Short takes on science, business, health, agriculture and possibly the kitchen sink

Robert Wise   email  
From Inferno to Purgatory
Impressions of Las Vegas last July and now

What a difference a few degrees makes! Las Vegas' climate is pleasant on this sunny day during a "normal" July- a world away from the intense heat of last year's record hot weather. Highs of 99-105 make for a quite different regime than last year's 110-113.

Looking west toward the Spring Mountains and Red Rock Canyon, mid day

I walked this morning on a nicely landscaped jogging trail around our hotel compound. The air felt cool, at 84F just after sunrise. The same walk last night felt strange. The air was warm on my skin even in darkness with a light breeze, around 9 PM. It was still 95F- above that 91F tipping point where your skin begins to be warmed, instead of cooled, by the air around it. This morning, it didn't reach 91 until 11AM.

I spent a pleasant half hour in the cool waters of the wave pool. With totally predictable waves, you could time them perfectly for body surfing. Or stand as I did beyond the never-shifting surf line, and enjoy the waves surging by. (Last year, the hotel pool was almost like bath water.)

Yesterday was blessed with a cloudy sky, and the temperatures outside were tolerable, even in the upper 90s in the afternoon. "Dry heat" does make a difference; at home my clothes would be sweaty in such temperatures.

Physiology tells me I must have been sweating. It's the only way the body can cool itself above 91F, unless you're standing beside a block of ice. But I didn't notice, and my clothes were not even damp.

Last year it never got below 91F during my entire four day stay. I was amazed at the heat, walking the streets at 11 PM, at 100F. Unfortunately for Las Vegas, last year's record heat could soon become the norm.

Left: Cumulus clouds grow rapidly to the northeast, beyond the Muddy Mountains, near sunset / Right: Mandalay Bay hotel casts a mile long shadow

Just a few traveler's impressions. And one more thing I noticed, that others might not: Las Vegas has excellent public transit. It doesn't run right to your hotel door, but the concierge can tell you where to catch the bus, buy passes, etc. You aren't limited to the fancy limos or cabs. Uber is very popular here, too. Our hotel had a designated, well marked Uber pickup point.

My last post discussed public transit, drawing a lot of interest as well as some strong, well-reasoned dissent from two readers (here and here) . The next post will address some key issues that they raised.

Left: Las Vegas' Stip at dusk / Right: Looking west at 9 PM


Post a comment...
All comments are moderated. I may answer flame mail directly, but will not post it unless it makes a good point.


Revisions to this post:

Who are the Transportation Disadvantaged?
When the Car Tax is higher than the Income Tax

I just applied to serve on an advisory board to our county transit company, and noticed that the board's title involved "The Transportation Disadvantaged." They provide good service to people in need. "Just call," a friend on the board told a lady in a wheelchair, "Tell 'em you're disabled and need a ride, and they'll send someone out."

But it's not just the blind and the crippled. Transportation Disadvantaged, in Florida law, also includes "..people with low income who are dependent upon others to access employment, health care, education and other vital services."

(As if auto drivers didn't depend on others. No need for massive Federal and state highway programs, continual street and highway maintenance, parking lots, traffic lights, or police forces focused on traffic accidents and violations.)

That definition could be expanded even more. What about someone who can't travel more than a couple blocks without a 3,000 pound appliance? Who has to buy it, maintain it, fuel it, find parking for it, and ultimately replace it, at a typical cost of $9,000 a year? And who must necessarily use hundreds of gallons of fuel and generate thousands of pounds of carbon dioxide every year?

That's the average American- disadvantaged compared to his European counterpart, who can go for months without getting into an automobile, and never needs to own one. Whose fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions are much lower (a typical city bus gets about 360 passenger-miles per gallon.)

I stayed recently in a suburb of Zurich, Switzerland. The town had more local trains than my home county has bus lines. We could walk two blocks from our hotel and catch a train to go into the city, use the local trams to get around town, and return on the train in the evening. I hardly ever ride in an automobile in Europe.

Europeans pay high taxes, of course. But they don't pay the Car Tax. To get along in North America, outside a major metropolitan area, you absolutely must have an automobile- typically one for each adult in the family. For a household with two parents making the median household income of $56,500 a year, that $18,000 expense is over 30% of the budget, and about twice what they pay in income taxes.

"The average working class family is running a vehicle for every licensed driver."

So said a friend of mine, who owned an auto junkyard and helped to keep those clunkers running. But that was back in 1990. I don't know if the average working class family could afford that many cars today.

Public transit isn't free, of course; rides average around $2 in North America. Sixteen rides a week, for commuting to work plus shopping and recreation, would cost $1664 a year. Not free, but still a lot less than operating an automobile (Note 1).

Of course, I don't complain about my 3,000 pound appliance when it's air conditioned and the alternative is walking in 90 degree-plus heat. But if I could get to the bus stop, a mile and a half away, I could board a comfortable air-conditioned bus with connections to many points downtown and elsewhere in the county. Stops are much closer along the routes, but the nearest route is inconveniently far away.

I hope someday to see a bus line closer to home. Until then, I consider my neighbors and I to be Transportation Disadvantaged.

Note 1: I revised the paragraph "Public transit isn't free.." above when readers pointed out my error in arithmetic. I had miscomputed an annual cost of $3650, which Paul mentions in his comment below. My revision corrects the math and also raises the hypothetical number of rides per week to 16, as Paul suggested.

July 19:
Well, you hit all the high spots in simply raising the question. And the wild card is weather. Florida heat makes any walk farther than a quarter mile into a shirt-drenching expedition. And it's worse in any downtown or extended parking lot area. Concrete becomes its own magnification machine for natural sunlight, easily turning a 90-degree stroll into a 95-degree stroke warning.

I've long wondered why zoning regulations haven't included oxygen generators like trees and shrubs required every third or fourth parking space (along with drainage-friendly surfaces for most parking spaces). Simply reducing the dangers of asphalt/concrete/non-permeable surfaces would go a long way to promote pedestrian activity.

As for public transport, we should remind ourselves that it wasn't until after World War 2 that most US cities abandoned perfectly effective buses, trolleys and trains. The rise of the auto industry, aided by its lobbyists, put most transit firms and public-private partnerships out of business.

You have to ask yourself, too, how long it's going to be cost-effective for cities to continue to repair and expand roads instead of installing rail lines powered by electricity generated by wind, water and sunlight.

And as a newspaper writer, a worker whose job was killed by technology but who managed to survive anyway, I'm disinclined to feel soooooo sorry for folks like coal miners, roadbuilders, public utilities workers and automakers who might find discomfort when their old-fashioned technologies start killing their fading careers. As newsworkers have learned, many skill sets are interchangeable within the demands of newfangled opportunities. And as politicians should realize better than most, adaptability is going to be a hallmark of any American's future. George Meyer
Tampa, Florida

The heat is remarkable, and asphalt is a terrific amplifier- soaks it up and reradiates it. One day last July, I walked home from the bus stop, 3 miles, when the heat index was around 103 - it was torture to keep going. I'd stop in patches of shade to rest. When I'd pass a canal head, the cool breeze off the water felt like A/C. I've made the same trip in the same conditions by bicycle several times this summer, and it's tolerable.

The story you raad everywhere about public transit in mid-century was that some nefarious corporations- either oil companies or auto companies- bought up the trolley systems in several major cities and scrapped them, to promote automobile use.
-- Bob

July 21
Hello, Bob:
I read the article on Let's look a little more closely.

"...people with low income who are dependent upon others to access employment, health care, education and other vital services... (As if auto drivers didn't depend on others. No need for massive Federal and state highway programs, continual street and highway maintenance, parking lots, traffic lights, or police forces focused on traffic accidents and violations.)"

Obviously, both the law and the transit-board discussions are referring to the type of dependence that is "I can't very well get to the doctor without calling a friend or relative to drive me there". Most of the public infrastructure and services would still be required for fire, police, ambulance, and trucking - and certainly for the buses - even if private cars disappeared altogether. And it's mostly the trucks and buses, with their tremendous axle loads, that pound the streets to bits; cars have almost no effect. Nothing much to see there.

"Public transit isn't free, of course; rides average around $2 in North America. Ten rides a week, for a commute to work and shopping on the way home, would cost $3650 a year. Not free, but still a lot less than operating an automobile."

Ten rides a week are only enough to get to and from work on a regular 9-5 M-F schedule (fat chance), plus a hasty (before the transfer expires) stop-off at the outrageously spendy convenience store on the way home, and nothing else. Just associating with anyone outside of work will likely take additional trips. Given the miserable climates in most of North America for much of the year, those will often be by motor vehicle. (The coastal plain of California is a potential exception, but only "the 1%" can possibly afford to live decently there any more.) Non-work trips tend to be during "off-hours", so they will require even lengthier waits than work trips. (Even in the highly crowded Netherlands, affordable locations may only see a tram or bus every half-hour or so even during midday, never mind at night. And it is probably not headed in the direction one needs to go.)

So add 3 round trips, even if one is a bit of a hermit, for 16 rides, raising the $3650 to around $5840. Note - I'm taking that as a total "operating cost", with a $2-ish fare, or $32-ish/week for the 16 rides, covering around 30% of it, which is roughly true where I live. (You might want to clarify that.) The general taxpayer of course covers the other 70%. The fares and subsidies pay nothing towards the infrastructure and services that buses need too; at least drivers pay gas tax.

When all is said and done, $9000/year for a car ain't cheap but it still looks pretty good. And if I'm taking so little as 16 trips/week, $9000 is a substantial exaggeration unless I insist on a very fancy new-ish car all the time or the trips are far longer than typical. The difference between car cost and the $1600 or so I'd pay in actual fares will be almost entirely on the taxpayer. (And if I drive a car as dilapidated and icky as a typical city bus, the car may well be cheaper in total cost.)

That's even before taking heed of the staggering non-monetary cost of transit. The car gets me where I'm going at the time when I need to go, and typically in about 20-25 minutes. On the other hand, the bus runs only at times when some plush-bottomed bureaucrat "feels like it". It is slow, tardy, and unreliable. It takes 60-120 minutes including walking, random waits, and transfers with more and lengthy waits, to make a 20-minute trip. It crawls along with an interminable stop every couple of blocks. It leaves the rider drenched and sticky from hiking in blistering July heat, or, conversely, at risk of breaking bones on slick January ice. It's essentially rubbish. It "serves a certain clientele", to borrow a phrase from a local driver.

Worse still, even somewhat-good transit tends to be found only in monstrously overcrowded places where one must fork over $4000/month ($48000/year) just to rent a miniature dorm room, or millions just to buy a thoroughly dilapidated fixer-upper. A car allows one to live in a less outrageously expensive place where one can actually breathe. (The big taxpayer pickup of transit "operation" cost as opposed to zero pickup of car "operation" contributes to the tax/living-cost difference. It's also spendy to stack apartments hundreds of feet in the air to attain transit-friendly density. And even if it makes some sense in The Netherlands, it's a bit silly in the vast, largely empty USA. The only hard reason to do it is to provide prestigious addresses and crowds of servants for billionaires.)

In the end, I would offer a "modest proposal" to chew on: maybe the societal "we" ought to subsidize 70% of the "operating costs" of cars as well as buses for all comers (just for the time being, of course, since robot cars will render this entire discussion moot.) The staggering time-cost of using municipal buses would then cause most of them (outside Manhattan and San Francisco) to disappear in a heartbeat.
Madison, Wisconsin

Thanks for your remarks, Paul. I want to respond, but need to do a little research; you've covered a lot of ground.
-- Bob

July 22
Setting aside walking and biking, which are unattractive to 90+% of commuters, the absolute cleanest, most efficient and economic mode of commuting is car pooling. It blows away public transit or SOV auto. Commuters have been stubbornly resistant to car pooling but that may be changing. I see glimmers of hope that car pooling will pick up and solve a lot of vexing problems, but that is too much to be said here.

I live near Austin, Texas. We spend ~$350 million per year on transit. Last year transit carried 31 million (unlinked) trips. That's around $11.25 per trip. The average commuter who has 1.5 transfers each way (3 unlinked trips total) costs $33.75 per day, with taxpayers paying the lion's share. Despite this enormous subsidy, transit patronage in Austin has fallen ~50% (as a share of the total commuting market) over the last 20 years.

I live 8 miles from the nearest bus stop. I bought a 1995 Oldsmobile in 2010. It was in excellent condition so I offered $2,000 and I have spent ~$1,000 on repairs (but I could sell it today for $1,000). I pay $360 per year for insurance and another $100 for tags and stickers. The gas I use for commuting costs ~$200 per year. That's $1,000 per year for my commuting cost vs $8,775 commuting by bus.

I could move to a home near a bus station but my rent would go up $4,800 per year. Riding a bus would mean that I can only work for employers who are located near bus stops. I might have to accept a job paying $5,000 less than I could earn if I commuted by car. (Studies show that ownership of a car is one of the best predictors of a poor person's ability to move up to the middle class. It even trumps having a HS diploma.)

Although a bus theoretically can get "360 passenger-miles per gallon" the average American bus has an emissions profile about the same as a typical car, per passenger mile. A new car company plans to introduce a special commuter car next year. It will sell for ~$8,000 and gets up to 84 mpg (really about 60 mpg.) It only weighs 1,250 pounds and slashes emissions. But nothing beats car pooling.
-- Vince

Thanks for your comments, Vince, and all the background info. I should have mentioned car pooling; on the face of it, it's a potentially 4x more efficient and economical use of our existing infrastructure. I'd like to post your comments, and will address some of the points you raised in a new blog post soon. Your remark about bus emissions particularly concerns me; I want to look into that.
-- Bob

PS from Vince:
DOT and FTA have car vs bus data that is often twisted. They will compare buses to SOV cars and light trucks (which can weigh 6,000+ pounds, and are usually used to haul freight.) DOE has much fairer comparisons. They use the average occupancy of cars and compare that to buses. There is another comparison of trucks vs buses etc. And their data goes back to 1970.

This is from the 34th Edition (2016) of the DOE Transportation Energy Data Book. It's too big too send as an attachment.

BTUs are a good proxy for CO2 emissions. Notice the absolute flip flop in fuel efficiency over time! Not only have cars gotten cleaner, buses have gotten dirtier. And EPA analysts predict that the trend will continue for another 25 years.

Some cities which I call natural transit cities have bus fleets that compare favorably with cars (New York, Frisco) but that just means that all of the other cities' bus fleets are much worse. And it's not just CO2. Diesel engines are inherently dirty, especially for NOX and PM. An effort to clean up buses began 20 years ago but they can never match car engines. Not the car engines of today or the car engines of 2025...

In 1981 NYC bus drivers went on strike. Within 2 days there were 5,000 private "bus companies" open for business. (Most of these were cars picking up riders at bus stops.) The bus drivers were worried and went back to work. But around 1,000 van owners stayed on the streets. They became known as Dollar Vans.

They were seriously harassed by city cops but they would not quit. After 10 years the city backed down and offered to legalize the dollar vans if they would register and pay a fee. About half of them did but the other half are also still operating today. These guys operate at a profit against heavily subsidized government buses. Their customer base is mostly poor immigrants. It's an amazing story.

What is more amazing is that not a single government run transit service has copied their business model! Dollar vans are the absolute cleanest form of transport on the road today and they are illegal in every other city in America. They are the commercial equivalent of car pooling. Vince

Post a comment...
All comments are moderated. I may answer flame mail directly, but will not post it unless it makes a good point.

Motley Fool, "How much does the average American pay in taxes?"

The Nation, AAA average car costs in 2016,

Google search, Average US Income, sourced to US Census, 2015

World Atlas, "Cost of Public Transportation Around the World",

Price of Travel website, "Public Transportation Prices in 80 Worldwide Cities", May 2017,

Florida Commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged

Revisions to this post:
July 19: Reworded some passages, posted comments.

Energy Independence: Chimera or Chameleon?
Putting a high gloss on codependency

The Wall Street Journal says the US is beyond mere Energy Independence, emerging as "the world's energy superpower." But Geologist Art Berman points out that it's the world's biggest importer of oil: "Saudi Arabia and Russia- the real oil superpowers� import no oil."

Mother Jones says "America is inching closer to Energy Independence". The Washington Times says Energy Independence is "achievable."

Yet other recent articles speak of the "'Energy Independence' Myth", and liken it to the promise of perpetual economic growth. In corporate press releases, says one, "Optimism is more important than facts. And, it�s essential for attracting investors."

Who can you believe? All of them, more or less. But watch the details, because at least two concepts of "energy independence" are in play:

(1) No imports of oil, coal or natural gas. That's what President Carter had in mind when he set Energy Independence as a national goal. But today we're importing about 8,000,000 barrels of oil - four supertankers full - every day.

Or (2) Some trade analysis that shows the U.S. as a net exporter of energy. Different analysts go at this in different ways. Some include trade in finished energy products such as gasoline and jet fuel. Some use physical units, others use dollars. The answer depends on how you set up the analysis.

So WSJ can say that the U.S. only imports 25% of its oil (oil and oil products, net) and Berman can reply it really imports 47% (of the crude oil flowing to US refineries). Checking US EIA figures for the latest 4 weeks, I got 48%.

But an export surplus isn't "independence" - it reflects a mutual dependence with our trading partners. Since our civilization is addicted to oil, "codependency" might be more accurate.

Experts have called Energy Independence a "chimera". Which is either a phantom, a will-o-the-wisp, or a fire-breathing three headed monster; not a good object to pursue in any case. But in political discourse, it becomes a chameleon: a wily lizard that changes color to blend with its context.

Carter's specific policy, announced in a 1979 speech, was not to let oil imports grow beyond their value at that time- about 6,600,000 barrels a day. We've come close; imports have been higher and lower over the decades, but today are only 8% higher than 1979, in spite of a 40% increase in population.

Another of my heroes of that era, ecologist Howard Odum, immediately opposed Carter's policy. Use foreign oil first, he advised; achieving energy independence now would guarantee dependence later, as global resources were drawn down.

In the same 1979 speech, Carter asked citizens to take simple energy conservation measures, much as now touted in many articles on the web:

"..I'm asking you for your good and for your nation's security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel. Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense -- I tell you it is an act of patriotism."

I admire Carter's concept of patriotism. It's a lot more useful than waving flags or shooting off firecrackers. Not for "energy independence," but for resilience in the face of the energy transition we know will come.


Post a comment...
All comments are moderated. I may answer flame mail directly, but will not post it unless it makes a good point.

Wall Street Journal, "Lessons of the Energy Export Boom"

Art Berman, "Energy Nonsense From the Wall Street Journal"

Mother Jones, "America Is Inching Closer to Energy Independence"

Washington Times, "Declaring energy independence"

Bloomberg, "The Day After Energy Independence Day"

US Energy Information Agency, Weekly Petroleum Status Report

Bart Hawkins Kreps, "Alternative Geologies: Trump's 'America First Energy Plan'",

Alice Friedemann, "When Trucks Stop Running (Review)",

Chimera image by Carl Critchlow, Virgin Media, used under fair use doctrine.

Chameleon image by Patricia Edmonds, National Geographic, permission requested.

Revisions to this post:

Why did the Tourist Cross the Ocean? of the sea and the land...hypocrisy

I wake at the old men's hour, around dawn, climb a few flights of stairs and walk out into cold wind on a rocking, nearly deserted deck. The party people, the young and beautiful are mostly asleep. Only a few of my fellow geezers are up, scattered at tables around the coffee station. One has a ship's name on his cap, with a splash of gold braid. Another rolls his wheelchair carefully between the tables.

Little gray cumuli dot the pale sky, merging into a gray murk at the horizon. The deck rolls and pitches a few degrees each way, walkable but demanding attention. Nets are rigged over the swimming pools to retard splashing as they slosh back and forth. The deck is wet, either from rain or the early morning washdown.

Left: Sunrise ahead, still to right of our heading / Right: Moon setting astern, before dawn

I make a cup of tea, having quit a lifetime coffee habit after some disturbing endoscopy results (which later turn out to be insignificant.) Stuffing the waste paper into the little trash can before the wind takes it, I ride an elevator to the upper sun deck to take some pictures. I like to catch the sun rising, sometimes the moon setting, and the state of the sea Most of all, I'd like to see a healthy mat of sargassum weed. This is our second day out, well into the Sargasso Sea.

And we are truly at sea now, the air reflecting sea surface temperature around 60F. Small dimples of wind-driven waves blow at right angles across a steady swell from the north. It comes from a storm far away off the Maritimes, as I can see from the wave and weather charts on the Ocean Weather website.

I hope to see the big, classic mats of Sargassum, ten feet wide and hundreds of yards long, typical of the Sargasso sea. The weed and many fish and crabs that live in it spend their entire life cycle at sea; eels migrate here from the coasts of America and Europe to spawn in this "Rainforest of the Ocean." But the mats only hang together when wind, wave and current are right. On another voyage through the Sargasso, I saw only isolated clumps.

Some heavy weather might be in store for us. Last week, a long-range weather model predicted that a subtropical storm, sort of a mild hurricane, would form tomorrow or next day in mid-Atlantic, along our route.

Pictures done, I head down to the card room to check email, news and weather on the internet. Once Kae awakes, I'll spend the rest of the day with her- bridge lessons, the art auction, progressive trivia and whatever else we find to do.

Our ship had come straight east out of Port Canaveral the first day, to the edge of the continental shelf, then turned northeast on a course straight toward Bermuda. The Gulf Stream was 30 miles offshore the night we left, and is roughly 30 miles wide in these latitudes, so we were across it and into the Sargasso Sea before midnight.

Bermuda: pastel-colored houses of limestone or block, "pink sand" beaches looking a lot like Florida's, and the ramparts and magazines of what had been a key Royal Navy outpost two centuries ago - the Gibraltar of the Atlantic.

Left: Our course to Bermuda on ship's navigation display / Right: Town hall in St. John, original capital of Bermuda

Out of Bermuda, we followed the great circle course to Madeira, a gentle arc on the chart marking the shortest distance between those islands. The ship's heading would gradually change, until on the morning of the third day out I found we were heading due east- halfway through our arc. The Sargasso sea was behind us, having not shown more than a small scrap of seaweed. The subtropical storm had never appeared, though a few days after our return home, a tropical storm formed at about the same coordinates.

We'll round out the cruise with some attractive ports: flowery Madeira, the island of eternal spring; ancient/modern Malaga, older than the Roman empire but now Spain's fourth largest city; and Barcelona, with its broad pedestrian Ramblas and gaudy Gaudi architecture. Another week to spend with 4,000 well-heeled fellow passengers, all of us with ample money and leisure time and no concerns for the moment but amusing ourselves.

Left: Kae stands in a Moorish arch built with Roman bricks, in the Alcazaba, a fortress/palace in Malaga, Spain
Right: Suburbs of Funchal, Madeira. Note the extreme contour spading in the garden. We probably wouldn't plow a slope like this in Iowa.

The Thursday after our return, I'll strap on a backpack and ride a second-hand bicycle three miles to the bus stop, catch the bus to the mainland, and join a kitchen crew to prepare and serve a free meal for 150 or so people who need one. Thursdays are my weekly tithe to some good causes: saving energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, supporting public transit and helping the poor. (Though I conserve energy in small ways all week.)

My contributions are small, and don't offset the rest of my lifestyle. I could have saved a good deal of bunker oil and jet fuel by not taking that transatlantic cruise. Even more by giving up my automobile. But I'm not that good a person.

Hypocrisy? Maybe. But anyone trying to conserve energy and reduce emissions is faced with the temptations and necessities of life in industrial society. What if you decide to build an off-grid shack in the woods? You'll probably start with some nice milled lumber, rather than felling trees and getting out the boards. You'll probably work with mass-produced steel tools, probably travel at least part way to your site in a rubber-tired vehicle, etc., etc.

I say it's worthwhile to make some contribution, whatever works in your life. Every gallon of gasoline not burned, every puff of carbon dioxide not emitted, has its effect.

Left: Murky dawn, one day out of Bermuda / Right: Just after sunrise, mid-Atlantic


Post a comment...
All comments are moderated. I may answer flame mail directly, but will not post it unless it makes a good point.

More pictures on my facebook page.
Supporting public transit: Some facts and thoughts on the subject, toward the end of another travel post,
The Grass Really Is Greener, Especially Between the Rails.

Revisions to this post:

Breaking New Ground in Economic Theory
Steve Keen defines a production function based on energy

Professor Steve Keen may be the first mainstream economist to address a fatal flaw in economic theory: omitting or minimizing the role of energy. Keen has developed a production formula incorporating energy, not as one factor of production along with capital and labor, but as the indispensable flow activating both.

"Labor without energy is a corpse" says Keen; "Capital without energy is a sculpture."

Keen was one of twenty or so economists who made a credible prediction of the 2008-9 crisis, which government economists in the US and abroad declared "unpredictable" - after it blindsided them. His work draws on contemporary economic theory and generates real-world predictions. He's the sort of economist who financial commentators, investors and even government economists listen to; folks who haven't heard of Daly's steady state economy, Odum's energy flow analysis of the ecosystem-economy, or Hall's EROI "cheese slicer" model.

Keen's model implies that economic production is measurable in energy units, as Odum and others argued. Wealth is "nothing but the food, conveniences and pleasures of life," as the earliest economists recognized. But it results from useful work, which can be measured in kilocalories. (To us weight watchers, just "calories.") Here is his fundamental equation (the only one here, I promise):

Y(E) = (K.EK.xK.eK)α . (L.EL.xL.eL)1-α

(If that seemed hard to read, try coding it in html.) It's worthwhile to look at what goes into this equation, the product of a Capital term and a Labor term. Each of these terms is itself a product of energy flow and two small modifiers. To define the terms,

Y is useful work or GDP, a function of energy supply, in kilocalories
K is capital, as the number of machines employed
L is labor, as the number of workers involved
E is a flow of energy to the economy, to workers or to machines, in kilocalories
α is capital's proportional contribution to production (labor's contribution is 1-α)
x is Exergy, the proportion of E which is actually usable, always great than zero and less than 1. Per the second law of thermodynamics, some energy is always lost.
e is the efficiency of the process: the proportion which actually goes into production after the costs of maintaining the machine or the worker; always greater than zero and less than 1. Logically this factor should include whole life cycle costs, though I'm not sure if Keen intends this.

To test his model against real data, Keen correlated its results with historical statistics of US GDP, and then compared correlations of GDP with the key terms individually. Over 40-odd years of data, his function correlated 0.79 with US GDP. The correlations with employment (Labor) alone and energy consumption (E) alone were much lower, at 0.60 and 0.59 respectively.

His model might have correlated better if applied to a closed economic system, such as the entire world, or the US prior to 1970, if good data were available. Most of the useful work that supports Americans today is performed in the Far East or in the engines of container ships, and the energy inputs are considerable.

Introducing his test data, Keen remarked that government statistics showing minimal unemployment were "just nonsense". He presented a measure of employment instead.

"They ask what Trump is complaining about- here's what he's complaining about.." (This was back in November.)

A decline of a few percent seems small, but two million fewer Americans in their working years have jobs than before the 2008-9 crisis.

Presenting a chart of industrial energy consumption 1960-present, Keen remarked on the on the long decline since the 1979 peak, his latest values showing consumption comparable to 1967-8. Partly the result of increased efficiency, he said, but also "..becoming intractable because we are moving from highly efficient oil and coal to much less efficient wind and solar." (Efficiency as energy output per unit of energy input.)

I don't think I'm overstating to say that Keen's model marks a breakthrough in mainstream economics, though Keen describes it as merely

"..the beginnings of a decent equation to explain the role of energy in production."..demonstrating that wealth is "..fundamentally created by the exploitation of free energy, as the Physiocrats argued two centuries ago."

For those who discount any economic reasoning not expressed in calculus, Keen's work opens an access to the wisdom of the Physiocrats. Maybe that of Daly, Odum and Hall as well.

Nearly all I've said above is taken from Keen's lecture on You tube, which I highly recommend. There's a lot more there, including deep historical background and comparisons with contemporary economic theories. If you haven't listened to a real science lecture since college, it may wake up some brain cells.

Having called Keen a "mainstream economist", I now notice in his blog that he contrasts himself with mainstream economists and complains of a strong institutional bias toward the Neoclassical school. He's asking for support via Patreon, partly to continue his work on energy-based economic modeling (I signed up.) Still, he's a lot more mainstream than the environmental scientists I mentioned above.


April 26
I always thought energy was considered as a business cost. Isn't that standard economic procedure?
George Meyer
Tampa, Florida

April 26
In accounting, I'm sure. But I don't think it's considered in macroeconomic modeling. Economic theory has long been criticized by physical scientists as being disconnected from the real physical processes going on in the economy. I can't cite details because I haven't seen an economic model since an undergrad course in 1966 or so- maybe not then. I'm parroting a criticism I've heard many times from sources I trust.

Keen's introduction gives you some of that background. He wants his theory to conform to the laws of thermodynamics.

April 26
Well, I've read some of the same stuff that you're reacting to -- the notion that energy consumption and supply hasn't gotten its due in calculating economic models and theories. But it hasn't made sense to me since energy is a cost to business, as in fuel, in transportation and in its competitive standing (like electricity vs. gasoline).

But nearly every time I get interested in economic models, I read something that pretty convincingly argues that such models are so flawed (for the energy as well as other factors) that we're wrong to pay much attention to them.

They're a lot like theories of mass communication. Whenever someone thinks he's got a good one, something -- like, maybe, digital technology -- comes along and makes it look silly, or at least irrelevant...
George Meyer

April 26
Flawed models? Sure. But there are flaws and flaws. Here we're talking about a deficiency that completely divorces economic models from the physical world- that place where we grow crops and build widgets. Such models are capable of, for instance, predicting infinite growth on a planet with finite resources.

April 28
I haven't studied it, but it doesn't seem immediately clear how Keen distinguishes between the kilocalories used by a machine from those used by a worker. Seems to me that's a huge distinction with lots of implications, especially in the debate about whether production occurs onshore (with lots of expensive machinery) or offshore (with cheap labor). When I get more time I'm sure I'll come up with more questions.
George Meyer

April 29
The energy used by workers and machines comes in distinctly different forms- food vs. fuel. Unless the crew starts drinking gasoline or sticking fingers in light sockets, the flows are pretty easy to distinguish.

The cheap-fuel and cheap-labor modes of production could be distinguished by varying those exponents alpha and (1-alpha). But Keen seems to be describing a complete, integrated economy, like the whole world, that would include both modes. He tests his model against figures for the US economy, which would have made more sense prior to around 1970 when it was fairly self contained.

To put actual numbers to his equation, he simplifies the energy inputs to labor into food alone, and uses that approach to turn the whole labor term into an approximate constant, multiplied by employment. Then he applies industrial energy use statistics to solve the equation over a period of 40-odd years.

In reality, production has to pay the full life cycle maintenance costs of capital and labor (to include rent, medical care, education, etc.) Those costs are logically part of the efficiency factors e, though I'm not sure if Keen intended to include them.

Post a comment...
All comments are moderated. I may answer flame mail directly, but will not post it unless it makes a good point.

Steve Keen, "The role of Energy In Production",

Charles Hall and Kent Klitgaard, 2012, Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy

Herman Daly and Joshua Farley, 2010, Ecological Economics, Second Edition

Howard Odum, 1971, Environment, Power and Society, also 2007,
Environment, Power and Society for the Twenty-First Century.
The earlier version speaks of energy in familiar, common-sense terms, with all the ambiguity that that implies. The later version introduces the term "emergy" (SIC) and a set of related terms. It's unambiguous and scientifically correct, but hard to read unless you've internalized the emergy terminology.

Revisions to this post:
April 27: minor rewording.
April 29: comments and responses.
May 8: corrected one statement- values in this equation are not per capita. Later in his talk, Keen formulated a per capita version.

Poisoning the Well
The Global Temperature Hiatus Scandal

Sadly, the dissension between scientists about a NOAA study of sea surface temperature trends will go down in many citizen's minds as another data point showing that NOAA, NASA and climate science in general is "politicized." The study was part of an effort to re-evaluate the finding of a "hiatus" - a pause - in the trend of global temperature, noted in the 2013 report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The charge of politically motivated science comes up regularly, and was heard frequently during the Trump campaign. It's a pervasive "poisoning of the well"* for anyone trying to discuss global warming. Some of my friends distrust the data, the theory and the scientists themselves on the basis of this alleged politicization.

All the professional organizations of meteorologists and other climate scientists agree that human activity is the main cause of global warming. By NOAA's count, this amounts to 97% of all such scientists. But apparently they're all deluded or else in on the scam.

One vocal critic of the IPCC writes that "The politicians wanted scientific support for their agendas and the scientists were more than willing to oblige because the politicians held the purse strings for climate research." What these politicians' "agendas" were, and who would benefit by them, he doesn't mention.

Another critic, in his self published book on the subject, promises to expose "the malicious misuse of climate science as it was distorted by dishonest brokers to advance the political aspirations of the progressive left."

The "Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change" (NIPCC) states that "The United Nations [is] a famously corrupt body in which most votes are controlled by kleptocracies and outright dictatorships..any settlement of the Global Warming issue by the UN would entail massive transfers of wealth from the citizens of wealthy countries to the politicians and bureaucrats of the poorer countries."

NIPCC works closely with the Heartland Institute, a "think tank" which cut its teeth trying to discredit the link between smoking and cancer, and now has turned it attention to climate science.

So all the research and reporting on global warming is a huge boondoggle to keep politicians and scientists employed - as if they could find no other work - or else to funnel cash to politicians and bureaucrats in poor countries. I don't think anyone could disprove these charges, but they seem highly unlikely.

I was in graduate school, studying climatology, at the same time as many of the scientists now investigating global warming. I remember the studies of paleoclimate that were starting to show us the baseline against which the recent warming trend is measured, and the new mathematical techniques being developed to study time series of measurements. The grad students and professors I studied with were honest scientists, working hard to discover what actually happened in climate history and what was currently going on in the atmosphere.

Back then, meteorologists were just beginning to understand the El Nino effect, and there was some interest in "atmospheric teleconnections in the equatorial Pacific." Now we have a grab-bag of oscillations and cycles known to affect temperature and rainfall in particular regions. And not just known but measured and somewhat predictable.

I admire the work of all these people, and when 97% of them support a given conclusion, it seems highly likely to me.

*Poisoning the well: "..a fallacy where irrelevant adverse information about a target is preemptively presented to an audience, with the intention of discrediting or ridiculing everything that the target person is about to say." - Wikipedia


Post a comment...
All comments are moderated. I may answer flame mail directly, but will not post it unless it makes a good point.

NOAA news release on new study of warming hiatus:

Pam Wright, Weather Underground Wunderblog, February 9, 2017, "The Data Is Right: Climate Change Is Still Real"

Daily Mail, February 4, 2017, "Exposed: How world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data"

Bob Tisdale, "The Politicization of Climate Science Is NOT a Recent Phenomenon",
I did several internet searches looking for Tisdale's professional qualifications, with no luck.

Revisions to this post:

The First 100 Tweets
Relief, disappointment and a slim hope

Ah, the sweet normality of gridlock! Immigration, Customs and Homeland Security resume normal operations, sixty thousand visa holders get their visas back, and President Trump's immigration initiative starts to grind its way through the Federal courts.

Trump apparently means to walk his campaign talk, and walk it within the bounds of the Constitution. Fears and rumors about Homeland Security defying court orders were unfounded. Anyone who doubts the administration's intent to work within the law should read its memo to the Labor Department about the Fiduciary Duty Rule: more clauses and qualifiers than a bungee jumping waiver.

I had hoped for a few good outcomes from the new crew, along with the other stuff, but I've had one big disappointment. I hoped Trump would go along with the Republican Party platform and reinstate the Glass Steagall act in place of the present Dodd Frank law. The repeal of Glass Steagall during the Clinton administration paved the way for the many of the financial excesses that led to the banking crisis of 2008.

Instead, Trump is moving to weaken Dodd Frank - consistent with his statements during the campaign. He ordered a review of the law, which he says discourages banks from lending for new business ventures. His NEC Director Gary Cohn says it forces banks to build capital "to meet regulatory requirements and pay for additional regulations," reducing the funds available to loan out.

Reserve requirements could be lowered without taking away other protections, such as the Consumer Protection Act. But- "pay for additional regulations"? If you're draining capital to meet day-to-day expenses, you need to raise your fees, right? I don't know much about banks, though; I keep my money in a credit union.

I'm also disappointed in my own party, who seem determined to become the Party of Nooo. If they put all their energy into delay, "resistance" and protest, they'll have a hard time joining in discussions and negotiations as environmental laws are brought up for repeal and new legislation is put through tough Congressional reviews.

It won't help at all with the We the People Amendment, HJR 48, introduced in Congress last week by Rep. Rick Nolan (Dem, MN). We the People addresses the granddaddy of all political issues: campaign finance.

It establishes that corporations are not people, and mandates a redefinition of corporate personhood in more realistic terms. It establishes that money is not speech, contradicting a key point in the 2010 Citizens United court decision.

Citizens United was the ultimate absurdity in a long series of court decisions defending the "civil rights" of corporate persons. It essentially legalized bribery. Justice Stevens wrote in a dissenting opinion,

"...corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their 'personhood' often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of �We the People� by whom and for whom our Constitution was established."

Corporate personhood is a bipartisan issue if there ever was one. Passing the amendment will take a 2/3 majority in both houses - or a constitutional convention. But so far, only one of Nolan's twenty cosponsors is a Republican. There's bound to be more support out there, in the electorate and in Congress, but it will be hard for Democrats to rally it with their heels dug in the "resistance forever" posture.

We the People isn't new; it's been introduced every year, in concert with a growing movement led by the Move to Amend organization. The legal language of HJR 48 addresses all the points of Move to Amend's petition, which has been endorsed in resolutions by hundreds of communities and five U.S. states. Its text is even shorter than Trump's inauguration speech:

"We, the People of the United States of America, reject the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling and other related cases, and move to amend our Constitution to firmly establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights."

It is possible that Trump himself might endorse the We the People Amendment. He spoke honestly about campaign finance during the debates:

"When you give," he said, "they [politicians] do whatever the hell you want them to do."

�I was a businessman, I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them, and they are there for me.� He added, �And that�s a broken system.�

Trump's inauguration speech was about handing power back to the people. Literally "about" - that was its only topic. And it seems that, for a time, the people have won out against the establishment and its multimillion dollar lobbying arm.

"What truly matters," he said, "is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people."

HJR 48 is our best chance of keeping the people in power. It's a slim chance, because every successful politician depends on campaign donations. The more successful, the more dependent, and the less likely to give up the big donations. But Trump is not in any donor's pocket, He's led his party to an overwhelming victory, and he could bring many legislators and citizens along on this issue.

Back this one, Mr. President, and you solve a host of serious problems in one move. And you'll keep the people in power.

If you support the We the People Amendment, please let your representative and Senators know, and President Trump as well. The full text of the amendment is below.


Post a comment...
All comments are moderated. I may answer flame mail directly, but will not post it unless it makes a good point.

Full text of We the People Amendment:
House Joint Resolution 48
Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States providing that the rights extended by the Constitution are the rights of natural persons only.

Section 1. The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons only. Artificial entities, such as corporations, limited liability companies, and other entities, established by the laws of any State, the United States, or any foreign state shall have no rights under this Constitution and are subject to regulation by the People, through Federal, State, or local law. The privileges of artificial entities shall be determined by the People, through Federal, State, or local law, and shall not be construed to be inherent or inalienable.

Section 2. Federal, State and local government shall regulate, limit, or prohibit contributions and expenditures, including a candidate�s own contributions and expenditures, to ensure that all citizens, regardless of their economic status, have access to the political process, and that no person gains, as a result of that person�s money, substantially more access or ability to influence in any way the election of any candidate for public office or any ballot measure. Federal, State, and local governments shall require that any permissible contributions and expenditures be publicly disclosed. The judiciary shall not construe the spending of money to influence elections to be speech under the First Amendment.

Presidential Memorandum on Fiduciary Duty Rule

Trump quotes:
The Intercept "Donald Trump Says He Can Buy Politicians, None of His Rivals Disagree",Aug 7, 2015,

Trump's Corporate donations, September 2016,

Contact your representative:

Contact your Senators:

Contact the White House:

Sign the Move to Amend Petition:

Image: Adapted from image of page 1 of the U.S. Constitution, from National Archives, at

Revisions to this post:
Feb 6: Fixed some spelling errors.

Previous Post: Pugilistic Politics


Get RSS Feed

Signup for email updates

Standing Alone: The Independent Retailer in America is out for sale, in paperback and ebook versions:

Find it on Amazon or Barnes&Noble
Or order here:

Most Popular Posts
   Resist the Resistance
   Energy Independence:
      Why Bother?
   Plowing Bedrock
   A Land Under Waves
   Strips of Native Prairie
      Protect Farm Soil

      Why did the Tourist Cross the Ocean?
      Breaking New Ground in Economic
      Poisoning the Well
      The First 100 Tweets
      Pugilistic Politics
      Resist the Resistance
      The Joy of Something for Nothing
      Two Years on at the
        Soup Kitchen
      Energy Independence:
        Why Bother?
      Nibbling at the Margin
      Living with Heat II:
        Clothing and Accessories
      The Grass Really is Greener,
           Especially Between the Rails
      Living with Heat: The Challenge
           and the Body's Response
      Heat: The Feeling and
           the Science
      A Whiff of Sulphur
      Our Thailand Tour
      Blogging Without Blogware
      Inching Toward Sustainability
      Going the Extra Mile
      First Day at the Soup Kitchen
      Slumbering Champions
      A Curmudgeon
       and his Keyboard
      Winter Travels
      Dust storms again in the
         High Plains
      Small Business Saturday:
         Promoting Small
         Businesses and One
          Great Big One
      Will the Real Inflation Rate
         Please Stand Up?
      Strips of Native Prairie
         Protect Farm Soil
      Shop Indies to Build
         Community Resilience
      A Land Under Waves
      Plowing Bedrock

   A Prosperous Way Down
   Club Orlov
   Dark Mountain Network
   Hockey and Donut Blog
   Institute for Local
   ISU Ag Decision Maker
   James Kunstler
   Move to Amend
   Our Finite World
   Peak Prosperity
   The Sea Gypsy Philosopher
   Shadow Government
   The Archdruid Report
   Zero Hedge