Google Reader coda: will it become social media?

Lynne Kiesling

Apparently I’m not the only one musing on the relationship between social media and RSS readers. Since I wrote the previous post, this Ars Technica post has suggested that Google will fold Reader into Google+.

To which I respond: Meh. Too social. Too visual. Not mobile friendly because it uses too much screen space (disclosure: Eli Dourado said the same to me on Twitter, and I concur). Not easy to either scan or dig deep or put aside for later. Meh.

Enron and crony corporatism

Lynne Kiesling

Rob Bradley has an Econlib essay on Enron, and it’s a good one. He focuses on Enron’s particular form of crony corporatism, its ability to take advantage of regulatory complexity, and the lessons that we should carry forward from the experience:

Enron was essentially a political company, not a free-market one. Ken Lay’s creation would be unknown to history were it not for the distorted incentives from the government side of the mixed economy.

For classical liberals, Enron is a case study in support of the separation of government and business. There is egregious rent-seeking, whereby the company worked to shape political intervention for economic advantage. There is bootleggers and Baptist politicking, whereby Enron teamed with nonprofit groups to win support for what was in the company’s narrow self-interest.

There is the peril of half-slave, half-free. Partially deregulated markets (such as with electricity in California) created a devil’s sand box for profit-making that otherwise would have been absent in a free-market order.

The green costs of Kelo

Lynne Kiesling

At PERC, Jonathan Adler has a trenchant post highlighting the environmental consequences of the eminent domain precedent established in the Supreme Court’s Kelo decision. In opposition to the Keystone pipeline, environmentalists are criticizing the use of eminent domain that could override their objections.  Jonathan observes that “… the use of eminent domain for economic development results in more environmental harm than if the market were left alone”, and refers to a paper that he and Ilya Somin have on the subject. Politicized use of government monopoly eminent domain force to redistribute land to politically-powerful developers has detrimental environmental consequences, in addition to being a flagrant violation of individual rights.

A great relative risk graphic for terrorism

Lynne Kiesling

In previous posts on the TSA and security here, here, here, and here, I’ve argued emphatically for taking a relative risk assessment approach to our security and surveillance policies and spending. Courtesy of Meg McLain, here’s a vivid graphic representing why that’s a good idea, and why we should not be spending so much money so ineffectively on security theater:


Whales and electricity, and sustainability

Lynne Kiesling

A few weeks ago I was thrilled to speak at the inaugural Summer Institute on Sustainability and Energy, organized by the University of Illinois-Chicago in partnership with Argonne National Laboratory, Northwestern University, Illinois Institute of Technology, and the University of Chicago. The students were from diverse fields and between them and the other speakers I learned a lot (including some cool vertical farming design!).

My talk focused on the history of the electricity industry, the economics of the industry and of its regulation, and how technological change is changing the economics of the industry and making its regulation maladaptive. When thinking about the history of electricity through the lens of technological change, I like to start with lighting, because better-quality lighting was the primary consumer objective toward which entrepreneurs and innovators were driving electricity technology. Talking about lighting in the 18th-19th century in the US means talking about whale oil, which was the dominant lamp fuel because of the bright clarity of its light. You can think through the rest of the story — demand for whale oil shifts to the right, prices rise, whalers have to go further and harder to catch whales from a declining population, which shifts supply to the left, which increases prices … ultimately the increase in the price of whale oil saved the whales, inducing innovators to create new lighting technologies: first kerosene lamps, and then electric lighting. That’s why when you’re thinking about the confluence of energy, why consumers use energy, technological change, and sustainability, whale oil is a good place to start.

My NU colleague Beth Herbert is the Assistant Director of Science in Society, a really good science outreach effort at NU, and she attended SISE that day and blogged about my presentation (thanks Beth!). She draws out the innovation and sustainability lesson and makes it explicit:

There was a time not too long ago when a significant portion of the American public looked to whale oil as its source of power, and the companies who procured and sold the oil were very powerful. But it was a limited resource, and fortunately we looked to alternatives (unfortunately, not entirely sustainable alternatives) before depleting the entire whale population. So the moral of the story? What you think you “need” today—say, lots of fossil fuels—might not seem so necessary in the future, if we continue to apply our creativity and innovation to finding and developing sustainable energy sources.

She also makes some other great observations, so I encourage you to click through and check out the rest of her post, and of Science and Society.

And a reading recommendation: for the history of the evolution from whale oil to kerosene lighting, and the innovation in the kerosene lamp as a great example of the innovation process, Daniel Yergin’s The Prize has an excellent chapter on the subject. The rest of the book also provides a thorough and well-told history of the global oil industry.

Lomborg and Haab on light bulbs and technology

Lynne Kiesling

Thanks to Tim Haab for pointing us to this excellent observation from Bjorn Lomborg about innovation, regulation, and environmental quality:

Real reductions in carbon emissions will occur only when better technology makes it worthwhile for individuals and businesses to change their behavior. CFLs and other advances can take us part of the way, but there are massive technological hurdles to overcome before fossil fuels generally become less attractive than greener alternatives. …

Limiting access to the ‘wrong’ light bulbs or patio heaters, ultimately, is not the right path. We will only solve global warming by ensuring that alternative technologies are better than our current options. Then, people the world over will choose to use them.

Hear, hear.