Is another mass extinction looming?

No, this has nothing to do with Donald Trump. My topic is the bigger picture. Over the millennia the Earth’s biosphere has endured repeated mass extinctions. Somehow life has survived and recovered, but these events can be catastrophic. It is generally accepted that there have been five major extinctions, each of which became an evolutionary turning point, causing virtual elimination of at least 70% of all living species. Of course, life always finds a way, as the fictional mathematician in the movie Jurassic Park wryly noted. Usually different life forms assumed dominance after each catastrophe, and while evolution stuttered it nevertheless continued.

None of these events has happened since our species evolved, but that may be about to change. In fact, on a geophysical time scale, this threat may be imminent. And don’t be so sure that we will be among the survivors. This ominous prediction arises from an analysis of concentrations of oceanic carbon over time. The ocean, in case you didn’t know, typically retains fifty times as much carbon as the atmosphere, and variations in its concentration have correspondingly larger impacts on climate. Results of this study are summarized in the figure below.

The use of logarithmic scales in this diagram highlights a key point. The crucial discriminator is not the amount of carbon. Rather it is the rate of change. When carbon concentrations rise or fall very quickly, then this seems to be correlated with the occurrence of mass extinctions. This isn’t a perfect correlation and it certainly doesn’t prove causation. Rather it is a statistically meaningful indicator. Over the time frame covered by this study, there have been 31 oceanic carbon variations that exceed the margin of error, shown by the yellow band. Of these, only 10 were extreme, and the worst 5 of these closely match the major extinction events. In particular, all of the 4 excursions showing sudden increases match such events. Keep that fact in mind.

Of course, you might scoff at this correlation as a chance relationship deriving from how the data were analyzed, but there is a plausible scientific explanation for why it could be valid. Describing this requires more time and expertise than be profitably expended in this blog, and only those of you with deep scientific training would understand it anyway. So, let’s just stipulate that the threat may be real.

Now comes the good part, using that adjective very loosely. An analysis by geophysics professor Daniel H. Rothman of MIT shows that since 1850 there has been a very significant acceleration in oceanic carbon content. Recent measurements are quite precise and the data can be confidently extrapolated for coming decades. At the predicted rate of change, the world will enter the mass extinction zone in about the year 2100, give or take a decade or so. If you remain skeptical, have a look at this article.

Now remember the fact that I highlighted above. Looking again at the diagram, note that there have been no circumstances going back hundreds of millions of years when a sudden rise in carbon concentration didn’t coincide with biological disaster. None! If another such event is happening now, this will be the first for our species, and thus the first time when an extinction subject might conceivably alter or prevent it. Personally, I suspect we would survive, but the post-extinction world would be very different from what we now know.

In case you wondered, the MIT scientists ran out a number of scenarios to see if it is possible to change the threat vector sufficiently to avoid the extinction zone. Only one showed any promise at all. It requires a dramatic change in human activity starting no later than 2020. And even this only barely avoids catastrophe. Want to bet on how likely that is?

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Climate Change: Sense and Sensibility

In a recent Scientific American interview, renowned physicist David Deutsch answered a question thusly:

SA: “Do you think concerns about climate change and other environmental problems are excessive?

Deutsch: “Resource-depletion and overpopulation worries are fundamentally flawed. Climate change worries are fundamentally misdirected. Geoengineering is essential, unavoidable and is being downplayed and delayed because of the ‘moral hazard’ that people will be distracted from reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The latter should be the third most important response, after geoengineering and mitigation of the effects of climate (changed and otherwise) on people.

This is precisely what I believe. The climate is changing, and for the worse from a human perspective. Most of those who deny this do so because they find the consequences of facing reality distasteful. Others are simply scientifically illiterate. There is a somewhat legitimate argument surrounding the degree to which human activity is the driving force for these changes. But that is largely irrelevant to the main point, which is that the most promising and accessible responses have somehow been hijacked by this quixotic attempt to cure the problem simply by reducing carbon emissions. Not that this wouldn’t be helpful, but it is unlikely to be effective for both technical and political reasons. Moreover it diverts attention and resources from more promising solutions. I think this is mostly a consequence of well-meaning amateurs attempting to set scientific policy.

So, by all means let’s stop making it worse by spewing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But don’t lose sight of our real goal in the process. We must accept the most likely future, even with our best efforts, and stop pretending that we can somehow halt the consequences of an industrial revolution that has otherwise brought enormous benefits to the human race. It is too late for such wishful thinking.

Geophysical changes have enormous inertia. There are estimates that even if we instantly reverted to a pre-industrial world, the climate would inexorably become more threatening before it finally recovered. Some effects are self-propagating. Glacial melt and warming of the vast northern tundra are prime examples. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and the ocean basin and continental tundra are emitting this in steadily increasing quantities.

We are at the cusp of real progress in geoengineering and that is where real hope resides. At the same time we must urgently invest vastly greater effort in protecting our resources and population from the most likely outcome.

Keep in mind that commercial interests have caused us to cluster on continental fringes world-wide. Many of our great cities lie beside oceans that will rise and be more turbulent as they grow warmer. They are at great risk. It will take a long time and enormous expense to protect or relocate critical infrastructure. Time is of the essence.

A Footnote to History

In 1949, an up-and-coming young Representative from California, Richard Nixon – not yet Tricky Dick – was running for the Senate. His candidacy and personal philosophy was an odd amalgam of instinctual progressivism and ritual anti-Communism. He was fresh from his personal triumph in unmasking Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy, using the famous “pumpkin papers” from Whittaker Chambers.

One of his key campaign platforms was – wait for it – essentially ObamaCare for Californians! He thus augured Mitt Romney’s program as Governor of Massachusetts many years in the future. Nixon won but never followed through on this, and probably it was never possible in the political climate of the time, but isn’t that a wondrous thing?

My Law of Unintended Consequences

There is a provision buried deep within the tax bill now being negotiated in Congress that I will bet you have never heard mentioned. I have never seen it discussed on TV, and I watch a lot of news programs plus all three CSPAN channels. But in fact it is the most consequential item of all. It disrupts transactions that currently grease the skids of finance and it amounts to about $2.2T per day. Yes, that is a T for trillions and it occurs every single day! If that doesn’t impress you then you are really jaded.

The issue is repurchase (repo) agreements that provide a short-term funding market for banks and investment companies world-wide. Legislators had no intention of disrupting this, of course. What they were targeting is the way multinationals shift profits to offshore entities to exploit their lower tax rates. However, these repos also flow across borders and the bill would make them unprofitable by imposing a punitive tax on them.

No one knows what the consequences of this will be because it wasn’t discussed or modeled by anyone. Of course the banks are now aggressively lobbying to get this provision killed or modified, and quite possibly they will succeed. I certainly hope so.

But that is a bit beside my point. Our tax system has spread its tentacles into every area of the economy and even to other countries. Any attempt to meddle with it in a significant way will inevitably cause unintended consequences. Some may be good. Some may not. This repo issue is a prime example of My Law of Unintended Consequences, which states that any large-scale change in our economy will inevitably result in some effects that were neither desired nor proposed.

Consider, for example, the proposal to drop the tax deduction for home mortgages. Currently, when buyers purchase a home, part of their affordability calculation is this tax deduction. Remove it and some home purchases become unaffordable, with consequences to the buyers, sellers, and finance companies. But that isn’t the major problem. The real impact is that removing this deduction instantly reduces mortgaged home values throughout the nation by an amount proportional to the amortized deduction over time. This is a massive loss of wealth by the largely middle-class home owners, and it certainly exacerbates wealth inequality.

That was an obvious example and, as it turns out, legislators are currently considering these consequences. But there are more such unintended consequences. What are they, you ask? I haven’t the slightest idea, and neither does anyone else. That’s the whole point, and if that doesn’t scare you, it should.

Entitlement Reform

Republicans rant endlessly about so-called “entitlement programs” as though they are evil theft from the treasury, while Democrats rise up in anger bearing torches and cudgels whenever the slightest economies are suggested for them. Well, that’s an exaggeration of course, but it does capture the essence of the sorry situation we are in. I believe both are sadly wrong and, if given their way, both will do irreparable damage to our economy. On this topic, as others, we need to be sensible, compassionate and frugal, and we need to listen carefully to those with whom we disagree. When did this ever describe the swamp dwellers in Washington?

That is just one-man’s opinion. Take it for what you will. But the point of this blog post is to relate a piece of oft-forgotten history involving what we now call entitlements. It is relevant to our times because it provides an important message for a possible way out of this mess.

Do you know what the greatest single reduction of entitlements in our history was, and who did it? The answer to the second part of this question surely should be a surprise. It is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who is the originating force behind many of today’s social welfare programs. In 1932, he had campaigned on the promise to bring federal finances into better order at a time when they were in total disarray and many despaired for the nation’s future. At that time, veterans’ benefits took up fully 25% of the federal budget! A grateful nation had bestowed far more than they could afford on returning soldiers of WWI and even earlier on those from the Spanish-American War.

Almost immediately after taking office on March 4, 1933, FDR submitted a proposal that would slash the federal budget. It would eliminate several government agencies, reduce the pay of civilian and military federal workers and, most significantly, slash veterans’ benefits by 50%. The Congress acted swiftly, even in the face of stiff opposition, and passed this virtually intact as the Economy Act of March 20, 1933. In the event, the impact of this bill was not as great as had been hoped. The effect on the deficit was minimal, perhaps due to other influences and general inertia in the economy. And some of the veterans’ benefits were later restored by two Supreme Court decisions.

But that is beside the point, which is that entitlement reform is possible but, in my opinion, only if Democrats do it. But when was the last time you heard any Democratic leader propose entitlement reform as a party platform plank? They always proclaim that they are open to reasonable changes, but they do so with obvious reluctance and never on their own accord. Hence their response to any Republican plan is fear and loathing, together with loud complaints about doom for all but the fat cats.

Still, I remain an optimist. Some day a Democratic leader will arise with the good sense and guts to do what is necessary. It has happened before. I just hope it is soon enough.

Why Nonsense Rules the Day

In this blog I post my thoughts about political activities and important current events. I make a sincere attempt to avoid bias, though no one can be entirely successful in achieving this goal. My guess is that most people believe that they also do this, though it has been my observation that many fail ingloriously. But bias is hardly the only or even the largest fault that misleads people in their life choices and their political beliefs. An astonishing number of our fellow Americans sincerely believe utter nonsense, and that certainly can’t help. This includes conspiracy theories, some religious beliefs, fake medical nostrums, astrology, junk science and a great many political beliefs. Examples abound and I am sure your list is as good as mine.

Our choices for political leaders and then the decisions they make that affect all of us are significantly conditioned by these absurd beliefs. This is one reason why our government is failing to accomplish much of value while thrashing fruitlessly in the effort. This problem isn’t confined to dullards and the uneducated. I have always been puzzled why so many well-educated and apparently intelligent people believe such total balderdash. Quite a few of these deluded people actually have assembled extensive supporting data for these beliefs. Thus it isn’t simply that they are ill-informed nor that they are incapable of understanding the available data. Indeed many are equipped with a well-developed skepticism, though they do tend to target that skill selectively only against criticism of their beliefs.

Thus it is with great interest that I recently came across a peer-reviewed study of this very topic. The basic conclusion of the study is that in order to insulate yourself from erroneous belief requires two things. You must have the ability to think analytically and – most crucially – the inclination to do so. Thus many people whom you wouldn’t expect to believe nonsense do so simply because they want to. These beliefs provide psychic support. They make the chaotic and sometimes threatening world around us understandable and predictable. This also explains why these people appear to be insulated from counter-evidence or failures in what they predict will occur. They simply find ways to ignore such data, and their analytical skills serve them well in this regard. Or if they are intellectually crippled, they just call it fake news.

Any impartial observer would agree that this condition characterizes quite a few members of Congress and the current administration. But this situation is neither new nor remarkable. It only seems so because we all have to suffer the consequences of their ill-informed decisions.

All of us, myself included, are subject to this intellectual flaw to some degree. It is seductive and we must constantly fight to ward it off. One person’s conspiracy theory is another’s clever insight. One simple test you might perform to examine your own beliefs is to see if they tend to make you feel more secure or to give you a comforting feeling that you understand what is going on around you. This isn’t a sign of validity, rather it is a warning signal that your critical skills may have been blunted by emotion. Of course it also doesn’t mean that your beliefs are invalid, it simply means that they need skeptical re-examination.

In the political realm, we have sincere and well-meaning beliefs on one side that seem either sadly misinformed or even deliberately malevolent by the other side. An example for Republicans is their belief in trickle down economics. And for Democrats, there is the conviction that big government offers the best solutions for society’s problems. Neither side listens to evidence of flaws in these beliefs simply because they don’t want to.

Crazy Talk on Capital Hill

One of the major disputes about the Republican tax plan is whether middle class and lower strata will all get tax cuts, as promised by Trump, Ryan and McConnell. There are two aspects of this argument that are essentially crazy talk.

First, Republicans are now saying that all cohorts of taxpayers will be ahead of the game, in other words those in each income group. That isn’t quite the same as saying all taxpayers, but why quibble when we hear politicians speak? By some scoring methods that seems to be true, although the division of spoils has a decidedly Republican slant. Democrats respond, “But I have a cousin in Albuquerque who will lose out because of the loss of some deductions, so you lied!” Of course, Republicans made a tactical error in the blanket assertion in the first place, so they are stuck with what was always unachievable.

The lesson is never to say all or everyone about any proposal whatsoever. There will always be exceptions. Still common sense says that, if this scoring is correct, their basic idea seems to be true and all that Democrats can do is to stick to their guns about exceptions. Thus, a crazy claim is now being met by an equally crazy response.

The second aspect of this argument is truly nuts. The Joint Committee on Taxation, which is doing the scoring, has just come out with a revised result based on the Senate plan that will thrill Democrats. It shows that every single income cohort below $75K would have net higher taxes in a few years time. The kicker is that the real reason for this is that repeal of the ACA mandate means that these people won’t get its associated tax subsidies. Obviously, that leaves them with a higher tax bill. Of course that also means that they won’t be paying exorbitant costs for health care policies they neither want nor need. Logically, that factor should have been included in the JCT scoring, since the tax bill itself is only part of the economic outcome. The real issue is net change in income after taxes. Recalculation using this factor changes the scoring back to positive for all income cohorts. Don’t expect this nuance to come through in the heat of this debate, however.

If the preceding paragraph puzzles you, consider the following analogy. Suppose you go into an auto dealership looking to buy an all-electric car. One factor you consider is that your state will give you a substantial tax credit to encourage switching from gas guzzlers. But after examining the available cars you decide they aren’t for you. As you walk out the door, the salesman calls out, “Sir, you are making a big mistake! By leaving you are substantially increasing your taxes!” That is factually true, but nevertheless it is crazy talk.