Sunday, May 28, 2017

Anti-progress: The case of airline travel

We are so used to rapid progress in so many fields, especially in the communications devices and computers that we can hold in our hands and that keep getting cheaper. In addition, the media is filled with thrilling advances in biotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence. It's hard to imagine that there might areas of our lives in which progress has not only ceased but been reversed.

One area with which many readers are certainly familiar is air travel. I was struck by Robert Gordon's account of this phenomenon in his marvelous tome, The Rise and Fall of American Growth. Here is what Gordon discovers:

  1. Speed and comfort in the passenger airline industry have not improved since the 1960s.
  2. In fact, comfort has declined as airlines have squeezed more seats into the same amount of space. To get the same amount of space which the typical airline passenger enjoyed in 1977, that passenger must pay on average an extra $59. Gordon prices the discomfort of staying in the cheap seats at $15, since most people don't pay the extra fee.
  3. Passengers must now pay for meals previously included in their air fares which he estimates at $8 per meal.
  4. Passengers must now pay for checked bags previously included in their air fares which Gordon estimates at $25 per bag.
  5. He estimates that the cost of the meal, the discomfort and the checked bags amount to a 24 percent unmeasured price increase from 2008 to 2014 for a now inferior service.
  6. Gordon estimates that 200 million additional hours of passenger time are wasted each year in post-2001 airline security checks that he believes are an overreaction to one major failure, namely, the security of airline cockpit doors.
  7. He acknowledges that for those opting out of the extras, sitting hungry in a cramped seat is somewhat offset by the proliferation of entertainment options now available during flights.
  8. Despite what we've been led to believe, there has been almost no decline in the inflation-adjusted passenger price per mile since airline deregulation was initiated in 1978. The great decline in price occurred before then due to the increasing size and efficiency of airliners. What people saw after 1978 was a wider variation in fares depending when you booked.

Since airlines are one of the most energy-intensive industries in the world, the question arises whether the reversing of progress in airline travel is related to energy prices. For fuel alone the percent of operating costs varied between 2004 and 2015 from a low of 17 percent in 2004 to a high of almost 37 percent in 2015.

Airlines struggled with high fuel prices from 2011 through 2014 when oil hovered around $100 per barrel consistently. Now that prices have dropped, the airlines are certainly enjoying higher profits. (See link above.) But their drive to raise prices and cram more passengers in each plane seems to have coincided with pressure from fuel costs.

Thus, high energy costs appear to have the ability to degrade or reverse progress in a key area of the economy. And, any reprieve from those high costs may be short if an analysis done by HSBC Global Research, the research arm of the huge multinational bank of the same name, is correct.

The point is that the notion that everything in our lives is getting better and better, faster and faster isn't borne out in reality. Gordon's book provides abundant examples. But the example of air travel seems particularly appropriate to ponder on this travel-filled holiday weekend.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Stock hedges, home insurance, and our misunderstanding of risk

"If you own stocks without a hedge, it's not rational." So says the world's most famous student of risk Nassim Nicholas Taleb in a recent interview with Bloomberg as many of the world's stock markets hover near all-time highs. "It's like buying a house without insurance," he explained. "We have tail risks today that we didn't have before, and every day it gets worse."

"Tail risks" refer to the possibility of unusual, rare, catastrophic events, often of a nature that cannot be anticipated or even imagined. Such events are frequently dubbed black swans, a term made famous by Taleb's book called The Black Swan.

So, what is the perceived difference between houses and stocks and what does that tell us about how we judge risks elsewhere in our lives and societies? First, houses. Houses are very expensive consumer items or investments or both, depending who is buying them and why. Taleb's point is that the value of a house will not track the market if the house burns down.

Every homeowner understands this and buys insurance. In fact, the bank requires insurance if the home has a mortgage. And, that's because, of course, homes don't rebuild themselves if they are destroyed.

The companies underlying stock listings, however, are not obliterated by a market crash. Of course, some companies may disappear if the crash is followed by an economic downturn; but the thousands of companies that make up the exchanges do not all evaporate.

Stocks have historically recovered after losses, even extreme losses. So, the hedging Taleb is suggesting is really about timing. Can an investor afford to wait for the rebound before having to cash in? If Taleb's concerns are borne out in the next few years, many near retirement or already retired may be answering this question.

(The history of stock markets reveals a mixed picture. Some rebounds to previous highs have occurred within months or years. Some have taken decades. The Japanese stock market has yet to revisit the peak of 1989 and currently stands at about half the level of that peak.)

With housing and stocks we have two different kinds of risk, both of which can be hedged so as to prevent a severe loss of net worth. Why do most people only hedge one, namely the home?

Now, most investors diversify their investments. They own some stocks, some bonds, some real estate and perhaps some other investment such as a business they control or an annuity. While diversification, if done properly, can reduce risk, it is not true hedge.

Hedges are designed to go up in value in inverse relation to the decline in value of the instruments they are hedging. Owning gold as a hedge against a stock market crash may or may not work. Gold is not a true hedge in this instance and in the last market crash, it plummeted along with stocks. Stock options that necessarily rise in value as stocks sink are a true hedge.

Of course, homeowners insurance does not insure us against a decline in real estate prices. It turns out that one can actually now hedge that risk with the appropriate financial instruments. But few people do that for their family homes. In fact, people rarely envision having to sell their homes for less than they bought them.

It is this one-way bias that links people's perceptions of both homes and stocks. It is almost inconceivable that any of us might be forced to accept catastrophic losses if only we can hang on long enough. What this view presupposes is that the future will look like the recent past (that is, the last century or so). It will be one of growth, growth, growth. Growth in population. Growth in economic output. Growth in financial wealth. Growth in the energy supplies needed to make all the other growth happen.

It would indeed be a black swan if growth failed to appear or was so stunted that few people obtained any benefits from it. (Has the second scenario already arrived?) But the twin crises of energy depletion and climate change make such a future ever more likely. These crises aren't hidden and they aren't cyclical. They are advancing in such a way that the risks of both are not staying neatly tucked under the "tails" of the bell-shaped distribution curve of possible outcomes. Our current actions make them inevitable.

Things could change. Human societies could revolutionize the way they live so as to avert disastrous climate change or fossil fuel depletion (that is, depletion without adequate alternative energy). But, it seems that such a revolution would be more akin to a black swan than any rendezvous with energy or climate Armageddon.

We've convinced ourselves as a world society that such outcomes are so unlikely that we are making what amount to token efforts to avert them. Renewable energy is being deployed rapidly, but not rapidly enough to replace the current fossil fuel infrastructure soon enough to prevent a climate catastrophe (and perhaps an energy insufficiency).

There is no insurance policy that will protect us against catastrophic climate change. We cannot get our habitable climate back on any time scale that matters to humans once it's gone. The insurance policy is us, that is, changes in our behavior and our technology done quickly enough to matter. There is no other hedge that will help us.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The trouble with infrastructure

The trouble with infrastructure is that it breaks down and needs to be repaired, it wears out and needs to be replaced, and it gets destroyed and needs to be rebuilt. All that requires energy, resources, labor and money.

Conceptually, here's the problem we face. The bigger we make any part of our infrastructure--roads, pipelines, electricity grids, water and sewer systems--the more expensive it becomes just to keep it in operating order. The same is true for our industrial plant, transportation system, commercial buildings and private homes. Things fall apart over time; entropy makes sure of that. To keep things from degrading to the point where they cannot function requires resources, labor and money--all of which cannot be spent on new infrastructure or productive investment, that is, all of which must go to maintain what we have rather than grow the economy.

The ancient Romans came face to face with this reality. Expansion of the empire had been paid for with booty seized from conquered populations. But once the expansion stopped, so did the booty. The Romans increasingly had to tax themselves in order to pay for large armies to protect the now very long border and for the necessary improvements in roads and other infrastructure to maintain their administrative and military presence throughout the empire.

It didn't last. Eventually, the Romans had to pull back. They had to shrink the empire.

Today, we don't think so much in terms of territory as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) when evaluating our material progress as nations. It turns out that one of the ways to keep the GDP growing is to skimp on maintenance.

In the United States, water systems have been a good place to skimp. After all, much of that infrastructure is underground or at sites remote from the cities it serves. Few will notice. Here's what the experts are saying about the silent degradation of America's water infrastructure:

Estimates of current investments in water infrastructure indicate that the backlog of deferred investments is increasing and renewal cycles are close to 200 years across the range of utility sizes. Resistance to rate increases combined with lack of appreciation of the buildup of renewal needs reinforces the need for effective business cases for pipe renewal. Based on these and other evaluations, it appears that a substantial gap exists between current expenditures on water main renewal and the investment levels needed to sustain system integrity. (emphasis added)

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has given near failing grades to the American infrastructure. In a report the ASCE describes the problems with the drinking water infrastructure this way:

Drinking water is delivered via one million miles of pipes across the country. Many of those pipes were laid in the early to mid-20th century with a lifespan of 75 to 100 years....While water consumption is down, there are still an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States, wasting over two trillion gallons of treated drinking water.

But drinking water is just one example. A friend alerted me to recent train derailments at New York City's Pennsylvania Station. The derailments caused enough damage to curtail train service for days. The problem is a 100-year-old infrastructure not built for the increasing demands put upon it. The governors of New York and New Jersey want Amtrak replaced as the station's operator.

It's no wonder that the perennially underfunded Amtrak is having trouble keeping up with needed maintenance. But putting someone else in charge doesn't solve the problem of skimping on maintenance unless there is extra money. So, will the governors provide it?

Then there is America's oil and gas pipeline infrastructure. Most of those pipelines are more than 50 years old. We seem willing to pay for rapid expansion of this system as is evidenced by 125,000 miles of new pipeline built since 2010 to accommodate the oil and gas drilling boom in the country.

But maintaining that infrastructure is just a drag on profits--until the consequences become so big that the clean-up and repair costs dwarf the phantom returns which deferred maintenance makes possible.

To be fair pipeline operators don't want leaks or breakdowns. But neither do they want to spend more than they have to to maintain their systems. Who decides how much that should be is a problem regulators and companies are going to be hashing out as pipeline accidents continue to make the news.

All of this brings us back to the conceptual framework I presented at the onset of this piece. Here I turn to the much maligned and much misunderstood project called Limits to Growth. Limits to Growth, of course, refers to modeling of the trajectory of worldwide economic growth in the early 1970s and updated twice since then as detailed in three separate books.

The most frequent outcome of that modeling is the collapse of industrial society starting somewhere in the middle of this century. A common misunderstanding of that model is that collapse is the result of "running out" of resources. But a close reading of Limits to Growth produces a more nuanced and troubling answer.

It is the lack of capital needed to grow which produces the limits referred to in Limits to Growth. We will end up spending so much just to maintain our continually bloating infrastructure (in the broadest meaning of that word), to extract the needed natural resources to do that, and to fight the effects of pollution (through, for example, water and sewage treatment) and now climate change (through, for example, the building and maintenance of seawalls), that we won't have anything left over for investment. When that happens, growth stops. Eventually, the economy shrinks as poorly maintained infrastructure become less productive. This is a collapse, but perhaps not a rapid one.

Infrastructure investment is lauded as the gift that keeps on giving. And, long-lived public and private infrastructure can and does increase economic productivity. But infrastructure can also become the leech that keeps on sucking when it becomes overly large and when we choose temporary economic pain relief and stimulants over the true medicine of forging a new trajectory for our infrastructure which requires deference to the limits we face.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Taking a short break - no post this week

An exceptionally heavy consulting and writing workload has forced me to take a short break from posting. I expect to post again on Sunday, May 14.