Sunday, July 26, 2009

Emissions, Development and Gandhian Engineering

Poverty and inequity are probably India's largest current bug-a-boos. With a massive poor or lower middle class approximately thrice the size of the next most populous country (USA), development is quite a challenge for India. India's development (along with China's development) will indeed be the story of this century. All around the world, a massive population will likely wake up this century - and will seek to use the planet's resources in making itself more prosperous.

Another telling battle this century will be a battle against nature's tendency to heat up the planet in response to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. It is widely accepted in the scientific community it is probably in humanity's best interests to spew out as little CO2 as possible.

Energy is the cornerstone of modern civilization. The cheapest available energy these days is fossil fuel based. The combustion of fossil fuels releases the carbon sequestered by plants millions of years ago under the ground as low temperature radiation trapping CO2. This cheap access to fossil fuel based energy has let today's rich accumulate their wealth.

The party's over now. Ignorance was bliss. But now we can ignore no more. Unrestrained CO2 emissions will result in runaway global warming, with the ever increasing danger of droughts, fiercer and more frequent hurricanes, erratic monsoons and horrendous sea level rises. The ice reservoirs that are the arctic and antarctic are melting at a rate unknown to human civilization, lifting sea levels around the planet.

So, here we have two of humanity's largest problems. Poverty and Climate change. Poverty requires that the developing world develop - increase its GDP - and in the process increase its carbon foot-print. And this inevitable increase in the standard of living of the poor has serious environmental repercussions. The biggest problems of this century have contradictory solutions, a cursory observation might suggest.

No politician in their right mind will ever deny that the poor nations have a right to lift their billions from poverty. [But comments regarding the over-population of the poor world are inevitably made. It is a strongly held view in the west that overpopulation is the root of all evil in the third world (India in particular). This is downright wrong - but probably the best that uninformed unadventurous minds can come up with, But we'll get into that in another post.] But the poor nations get blamed anyway - like Hillary Clinton's (whose own carbon footprint is probably larger than that of a few villages in India) recent stand that India ought to do more to cut its own paltry carbon consumption.

These seemingly contradictory goals of development and abating climate change can be achieved by an extremely parsimonious form of engineering that is being called 'Gandhian Engineering'. While it is inevitable that India and Africa (and other under-developed regions) will try to get a taste of the good life, whoever said that it should be extremely inefficient, like it is in the US? Can, using really smart engineering, India increase its standard of living without increasing its per-capita GDP to levels comparable?

Given the tremendous pressure on India's natural resources due to large population densities, a tremendous focus on miserliness (called 'value for money') and efficiency of resource utilization exists. Such pressure on resources exists nowhere else on this planet (perhaps with the exception of Japan).

A case in point, of course, is the Tata Nano. If the bottom billion of this planet were driving cars, would the environmentalist in you rather have them driving around in Hummers or Nanos? The tata Nano has the smallest carbon footprint amongst all vehicles in the market now. Even though the Prius gets a comparable mileage, but it takes a significant amount of energy to build and transport.

Do you think that every room will be air-conditioned in a developed India? I suspect that bathrooms, corridors and kitchens will be left out - and perhaps even living rooms. Do you think Indians will ever build those palatial monstrosities that pass for houses in Houston or Dallas? Nope. My money is on reasonably spacious apartments.

All in all this will mean that India's GDP (PPP) will not be comparable to America's $40k per person - or even Japan's $30k per person. If the emissions are to ever be controlled, the onus will be on the west to do the cutting(possibly by reducing its per capita income, ultimately, possibly through 'cap and trade?'). And since a lowering the standard of living will not be an option - guess what the west will have to adopt. Gandhian engineering!

Friday, July 17, 2009

On GS-type market manipulation.

In most American States, prostitution is illegal. But investment banking (of the Goldman Sachs' variety) is not, which is ironic. Because prostitution these days is not a danger to anyone (what with condoms and all to stem the spread of aids). But GS style I-Banking is different.

Since GS does not make anything, lots of its activities are zero sum activities. Since their entire business model is based on not adding any tangible value to anything, all their profits, at some level, do come out of the losses of others. Whenever they make money, it usually means that some other poor dude is losing money elsewhere - and not getting anything for it. At least with prostitutes, they get momentary pleasure. With GS, everyone involved gets ripped off - except GS investors and GS employees.

Of course, one must think twice before one blames a company for doing something that is fully legal. Splicing and selling securities. If there is money to be had, and you know how to get at it within the framework of today's restrictions - they would be wholly irrational if they did not do it. So, the blame must not lie with GS' employees or with its management - who have just exploted a loophole in the law. Just like one must not blame the prostitute for selling sex. She's got a family to feed - as does a GS employee. The GS employee feed his/her family with Caviar - wheras the prostitute does so with bread - but the picture is the same. I have no beef with GS employees (except that I view them with utter condescention - because they had a choice to do something meaningful with their lives, but they chose to do something utterly meaningless and damaging to others). I do not view prostitutes with condescention, of course. They, on the other hand really have no choice. I don't think they like performing demeaning sexual acts with anyone with a thick wallet. But they have to.

My issue is with the nexus between the policy makers and GS. American public policy, it looks like, is more in tune with keeping GS alive by bailing out everyone that ower it money (AIG's $13B bailout comes to mind) than looking out for American taxpayer interests. If the US taxpayer had not bailed out AIG, it looks like GS would have perished. That would have been lovely. Perhaps its employees could do something useful with their lives instead.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Climate Change

That the climate is changing because of Carbon Dioxide emissions due to human activity is a fairly well accepted fact. There's a mountain of evidence in the scientific literature corroborating this - and very little questioning it. This article will not question this scientific consensus, because the author believes that Climatologists would probably know more about this situation than politicians and Cable TV pontificators.

Given that the planet is probably warming because of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, what is the best course of action a developed country can adopt? What steps ought be taken to mitigate this situation? What steps would be fair?

The earth has been warming and cooling over its entire history. There's always been ice ages; there's been extremely warm periods. The planet's climate is cyclic, nay, chaotic. Climate change has been triggered by a variety of events in the past - such as massive volcanoes, solar activity, life and so on. The new increase in temperature is nothing new. The earth is used to it. Planet earth will not collapse. If the goal of the environmentalist is to save life on earth, then the environmentalist needs to fret not. The planet will be just fine. Life will do just fine.

It's the human race that we must worry about. An increase in sea level would sink some of our more densely populated places on the planet. NYC. Mumbai. And the entire of Bangladesh's Ganga delta. A change in precipitation patterns could result in the desertification of currently inhabited areas (Australia is already facing this). The failure of monsoons could spell disaster more more than a billion people. So let's get this clear - the environmentalist impulse is not an altruistic impulse - it is grounded is pure selfishness. The dangers of climate change are real, clear and present. Climate change is worse than models have predicted. The Arctic AND Antarctic are losing ice cover every year. Planet earth is finding it more and more difficult to support 6B humans. We are getting closer and closer to a Malthusian scenario.

If I were a neutral observer hailing from another planet. An observer who did not have a horse in the race - and I heard something like this about Earth.

Of the 6B people on this planet, 1.5B people live relatively luxurious lives - they have cars, centrally air conditioned houses and live up to 75 years each. They have heated indoor swimming pools which are in air conditioned rooms which they use in mid-summer. They waste two or three times of what they eat. They eat other animals that are fed more food than the bottom billion of this planet.

Then there's 3B middle class people who drive cycles and two wheeled motorized vehicles. They have ceiling fans rather than air conditioners. (A few of these have an air conditioner in their bed rooms). They use public transport. They can feed their families quite well - but they do not waste that much food. Their diet contains a lower proportion of meat.

And then there's the bottom billion or so in this planet that has no roof to sleep under; a bathroom called the wide outdoors. Most children can't make it to adulthood. Those who do live under the treat of AIDS and foreign misslies fa
I would immediately make some quick recommendations. Get rid of those things that you can do without - all those things that result in emissions that you really don't need. You know, like those excesses. Do you really need those massive portions in restaurants when you're going to leave half of it on your place. Do you really need to gorge yourself to the brim? Do you really need to drive that ridiculous SUV when you get from one point to another in a Tata NANO - or public transport?

Does the GDP of a country really have to be so large? Why would any country need a GDP (per capita, PPP) of $40K - when the same standard of living could be obtained with a lower GDP of, say $20k (per capita, PPP) . Why all the excess inefficiency? Economic heresy, even the most liberal of the economists would call this. But what are our choices?

I know that this sounds a little too much like some socialist propaganda that most Americans are brainwashed into thinking is evil. So, let me spell it out in language that will not turn off too many Americans (and other victims of western propaganda)

I hate socialism for the same reasons that Americans hate s. I think socialism is little else but an excuse to be lazy and corrupt. That's why things do not work in India (yet). Petty corruption has reduced only after Dr. Singh set India free from license Raj.

Capitalism will spew out garbage (like it has been doing right now in the US and other advanced economies) if all the costs are not accounted for accurately. I look at free markets and capitalism as means to an end rather than an end itself. A tool, if you will, which brings out efficiency - as long as the inputs given to it are correct. Of course, if you do not price the externalities (such as the cost required be carbon neutral, restricting climate change) appropriately, then you end up with Garbage. Garbage in, Garbage out.

And it is my firm conviction that henceforth, all non-green utilities must be required to sequester the carbon. All oil refiners, all coal mining companies - everything - must be responsible for sequestering all their carbon. This will not come cheap - and this cost must be passed on to the end user.

Of course, this will result in higher energy costs. That's the idea. These higher energy costs ought to result in a contraction the economy (I suspect, since I think the current standard of living is unsustainable) - a contraction which will lower the GDP across the world - a contraction that shall help make the planet more sustainable. If the economy really does grow, it will do so by developing cheap and environmentally friendly (carbon neutral) technologies. And with such technologies, it deserves to grow.

Even if the rich world contracts 10% per capita, the developing world (such as India) will need to grow significantly to achieve standard of living parity. So, yes, the developing world must be given the same opportunities as the developed world. The economy must rationalize - making the west more efficient.

But here's the rub. There's no chance in hell that the current democratic system that the developed world enjoys will ever let a politician take any steps that will result in an economic contraction. The polar bears, I'm afraid, will sink. Obama's cap and trade will be designed such that it won't hurt the economy - and therefore, it won't work. You know, the only hope for humanity right now is in Wall Street's hands. The only hope for the survival of humanity as we know it lies in wall street inflating another bubble that sends the planet into a full fledged economic depression - destroying GDPs all around the planet.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Historic Verdict in India

The Delhi high court judges have understood that you should not be punished for choices you don't make. Just like you're not punished for having pimples on your face - or not having pearl white teeth, you will no longer be potentially punished for being gay in India.

The Article 377 (an embarassment that the drafters of the constitution copied from the British laws for India - which even makes "unnatural sex" (oral and anal) between a man and a woman illegal) - has been struck down by the Delhi high court - saying that it was a transgression of fundamental rights. While this is a fundamentally fantastic ruling, I am a little worried about constitution being amended by the judiciary rather than the legistature. But that's a different story.

This is a wonderful ruling, a victory for civil rights over ridiculous, stupid, archaic and bigoted religious fanaticism (purveyed by the Church, Mosque and Temple in India). This is a victory for the people.

As an Indian in the USA, no longer do I need to feel uncomfortable when I see the video of Mahmodoud Ahmedinijad (Iran's dictator who was believed to be legally elected back then) hold that there are no homosexuals in Iran.