Monday, July 16, 2018

Electronic cigarettes and harm reduction: How the UK held off regulation that could have killed a life-saving technology

By Matt Ridley. Excerpts:
"Britain is the world leader in vaping. More people use ecigarettes in the UK than in any other European country. It’s more officially encouraged than in the United States and more socially acceptable than in Australia, where it’s still banned. There is a thriving sector here of vape manufacturers, retailers, exporters, even researchers; there are 1,700 independent vape shops on Britain’s streets. It’s an entrepreneurial phenomenon and a billion-pound industry.

The British vaping revolution dismays some people, who see it as a return to social acceptability for something that looks like smoking with unknown risks. Yet here, more than anywhere in the world, the government disagrees. Public Health England says that vaping is 95% safer than smoking and the vast majority of people who vape are smokers who are partly or wholly quitting cigarettes. The Royal College of Physicians agrees: “The public can be reassured that ecigarettes are much safer than smoking.”

Lots of doctors are now recommending vaping as a way of quitting smoking. It is because of vaping that Britain now has the second lowest percentage of people who smoke in the European Union. The youth smoking rate in the UK has fallen from 26% to 19% in only six years."

The UK decided not to ban vaping

"The market did the rest. Entrepreneurs ranging from nightclub owners to former RAF pilots were already sniffing the opportunity to make and sell the devices. Experimental designs proliferated in Britain as nowhere else. As so often with innovators, all they needed was nobody getting in their way. They knew from the start that their target market was smokers desperate to quit, but who found gums, patches, acupuncture and hectoring did not work very well.

Professor Gerry Stimson of Imperial College, an expert on harm reduction, points out that it’s much easier to persuade people to do something if it is enjoyable rather than a painful chore: “For those trying to stop smoking, ecigarettes have profoundly changed the experience. For the first time, quitting cigarettes is no longer associated with being a ‘patient’ and with personal struggle.”"

"That vaping was far cheaper than smoking was a key incentive. Today, Britain has more than twice as high a vaping rate as the rest of the European Union: 5% versus 2%."
  • 2.9 million The number of ecigarette users in the UK (of these, 1.5m have completely quit smoking cigarettes)
  • £400 Amount the average smoker in Britain spends every three months on cigarettes
  • £190 Amount the average ecig user in Britain spends every three months (if buying from supermarkets)
  • 95% How much safer vaping is than smoking, according to Public Health England
"True, nicotine is addictive, but so is caffeine, another anti-pest chemical produced by plants that has psychoactive effects, but is ingested by people in a less risky form than smoke. Smoking’s health risk comes not from nicotine, but from the chemicals created in the flame.

So giving smokers nicotine without giving them any smoke just has to be safer. In 2016, a series of key scientific papers from the lab of Dr Grant O’Connell, a scientist working for the ecigarette manufacturer Fontem Ventures, reported that smokers confined in a clinic for five days who switched to ecigarettes got the same amount of nicotine but much less exposure to the harmful toxicants known to cause smoking-associated disease risks, such as nitrosamine and carbon monoxide. After five days, the levels of harmful toxicants measured in their blood and urine was like that of smokers who went cold turkey over the same time. The subjects also had improvements to lung and heart function.

This year the team published one of the first long-term clinical studies, which monitored 209 smokers who used ecigarettes for two years. It found no evidence of any safety concerns or serious health complications in smokers after two years of continual ecigarette use."

"For vaping to be beneficial, it does not have to be harmless. Surveys suggest 98% of vapers are smokers, so even if vaping carries a moderate risk, so long as it is less than the risk of smoking, there will be harm reduction."

"Opponents of vaping still worry it is a gateway into smoking, fearing the young are being lured into nicotine addiction by vaping before moving on to smoking. Clive Bates, a former civil servant and campaigner for progressive causes, lambasts the gateway argument as patronising: “Kids have been weaponised in an activist battle to bend the adult world out of shape where it serves an abstinence-only agenda.”

Bates points out that smoking rates among young people are falling faster since 2010 than they were before, that surveys show the majority of underage vapers are former smokers or would-be smokers, and that young people give harm reduction as their main reason for vaping when asked. As with adults, ecigarettes look as though they are protecting children against smoking much more than luring them into it. In short, the gateway argument just does not hold up.

The argument that vaping cannot yet be proven safe, so must be assumed to be unsafe, is an example of what can go wrong with the “precautionary principle”. If an existing technology is killing people, and a safer alternative comes along to save their lives, then waiting for watertight evidence about the risks of the new technology is effectively culpable homicide. The precautionary principle thus applied holds new technologies to a higher standard than existing ones, stifling beneficial innovation."

"Most premises insist on sending vapers out in the cold to stand shivering among smokers in winter, treating the two groups the same. This, say vaping’s proponents, is madness. It reinforces the false message that vaping is just as harmful as smoking. Further, it actually makes it harder to quit by exposing them to temptation.

One of the advantages of ecigarettes is that you don’t have to finish them. Take one quick puff and put it back in your pocket. With a cigarette, you feel obliged to smoke the whole thing. If a worker has to trek out into the street to vape, he will take more puffs than if he can do it at his desk. And he will waste more of his employer’s time.

It’s actually easy to vape discreetly, with no visible vapour and no smell, so lots of vapers are probably already doing it surreptitiously at work."

Some great insights on the non-obvious case for free trade from Cato’s Dan Ikenson

From Mark Perry.

"Some great insights on trade from Dan Ikenson’s excellent 2016 article “Trade on Trial, Again“:
The case for free trade is not obvious. The benefits of trade are dispersed and accrue over time, while the adjustment costs tend to be concentrated and immediate. To synthesize Schumpeter and Bastiat, the “destruction” caused by trade is “seen,” while the “creation” of its benefits goes “unseen.” We note and lament the effects of the clothing factory that shutters because it couldn’t compete with lower-priced imports. The lost factory jobs, the nearby businesses on Main Street that fail, and the blighted landscape are all obvious. What is not so easily noticed is the increased spending power of the divorced mother who has to feed and clothe her three children. Not only can she buy cheaper clothing, but she has more resources to save or spend on other goods and services, which undergirds growth elsewhere in the economy.
Consider Apple. By availing itself of low skilled, low-wage labor in China to produce small plastic components and to assemble its products, Apple may have deprived U.S. workers of the opportunity to perform that low-end function in the supply chain. But at the same time, that decision enabled iPods and then iPhones and then iPads to be priced within the budgets of a large swath of consumers. Had all of the components been produced and all of the assembly performed in the United States the higher prices would have prevented those devices from becoming quite so ubiquitous, and the incentives for the emergence of spin-off industries, such as apps, accessories, Uber, and AirBnb, would have been muted or absent.
But these kinds of examples don’t lend themselves to the political stump, especially when the campaigns put a premium on simple messages. This is the burden of free traders: Making the unseen seen. It is this asymmetry that explains much of the popular skepticism about trade, as well as the persistence of often repeated fallacies.
When we transact at the local supermarket, we seek to maximize the value we obtain by getting the most for our dollars. We strive to “import” more than we “export.” But when it comes to trading across borders or when our individual transactions are aggregated at the national level, we tend to forget these basic principles and accept the fallacy that the goal of trade is to achieve a surplus. But, as Adam Smith put it: “What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom.” Never mind the intellectual consensus: This is common sense.
The benefits of trade come from imports, which deliver more competition, greater variety, lower prices, better quality, and new incentives for innovation. Arguably, opening foreign markets should be an aim of trade policy because larger markets allow for greater specialization and economies of scale, but real free trade requires liberalization at home. The real benefits of trade are measured by the value of imports that can be purchased with a unit of exports — our purchasing power or the so-called terms of trade. Trade barriers at home raise the costs and reduce the amount of imports that can be purchased with a unit of exports.
MP: You might be a protectionist if when you shop at your local supermarket you seek to maximize your household’s value by giving up the most of your hard earned dollars for the least amount of groceries, i.e., maximize your household’s exports of labor services (wages) and minimize your household’s imports of groceries."

Sunday, July 15, 2018

New CEA report highlights welfare’s disincentives, and suggests how to fix them

By Robert Doar of AEI.
"The president’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) has a new report out on the relationship between large welfare programs and work, which echoes many of the themes I learned while administering such programs in New York City.

First, it identifies a fairly large group of non-disabled working age adults who receive various government benefits but do not work at all, though they could — and if they did, they would be significantly better off.

As the CEA report emphasizes, self-sufficiency is the goal, and work requirements help to get people there. Via Twenty20.

The number of such people in Medicaid, for instance, is about 9.1 million. What’s more, 55 percent of non-disabled Medicaid recipients ages 18–49 and without children do not work at all, a higher rate of non-work than for adults with a child between the ages of 1 and 5. Think about that for a moment — Medicaid recipients who are parents of children under 6 are working more than Medicaid recipients who are not parents at all. And if just half those 9.1 million people rejoined the labor force, the frustratingly low labor force participation rate would spike to 65 percent — our highest rate in eight years. (Every additional million people in the labor force would increase the rate by 0.4 percentage points.)

The numbers are just as stark when it comes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), which provides benefits to more than 10 million non-disabled working-age adults who do not work at all. A staggering 60 percent of SNAP recipients ages 18–49 with no children do not work, a rate 3 percent higher than the rate of non-work for SNAP recipients with infants.

These statistics mean that even in good economic times, with jobs available, millions of Americans have dropped out of the labor force and are being supported by a safety net which makes little effort to help them escape poverty by getting a job.

The CEA report points out a shortcoming of work subsidies like the earned income tax credit, which are frequently cited as useful tools to draw people back into the labor force. The problem is that by only providing subsidies or rewards for work through the EITC — and not requiring work in other programs – we don’t really reduce the disincentive to join the labor force or work more hours. Increases to such programs have led healthy adults to “become increasingly reliant on welfare” while experiencing “stalled employment growth, in part because of the disincentives welfare programs impose on increasing one’s own income.”

High marginal tax rates formed by the combination of safety net program benefits and wage subsidies may be keeping people from taking a job or working more hours. Work requirements would provide the necessary nudge to help people leap across the gap between what benefits provide and what can be earned through work.

The report makes clear that when we did try work requirements, in the wake of the 1996 welfare reform law, the results were positive. Welfare reform “provides evidence that applying work requirements to existing welfare programs can increase employment and reduce dependency,” and the report notes that TANF’s work requirements produced more work (a 10 percent increase in the employment rate of single mothers), less poverty (a 20 percent decline), and better outcomes for children, while not increasing the extent of deep or severe poverty.

But the best aspect of the report is that it shows how work requirements need to be applied to a subset of those on Medicaid, SNAP, and housing assistance — adults who are not disabled, not caring for a child under 6, and not working at all. To leave this group trying to survive without either income from earnings or the dignity that comes from employment is not compassionate: It does more harm than the benefit provided by a health insurance card or a debit card for food. What would do the most good is consistent work for wages — but it can be difficult to make the leap off assistance programs and into self-sufficiency. As the CEA emphasizes, self-sufficiency is the goal — and work requirements help to get people there.

The report is clear: Our welfare system has made tremendous strides in the fight against material hardship, but has discouraged self-sufficiency in the process. As a former administrator of welfare programs, it’s encouraging to hear that others share my belief that government agencies can do the equivalent of walking and chewing gum: They can both provide financial aid and help people get to work."

Five Reasons Banning Plastics May Harm the Environment and Consumers

By the CEI Staff.
"Consumers beware: In response to plastic waste collecting in the oceans, states, businesses, and even the European Union have proposed absurd bans on the use of everyday plastic straws, cups, and other items in an attempt to solve ocean pollution.

This week, Starbucks pledged to remove plastic straws from its nearly 30,000 stores worldwide by 2020. Starbucks joins a going list of companies supporting this effort to decrease or ban the use of plastics: IKEA, Royal Caribbean, McDonald’s, Hyatt, American and Alaska Airlines, and more.
Recently, the city of Seattle became the first U.S. city to ban plastic straws and utensils, and in May the European Union joined Great Britain and announced a proposal to ban single-use plastic items, including straws.

Banning plastics has been a growing trend over the last several years. But do such laws and policies actually help solve the problem of plastic waste filling up our oceans? Not exactly.

Here are five reasons from CEI’s Angela Logomasini why banning consumer plastics actually diverts attention away from real solutions, and instead harms both consumers and the environment.
  1. Most of the waste is not from consumers. The primary culprit of ocean pollution is not straws, cups, and plastic bags. According to the nonprofit The Ocean Cleanup, 46 percent of the Pacific patch is made up of fish nets. When combined with ropes and lines, it accounts for 52 percent of the trash. The rest ranges from large plastic crates and bottle caps to small fragments called microplastics. Obviously, this is not simply a consumer waste issue, and the solutions need to address that.
  1. Studies show the vast majority of plastic waste is due to poor disposal practices outside of the United States. Data in a 2015 Science magazine report reveals that China and 11 other Asian nations are responsible for 77 to 83 percent of plastic waste entering the oceans because of poor disposal practices. These practices include littering, disposed waste that isn’t managed, and uncontrolled or poorly supervised landfills. This is in contrast to U.S. waste management practices, like controlled landfills and recycling programs, that decreases water and ocean pollution. A 2017 Environmental Sciences and Technology study reported that up to 95 percent of plastic waste enters oceans from one of 10 rivers—eight in Asia and two in Africa.
  1. Plastic is more sanitary and safer to use than other alternatives. Plastic items are more sanitary than other alternatives. For example, reusable bags often harbor bacteria and could pose a health risk for consumers. Plastic packaging reduces food waste and makes possible transporting and serving food in a way that reduces disease transmission. Recent claims to the contrary do not hold water.
  1. Plastics have important environmental benefits. In many ways, plastics are better for the environment than other alternatives because they are more efficient and use less energy during production and transport. Plastic consumer goods like straws, foam cups, and utensils are less energy intensive to produce than alternatives like paper or aluminum. Production of these items takes more resources, creates more waste, and results in more pollution than the production of disposable plastic items. Reusable items like foam cups, straws, and bags require more than 100 uses—and in more than 1,000 in the case of foam cups—justify the energy required to produce them.
  1. Plastics are economical. In addition to being more efficient and sanitary, plastic consumer products are also less expensive to produce than paper or aluminum alternatives. Because these items are cheaper to make, they are also less expensive for consumers both in the United States and around the globe. Bans of such economical items simply increase costs for businesses and ultimately consumers.
Bottom line. While bans on plastic consumer items like bags, cups, straws, and whatever else may be great material for grandstanding by politicians, they only divert attention from developing real solutions that actually tackle the problem of plastic waste in our oceans. This includes improving the quality of waste management practices around the globe, but particularly in Asia and Africa.
Read more from CEI Senior Fellow Angela Logomasini on why banning consumer plastics won’t solve ocean pollution here."

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Climate Change, Fossil Fuels, and Human Well Being

By Marlo Lewis, Jr. of CEI.
"Climate campaigners demand ever-greater government control over energy markets, resources, and infrastructure. Many believe the best thing governments can do with fossil energy is “keep it in the ground.” They claim fossil-fueled civilization is “unsustainable” and headed for a climate catastrophe. Are they correct?

Prediction is difficult—especially about the future! Nonetheless, an abundance of information from high quality sources, like Our World in Data, reveals that the long-term trends in human health and welfare are strongly positive.

According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warming of the climate system is “unequivocal” and “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

So, let’s look at trends in human health and welfare during the period from 1950 to the present.

Improving State of the World

Since 1950, fossil fuel consumption increased by 550 percent, annual global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions increased by 500 percent, atmospheric CO2 concentrations increased by about one-third, and the world warmed about 0.65 degrees Celsius.

How has humanity fared during this period?

Globally, life expectancy increased by 48 percent, from 48 years in 1950 to 71.4 years in 2015. All regions made substantial gains, including Africa, the poorest continent, where life expectancy increased by 68 percent.

Many activists claim global warming will make insect-borne diseases like malaria more prevalent. However, since the year 2000, global malaria infections are down 37 percent and malaria-related deaths are down 62 percent.

Climate is a factor in mosquito biology. Warmth tends to expand mosquito habitat and accelerate mosquito breeding cycles. However, malaria risk is chiefly a function of poverty, not of climate. The late 19th century was certainly colder than today. But in the 1880s, malaria was endemic to such frosty northern states as Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota. In the early 1920s, malaria killed 30,000 Russians in Archangel near the Arctic Circle.

Some scientists claim warming will depress crop yields. Yet global yields for wheat, corn, and soy have been increasing since 1960. U.S. corn yields increased by 25 percent since 2000, 44 percent since 1990, and 88 percent since 1980. A recent Michigan State University study reports U.S. corn production “has steadily increased by an average of two bushels per acre every year for the past 40 years.”

Thanks partly to higher yields, global per capita food supply increased by 6 percent since 2000 even though global population increased by 17 percent. Similarly, the global percentage of undernourished people declined from 15 percent to just under 11 percent.

What about quality of life? From 2000 to 2016, per capita GDP increased by 54 percent in Latin America, 62 percent in Africa, and much higher percentages in Asia. As a consequence, the share of world population living in extreme poverty declined by 55 percent despite an increase in global population of 1.3 billion. Life years lost due to disability and disease also declined for all age categories, especially children.

To be sure, hundreds of millions of people are still hungry and poor, and millions die each year from preventable diseases. But the trends are moving in the right direction—in spite of climate change. Why is that?

Climate Change Is Lukewarm

For starters, the warming rate is gradual and fairly constant, not rapid and accelerating, as it’s often claimed.

The U.N.-approved models used to project climate change impacts overshoot the observed warming by up to five times as much as has actually occurred in the tropical troposphere—a region where greenhouse theory expects the most rapid warming to occur.

There are several possible explanations for the discrepancy between models and observations, but a reasonable one, notes Cato Institute scientist Patrick Michaels, is simply that the models are tuned too hot. They overestimate climate sensitivity—the amount of warming expected to occur from a doubling of CO2 concentrations. The average sensitivity in IPCC climate models is 3.4°C. The average in many recent studies is 2°C.

If we use the most accurate model, called INM-CM4, and run it with a realistic emissions scenario in which natural gas continues to replace coal as an electricity fuel, the world warms about 1.5°C by 2100. In other words, humanity achieves the Paris climate treaty’s maximum goal but without any additional climate policies. Climate change is not “worse than we thought,” but better than they told us.

Because global temperatures are not spinning out of control, it is not surprising there have been no long-term trends in the frequency and severity of droughts and floods, in the frequency and strength of land-falling hurricanes, or in measures of total hurricane strength.

Despite relying on climate models that run too hot, the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report tacitly rejects the catastrophe narrative popularized by Al Gore and other climate campaigners. Specifically, the IPCC concludes (AR5, Ch. 12, Table 12.4) that in the 21st Century, Atlantic Ocean circulation collapse is “very unlikely,” ice sheet crackup is “exceptionally unlikely,” and catastrophic release of methane from melting permafrost is “very unlikely.”

Social Benefits of Carbon

Besides, so-called carbon pollution has significant and well documented ecological and food security benefits. That’s because rising CO2 concentrations enable plants to grow faster and larger and use water more efficiently, and warming lengthens agricultural growing seasons.

In 2016, a team of 32 researchers from 24 institutions in eight countries used NASA satellite data to measure changes in “leaf area index, or amount of leaf cover, over the planet’s vegetated regions” during 1982-2015. They found an “increase in leaves on plants and trees equivalent in area to two times the continental United States.” The CO2 fertilization effect accounts for 70 percent of the greening trend, with nitrogen deposition (another fossil-fuel byproduct) and anthropogenic warming accounting for 17 percent. Has any climate policy done even a small fraction as much good for the planet?

Climate researcher Craig Idso, using a large database on carbon dioxide-enrichment experiments and Food and Agriculture Organization economic data, estimates that CO2 emissions added $3.2 trillion to the value of global agricultural output since 1961. Has any climate policy done even a small fraction as much good for people?

Fossil Fuels Make Us Safer

Perhaps the most important reason trends in human well-being are improving despite climate change is that wealth creation and technological innovation make societies better able to manage climate-related risks. For example, since 1990, weather-related losses as a share of global GDP declined by about one-third. Since the 1920s, climate economist Indur Goklany reports, global deaths and death rates related to extreme weather decreased by 93 percent and 98 percent, respectively.

As fossil fuel consumption increased, the environment became more livable and human civilization more sustainable. That’s not a coincidence. Energy scholar Alex Epstein explains: Human beings using fossil fuels did not take a safe climate and make it dangerous; they took a dangerous climate and made it safer.

For example, for millennia, drought was the most lethal form of extreme weather because it limits access to food and water. Since the 1920s, global deaths and death rates related to drought decreased by 99.8 percent and 99.9 percent, respectively.

That’s largely the result of fossil fuel-supported technologies and capabilities: mechanized agriculture, synthetic fertilizers, refrigeration, plastic packaging, motorized transport, modern communications, and the economic surpluses that enable wealthier societies to aid poorer societies in times of distress.

Perils of Climate Policy 

Climate campaigners hype the risks of global warming and belittle, ignore, or deny the benefits of fossil fuels. Would their so-called climate solutions—carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, renewable energy quota, fracking bans—make us safer or the reverse?

Pick almost any climate policy on the books, and you will find an abysmal benefit-cost ratio. For example, the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan would avert less than two-hundredths of a degree Celsius of global warming by 2100. That’s according to the EPA’s climate simulator, a model aptly named MAGICC. Yet achieving that miniscule result would cost tens to hundreds of billions of dollars in compliance burdens and economic fallout.

The stock rejoinder is that if the whole world implements such policies, we can take big bites out of global warming. Perhaps, but then the problem is that any truly ambitious global program of fossil-fuel suppression is potentially a humanitarian disaster.

For example, according to the IPCC’s overheated climate models, the Paris Agreement’s central goal, which is to keep global warming below 2°C, will require reducing global carbon dioxide emissions 40-70 percent below 2010 levels by 2050. There is no known way to do that without compelling developing countries to make substantial reductions in their current consumption of fossil fuels.

More than 1 billion people in developing countries have no access to electricity and billions more have too little to sustain development.

Putting energy-starved peoples on an energy diet would trap millions in poverty and slow the march of progress to a cleaner, healthier, more peaceful world. It is a cure worse than the disease. Consequently, developing countries will not consent to implement it.

Unfortunately, vast resources may be diverted from far more beneficial investments before climate change loses its mystique as a pretext to expand government and empower progressive elites."

The greater (lower) the degree of government involvement in the provision of a good or service the greater (lower) the price increases (decreases) over time

See The CD ‘chart of the century’ makes the rounds at the Federal Reserve by Mark Perry.
"Over the last 12 years, I’ve probably created and posted more than 3,000 graphics on CD, Twitter, and Facebook including charts/graphs, tables, figures, maps and Venn diagrams. Of all of those graphics, I don’t think any single one has ever gotten more attention, links, re-Tweets, re-posts, and mentions than the one above (and previous versions), which has been referred to as “the Chart of the Century.” Here are some examples from earlier this year for the version of the chart with price data through December 2017.
Just this week, the chart got some fresh attention this week when Bloomberg published an article on Tuesday titled “Chart of Century Gives Powell Gloomy Glimpse of Trade-War World,” with this opening:
A multi-colored graphic that’s made the rounds at the Federal Reserve hints at what Chairman Jerome Powell could face if President Donald Trump succeeds in throwing globalization into reverse: Higher prices for many goods and potentially faster inflation.
Plugged as possibly the chart of the century by economist and originator Mark Perry, it shows that prices of goods subject to foreign competition — think toys and television sets — have tumbled over the past two decades as trade barriers have come down around the world. Prices of so-called non-tradeables — hospital stays and college tuition, to name two — have surged.
That report was followed yesterday with a CBS MoneyWatch article “Inflation risks, trade war costs, make Fed’s job much harder.”
A chart that has been making the rounds at the Fed from economist Mark Perry shows how falling prices for trade-sensitive things like TV sets and toys have helped offset rising costs for things like medical services, housing and education.
Based on yesterday’s BLS report for CPI price data through June, I’ve updated the chart with prices for the first six months of this year. During the period from January 1997 to June 2018, the CPI for All Items increased by 57.4% and the chart displays the relative price increases over that time period for 15 selected consumer goods and services, and for average hourly earnings (wages). Seven of those goods and services have increased more than average inflation, led by hospital services (+216%), college textbooks (+204%) and college tuition (+191%). Average wages have also increased more than average inflation since January 1997, by 84%, indicating an increase in real wages over the last several decades.

The other seven price series have declined since 1997, led by TVs (-97%), toys (-74%), software (-67%) and cell phone service (-52%). The CPI series for new cars, household furnishings (furniture, appliances, window coverings, lamps, dishes, etc.) and clothing have remained relatively flat for the last 20 years while average prices have increased by 57% and wages increased 84%. Various observations that have been made about the huge divergence in price patterns over the last several decades include:

a. The greater (lower) the degree of government involvement in the provision of a good or service the greater (lower) the price increases (decreases) over time, e.g., hospital and medical costs, college tuition, childcare with both large degrees of government funding/regulation and large price increases vs. software, electronics, toys, cars and clothing with both relatively less government funding/regulation and falling prices. As somebody on Twitter commented:
Blue lines = prices subject to free market forces. Red lines = prices subject to regulatory capture by government. Food and drink is debatable either way. Conclusion: remind me why socialism is so great again.
b. Prices for manufactured goods (cars, clothing, appliances, furniture, electronic goods, toys) have experienced large price declines over time relative to overall inflation, wages, and prices for services (education, medical care, and childcare).

c. The greater the degree of international competition for tradeable goods, the greater the decline in prices over time, e.g. toys, clothing, TVs, appliances, furniture, footwear, etc.

MP: I’ll continue to update the price chart every six months, look for the next version in January 2019 with data through December 2018."

Friday, July 13, 2018

Starbucks Bans Plastic Straws, Winds Up Using More Plastic

A Reason investigation reveals that the coffee giant's new cold drink lids use more plastic than the old straw/lid combo.

By Christian Britschgi, an assistant editor at Reason.
"2018 will forever be remembered as the year that hating plastic straws went mainstream. Once the lonely cause of environmental cranks, now everyone wants to eliminate these suckers from daily life.

In July, Seattle imposed America's first ban on plastic straws. Vancouver, British Columbia, passed a similar ban a few months earlier. There are active attempts to prohibit straws in New York City, Washington, D.C., Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco. A-list celebrities from Calvin Harris to Tom Brady have lectured us on giving up straws. Both National Geographic and The Atlantic have run long profiles on the history and environmental effects of the straw. Vice is now treating their consumption as a dirty, hedonistic excess.

Not to be outdone by busybody legislators, Starbucks, the nation's largest food and drink retailer, announced on Monday that it would be going strawless.

"This is a significant milestone to achieve our global aspiration of sustainable coffee, served to our customers in more sustainable ways," said Starbucks Kevin Johnson CEO in a press release announcing the move.

The coffee giant says that by 2020 it hopes to have eliminated all single-use plastic straws at its 28,000 stores worldwide. It will now top all its cold drinks with fancy new strawless lids that the company currently serves with its cold brew nitro coffees. (Frappuccinos will still be served with a compostable or paper straw.)

As is to be expected, Starbucks' decision was greeted with universal adulation.

The World Wildlife Fund and Ocean Conservancy both provided ebullient quotes for Starbucks' press releases. Liberal magazine The New Republic praised the move as an "environmental milestone." Slate hailed the Starbucks straw ban as evidence of as a victory for a bona fide anti-straw movement, one that would hopefully lead to bans of more things plastic in years to come.

Yet missing from this fanfare was the inconvenient fact that by ditching plastic straws, Starbucks will actually be increasing its plastic use. As it turns out, the new nitro lids that Starbucks is leaning on to replace straws are made up of more plastic than the company's current lid/straw combination.

Right now, Starbucks patrons are topping most of their cold drinks with either 3.23 grams or 3.55 grams of plastic product, depending on whether they pair their lid with a small or large straw. The new nitro lids meanwhile weigh either 3.55 or 4.11 grams, depending again on lid size.

(I got these results by measuring Starbucks' plastic straws and lids on two seperate scales, both of which gave me the same results.)

This means customers are at best breaking even under Starbucks' strawless scheme, or they are adding between .32 and .88 grams to their plastic consumption per drink. Given that customers are going to use a mix of the larger and smaller nitro lids, Starbucks' plastic consumption is bound to increase, although it's anybody's guess as to how much.

In response to questions about whether their strawless move will increase the company's plastic consumption, a Starbucks spokesperson told Reason "the introduction of our strawless lid as the standard for non-blended beverages by 2020 allows us to significantly reduce the number of straws and non-recyclable plastic" as the new lids are recyclable, while the plastic straws the company currently uses are not.

This is cold comfort given the fact that even most of the stuff that is put in recycling bins still winds up at the dump. The company did not address, nor did it dispute, that its transition to strawless lids would increase its overall plastic consumption.

The weight of plastic—not the raw number of plastic objects used, or whether those objects are recyclable or not—is what should really concern environmentalists.

Pictures of turtles with straws up their noses are certainly jarring. However most plastic, whatever form it enters the ocean as, will eventually be broken up into much smaller pieces known as micro-plastics. It is these micro-plastics that form those giant ocean garbage patches, pile up on the ocean floor, and leech into the stomachs and flesh of sea creatures.

Reducing the amount of micro-plastics in the ocean thus requires cutting down on the aggregate weight of plastics entering the ocean each year. It cannot be stressed enough that straws, by weight, are a tiny portion of this plastic.

At most, straws account for about 2,000 tons of the 9 million tons of plastic that are estimated to enter the ocean each year, according to the Associated Press—.02 percent of all plastic waste. The pollution problem posed by straws looks even smaller when considering that the United States is responsible for about one percent of plastic waste entering the oceans, with straws being a smaller percentage still.

As countless experts have stressed, truly addressing the problem of marine plastic pollution will require going after the source of this pollution, namely all the uncollected litter from poorer coastal countries that lack developed waste management systems.

Straw banners have proven stubbornly resistant to this logic. Instead, they have chosen to rely on either debunked statistics (such as the claim that Americans use 500 million straws a day, which was the product of a 9-year-old's research) or totally unproven notions (like the theory that straws are a "gateway plastic") in order to justify petty prohibitions on innocuous straws. And they have been helped along by an uncritical media. Coverage of Starbucks' strawless move saw The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and National Geographic all cite the 500-million-straws-a-day figure.

By adopting a myopic focus on banning straws, environmentalists, city councils, and conscious capitalists are, at best, having no significant impact on the overall problem of marine plastic waste. At worst, they are pushing expensive prohibitions on consumer choice that are counter-productive—at least in the case of Starbucks' ban—and come with all sorts of unintended consequences.

For instance, straw bans will likely hurt disabled people who lack the motor skills necessary to pull off a flawless cup-to-lip motion. While reusable straws exist, they are hard to clean and not always handy when one needs them. "What if you decide on the spur of the moment to go have a drink with friends after work but forgot your reusable straw that day? [That] doesn't leave a lot of room for spontaneity—something nondisabled folks get to largely take for granted," Lawrence Carter-Long of the national Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund told NPR. Senior citizens and parents with young children will likely be affected for the same reasons.

Why not use more eco-friendly disposable straws? Because they are terrible. Paper straws are known to collapse halfway through a drink. Compostable straws cost six to seven times more than their plastic alternatives, don't keep for long, and fall apart when exposed to high heat.

Straws, although not essential for most people most of the time, are still a wonderful convenience that help people enjoy a drink on the go, preserve their carefully-applied lipstick, or save their teeth from the corrosive effects of some beverage. Just yesterday, we as a nation celebrated 7-Eleven's "Free Slurpie Day," a holiday that can't hope to survive in a strawless world.

Giving up on free slurpies and dignity for disabled people in the pursuit of totally illusionary environmental benefits seems like a poor trade-off, yet that is the trade-off straw prohibitionists are forcing the rest of us to accept."