Monday, April 23, 2018

What To Do About The News

Last Monday a local news reporter informed viewers that if they hadn’t filed their taxes yet, they had only one day left to file for an extension.  He added that some, but not all, states give an automatic extension based on filing of the federal form without filing additional paperwork.

This brought home an important point.  The report was local and an overwhelming majority of viewers lived in the same state. Why did the reporter not mention, by the way, into which category our state falls?  It would have taken maybe five minutes on the Internet.  It brought home the point that those so-called journalists are merely reading from a script.  When the one story is over, they move on to the next.  They don’t do their homework.  They aren’t interested in details.  They are not in the business of explaining or enlightening.

They are in the business of passing along dry facts, which are sometimes not even factual, or of repeating someone else’s opinion.  The biggest waste of our time is the speculation by experts, politicians or even fellow journalists on what might happen at a meeting or as the result of a certain decision.  The second biggest waste of our time is reporting on something we all knew would be happening anyway, just to rehash the original event.  An example is that when someone dies in a horrible or unexpected way, we are sure to hear mention of the funeral a few days later just to revisit the original story and reemphasize how horrible or unusual it was.

As the nation gets further and further divided, the bias of the media becomes more obvious.  They decide both what to tell us and how to tell it. Do they put a spin on certain news that will appeal to their viewers or do they omit certain stories that favor the opposition or reflect unfavorably on their political view?  If you don’t believe it, as an experiment, look at the headlines on the CNN website and then go directly to the Fox News website.  It’s almost like reading news about two different countries!

The science stories can be as bad, no depth or research, just a reading from the press release. There may be a comment from their science correspondent that puts things into perspective, but don’t count on that being totally accurate.  Remember, the primary objective of the media is to scare or manipulate customers with the goal of promoting their product and beating out the competition.  These are not a bunch of altruistic enterprises intent on dolling out the truth to all.  They are in business to make money.

That leaves two alternatives:  rely on the news from friends and newsfeeds on social media or critical thinking.

The first alternative may look unlikely, but as of 2016, 62% of adult Americans – get at least some of their news from social media, up from 48% in 2012 according to the Pew Research Center and others.  “I know it’s true; I read it on the Internet” used to be a joke, but today nearly one in five rely on social media exclusively for news.  Whereas network news organizations once required two independent sources, those who post or repost on Facebook don’t feel obligated to check the accuracy or timeliness of any information.  The same false rumors on health or politics recirculate every couple of years.

Unless you are going to count on the cute cats and puppy-dogs seen both on social media, and more and more on the mainstream, critical thinking is the only solution. Some stories make no sense on the surface. Some are not consistent with other known information that does not accompany the story.  Some are just made up stories to fit a particular worldview.

The critical thinker approaches all these with a skeptical mind and does research to find more information or different sides of the story. It’s impossible to find out the truth in every case, but as some sources prove to be more reliable and new subjects are often related to others previously researched, it becomes easier to narrow things down and sort out what's correct.  Also, our scope must be limited because it is impossible to be scared of everything.  Perspective helps focus, while critical thinking helps discover the truth.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Biofuels and Butterflies

Perspective teaches us that life is about tradeoffs.  Here is one that is not so obvious.

Any Master Gardener (or third grader) can tell you that pollinators are vital to our food supply. So when I hear people fuss about monarch butterflies, I always wonder if it’s because they are superior pollinators. It turns out they probably are not.  The National Wildlife Foundation tells us:  “Bees are well-known pollinators, but over 100,000 invertebrates—including butterflies, moths, wasps, flies, and beetles—and over 1,000 mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, act as pollinators.”  All pollinators are struggling, but why the emphasis on monarchs?

This website describes monarch butterflies as charismatic mini-fauna, small animals that stir positive feelings in us when we see them. They are pretty and easily identifiable, so we feel a special bond with these butterflies, hence the fascination with them and the handwringing over their gradual disappearance.

Reasons for their decline include logging in the Mexican overwintering zone and the uses of broad-spectrum insecticides on farms and in personal gardens. Inability to adapt to some factors of climate change may also contribute.  But that particular site puts the bulk of the blame on the disappearance of their breeding habitat. “The caterpillars eat only one plant: Milkweed. And milkweed has been vanishing from the landscape.”

Especially corn farmers are tilling every last inch of soil available, thereby eliminating milkweed that once grew around the edges of their fields.  The site links this to our demand for the cheapest food possible, which they say leads farmers to “keep their fields weed free, kill milkweed, and – by extension – kill monarchs.”

But that’s not exactly correct. Farmers do not grow more corn because we insist on low food prices any more than Saudi Arabia pumps more oil because we like low gasoline prices.  The problem is not on the supply side; it’s the high demand for corn brought about by rules requiring that ethanol be mixed with gasoline to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Some argue that the ethanol rules are also designed to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.  Burning ethanol or other biofuels is “cleaner” than burning gasoline on a gallon-for-gallon basis, but they are not as efficient. Burning a gallon of gasoline provides more energy than a gallon of ethanol, so when everything is accounted for the mpg-to-mpg difference is insignificant in terms of COemissions. Foreign oil is the primary reason.

Now we get to the trade off.  Most think: monarchs are good, and biofuels are good, but drilling for more oil off shore or in Alaska is bad. But doing so could eliminate our dependence on foreign oil resulting in less pressure on the farmers to till every available square foot leaving more milkweeds as a breeding habitat for monarch butterflies.

Perspective reminds us that we can’t have everything exactly the way we want it – butterflies and biofuels.  Compromises are sometimes necessary.

Note:  Near where I live (that evil) Monsanto promotes planting milkweed in highway medians.

Monday, April 16, 2018

An Unlikely Future

A couple of interesting studies out of the University of Texas a few years ago cast a new light on the idea of autonomous (self-driving) cars. So far most people have been thinking only about the convenience of reading or legally talking on the phone while the car gets them to their destination or the fear of computers instead of humans behind the wheel.  But UT takes the idea in a couple of slightly different directions.

One group used computer simulations to investigate the effects of shared autonomous vehicles (SAVs), autonomous taxis, on the flow of traffic and on the need for personal vehicles.  They wanted to discover the dynamics of having an optimal number of Uber- or Lyft-type options, but without drivers, to satisfy the needs of an entire city.  

Personal vehicle inefficiencies arise from the fact that Americans have many more cars than they need.  Less than “17% of newer (10 years old or less) household vehicles are in use at any given time over the course of an ‘average’ day, even when applying a 5-minute buffer on both trip ends; this share falls to just 10% usage when older personal vehicles are included and no buffers applied.” That is a lot of wasted time spent sitting in a garage or parked on the street.

The simulation was for an average small city (like Austin, where UT happens to be located) with a fleet of self-driving taxis.  “Complete model results show how each base-case SAV serves approximately 31 to 41 travelers per day, with average wait times under 20 seconds. Less than 0.5% of travelers waited more than five minutes.”  During the rush hours more than 97% of vehicles were in use, 2% were en route and only 1% sat idle.  According to the model, one SAV could replace 11 personal vehicles, and customers would both save money and need never park a car again - at home, at work or at any destination.

Some of the benefits are obvious and some less so.  The waiting time is far better than a shuttle bus to airport parking. Transportation costs for customers are reduced by 50% to 75% when all costs are taken into account: fuel, maintenance, tires, insurance, downtown parking and depreciation.  Space in cities could be shifted from parking to other uses.  The vehicles could drive themselves to refuel/recharge, to cleaning stations and maintenance facilities, saving customers more time.  And more miles per vehicle would lead to faster fleet turnover, allowing earlier replacement of vehicles with cleaner and more fuel efficient models.

The second idea out of UT is more futuristic.  One professor proposes the idea of virtual intersections with no traffic signals or stop signs necessary.  He claims such systems would make travel safer, faster and more efficient.

As the autonomous vehicle approaches the intersection, it calls ahead to reserve a time to drive though.  A computerized intersection manager approves the request and times the interactions to allow safe passage. “This all happens very fast, and there is little stopped traffic.”

So there you have it, the unlikely future: cars buzzing along to the next destination with everyone relaxed, not worrying about traffic; personal garages converted into more living space and public garages converted into shops, offices or green space; with everyone saving money.  One problem is that it only works in cities with relative density.  Get into the suburbs and the country and it’s not so efficient.

Also, your car is more than a car.  It’s both a status symbol and a “big purse.”

Many get enjoyment out of the act of driving and take pride in showing off what a nice car they can afford. Can you picture a business tycoon trying to impress clients by squeezing them into the same kind of car everyone else is riding in – even given the ability to conduct undistracted business while riding to the destination?  And a wait of less than 20 seconds with the rare possibility of up to 5 minutes would still be too long for some.

A second objection is the storage value of the car.  It has all that junk in the back seat that you never got around to cleaning out.  It may carry your emergency hat, gloves, sweatshirt and umbrella, an extra energy bar in the console, and perhaps your favorite CDs or handgun in the glove box (depending on your state of residence and state of mind). 

These are ideas that look great on paper (or simulated on a computer), but likely won’t fly with the motoring public.  In some sense, that’s too bad.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Science Illiteracy is Real

Earlier this month results of a worldwide survey, the 3M State of Science Index, made a few headlines.  It asked participants a number of questions to discover the general attitudes toward science: do people trust science, do they find it scary, do they take science for granted, do they think science is generally good or bad.  The results were mixed, but disturbing enough to motivate former astronaut Scott Kelly to begin a project promoting an appreciation of science.

After hearing of this survey, I went to the source and found a 46-page slide presentation with the detailed results.  One of the two key findings appears on page 10: “People are unaware of the impact of science in their everyday lives.”  More detail is given below that heading: “Nearly two out of five (38%) believe that if science didn’t exist, their everyday lives wouldn’t be that different." 

It’s hard to believe that people living in the twenty-first century could be so out of touch.  It’s true that it was an international survey and not specifically broken down by country, but they do show a “Science trust index” for each of the 14 countries based on the overall answers and the US comes in very close to the average.  We could attribute this misunderstanding of the benefits of science to the fact that most people (66%) spend little or no time thinking about science. But it’s still hard to believe!

This is extremely unsettling and so easy to confront. It isn’t about the Theory of Relativity or Quantum Mechanics.  Just think about the ideas of two people and about two contrasting events.

The two people are Ignaz Semmelweis and Thomas Malthus .  One was right and the other wrong.

In 1847 while working in a Vienna hospital, Semmelweis observed that the ward where doctors delivered babies had a 10% mortality rate for new mothers, three times the rate of the ward where midwives worked.  After checking many factors he hit upon the fact that the doctors were moving directly between performing autopsies and delivering babies. He suggested that everyone wash hands before entering an obstetrics ward.  As obvious as that sounds today, “his ideas were rejected by the medical community."  They weren’t accepted until after his death when Pasteur and Lister did further work with germ theory – more science.  Common advice today is to wash your hand before eating, and it's based on science.

Thomas Malthus, an Englishman, lived around the time of the American Revolution and believed the increase in food production could not keep pace with the increase in population, leading to famines and a stagnant standard of living.  "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man."  He believed that since land was limited, food production could never keep up.  Science, however, proved him wrong, allowing farmers to grow enough for a world population of nearly nine billion with a standard of living he never would have imagined.  His name has become synonymous with baseless pessimism, but up to fifty years ago others were preaching the same gloom and doom about overpopulation.

Developments like these contributed largely to the increase (almost doubling) in life expectancy during the 20th century.

The two events were the 1918 flu epidemic and the H1N1 scare of 2009.  The first was a worldwide disaster as reported here by the Washington Post.  “Experts believe between 50 and 100 million people were killed” by the flu epidemic in 1918 including 675,000 in the United States.  By contrast, what the media called a pandemic in 2009 resulted in between 10,000 and 12,000 deaths.  That is less than 2% of the devastation from 90 years earlier.  Numbers for this year will not be available until next year, but it’s certain that this flu season, again labeled an epidemic and hyped daily in the news for months, will result in fewer deaths.

What we have today are flu shots, better drugs and advanced medical procedures to treat the complications that arise from the flu particularly in seniors and young children.  We owe that kind of progress, those lives saved, to science.

These are just some quick examples.  In 2018 a person cannot go five minutes without encountering some contribution science has made to our lives. The effect of science on our lives goes beyond everyday conveniences; it’s the reason many of us are alive. This lack of appreciation is not only a sign of ignorance, but it causes people to make costly and dangerous errors about their health and safety.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Bambi and The Unintended Consequences

NPR reported recently that the interest in the sport of hunting has been steadily declining.  The share of hunters in the adult population in the US dropped from 7.3% to 4.4% over the last 25 years and has been cut in half over the last fifty.

It’s just not as popular as it used to be.  Reasons likely include the amount of investment for a week or two of activity a year, the physical hardship of walking through the woods or sitting in a tree stand in all kinds of weather and the general reduction in interest in all outdoor activities.  NPR also points to a change in the culture.  Attitudes towards wildlife are changing, making other outdoor activities like bird watching, and hiking more popular.  Some people prefer to do their shooting with a camera instead of a gun.  (And more people can see and admire a photographic trophy on social media than a physical trophy mounted on the wall.)

“The shift is being welcomed by some who morally oppose the sport, but it's also leading to a crisis.”  It leads us to question whether those morally-opposed people are more interested in the positive feedback they get internally and from others for their compassionate, caring stance and perceived moral superiority than in the actual welfare of our “furry friends.”

The wildlife conservation systems in the US depend on “license fees and excise taxes on guns, ammunition and angling equipment [to] provide about 60 percent of the funding.”  State wildlife agencies are responsible for “restoring the populations of North American game animals, some of which were once hunted nearly to extinction.”  The American system that allowed this incredible conservation and restoration has been so effective that it is widely imitated in other parts of the world.

Today the reduction of funding from hunting is causing states like Colorado, Wisconsin and Vermont to cut back on staffing and programs that protect the animals as they search for other sources of revenue.  People hiking through the woods with their cameras generally expect to be able to do so for free or for a modest park entry fee.  They also don’t expect to pay excise taxes on cameras, compasses, binoculars or sleeping bags to supplement those losses from hunting.  But as funding levels decline one fear is that the number of species on the threatened or endangered list could nearly double.

Although the NPR article focuses on funding aspects of the hunting decline, the loss of many other benefits of hunting are concerning.  The annual harvest of millions of deer is a good example.  Hunting actually benefits the deer population.

A joint  study by Alabama A&M and the University of Auburn Extension points out that “hunting helps maintain a healthy deer population. If the population were to go unmonitored, deer would be facing severe overpopulation, resulting in significant damage to the ecosystem, over-browsing of plants, malnutrition and an overall decline in the health and well-being of the animals.”

Do we care about the deer when we would rather have them starve to death or die of disease than be shot? Are we willing to absorb the financial burden of added crop damage – remembering that the farmers’ increased cost or the price effects of a decrease in supply are passed on to the consumer at the grocery store.  Deer are also not a friend to gardeners.  And deer collisions kill over 200 motorists a year and cost a total of around 10 billion dollars.

These are all things to consider before we brand hunters as heartless and pretend to care so much about deer (or other critters) based on incomplete or inaccurate information.

Note:  I’m not a hunter and have none in my family, but I did once hit deer with my car and have met many others who have had the same misfortune.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Who Pays On-line Tax?

This time it’s about sales tax.  Late last week President Trump tweeted about Amazon.  One of his objections was that Amazon does not pay state and local taxes.  Whoops!

That should have set off alarm bells in the minds of anyone who really understands economics.  A couple of weeks ago I quoted a well-known French economist reminding everyone that “no taxes are paid by businesses: ultimately, every euro of tax is always paid by households…there is unfortunately nobody except physical, flesh and blood people who can pay taxes.”  He was writing about corporate income taxes at the time, but the same rationale applies to sales taxes.

This becomes clear when looking at any receipt from an on-line retailer.  Most have a subtotal line right on the form labeled “sales tax” or “estimated sales tax.”  Sometimes it’s filled in, and sometimes it says $0.00.  Legally, when a product is brought into the state “consumers who live in a state that collects sales tax are technically required to pay the tax to the state even when an Internet retailer doesn't collect it.”  Normally this only happens in the case of big-ticket items like cars and boats.

What happens otherwise depends on the laws of the state you live in and where the retailer is located.  Some states require taxpayers to keep track of their on-line spending and report it on their state income tax, adding it in as use tax. 

How many people pay that use tax?  The best numbers I could find agreed with other estimates I have heard – about 1.6% overall, with some variation between states.  Either through ignorance or calculation, that their state doesn’t have the resources to come after anyone for such small amounts, the vast majority skips it.

Ruling out ignorance because almost everyone has their taxes done by a tax preparer or by using the software, this becomes a responsibility issue.

The fact is that Amazon will never actually pay state and local taxes.  Today Amazon collects sales tax for most of the 45 states that have a sales tax.  They may at some point be required to collect the taxes and reimburse them to all states, but they will never directly pay them.  All taxes are passed through to us, the physical, flesh and blood people.  

So far the Supreme Court has refused to review cases to set a nationwide precedent on charging sales tax to on-line customers.  But if that happens, it will be to Amazon's advantage, since their size makes it more efficient to do, whereas their smaller on-line competitors will see a relatively large impact on their operations.  The big guys will once again come out ahead. And shoppers will lose the ability to sidestep sales tax, which was for them an added benefit to shopping on line.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Beer Will Cost More And It’s Trump’s Fault

I was stunned yesterday by a prime example of lazy (or borderline deceptive) reporting.

The story lead-in was how the new tariffs would affect the price of beer.  A local news reporter talked to a local canner and a local college economics professor to get the scoop.  No one gave a definite answer, but the tone of the overall report was doom-and-gloom.  They left no doubt that either the canners or the beer drinkers would be suffering depending on who had to absorb the increased cost.

The size of the problem was never addressed, and it left me scratching my head.

Less than 15 minutes later I had an answer!  With the internet it was so easy.  (Even a college economics professor could have done it, but apparently he didn't bother.)

First, I looked up on a recycle website:  How many empty aluminum cans does it take to equal 1 pound?  Answer:  approximately 31 or more precisely 30.442 at an average weight of 14.9 grams.

Then I looked up the wholesale price of aluminum, assuming that is what the canner would pay.  On March 29 it was 91 cents per pound.

That puts the cost of a can at 91 cents divided by 30.442 cans or 2.99 cents per can, call it 3 cents.

Next we have to determine the affect of the tariffs on that price.  A third site confirmed what we heard at the time of the announcement last month.  Aluminum imports would be taxed at 10%.

That puts the added cost of your beer, assuming that the tariff equalizes the cost of both domestic and imported aluminum at – drumroll please – a whopping 0.3 cents per can.  That’s 1.8 cents for a six-pack.  At a beer a day that's almost $1.10 a year! How are the poor beer drinkers going to afford that?  They may be forced to switch to Starbucks coffee instead!

Of course, I’m being a little sarcastic.  But the point is that the news media will blow any story out of proportion just to keep our interest up (and possibly to promote a political agenda).  They have advertisers to attract and to do that they must keep viewers glued to the screen for the next bit of “breaking news.”  So it’s not in their best interests to do the 15 minutes of research to get the real answer to the question, especially when keeping the question hanging is a little scarier.  (It’s just a miniature version of the “summer of the shark attacks” and similar stories intended to induce panic when there is no reason for it.)


This is yet another reason for the importance of critical thinking in the modern world.  If we don't watch out for ourselves, no one else will - not the media, not advertisers, not the government!