group, Rep. Carlos Curbelo from Miami, is said to be courting “pro-science” members of the House.  One would hope that would include everyone (but it does not).  One signatory is S.C. 1st district Representative Mark Sanford, who had this to say about the resolution:

“The Low Country makes Miami Beach look like high ground,” Sanford said. “I just think there is inherent danger in the three-monkey routine — see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil — related to climate change. To deny its existence is to deny what our country was founded on. The Founding Fathers designed a reason-based political system, and without reason the system doesn’t work.”

Good for Rep. Sanford, and good for science!

There are innumerable reasons to act on climate change.  One of them is to stem the alarming loss of coral reefs world wide – a result of warming oceans.  This article from the Boston Globe reports on research that concludes that there is no other way to save the reefs.  Even if we stopped all local water pollution and prevented any more physical damage to the reefs, warmer water would still doom them to extinction.

Boston Globe: The only way to save coral reefs? A war on global warming.

Coral reefs have been called the “rain forests of the ocean” because of the disproportionate number of ocean species that populate them.  It’s hard to imagine an ocean without reefs, so we better move rapidly and decisively if we intend to keep them.

On the subject of rainforests, I reported last week that a great kiskadee, ordinarily a resident of the tropical forests of Central and South America, has excited birders at Bear Island in the ACE basin.  Here is an audio clip from Rudy Mancke’s Nature Notes on that visitor.

As anyone who has had the pleasure of watching Nature Scene or joining a field trip knows, Rudy is a fan of all living species, including spiders.  Spiders would be wonderful even if they had no economic use, but this article from Unibas reports that they consume an almost inconceivably large quantity of prey every year, including insects that would otherwise overrun forests and grasslands.  Spiders are clearly essential in maintaining balanced ecosystems worldwide.  (And we could also say that Charlotte, the spider, was the first to communicate using the Web…)

Senator Tom Davis has used a particularly effective way of communicating the importance of transportation reform to the S.C. Legislature.  Last year Senator Davis filibustered the gas tax increase until lawmakers agreed to modest changes to the way the S.C. State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) selects projects.  The reform requires STIB projects to be approved by the DOT Commission.  It’s not enough, but it was an important step forward.

In this editorial, from the Post and Courier, Senator Davis explains that he is pushing for additional reforms this year.  He argues that the DOT Commission should be appointed by the governor instead of the Legislature.  This, he says, would provide citizens the opportunity to hold someone they vote for responsible.  As it stands, if you don’t like the decisions made by the Commission, you have, at best only one commissioner who is appointed by someone for whom you vote.

Post and Courier: Before gas tax, ax highway commission, infrastructure bank

Cindi Scoppe, with the State, has followed these types of debates as closely as anyone in the media.  In this editorial, she speculates that Davis’ reform may be just the ticket to break the gridlock over transportation funding.   We will soon see.

The State: Could reform be the essential piece to road-funding puzzle? (Hint: Yes)

Finally, Sammy Fretwell with the State, reports that the DHEC board has overridden the agency staff’s decision that plastic “wave dissipation devices” at Isle of Palms and Harbor Island must be removed.  Among other things, they block mother sea turtles in their arduous journey from the ocean to lay eggs on the edge of the dunes.

Anyone who has taken a look at these things will recognize them for exactly what they are – plastic seawalls.  They clearly do not perform as advertised, allowing sand to wash between the horizontal plastic poles and settle on the “upstream” side of the wall.  In fact, the one I saw had poles so close together it would have been impossible for a grain of sand to pass between them.  And the dune side of the wall had less sand than the ocean side.  The board has made a big mistake that will probably be overturned after much legal ink has been spilled on both sides.

Finally, a correction to last week’s e-mail.  (I hope this doesn’t become a habit…)  I said Aldo Leopold was a bounty hunter like Don Young.  He was actually a U.S. Forest Service employee.  While it is true that during that era, the Forest Service subscribed to the same strategy of wolf eradication as bounty hunters did, I stand respectfully corrected.

I hope you had a great, breezy weekend!



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