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An unwinnable arms race

It seems that we Americans are engaged in an arms race with our own government. Bozeman is the latest to join in, with its recent acquisition of an armored vehicle:

armoredArms races are an instance of the escalation archetype, where generally the only winning strategy is not to play, but it’s particularly foolish to run an arms race against ourselves.

Here’s how it works:
The police (left) and citizens (right) each have stocks of weapons and associated skills and attitudes. Each “side” adjusts those stocks toward a desired level, which is set by various signals.

Citizens, for example, see media coverage of school shootings and less spectacular events, and arm themselves against their fellow citizens and against the eventuality of totalitarian government. A side effect of this is that, as the general availability of weapons increases, the frequency and scale of violent conflict increases, all else equal. This in itself reinforces the citizen perception of the need to arm.

The government (i.e. the police) respond to the escalation of violent conflict in their own locally rational way as well. They acquire heavy weapons and train tactical teams. But this has a number of side effects that further escalate conflict. Spending and training on paramilitary approaches necessarily comes at the expense of non-violent policing methods.

Lester said he’s concerned about the potential overuse of such commanding vehicles among some police departments, a common criticism in the wake of the Ferguson protests.“When you bring that to the scene,” he said, “you bring an attitude that’s not necessarily needed.”

Accidents happen, and the mere availability of heavy armor encourages overkill, as we saw in Ferguson. And police departments are not immune to keeping up with the Joneses:

“For a community our size, we’re one of the last communities that does not have an armored rescue vehicle,” he said.

This structure is a nest of reinforcing feedback loops – I haven’t labeled them, because every loop above is positive, except the two inner loops in the acquisition/militarization stock control processes.

Strangely, this is happening at a time in which violent crime rates are trending down. This means that the driver of escalation must be more about perceptions and fear of potential harm than about actual shooting incidents.

Carrying the escalation to its conclusion, one of two things has to happen. The police win, and we have a totalitarian state. Or, the citizens win, and we have stateless anarchy. Neither outcome is really a “win.”

The alternative is to reverse the escalation, and make the reinforcing loops virtuous rather than vicious cycles. This is harder than it should be, because there’s a third party involved, that profits from escalation (red):
Arms makers generate revenue from weapon sales and service, and reinvest that in marketing, to increase both parties desired weapons, and in lobbying to preserve the legality of assault weapons and fund the grant programs that enable small towns to have free armor.
Fortunately, there is a remedy. Voters can (at least indirectly) fire the Bozeman officials who “forgot” to run the armored vehicle acquisition through any public process, and defund the Homeland (In)Security programs that bring heavy weapons to our doorsteps.

The difficult pill to swallow is that, for this to work, citizens have to de-escalate too. Reinstating the assault weapons ban is messy, and perhaps ineffective given the large stock of weapons now widely distributed. Maybe the first change should be cultural: recognizing that arming oneself to the teeth is a fear-driven antisocial response to our situation, and that ballots are a better solution than bullets.

Where’s my stuff?

I’ve just acquired a pair of 18″ Dell XPS portable desktop tablets. It’s one slick piece of hardware, that makes my iPad seem about as sexy as a beer coaster.

They came with Win8 installed. Now I know why everyone hates it. It makes a good first impression with pretty colors and a simple layout. But after a few minutes, you wonder, where’s all my stuff? There’s no obvious way to run a desktop application, so you end up scouring the web for ways to resurrect the Start menu.

It’s bizarre that Microsoft seems to have forgotten the dynamics that made it a powerhouse in the first place. It’s basically this:

Software is a big nest of positive feedbacks, producing winner-take-all behavior. A few key loops are above. The bottom pair is the classic Bass diffusion model – reinforcing feedback from word of mouth, and balancing feedback from saturation (running out of potential customers). The top loop is an aspect of complementary infrastructure – the more users you have on your platform, the more attractive it is to build apps for it; the more apps there are, the more users you get.

There are lots of similar loops involving accumulation of knowledge, standards, etc. More importantly, this is not a one-player system; there are multiple platforms competing for users, each with its own reinforcing loops. That makes this a success-to-the-successful situation. Microsoft gained huge advantage from these reinforcing loops early in the PC game. Being the first to acquire a huge base of users and applications carried it through many situations in which its tech was not the most exciting thing out there.

So, if you’re Microsoft, and Apple throws you a curve ball by launching a new, wildly successful platform, what should you do? It seems to me that the first imperative should be to preserve the advantages conferred by your gigantic user and application base.

Win8 does exactly the opposite of that:

  • Hiding the Start menu means that users have to struggle to find their familiar stuff, effectively chucking out a vast resource, in favor of new apps that are slicker, but pathetically few in number.
  • That, plus other decisions, enrage committed users and cause them to consider switching platforms, when a smoother transition would have them comfortably loyal.

This strategy seems totally bonkers.

The Beer-TV loop

We recently discovered – after 8 years without TV – that we actually can get reception. We watched a bit of the Olympics. My sons were amused and amazed by the ads, which they otherwise seldom see.

That led them to postulate the beer-TV feedback loop, which is a self-reinforcing descent into ignorance and drunken sloth: TV watching -> + beer ad viewing -> + beer drinking -> – cognitive capacity, motivation -> TV watching.

The loop makes a cameo appearance in this CLD we dreamed up during a conversation about education, skill and motivation:

TV beer LoopIt’s a good thing we don’t get Fox, or they’d probably have a lot more to say.

Why ask why?

Forward causal inference and reverse causal questions

Andrew Gelman & Guido Imbens

The statistical and econometrics literature on causality is more focused on effects of causes” than on causes of effects.” That is, in the standard approach it is natural to study the effect of a treatment, but it is not in general possible to determine the causes of any particular outcome. This has led some researchers to dismiss the search for causes as “cocktail party chatter” that is outside the realm of science. We argue here that the search for causes can be understood within traditional statistical frameworks as a part of model checking and hypothesis generation. We argue that it can make sense to ask questions about the causes of effects, but the answers to these questions will be in terms of effects of causes.

I haven’t had a chance to digest this yet, but it’s an interesting topic. It’s particularly relevant to system dynamics modeling, where we are seldom seeking only y = f(x), but rather an endogenous theory where x = g(y) also.

See also: Causality in Nonlinear Systems

h/t Peter Christiansen.

Greenwash labeling

I like green labeling, but I’m not convinced that, by itself,  it’s theoretically a viable way to get the economy to a good environmental endpoint. In practice, it’s probably even worse. Consider Energy Star. It’s supposed to be “helping us all save money and protect the environment through energy efficient products and practices.” The reality is that it gives low-quality information a veneer of authenticity, misleading consumers. I have no doubt that it has some benefits, especially through technology forcing, but it’s soooo much less than it could be.

The fundamental signal Energy Star sends is flawed. Because it categorizes appliances by size and type, a hog gets a star as long as it’s also big and of less-efficient design (like a side-by-side refrigerator/freezer). Here’s the size-energy relationship of the federal energy performance standard (which Energy Star fridges must exceed by 20%):


Notice that the standard for a 20 cubic foot fridge is anywhere from 470 to 660 kWh/year.

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Kerry-Lieberman “American Power Act” leaked

I think it’s a second-best policy, but perhaps the most we can hope for, and better than nothing.

Climate Progress has a first analysis and links to the leaked draft legislation outline and short summary of the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act. [Update: there's now a

This is not much different from ACES or CLEAR, and like them it’s backwards. Emissions reductions are back-loaded. The rate of reduction (green dots) from 2030 to 2050, 6.1%/year, is hardly plausible without massive retrofit or abandonment of existing capital (or negative economic growth). Given that the easiest reductions are likely to be the first, not the last, more aggressive action should be happening up front. (Actually there are a multitude of reasons for front-loading reductions as much as reasonable price stability allows).

There’s also a price collar:

Kerry Lieberman Price

These mechanisms provide a predictable price corridor, with the expected prices of the EPA Waxman-Markey analysis (dashed green) running right up the middle. The silly strategic reserve is gone. Still, I think this arrangement is backwards, in a different sense from the target. The right way to manage the uncertainty in the long run emissions trajectory needed to stabilize climate without triggering short run economic dislocation is with a mechanism that yields stable prices over the short to medium term, while providing for adaptive adjustment of the long term price trajectory to achieve emissions stability. A cap and trade with no safety valve is essentially the opposite of that: short run volatility with long run rigidity, and therefore a poor choice. The price collar bounds the short term volatility to 2:1 (early) to 4:1 (late) price movements, but it doesn’t do anything to provide for adaptation of the emissions target or price collar if emissions reductions turn out to be unexpectedly hard, easy, important, etc. It’s likely that the target and collar will be regarded as property rights and hard to change later in the game.

I think we should expect the unexpected. My personal guess is that the EPA allowance price estimates are way too low. In that case, we’ll find ourselves stuck on the price ceiling, with targets unmet. 83% reductions in emissions at an emissions price corresponding with under $1/gallon for fuel just strike me as unlikely, unless we’re very lucky technologically. My preference would be an adaptive carbon price, starting at a substantially higher level (high enough to prevent investment in new carbon intensive capital, but not so high initially as to strand those assets – maybe $50/TonCO2). By default, the price should rise at some modest rate, with an explicit adjustment process taking place at longish intervals so that new information can be incorporated. Essentially the goal is to implement feedback control that stabilizes long term climate without short term volatility (as here or here and here).

Some other gut reactions:


  • Clean energy R&D funding.
  • Allowance distribution by auction.
  • Border adjustments (I can only find these in the summary, not the draft outline).


  • More subsidies, guarantees and other support for nuclear power plants. Why not let the first round play out first? Is this really a good use of resources or a level playing field?
  • Subsidized CCS deployment. There are good reasons for subsidizing R&D, but deployment should be primarily motivated by the economic incentive of the emissions price.
  • Other deployment incentives. Let the price do the work!
  • Rebates through utilities. There’s good evidence that total bills are more salient to consumers than marginal costs, so this at least partially defeats the price signal. At least it’s temporary (though transient measures have a way of becoming entitlements).


  • Preemption of state cap & trade schemes. Sorry, RGGI, AB32, and WCI. This probably has to happen.
  • Green jobs claims. In the long run, employment is controlled by a bunch of negative feedback loops, so it’s not likely to change a lot. The current effects of the housing bust/financial crisis and eventual effects of big twin deficits are likely to overwhelm any climate policy signal. The real issue is how to create wealth without borrowing it from the future (e.g., by filling up the atmospheric bathtub with GHGs) and sustaining vulnerability to oil shocks, and on that score this is a good move.
  • State preemption of offshore oil leasing within 75 miles of its shoreline. Is this anything more than an illusion of protection?
  • Banking, borrowing and offsets allowed.


  • Performance standards for coal plants.
  • Transportation efficiency measures.
  • Industry rebates to prevent leakage (does this defeat the price signal?).

Back in Business

I’ve been offline for a few weeks because something broke during a host upgrade, and I’ve been too dang busy to fix it. Apologies to anyone whose comment disappeared.

Most of those busy weeks were devoted to model verification prior to the rollout the C-ROADS beta in Barcelona (check the CI blog for details). Everything happens at once, so naturally that coincided with proposals for models supporting a state climate action plan and energy technology portfolio assessment. Next stop: COP-15.