Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Book review: "Fixing the Moral Deficit"
I recently finished reading Ron Sider's new book on "the deficit".  "America faces a historic choice", he writes. "We have a deficit crisis, a poverty crisis and a justice crisis. And they are all interrelated."  With the appointment of Paul Ryan as Romney's vice-presidential nominee, this book becomes even more timely.
This is a really helpful, detailed and yet passionate analysis of the federal budget deficit, the Obama and Ryan budget proposals, and biblically-based principles which Sider sees as applicable to federal budgetary decisions.  It concludes with a specific set of proposals (Sider is not content with the easy work of criticism, but is willing to but his own ideas out there) and then an encouragement to individual action ("We Can Do It").
I very much appreciated the wealth of detailed information about budget numbers, poverty, healthcare spending and so on in the first chapters. Sider recognizes that it is hard to give "just the facts" but he makes a good-faith effort to do so, and I felt that I understood things much more clearly as a result of reading these chapters.
I appreciate also his eirenic tone. True, some things aggravate him, especially politicians who make bold statements about deficit reduction and then carve out special exceptions for their own constituencies.  But he is not out to trash either the Obama or the Ryan plans, though he finds both of them inadequate, nor to paint either of their authors as beyond the pale.  (And I am glad to see the acknowledgment of the impact that G.W. Bush's PEPFAR program has had - it is a deep shame to see this compassionate initiative now on the budgetary chopping block.)

Finally, I appreciate and affirm Sider's conviction that the measure of a society is how it treats its weakest and poorest members. This has been his consistent message through his work with Evangelicals for Social Action and since the publication, in the 1970s, of the ground-breaking Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.  In this book, with its focus on debt and deficits, this conviction is expanded also to a focus on intergenerational justice - how are we treating our children and grandchildren, including those not yet born?
Here are a couple of questions that the book left me with.
1. What are the limits of the analogy between debts incurred by a household and national debts? On a household level, it is easy to think of "spending money" as something like "eating food" - in either case, once you eat (or spend) it, it is gone. But of course that is not really correct on the level of the larger community: the money I spend is someone else's income, whereas the (excuse me) waste products of my dinner are not anyone else's food. In the same way, a substantial portion (not all) of "US government debt" is also "US citizen savings".  This thought makes language about the "national credit card" a bit oversimplified. 
2. Sider writes at one point, "We cannot find long-term solutions to our debt crisis without sustained economic growth." This is standard thinking, of course, and it reflects why people go into debt in the first place: you take out the student loans now because you expect, later on, to be making more money and able to pay them off.  But "long-term sustained economic growth" - a continuous global increase in the production and consumption of goods and services -  is probably not on the agenda any more.  So where does that leave the questions of debt and intergenerational justice?
3. As society moves towards a lower- or no-growth model, many writers see us developing a greater degree of local and regional resilience, rather than reliance on large national and global institutions.  The book is strongly focused on the federal government (since its subject is, after all, the federal budget deficit) or, in the last chapter, on individual actions.  Where does Sider see intermediate levels of social structure fitting into the picture?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sustainability and STEM event at PSU

 Here is an event that may be of interest to Penn State faculty and students who are involved in the STEM (science-technology-engineering-and -mathematics) fields.  I heard Tom Pfaff speak at the Join Mathematics Meeting last winter and am very glad that he'll be coming to our campus to talk about his work on integrating sustainability themes into calculus courses. 

Registration is now open for a professional development workshop on 

Multidisciplinary STEM Engagement through Sustainability Education
September 13 and 14, 2012, 
at Penn State's University Park Campus 

with invited guest, Dr. Thomas Pfaff, Associate Professor of Mathematics and Co-Director of Multidisciplinary Sustainability Education Project, Ithaca College

Sponsored by the Penn State Center for Sustainability, the Department of Mathematics, and the Eberly College of Science Center for Excellence in Science Education 

Monday, August 13, 2012

"The Coal Question"

 Today (August 13th) is the 140th anniversary of the death of the British economist William Stanley Jevons (pictured at left, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Jevons' is no longer a household name, though he is famed among economists as one of the originators of the "marginalist revolution" - the application  of the ideas of calculus to economics. Keynes was later to say of Jevons that he was "the first theoretical economist to survey his material with the prying eyes and the fertile, controlled imagination of the natural scientist". Jevons was also the inventor of an early computer called the "Logical Piano", whose name is so intriguing that I wish I could say more about it.

But it was for "The Coal Question", published in 1865, that Jevons became famous. He wrote at a time when coal was by far the primary industrial energy source and feedstock - just as oil is today - and when Britain was by far both the largest producer, and the largest consumer, of coal.  Since the Industrial Revolution of a century before, Britain had known steadily expanding production, population, and prosperity, and had acquired a worldwide empire. Jevons' book brought the unwelcome news that coal, the foundation of all this prosperity, was a finite resource that would not be replenished, and would quickly be exhausted by continued growth.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Beans, carbon credits, and partial derivatives

Anybody remember this little jingle from childhood? (Warning: may be NSFW)
I'm often tempted to use this in Calculus III to help explain the difference between partial derivatives and total derivatives.

If you have a system in which all sorts of quantities x, y, and z and so on are varying, the partial derivative of z relative to y (say) measures the rate that z would change if y was varied and everything else was somehow held constant.  ("The more you fart, the better you feel" - assuming you ate a constant quantity of beans to start with).

The total derivative though (of z relative to x, say) measures the rate that z would change if x was varied and everything else in the system responded in the "natural" way ("So eat baked beans with every meal" - we are not holding the fart rate constant here while changing bean consumption - I don't even want to think about the experimental protocol to achieve that.)

These ideas are not the same and confusing them can lead to some paradoxical policy advice (as in the jingle!).  I was reminded of this when reading an important article about the unintended consequences of emissions trading.: "since 2005 the 19 plants receiving the waste gas payments have profited handsomely from an unlikely business: churning out more harmful coolant gas so they can be paid to destroy its waste byproduct. The high output keeps the prices of the coolant gas irresistibly low, discouraging air-conditioning companies from switching to less-damaging alternative gases. That means, critics say, that United Nations subsidies intended to improve the environment are instead creating their own damage."

Typically, economic incentives are constructed based on partial derivatives - if I increase the price of good g, and everything else stays constant, then the consumption of g will drop.  But in reality, everything else doesn't stay constant.  And the response of the economic system as a whole may be very different - even in the opposite direction - from what simple thinking about one effect in isolation might suggest.  (If g is a Giffen good, consumption of g may rise as its price increases.)

The complexity of the economy's response to incentives at least raises a question about the assumption that "experts" will be able to construct an incentive scheme that stably guides the economy to a "safe" level of greenhouse gas emissions.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Fletcher Harper's Visit

Here's more information about the State College visit of Fletcher Harper which I mentioned in my post a couple of days ago.

The Rev. Fletcher Harper, Executive Director of GreenFaith, will appear at two events at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, University Park, on September 8, 2012

Saturday, 2:00-5:00 WORKSHOP
 “Are you a Good Steward?”
In this two-part event, Fletcher will describe environmental teachings from the world’s great religions, with a particular focus on Christian and Biblical teachings on the Earth.  Participants will gain resources to enrich their faith and to support their preaching and teaching on the importance of care of Creation.  

Refreshments will be provided from 3:15-3:45.  In the second segment (beginning around 3:45) Fletcher will address the questions, tensions and challenges that religious communities encounter when they address environmental issues – including religious, economic, political, scientific and cultural concerns.  He’ll then suggest ways to frame to environmental efforts in genuinely religious ways which empower faith communities to take action for the Earth.

University students and faculty and the local community are welcome to participate in this workshop.  You are welcome to attend only one part if that is what your schedule permits. 

Saturday Evening 7:30- 9:30 KEYNOTE
“Greening Our Faiths, Greening Our Lives”
Fletcher will speak about the Christian foundation for the care of Creation, and describe why this topic is vital to the future of the church.   He will present information on programming related to worship, religious education, sustainable consumption and advocacy, and will describe the GreenFaith Fellowship and Certification Programs, which provide opportunities for houses of worship, clergy and lay leaders to become religiously-based environmental leaders.  Participants will gain a range of free resources which they can use in their settings.

All are welcome; members of all local congregations, and pastoral staff, are warmly invited to hear this important message.  Participants will hear the witness of scripture and tradition, learn about the challenges of the times, and catch a vision for a hopeful future.

Both events are free and open to the public.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Central PA news and events

 Something to look forward to, something to report, and something to mourn....

1. On September 8th and 9th, Fletcher Harper, executive director of GreenFaith, will be visiting State College to conduct a workshop on "Caring for Creation: an Introduction for Members of All Faith Communities".   I've had many opportunities to interact with Fletcher over my year as a GreenFaith Fellow and I can strongly recommend his presentation - which I expect will be both inspiring, challenging, and hopeful.

The workshop is from 2 - 5 p.m., Saturday September 8th, at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center on the Penn State campus, and Fletcher will then give an after-dinner keynote address at 7:30 p.m. that day.  (There are also other events planned, including an opportunity for local faith leaders to meet with Fletcher over a meal... if you want to know more about this, shoot me an email.  Here is a Facebook invitation to the main event.) 

2. I was privileged to share lunch yesterday with Penn State biology professor Chris Uhl.  I've long been aware of Chris' occasional columns in our local newspaper, the Centre Daily Times, focusing on "developing ecological consciousness" (which is also the title of his first book).  He's been active in teaching ecology to generations of Penn State students and in the "Green Destiny" initiative early in the 2000s which laid the foundations for the university's sustainability focus.  It was a great encouragement for me to talk with someone who has been thinking for years about questions which seem only recently to have surfaced for me.

3. Near where I live in State College, 154 agricultural acres (mostly cornfields) are completely surrounded by residential development.  The Circleville Farm land once belonged to Penn State and is a reminder of its original agricultural mission as the "Farmers' High School".  But a few years back the university decided that the land was surplus to requirements and it was sold to a developer for a reported $2.9 million. Since then, every time I run through the cornfield in the early morning dew, I wonder whether I will see these growing things again...

 Last month the newspaper reported that "earth-moving is likely to begin" and this morning, as I am running through, I see that the trucks, mowers and chainsaws are at work.  At the end of the trail I pause for a photograph, to mourn the standing corn.