Economics, Politics, Legal History & Science. ‘Solid liberal’ in US, wide spectrum centrist in Germany. Impeach Trump as of January 2017.
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To Avoid Humans, More Wildlife Now Work the Night Shift

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For their first 100 million years on planet Earth, our mammal ancestors relied on the cover of darkness to escape their dinosaur predators and competitors. Only after the meteor-induced mass extinction of dinosaurs 66 million years ago could these nocturnal mammals explore the many wondrous opportunities available in the light of day. Fast forward to the present, and the honeymoon in the sun may be over for mammals. They’re increasingly returning to the protection of night to avoid the Ea
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Lessons from the past: Paleobotany and Climate Change

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From 1984–2012, extensive greening has occurred in the tundra of Western Alaska, the northern coast of Canada, and the tundra of Quebec and Labrador. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Cindy Starr.

For the last 540 million years, Earth’s climate has oscillated between three basic states: Icehouse, Greenhouse (subdivided into Cool and Warm states), and Hothouse. The “Hothouse” condition is relatively short-lived and is consequence from the release of anomalously large inputs of CO2 into the atmosphere during the formation of Large Igneous Provinces (LIPs), when atmospheric CO2 concentrations may rise above 16 times (4,800 ppmv), while the “Icehouse” is characterized by polar ice, with alternating glacial–interglacial episodes in response to orbital forcing. The ‘Cool Greenhouse” displays  some polar ice and alpine glaciers,  with global average temperatures between 21° and 24°C. Finally, the ‘Warm Greenhouse’ lacks of any polar ice, and global average temperatures might have ranged from 24° to 30°C.

Reconstructions of Earth’s history have considerably improved our knowledge of episodes of rapid emissions of greenhouse gases and abrupt warming. Several episodes of global climate change were similar in magnitude to the anthropogenically forced climate change that has occurred during the past century. Consequently, the development of different proxy measures of paleoenvironmental parameters has received growing attention in recent years. Paleobotany, the study of fossil plants in deep geological time, offers key insights into vegetation responses to past global change, including suitable analogs for Earth’s climatic future.

Monthly average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii.

The main forces of climatic change on a global scale are solar forcing, atmospheric composition, plate tectonics, Earth’s biota, and of course, us. Human activity is a major driver of the dynamics of Earth system. Until the Industrial Revolution, the average global CO2 levels fluctuated between about 170 ppm and 280 ppm. But with the beginning of the Industrial Era, that number risen above 300 ppm, currently averaging an increase of more than 2 ppm per year. The average monthly level of CO2 in the atmosphere on last April exceeded the 410 ppm for first time in history. Thus we could hit an average of 500 ppm within the next 45 years, a number that have been unprecedented for the past 50–100+ million years according to fossil plant-based CO2 estimates. Therefore, the closest analog for today conditions is the Eocene, meaning greater similarities in continental configuration, ecosystem structure and function, and global carbon cycling.

Some of the best-studied intervals of global change in the fossil plant record include the Triassic–Jurassic boundary, 201.36 ± 0.17 Mya; the PETM, 56 Mya; and the Eocene–Oligocene boundary, 33.9 Mya.The first two events represent rapid greenhouse gas–induced global warming episodes; the last coincides with the initiation of the Antarctic ice sheet and global cooling leading to our current icehouse.

Time line of plant evolution (From McElwain, 2018)

During the PETM, compositional shifts in terrestrial vegetation were marked but transient in temperate latitudes and long-lived in the tropics. The PETM is characterized by the release of 5 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, while temperatures increased by 5 – 8°C. High temperatures and likely increased aridity in the North American temperate biomes resulted in geologically rapid compositional changes as local mixed deciduous and evergreen forest taxa (such as Taxodium) decreased in relative abundance. These suggest that global warming has a marked effect on the composition of terrestrial plant communities that is driven predominantly by migration rather than extinction. However, it’s difficult to draw parallels with Anthropocene warming and vegetation responses because they are occurring at a minimum of 20 times faster than any past warming episode in Earth’s history.

In the early Eocene (56 to 49 Mya), a time of peak sustained global warmth, the Arctic Ocean was ice free, with a mosaic of mixed deciduous, evergreen (Picea, Pinus), and swamp forests, and with high densities of the aquatic fern Azolla. The Azolla bloom reduced the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to 650 ppm, reducing temperatures and setting the stage for our current icehouse Earth. The eventual demise of Azolla in the Arctic Ocean is attributed to reduced runoff and a slight salinity increase.

The modern fern Azolla filiculoides (From Wikipedia)

The Earth’s poles have warmed and will continue to warm at a faster rate than the average planetary warming, because the heat is readily transported poleward by oceans and the atmosphere due to positive feedback effects involving snow cover, albedo, vegetation, soot, and algal cover in the Arctic and Antarctic. This phenomenon is known as “polar amplification”.

Recent studies about the greening of the Arctic indicates that increasing shrubiness has likely already had an unexpected negative impact on herbivore populations, such as caribou, by decreasing browse quality. Thus, it is important to predict how short-term temporal trends in Arctic vegetation change will continue under CO2-induced global warming. The paleobotanical record of high Arctic floras may provide broad insight into these questions.

References:

Jennifer C. McElwain, Paleobotany and Global Change: Important Lessons for Species to Biomes from Vegetation Responses to Past Global Change, Annual Review of Plant Biology  (2018), DOI: 10.1146/annurev-arplant-042817-040405

 











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stefanetal
50 days ago
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Northern Virginia
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Planet of the apes

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22.9-21.6 million years ago

The Miocene (23 – 5 million years ago) is a period of extraordinary success for our closest relatives, the apes. Overall there may have been as many as a hundred ape species during the epoch. Proconsul (actually several species) is one of the earliest. We will meet just a few of the others over the course of the Miocene, as some leave Africa for Asia, and some (we think) migrate back.

Sometimes evolution is a story of progress – not necessarily moral progress, but at least progress in the sense of more effective animals replacing less effective. For example, monkeys and apes largely replace other primates (prosimians, relatives of lemurs and lorises) over most of the world after the Eocene, with lemurs flourishing only on isolated Madagascar. This replacement is probably a story of more effective forms outcompeting less effective. And the expansion of brain size that we see among many mammalian lineages throughout the Cenozoic is probably another example of progress resulting from evolutionary arms races.

But measured by the yardstick of evolutionary success, (non-human) apes — some of the brainiest animals on the planet — will turn out not to be all that effective after the Miocene. In our day, we’re down to just about four species of great ape (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans), none of them very successful. Monkeys, with smaller body sizes and more rapid reproductive rates, are doing better. For that matter, the closest living relatives of primates (apart from colugos and tree shrews) are rodents, who are doing better still, mostly by reproducing faster than predators can eat them.

So big brains aren’t quite the ticket to evolutionary success that, say, flight has been for birds. One issue for apes may be that with primate rules for brain growth – double the brain size means double the neurons means double the energy cost – a large-bodied, large brained primate (i.e. an ape) is going to face a serious challenge finding enough food to keep its brain running. It’s not until a later evolutionary period that one lineage of apes really overcomes this problem, with a combination of better physical technology (stone tools, fire) and better social technology (enlisting others to provision mothers and their dependent offspring).



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stefanetal
79 days ago
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Finding out a few years ago that we are far past the golden age of apes was a surprise.
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Is Justice Gorsuch ready, willing and eager to blow up the civil/criminal divide?

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Justice Neil Gorsuch served as the swing vote and issued quite an interesting concurring opinion this morning in Sessions v. Dimaya, No. 15-1498 (S. Ct. April 17, 2018) (available here).  Various aspects of Judge Gorsuch's opinion may merit commentary, but the question in the title of this post was my reaction to his various comments about civil sanctions and criminal punishments.    Though many constitutional doctrines make critical and consequential distinctions between civil sanctions and criminal punishments, Justice Gorsuch seemingly does not think there is much "there there."  Here are the passages that I found especially striking in this regard:

[I]f the severity of the consequences counts when deciding the standard of review, shouldn’t we also take account of the fact that today’s civil laws regularly impose penalties far more severe than those found in many criminal statutes? Ours is a world filled with more and more civil laws bearing more and more extravagant punishments.  Today’s “civil” penalties include confiscatory rather than compensatory fines, forfeiture provisions that allow homes to be taken, remedies that strip persons of their professional licenses and livelihoods, and the power to commit persons against their will indefinitely.  Some of these penalties are routinely imposed and are routinely graver than those associated with misdemeanor crimes — and often harsher than the punishment for felonies....

My colleagues suggest the law before us should be assessed under the fair notice standard because of the special gravity of its civil deportation penalty.  But, grave as that penalty may be, I cannot see why we would single it out for special treatment when (again) so many civil laws today impose so many similarly severe sanctions.  Why, for example, would due process require Congress to speak more clearly when it seeks to deport a lawfully resident alien than when it wishes to subject a citizen to indefinite civil commitment, strip him of a business license essential to his family’s living, or confiscate his home?  I can think of no good answer.

I find heartening Justice Gorsuch's obvious disaffinity for watered-down procedural rights (too) often applied to severe "civil" sanctions, and I think litigators challenging these kinds of sanctions can and should be sure to cite this concurring opinion along the way.

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stefanetal
88 days ago
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Northern Virginia
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Unraveling

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Economists delight in unravelings -- behavioral responses that undo bright ideas. A subsidy for skunks produces cats with white stripes. Two good ones came up this week.

As hare-brained as they are, I have to opine that the actual economic consequences of US steel import tariffs and Chinese soybean tariffs are essentially zero.

(Political comment: tariffs are taxes on imports. It would do fans of the Administration's trade policies good to utter the correct "tax" word to describe tariffs.)

Why do I say that? Each country is assessing a tariff on goods produced only by the other country. Well then, why not park the ships overnight in Vancouver, or Tokyo, fill out some paperwork, and say steel is imported first from China to Canada, and then Canada to the U.S., and vice versa?

Trade bureaucrats are smart enough to catch that. But they cannot hope to stop essentially the same thing: China sells steel to Canadian steel users, who currently buy from Canadian firms. Canadian steel producers reorient their production to the US, and sell to US companies who formerly bought from China. The steel is genuinely Canadian.


US soybean producers, rather than sell to China, sell to Canada, Brazil, and Europe. Producers there sell to China. The total amount made is the same in each country. The total amount used is the same in each country. It is just as if we parked the ships.

It's not exactly the same cost, because ships have to go further. People have to find new suppliers. But these rearrangements ought to be a very small proportion of the cost.

More. US farmers can take land that used to make soybeans and make wheat. Chinese farmers can take land that used to make rice and make soybeans. OK, not all land is great for all crops, but it is the kind of adjustment that quickly occurs.

Multiplying current trade patterns by a tariff to calculate the price impact is hopelessly wrong.

The second sad story comes from the Ruth Simon and Richard Rubin at the Wall Street Journal, on how passthrough businesses are adapting to the new corporate tax code -- largely as many people warned on its passage.

The issue: Corporations, pass-through businesses, and the highest income individuals, all used to pay about the same rate. The tax reform lowered the corporate rate to 21%. If it left the pass through rate intact, many of those businesses would incorporate. Also, the same economic arguments for a lower corporate tax apply equally to pass throughs. So, they lowered the pass through rate as well. But now high income people, facing a 40% federal rate (plus a 13.2% state rate in California, plus other taxes) have an incentive to become a pass through business rather than take wages. So Congress came up with a bunch of rules to try to limit that. Certain kinds of businesses -- doctors, lawyers -- couldn't become pass throughs. There are income limits and...
Dallas attorney Garry Davis plans to break up his immigration-law practice. One firm will have all the lawyers. The other will record the profits.
...Mr. Davis... figures he can still benefit from the break by splitting his law firm, Davis & Associates, into one entity holding four lawyers and another holding the 26-person administrative staff, who take information from new clients, put together immigration applications and handle other tasks. Profits in this part could be subject to lower taxes. 
... Mr. Davis’s approach, which some have dubbed “crack and pack,” seeks to get around a provision denying high-earning lawyers, doctors and other professionals a tax break available to plumbing contractors, restaurateurs and architects...By separating the lawyers from other parts of the business, he hopes to lower the business’s overall tax bill while changing little in his day-to-day operations.
Another:
Karen Brosi, an accountant in Palo Alto, Calif., is telling high earners who consult on engineering projects to indicate on tax returns that they are “engineers”—a group not subject to the income limits for service businesses—rather than “consultants,” who are. 
The article goes on with scheme after scheme. It didn't touch real estate, where the real pass through bonanza is.

The margin of incorporating to take advantage of the full 21% rate is still there, only incorporating just the cash flows that fully benefit from that treatment>
Marvin Blum, a wealth planner in Fort Worth, Texas, is pitching a related strategy to his clients: Profit meant to be reinvested into a business is channeled into an entity that pays the new, lower 21% corporate tax rate, while profit that is meant to be distributed to owners in the near term goes into a pass-through entity that pays just the individual taxes. He calls it the “half and half.”

The economic lesson is the same -- trying to tax one kind of income, like commodity imports from one country -- is likely to fail. As I've argued before, here for example, once we try to tax income, we're pretty much stuck with the current mess of individual, corporate, and estate and gift taxes.   The only real solution is to tax consumption rather than income.

The political lesson is more somber. As the article wryly notes:
It isn’t clear how the IRS will look at such arrangements or how it will determine where profits are made. The agency hasn’t yet issued regulations in this area.

The private sector’s old game of cat-and-mouse with the Internal Revenue Service and Congress, in other words, is intensifying, and is likely to play out over years in regulations, audits, appeals and litigation.
Forget the rates. My great sadness at this tax "reform" is that the once in a generation chance to radically simplify the tax code went up in smoke. Instead, you can see that we will have 20 years of wealthy business owners -- just the type to make sure they know their local congressperson well -- in and out of Washington pleading for an IRS ruling or a line in a bill treating this or that kind of pass through income differently. The lawyers, accountants, and lobbyist full employment act is in good shape. 
Back when the Federal Government was funded by tariffs, by the way, the same great game went on with dizzying differential tariff treatment for different kinds of goods.

One has to admire the capacity of Americans for innovation. My, our people are good at restructuring corporate forms towards better efficiency. Too bad we are devoting so much immense talent to gaming regulations and the tax code rather than productive innovation.
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stefanetal
100 days ago
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Republican ‘tax simplification ‘!
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Should-Read: David E. Broockman et al.: The Political Behavior of Wealthy Americ...

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Should-Read: David E. Broockman et al.: The Political Behavior of Wealthy Americans: Evidence from Technology Entrepreneurs: "American politics overrepresents the wealthy. But what policies do the wealthy support?...

...Many accounts implicitly assume the wealthy are monolithically conservative and that increases in their political power will increase inequality. Instead, we argue there is substantial heterogeneity by industry, wherein the wealthy from an industry can share a distinctive set of political preferences. Consequently, how increases in the wealthy’s influence affect inequality depends on which industries’ rich are gaining influence and which issues are at stake. We demonstrate our argument with three original surveys, including the two largest surveys of wealthy Americans to date: one of technology entrepreneurs—a burgeoning wealthy demographic— and another of political campaign donors. We show that technology entrepreneurs support liberal redistributive, social, and globalistic policies but conservative regulatory policies—a bundle of preferences rare among other wealthy individuals. Consistent with our theoretical argument, we also present evidence that suggests these differences arise from their distinctive predispositions...

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stefanetal
126 days ago
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