American Elephants

The Most Persistent Economic Fallacy of All Time by The Elephant's Child

Milton Friedman, lecture in Erie PA 1978

We are troubled by economic fallacies that seem so reasonable, yet just don’t work. Milton Friedman was wonderful at explaining with great good humor just why they are fallacy. Thank goodness so many of his lessons have been preserved.

The Polar Bears Are Just Fine! by The Elephant's Child


Biologist Susan Crockford gives us ten good reasons not to worry about polar bears.

1. Polar bears are a conservation success story. Their numbers have rebounded remarkable since 1973, and there are more polar bears now than there were 40 years ago. Polar bears join a long list of marine mammals whose populations rebounded spectacularly after unregulated hunting stopped: sea otters, all eight species of fur seals, walrus, elephant seals, whales (grey, right, bowhead, humpback, sei, fin, blue and sperm whales.

2. The only polar bear subpopulation that had a statistically significant decline in recent years is the one in Western Hudson Bay. A few others have been presumed to be decreasing based on suspicions of overharvesting, assumed  repercussions of decreased sea ice and/or statistically insignificant declines in body condition— not actual population declines.

Figure 1. A map of the 19 polar bear subpopulations (courtesy the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), with a few additional labels).

3. Sea ice in the Bering Sea has rebounded from record lows over the last ten years, a good reason not to be worried about polar bears in the Chukchi.  A recent survey suggests that Chukchi bears are doing very well. Sea ice coverage has been higher than average.

4. A survey by the Nunavut government in 2011 showed polar bear numbers in Western Hudson Bay have not declined since 2004 as predicted and all available evidence indicates that Hudson Bay sea ice is Not on a steadily precipitous decline.

5. Population decreases in bear numbers attributed to earlier sea ice breakup in Western Hudson Bay have not been anywhere near as severe as the catastrophic decline that took place in 1974 in the eastern Beaufort Sea, which was associated with exceptionally thick sea ice.

6. Polar bears need spring and early summer ice (March through June) for gorging on young, fat seals. Documented declines in sea ice have rarely impinged on that critical feeding period.

7. There is no plausible evidence that regulated subsistence hunting is causing polar bear numbers to decline.

8. Global temperatures have not risen in a statistically-significant way in the last 16 years, a standstill not predicted by climate models, and a phenomenon even the chairman of the IPCC has acknowledged. This suggests that the record sea ice lows of recent years are not primarily due to CO2-caused increases in global temperatures. Such changes in Arctic sea ice appear to be normal habitat variations that polar bears have survived before.

9. Survival of polar bears over a hundred thousand years of variable sea ice coverage indicates that biologists who predict a doomed future for the bears have grossly underestimated its ability to survive vastly different conditions than those that existed in the late 1970s when Ian Stirling began polar bear research.

10. Polar bears are well-distributed throughout their available territory, which is a recognized characteristic of a healthy species.

Polar bears have evolved into a highly efficient predator of ice-associated seals. They are excellent swimmers compared with other bear species, the use the sea ice to travel, hunt, mate and rest. They have adapted to the annual loss of sea ice in the summer by migrating onto land. While there, they cannot hunt seals and must rely on their fat reserves to see them through until the ice returns. Though I assume they eat fish and berries.

Polar bears can swim for long distances (60 miles or more). Arctic sea ice grows in the winter and melts in the summer. Polar bear science is surprisingly new, and there is much that we don’t know about the species yet. Counting them is hard and inaccurate.Female bears have been tagged, but you can’t collar male bears as their necks are bigger than their heads.

The bears are very beautiful, and the cubs cute as can be, which is probably why environmentalists got all panicky about declining numbers. In general many  supposedly endangered species turn out not to be endangered. Many times declining numbers are due to unregulated hunting or uncontrolled predators. Preservation of species is complicated,  and we’re just beginning to get the hang of it. This is derived from a much longer and more informative post at Anthony Watts’ wonderful What’s Up With That website, which explains sea ice and  what we know about bears and climate.



Obama’s High Speed Rail Boondoggle by The Elephant's Child

When Barack Obama was elected to office, he seems to have been little interested in fixing problems, but rather in the really big accomplishments that would crown his presidency. Health care, such as it is, was one. Another was a network of high speed railroads connecting America’s major cities. It is apparent how little Obama was interested in the financial crisis that was wreaking havoc on the economy. That was Bush’s fault, and Obama was irritated to have to devote energy to cope with it.

Die-hard Keynesians don’t care how government spends money to boost the economy as long as it gets spent. With the stimulus, it was assumed that was taken care of, and the government could get on with more important things.


Here is Obama’s vision, a 1970’s era technological marvel on which we would spend all sorts of money, curing the economy in Keynesian fashion, and creating a suitable monument to the Obama presidency in the process.  Not going to happen.

Florida’s Governor Rick Scott said that the only thing high-speed about what Obama envisioned for his state was the guaranteed rate of cost overruns that Florida would be stuck with. So, he declined. We’re now down to two corridors, the obvious Northeast one where anything beyond the slow pace of highways can be considered progress, and California.

California is the nation’s most populous state, where people have shown not the slightest interest in abandoning their cars. There are 22.7 million licensed drivers in California, but 32 million motor vehicles. Jay Leno accounts for some of the extras, but not all. I have lived in Los Angeles, and you can drive for nearly three hours in any one direction without leaving the city. That’s spread out. The original estimated cost was around $45 billion, but without a foot of track being built, the estimate is already up around $100 billion. They also estimated that about 10,000 people would ride the high-speed railroad between Fresno and Bakersfield every twenty-four hours.

Railroad enthusiasts boasted that the trains would go upwards of 200 miles an hour, which is half the speed of airline jets that travel the same transportation corridor, departing every few minutes from a number of airports at both ends of the state.

Here in Washington state, we got $800 million from the federal government to improve the track between Seattle and Portland. It has shortened the trip by 10 minutes. You can go cheaper and faster by Greyhound. The “high-speed”varies between 50 mph to 79 mph. It is my understanding that you cannot have a high speed train that operates at high speeds and a regular-speed freight train on the same track, but I’m not sure of that.

We are currently awaiting the enjoyment of having much of our streets torn up to accommodate light rail, which was vote in by large numbers of people who had no expectation of ever riding it themselves but thought it would be nice for the others. It’s gone to court over routing, but blasting through a well settled neighborhood too close to existing houses, won out over using a recently abandoned railroad grade that stands empty and does not affect existing neighborhoods.

The usual plaintive cry is something about “Don’t you want a twenty-first Century city?”

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