Sunday, January 31, 2016

No, Dennis Roddy, Corbett's shale gas numbers really were bullshit

(Image: Wikimedia)
Dennis Roddy sure loves him some mendacious hackery.

In a recent op-ed column on, the former speechwriter for one-term Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett rends his garments and gnashes his teeth over the current governor, Tom Wolf, whose administration recently had the temerity to revise the state's Marcellus Shale jobs numbers and bring them roughly into line with reality.

The Corbett administration, you may recall, constantly touted the hundreds of thousands of jobs the shale gas jobs industry supposedly was creating, generally settling on a figure of 200,000 or more. The industry's explosive growth, the argument went, meant it was too valuable to be taxed.

Now that the explosive growth has driven natural gas prices down to an ant's eye level, you will note, we are told the industry is in too fragile a state to be taxed.

Anyway, Roddy is pissed off because under the Wolf Administration, the Department of Labor & Industry has revised those jobs figures down to 29,000.

But what about the broader economic effects, Roddy complains. He enthuses about a team of "statistical wizards" from Corbett's L&I who instructed Roddy in the higher mysteries of indirect and induced employment.

"It was, basically, a mathematical calculation as to how the general economic buzz taking place in the gas fields and their surroundings, affected the general economy," he writes.

"General economic buzz? Ok, whatever. But here's the thing: If you do that calculation honestly — as a number of researchers not connected with the Corbett administration did at the time — you reach a total of about 80,000 to 90,000.

Not 200,000. Not close.

Note, by the way, that Roddy never, you know, delves into the numbers in his op-ed. He merely asserts they were plausible because, you know, the Marcellus Shale was BIG. Besides, those L&I guys, they knew what they were doing!

"I trusted L&I," Roddy whines, "because they could explain the wider meaning, using tools they'd assembled years before Tom Corbett was elected, and which they continued to fine-tune as the evidence warranted."

No, Dennis, actually they abandoned their claim to credibility and just made s*** up. To explain the details, let me turn to somebody I trusted, and still do: myself.

Back in November 2013, I wrote a lengthy blog post on L&I's claim of 200,000+ jobs:
At first, people assumed these were actual Marcellus-related jobs. Then someone realized the agency was just reporting statewide category totals, without making any effort to determine what fraction of them actually had a connection to the gas industry. Think about that: It's like measuring the effect of building a stadium in Pittsburgh by including all the construction workers in Philadelphia, Altoona and Scranton.
Or as John Hanger, Wolf's policy secretary, says in the article that set Roddy off, "Every sewer employee counted as a gas worker? That makes no sense to any reasonable economist or analyst."

I went on to point out that 200,000 is roughly the number of jobs Pennsylvania had recovered since the bottom of the recession:

"In other words, if the Corbett administration’s assertion is correct, than to a first approximation, all of Pennsylvania’s post-recession jobs gains are Marcellus jobs. ... [B]y attributing 200,000 jobs to the Marcellus industry, the Corbett administration is essentially accusing itself of disastrously mismanaging the rest of Pennsylvania’s economy!" 
Roddy accuses Wolf of "intellectual vandalism" and "economic change denial" — the latter phrase a curious echo of another kind of denial much beloved of the fossil fuel industry.

But Roddy is defending the indefensible. When Hanger, in the comment that set Roddy off, said Corbett's administration "cooked the books" on shale jobs, he was speaking the plain truth.

Update: A friend points out that Roddy argued this point in June, too. We even get the same Richard Wilbur verse. C'mon, Dennis, give it up already.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Amish Paradise

Amish men work at a barn raising. Note the crane at right,
run by a non-Amish worker to lift the trusses into place.
A couple of days ago, Adam Ozimek of the blog Modeled Behavior stumbled on an article I wrote about Amish population trends. (Short version: They're having lots and lots of kids. Specifically, they're at 300,000 and counting, and are growing at more than five times the overall U.S. rate.)

Adam tweeted a tongue-in-cheek comment:
Which yielded a bunch of followups:

Your basic humorous Twitter riffing, clearly not meant to be taken seriously ... but also illustrative of a couple of stereotypes of the Amish that just plain (so to speak) aren't true. Amish scholar Donald Kraybill occasionally uses a certain famous Weird Al song as a jumping-off point for serious discussions of Amish life; so, in that spirit:

1. "Troubling implications for innovation": Yes and no. True, the Amish end schooling after eighth grade, and they go light on the biology and science because they don't want students asking awkward questions about the veracity of Scripture. But the Amish don't oppose technology per se. Rather, they evaluate technology based on its effect on family and community life. They reject innovations they think are too disruptive, but others they embrace. Sometimes they modify them to mitigate the perceived harm:
Stoltzfus is among the Amish businessmen who have entered the computer age. A company that outfits computers for Amish people touts in its advertising what the machines do not have: "no Internet, no video, no music."
Donald Kraybill has documented an Amish business that uses 3-D printers to make energy-efficient LED lights for buggies. That doesn't sound like an anti-innovation mindset to me.

2. "Great news for climate change, though": Sadly, not so much. The Amish are farmers, and they're not especially cutting-edge farmers, so they do their share of ecological damage. Worldwide, agriculture contributes about 18 percent of total greenhouse gases. I don't know for sure, but I'd guess the Amish are probably about average in terms of per-acre emissions. (They do a lot of dairy farming.)

In Lancaster County, a major ecological concern with the Amish is manure runoff from their farms, which contributes to the degradation of the Chesapeake Bay. Officials are trying hard to get the Amish to improve their practices, with some success, but it's an uphill battle.

3. "... leading to a reconsideration of mass transit": The Amish don't oppose mass transit. They're quite happy taking buses, trains, subways and even airplanes, as needed. Their objection to modern vehicles isn't the technology per se (see item 1), but the way car ownership promotes independence and weakens community ties.

On the other hand, the Amish reject dense settlement and the kind of centralized organization you need to run mass transit systems. So they probably wouldn't want them after they took over, and if they did, they'd have to keep a few thousand of us English around to run the networks for them.

4. "Should help save on our defense budget": Um, yeah, can't really disagree with that. The Amish commitment to nonviolence is deep-rooted and non-negotiable. Full marks there.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Rolling Stones play Pittsburgh

I had no intention of seeing the Rolling Stones this past weekend. They're old, the tickets were expensive, I'd already seen them once, in 1998 at the Tokyo Dome  and so on. I was in Pittsburgh to see my father for Father's Day, and that was that. Their only effect on my trip, I thought, was that their fans had soaked up every hotel room in town, pushing my Airbnb booking out to Regent Square. 

Mick on the big screen at Heinz Field, June 20, 2015.
But Dad and Carol keep early hours these days, and by 8 p.m. Saturday, we were all done. WDVE-FM, true to its muse, had been playing nothing but Stones all day. Heinz Field is a "C" shape opening onto the river, and if you drive over the Fort Pitt Bridge, you can catch a glimpse of the stands. It was only a few minutes out of my way. Why not have a peek? So I did.

My first thought was "That stadium is not full."* My second thought, as I zipped into the tunnel, was, "It's been raining all day. That has to have kept at least a couple of people away." My third thought was, "You'll kick yourself for weeks if you don't go over there and at least try to get in." So I drove back into town, parked, walked over the Roberto Clemente Bridge and made my way toward Heinz Field. Twenty minutes later I was settling into peanut heaven, also known as section 527 in the upper deck, as the opening chords of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" rang out.

Never have I been so glad to part with an unreasonable sum ($98.50) for an evening's entertainment. Sure, they played songs I've heard hundreds of times before. Sure, from where I sat, Mick Jagger was half the height of a fingernail. No matter. The Rolling Stones are The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World (tm) and they put on the best goddam show you will ever see.

In support of which assertion I offer a Top 10 list of notable points about Stop No. 15212 on the Zip Code Tour:

10. Hello, Cleveland!: Sure, it demonstrates nothing more than the canniness of their marketing team, but from Mick's cheerful, "How yinz guys doin'?!" to Charlie's black and yellow bumblebee socks, the Stones made a point of stoking Pittsburgh's hometown pride. The black-n-gold tongue logo was an especially nice touch. As was Keith's pithy economium, which went roughly like this: "Nice to be in Pittsburgh. Great town!" Pause. "I remember when it was hell."

9. Big Hits ... : The tour I saw in '98 was for "Bridges to Babylon," and as I recall, we got three songs from the new album, all of them mediocre and forgettable. On Saturday, apart from a perfunctory "Doom and Gloom," it was nothing but the old, good stuff.

8. ... and Fazed Cookies: The old, good stuff included some deep cuts, most notably "Moonlight Mile," which they're doing in honor of the Sticky Fingers re-release. (Mick duly gave a shout-out to Pittsburgher Andy Warhol, who designed the cover.) We also got "Bitch" and a killer (so to speak) "Midnight Rambler," dusted off and every bit as vicious and weird as it was on the '72 tour.

7. You Got the Gold: The Keith-on-vocals portion of the show is always a crapshoot. Half the time he can't be bothered to sing, and when he does try, he can barely carry a four-note tune he penned himself. On Saturday, though, he gave us "Before They Make Me Run" and "Happy," probably his two best songs, and he spared us the Andy Kaufman/Bob Dylan routine and played them straight. "That's rock n' roll," he said after "Happy." Damn right.

6. Moves Like Jagger: I have no idea how he does it. No matter how carefully he eats and exercises (there's a rock lifestyle for you), no matter how carefully he husbands his energy, a man his age should not be able to put on a show like that. His voice sounds better than it did in the 1980s. My goal when I turn 50 in a couple of years is to be in as good shape as Mick Jagger is at age 71.

5. Lisa Fisher, et. al.: As soon as you hear the opening notes of "Gimme Shelter," you know Lisa's voice is going to head into the stratosphere on the "Rape! Murder!" bridge, but it still makes your hair stand on end when she does it. She is the most coruscatingly impressive of the Stones' backup musicians (RIP Bobby Keys), but they are all brilliant.

4. Believe It Or Not, They Can Still Play: OK, Keith, not so much, but Ronnie surprised me with his solos on "Before They Make Me Run" and especially "Midnight Rambler." There were some fast, clean licks in there, and they weren't just the notes off the record. There was music being made in real time.

3. Even Their Stumbles Are Cool: For my money, they've never gotten "You Can't Always Get What You Want" right live. Most of it sounds listless, then the last part goes too fast. This time, the main part sounded better than usual (Nice job, Penn State Choir), then everything went off the rails for a good five seconds getting into the double-time part. No matter: It's how you know it's the Stones.

2. They Can Still Play, Part Two: I've heard enough Stones covers to have learned that the music is more subtle than you think. Keith and Ronnie play guitar like an old married couple telling stories and finishing each other's sentences. Keith is constantly toying with those famous riffs, dropping a given chord in here, then there, finding interesting spaces between the notes. Last December I heard Joe Grushecky  no slouch of a musician  play a cover of "Brown Sugar," and it sounded flat, a little boring. Too much on the beat. When the Stones play "Brown Sugar," it sounds supple.  Keith has said that Charlie follows him, not vice versa, so there's a tension in the rhythm that you don't hear in bands where the drummer sets the pace (which is most bands). It's a free-floating bar-band groove, and it fills a stadium. No mean trick, that.

1. They Invented It: The "Satisfaction" riff. That cowbell at the start of "Honky Tonk Women." The "Woo Woo!" that 55,000 people started singing on Saturday the moment the rhythm track began on "Sympathy for the Devil." Those guys on that stage down there created all that and more, defining rock stardom for a generation, influencing artists from Jack White to Cassandra Wilson. It should be kids' music, but they anchored it in the blues, and against all odds it and they have turned out to be surprisingly ageless. In their hands, on a good night  and June 20, 2015, in Pittsburgh was a very good night  those songs come extraordinarily and stunningly alive.

*I was wrong about that, of course.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Still here (sort of)

"I can't take him like that. It's against regulations."
Despite appearances (no new posts since March 2?!), this remains an active blog, in my mind, at least.

At some point I hope to prove it. Even by writing a couple of new posts, if that 's what it takes.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Thomas Jefferson, father of economic instability

For the past week or so, I've been reading "An Empire of Wealth," by John Steele Gordon. It's an economic history of the United States, and it's vastly more entertaining than that sounds.
Gordon is a vivid, energetic writer, and he has a knack for combining swift summary with well-chosen, arresting details.

One learns, for example, that the Erie Canal was the largest public works project in Western civilization since the Pyramids. Its budget, $7 milllion, "was equal to more than one-third of all the banking and insurance capital" in its home state of New York. One learns not only that in the 1880s New England was the center of a flourishing worldwide ice trade estimated at eight million tons a year, but that the ice business created a robust market for sawdust. It was an ideal insulator, which was convenient, as the discovery of a use for the stuff gave sawmills an incentive to stop dumping so much of it in the nearest stream.

One learns that banking and money creation in the early 19th century were often indistinguishable from straight-up fraud. "Fully half the banks founded between 1810 and 1820 had failed by 1825," Gordon writes. Which brings me to Thomas Jefferson.

I vaguely knew Jefferson had opposed Alexander Hamilton insistence on creating a national bank and that this was generally considered regrettable -- an unfortunate consequence of Jefferson's "the U.S. should be a nation of simple yeoman farmers" ethos -- but I had understood the dispute as an isolated historical incident. Gordon, however, argues that Jefferson's intransigence had far-reaching consequences, setting up America's financial system for a future of chronic dysfunction:
Unfortunately, Thomas Jefferson was a better politician than Hamilton, and a far better hater. ... The party forming around Thomas Jefferson would seize the reins of power in the election of 1800 and would not lose them for more than a generation. In that time, they would destroy Hamilton's financial regulatory system and would replace it with nothing. ... As a direct result, economic disaster would be visited on the United States roughly every 20 years for more than a century.
How bad was it? The depression of 1837 didn't reach bottom until 1843, let alone start to recover. In its early days, 90 percent of U.S. factories closed, and federal revenues fell by half. (Admittedly, the federal government was a much smaller fraction of the U.S. economy than it is now.)

The depression that began in 1873 lasted six years as well. There were others.

For what it's worth, Brink Lindsey at the libertarian Cato Institute thinks Gordon argues "somewhat simplistically," on this point, noting that if you have a central bank, its policy mistakes can screw up an economy quite as effectively as not having one.

Still, having a central bank at least creates the possibility of having effective countercyclical policy. And it's needed. (I am not impressed by arguments that laissez-faire markets naturally and rapidly self-correct; there's far too much counter-evidence.)

So I agree it's a pity Jefferson was so stubborn and so influential. Who knows, if we'd had a central bank since the 1790s rather than starting fresh in 1913, that extra century or so of policy experience might have come in handy.