Sunday, May 24, 2015

Is human flourishing inconsistent with living in harmony with nature?

A view of Sydney in 2014

I like many of the ideas in the Ecomodernist Manifesto, but I don’t like the idea of having to choose between making room for nature and living in harmony with nature. Before discussing this issue I will provide some background.

The Manifesto, published in April of this year, has 18 authors of whom the best known are probably Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthough Institute.

The Ecomodernists begin with the proposition that the earth has entered into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, or age of humans. That provides the backdrop for consideration of the interaction between human flourishing and the natural environment.

Many environmentalists assert that a good Anthropocene is not consistent with the ongoing expansion of opportunities for human flourishing which economic growth provides. By contrast, the authors of the Manifesto are optimistic that the Anthropocene can offer expanding opportunities for humans, as well as protecting the natural environment, if knowledge and technology are applied with wisdom.

I endorse this proposition:
“A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.”

My problem is with what follows immediately after:
“In this we affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.
These two ideals can no longer be reconciled”.

I don’t see any necessary conflict between the two ideals. It seems to me that the ideal of harmonizing with nature means that we should seek to live in harmony with the natural laws of the world in which we live. That means accepting that humans are in many respects like other animals and have deep emotional connections to the natural environment and other living things. These emotional connections are explicitly recognized in Chapter 5 of the Manifesto.

That suggests to me that the problem is just definitional. Nevertheless, it is hard to understand why the authors of the Manifesto would risk losing support by asking people to make an unnecessary choice between ideals.

What is the real choice that the authors want us to make?  When they object to the ideal of human societies harmonizing with “nature”, it seems that what they are referring to are natural systems - the part of the natural environment that has not yet been significantly modified by human activity. 

The authors argue:
“Natural systems will not, as a general rule, be protected or enhanced by the expansion of humankind’s dependence upon them for sustenance and well-being.
Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts. These socioeconomic and technological processes are central to economic modernization and environmental protection. Together they allow people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature, and to alleviate global poverty”.

The real choice the authors want us to make is between intensifying human activities in particular regions and allowing them to spread in ways that would be detrimental to the natural environment.

The idea of decoupling human development from environmental impacts seems to me to make a great deal of sense as a broad generalization. I expect that governments will encounter difficulties in implementing such a strategy sensibly, but outcomes are likely to be worse if they do not try. One of the difficulties that is likely to stand in the way of implementation in some areas is the need to recognize the rights of indigenous people to use the natural resources they own. Another difficulty is the tendency of over-zealous supporters of wilderness to oppose the eco-tourism which is likely to be necessary to maintain broad political support for protection of wilderness areas. In some areas the involvement of indigenous people in eco-tourism is helping to meet the twin objectives of improving their economic opportunities and enlisting their support for greater environmental protection.



It seems to me to be particularly important for human well-being that attempts to decouple human development from environmental impacts does not occur at the expense of the ideal of living in harmony with nature in areas of intense human activity. The emotional needs that humans have for connection with the natural environment and other living things are unlikely to be satisfied by observing nature on TV and a once-in-a-lifetime visit to a wilderness area.  

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Is Bitcoin better than gold?

When suggestions have been made to me in the past that I should write about Bitcoin, I have expressed reluctance on the grounds that I don’t know much about it. Some would say, however, that is also true of some other things I write about on this blog.

Time seems to be running out for me to write about Bitcoin while the topic is still interesting. I keep reading news reports suggesting that Bitcoin is rapidly becoming respectable. Apparently New York State’s top financial regulator has just granted the first license to a Bitcoin exchange. A couple of weeks ago it was reported that Goldman Sachs is making a significant investment in a Bitcoin-focused company.

Anyone looking for a simple explanation of what Bitcoin is and how it works can find a fair amount of information online without much difficulty. The Economist attempted to provide an explanation a couple of years ago, but I found an explanation aimed at five year olds to be more helpful. A couple of months ago Nicolas Dorier referred me to the excellent explanation which Andreas Antonopoulos provided to a committee of the Canadian Senate in October 2014. Mr Antonopoulos also appeared before a committee of the Australian Senate and responded admirably to concerns about use of Bitcoin for nefarious purposes such as funding of drug trafficking and terrorism. He also argued strongly that incumbents in the finance industry should not be allowed to dictate government regulations applying to Bitcoin.

Should we view Bitcoin as money? In order to look at this question it is necessary to consider three functions of money: a unit of account; medium of exchange and store of value. Some economists, including Scott Sumner, argue that the unit of account function is the distinguishing characteristic of money from an economic perspective, and I am inclined to agree. Bitcoin is not widely accepted as a unit of account at the moment - it certainly does not seem likely to displace national currencies in that role in the near future.

However, Bitcoin seems to be proving itself to be very useful as a medium of exchange in international transactions. It is particularly pleasing to see reports of Bitcoin being used to enable guest workers from countries such as the Philippines to send remittances home to their families for a much lower price than is charged by firms such as Western Union. Further innovations are occurring in this area. For example, it has been recently reported that an Australian company, Digital CC, has set out to become the Uber of international transfers by developing a peer-to-peer transacting technology to allow remittance payments to be made via a mobile app.

There is no question that Bitcoin is much better than gold as a medium of exchange, because gold is expensive to store and transport.

It is when we consider the potential for Bitcoin as a store of value that the question of whether Bitcoin is superior to gold becomes harder to decide. A glance at the charts below might suggest that investors in Bitcoin are being optimistic if they think it will soon be accepted as a reliable store of value.




How much attention we should pay to past volatility in the price of Bitcoin in thinking about its potential as a store of value in the future?

The author of an article in Fortune, entitled ‘Gold vs. bitcoin: An apocalyptic showdown’, has suggested:
“Of course, as a new technology, bitcoin is subject to much more volatility than gold. But over the long run, given the fact that no new bitcoins will be mined after the 21-millionth, we can expect it to ultimately serve as a better store of value than gold”.


I feel inclined to agree. However, the more difficult question for me is whether to put my money where my mouth is

Postscript:
Nicolas Dorier has provided the following response:

"There is nothing to to fear about Bitcoin, but like owning gold, if your lose the map where you buried it, you lose everything. So one should be confident in his ability to protect the map. To learn how to do so, one should start training by protecting some pocket money first before burying his treasure.

First, start small, and consider it a learning experiment rather than an investment. Bitcoin is relatively new, and the tools and ecosystem are not as user friendly as they will become. The learning curve might be a little steep. Owning Bitcoin means being responsible for your money, and most people are not responsible of their own computer.

So be careful, you can always try to buy a few (for 10-50 dollars), and play with it by trying to buy stuff, transfer them between addresses, backup them on paper etc, restore them etc. This stuff was easy to learn for me as I am a developer. But it is not for most people. 

Second, never let your bitcoin on fiat/bitcoin exchanges once you bought. You don't own bitcoins if you don't own the private key. Any balance you see on exchanges are just IOU, not bitcoins.

By playing with it you will learn little by little all what you can do with it that you can't with traditional fiat currencies, and all the business opportunities that it opens. But don't rush it, start playing with it first.

Bitcoin is also an hedge against monetary mismanagement and financial oppression, a typical example right now is Argentina.
The value of Bitcoin increases when governments take measures to restrict the movement of other forms of money. As they do everything to restrict it, it forces people to use bitcoin. Not because they believe or use it as store of value, but because, it is easier to transact. (It is for this reason that Bitcoin came to be used first in black markets.)

As the failure of our central banks becomes more and more obvious, they will start to impose capital controls. (War on cash, that you start to see happening everywhere). This is mainly what will ultimately drive the value of Bitcoin."

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Should self-funded retirees be concerned that interest rates on term deposits have declined?

Some readers will wonder why I am bothering to ask this question. It appears to be fairly obvious that people who are relying on interest on term deposits to fund their retirement must have greater difficult in surviving without drawing upon their capital when interest rates are as low as they are now.

However, it is by no means clear that the relevant interest rate is lower now than it has been over most of the last 15 years or so.

So, what is the relevant interest rate? First, nominal interest rates should be adjusted for taxation since the interest income that people are able to spend is the amount left after tax has been paid.

Second, it is also necessary to take inflation into account in the calculation. Inflation tends to deplete the purchasing power of the amount deposited, so some part of the after-tax interest has to be saved in order to prevent the real value of the nest egg from being depleted. Retirees who do not take inflation into account in their calculations are suffering from money illusion - an affliction that enables them to spend their children’s inheritances without feeling any guilt until they realize how much the real value of those sums have depleted.

So, if a retiree is intent on preserving the real value of her capital, the amount of interest income available to be spent is real after-tax interest. You might well ask why a retiree would want to preserve the real value of her capital. That is a very good question. If she has saved the funds to spend during retirement, it does not make any sense for her to be obsessed with the idea of living on interest and preserving capital. The important point is that awareness of the real after-tax interest rate might help her to avoid depleting the real value of her savings more rapidly than she intended.

The chart below shows trends in Australian interest rates on one year bank term deposits, after-tax interest rates on those deposits assuming a marginal tax rate of 30%, and real after-tax interest rates (deducting the CPI inflation rate for the previous 12 months). The data used in the chart is sourced from the Reserve Bank of Australia.



From the chart it looks to me as though it is about 15 years since retirees have been able to spend any of their interest income from term deposits without depleting the real value of their savings. 

It is easy enough to understand that some elderly people might suffer from money illusion and consider it to be sinful to deviate from time-honoured prudential rules about living off nominal interest. One would hope that professionals in the investment advice industry would encourage such people to modify their views somewhat to take account of tax and inflation.

However, some senior people in the investment advice industry have been encouraging the view that low interest rates have reduced the real spending power of retirees. For example, Jeremy Cooper, chairman of retirement income at Challenger Ltd, and the man who chaired the 2010 review of the superannuation system, has been reported in The Australian as saying:
 “Back when bank deposit rates were around 6 and 7 per cent there was no great problem with self-funded retirees relying on bank interest”.

In the same article, Jeff Rogers, chief investment officer of IPAC funds at AMP Capital, made a similar point. He is reported as saying bank deposit rates “will now adjust to just below 3 per cent, so with core inflation at around 2.4 per cent your real spending power is very small” in a self-funded retirement and warns that even if interest rates do start moving up again, “they won’t be going back up any time soon to the level that provided bank interest of 6 to 7 per cent’’. (Article by Andrew Main, ‘Risk rules for retirees reliant on bank interest’, May 6, 2015.)


It looks to me as though the after-tax real rate was close to zero when bank deposit rates were around 6 or 7 per cent, just as it is now.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Why are old Americans more satisfied with their lives than are old Europeans?

The latest WorldHappiness Report (2015) contains an interesting chapter examining how happiness varies around the world by gender and age. The chapter was written by Nicole Fortin, John Helliwell and Shun Wang.

What would you expect those comparisons to show? I guess many people would expect that, on average, women would be less happy than men because in most of the world the opportunities available to females are still less favourable than those available to males.

The data doesn’t actually show that. When people are asked to rate their lives relative to the best possible and worst possible life (i.e. using the so called Cantril ladder) the world averages show that until they are about 50, women tend to rate their lives more highly than men. Perhaps women are more inclined to look on the bright side of life.

In any event, differences between the happiness of women and men are much less marked than differences between young and old people. On average, happiness tends to decline to about age 40 - a few years later for men than women - and then to stay relatively flat.

That finding was a surprise to me. I was given the impression from research I had read about that happiness was U-shaped over the life cycle. When I looked for more recent literature, just now, I found an article by Paul Frijters and TonyBeatton, published in 2012, based on panel data for Germany, Britain and Australia, which suggests the dominant age-effect is a strong happiness increase around the age of 60, followed by a major decline after 75. So I should have had an open mind about what to expect.

The data in the World Happiness Report shows a great deal of variation in the relationship between age and happiness in different parts of the world. Happiness does not vary much with age in South-East Asia, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Happiness declines sharply with age in CEE&CIS region (former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Central Europe) and less sharply with age in Latin America, Middle East and North Africa and Western Europe. The only regions with the U-shape are East Asia and NA&ANZ (North America, Australia and New Zealand).

It does not surprise me that there is a different relationship between happiness and age in high and low income countries, but I did not expect to see the different patterns in Western Europe and NA&ANZ which are shown below (based on Figure 3.2 of the World Happiness Report 2015).The NA&ANZ data are dominated by America (regional averages are calculated using population weights) so I am seeking an explanation of why old Americans are relatively more satisfied with their lives than old Europeans.



The different pattern between America and Europe also showed up in survey respondents’ reports of some positive emotions experienced the preceding day: smiling and laughing a lot; enjoyment; and learning or doing something interesting. The survey data also shows that older women in Western Europe report experiencing greater sadness, physical pain and depression than do men of comparable age in that part of the world, or people of either gender in America.

A hint about the possible causes of the difference in patterns between America and Europe is given by looking at the determinants of life satisfaction, as indicated in the regression analyses undertaken for the report. Those determinants are income, health, generosity, corruption, freedom of choice and social report.

An inspection of the graphs showing how those variables differ according to the age of respondent suggests that the main area of difference is in respect of perceptions of social support. What this means is that, on average, older people in Western Europe perceive that they are less able to count on relatives and friends for support when they need it than are older people in North America.


It is interesting to speculate about the reasons why old people in Western Europe are less likely to feel that they can count on relatives and friends in times of need. The thought that passes my mind is that the reasons might have something to do with the nature of the welfare states of Western Europe, but that might just reflect my prejudices.