Archive for category Economics

Saving Lives With Ocean Models

The orphans were tied together for their safety. Their teacher had attached all the children with lengths of rope, tied securely around their waists, as the storm approached Galveston and the waters began to rise. And that is how the rescuers uncovered their lifeless bodies, by following the rope from one drowned child to another.

Erik Larson relates the tragedy of the Galveston orphans in his 2000 book Isaac’s Storm. A total of ~9,000 souls perished in that 1900 disaster. In 2005 a similar tragedy befell New Orleans, as Hurricane Katrina swept into the Louisiana delta and drove Lake Pontchartrain over the levees into downtown New Orleans. 1,833 people lost their lives, and at $108 billion Hurricane Katrina represented the largest monetary loss in U.S. history due to natural causes.

These human tragedies don’t have to be repeated.

I’m an ocean modeler at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. This is my personal blog at with my own views. I use computer simulation to study hurricane-driven storm surge. I can send a Category 5 hurricane into New York, or Miami, or even Buffalo, New York. I can watch an advancing wall of water obliterate downtown Tokyo from the comfort of my office, all without anyone else getting wet. To do this, I construct a digital model of the coast and I blast it with 150-km/hr winds. A supercomputer calculates the hourly rise in sea level as the storm waters inundate populated areas. I can verify my calculations with past events, and evaluate the risk posed by future hurricanes.

Figure 11. Directional analysis at New York Harbor (experiment NY7).

Figure 11 of Drews C, Galarneau TJ Jr (2015) Directional Analysis of the Storm Surge from Hurricane Sandy 2012, with Applications to Charleston, New Orleans, and the Philippines. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0122113. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0122113

Grid cells in the ocean model are wet or dry. Grid cells containing water are colored blue for the sea; grid cells on land are colored green for vegetation. When the ocean rises and floods formerly dry cells (storm surge), I color them red. I use yellow when a normally wet cell becomes dry (wind setdown).

Just four colors: blue, green, red, and yellow. The ocean model runs and the grid cells change color. That’s all. It’s just a numerical model. But I also realize: People live in those grid cells. Every cell is home to businesswomen, teenagers, hourly laborers, little babies, and retired couples. The grids on my computer screen are filled with living, breathing, working, laughing people. Every grid cell matters. When I see a set of green cells along the coast turn red, I know the human cost. I have joined flood cleanup efforts and seen the destruction. I think about how to prevent the next disaster, how to warn these communities, and how to get them out of harm’s way.

If you live in a coastal area, you should know that supercomputers are even now running and calculating to protect your life and property. Researchers are developing coastal models to evaluate your risk and your evacuation plans. At NCAR, NOAA, and the National Hurricane Center, projects are underway to forecast hurricane-driven storm surge. Today you can view your city’s risk at Hopefully someday you will be able to click on a Google Earth plot of your own house and show the hourly surge forecast as the storm approaches.

Other hurricanes will surely come. Typhoons will pound the coasts of the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan. We are determined that there will never be another Galveston 1900, that the human tragedy of New Orleans 2005 will never happen again. With accurate and timely forecasts, we are working to ensure that next time people won’t be in the way when the big waves come ashore.

Carl Drews, author of Between Migdol and the Sea: Crossing the Red Sea with Faith and Science.

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Mississippi Flooding and the Atchafalaya spillway

News sources are quoting a figure of 1.5 million cubic feet per second for the current flow of the Mississippi River at the Morganza spillway. That is a lot of water!


To get a visceral idea of how much water that is, my brother Mike from Sandy, Utah sent me some calculations describing how the flow at Morganza (above Baton Rouge) compares to the flow of the Colorado River. 1.5 million cfs is equal to 34.43526 acre feet / second. By comparison, the total capacity of Lake Powell is 24,322,000 acre feet; currently 53.99% full, available capacity 11,205,145 acre feet. The Upper Colorado Basin is supposed to provide an average of 7.5 million acre feet each year past Lees Ferry, Arizona. On Wednesday (May 11, 2011) the flow into Lake Powell was 31,862 cfs, and outflow was 14,791 cfs. Little Cottonwood Creek flood stage is around 500 cfs (coming down into Sandy from Alta and Snowbird).


Lake Powell capacity and percent full numbers are taken from Lake Mead capacity and percent full numbers are taken from from


So at 1.5 million cfs, the Mississippi would deliver the annual flow past Lees Ferry in 2.52 days, would fill the currently available storage in Lake Powell in 3.77 days, and would then fill the available capacity in Lake Mead in another 4.96 days. That’s a lot of water! If I could somehow capture and store 1 second of the current Mississippi flow, I could easily water my yard for the rest of my life. And they would never miss it!


You can read more about this at “The Control of Nature: Atchafalaya”: (February 23, 1987):

That link is an old article by John McPhee about attempts to control nature, which is probably getting a lot of web traffic these days. If the Old River Control Structure were to fail, most of the flow of the Mississippi would flow down the Atchafalaya River, taking a much shorter route to the sea and leaving New Orleans and Baton Rouge along a backwater channel.


The interesting thing to Mike is that in the long term, the Mississippi Delta is eroding and subsiding while most of the sediment is funneled into deeper waters in the Gulf of Mexico. He further observes that to prevent the loss of the Delta and associated flooding from the ocean (especially during hurricanes), they should allow flooding from the Mississippi River to deposit sediment (mud) on the land, and probably need to let the Mississippi River take new channels to the Gulf every few hundred years.


And he’s right. That long lobe of the Mississippi delta past New Orleans is called a “bird’s-foot delta” because it looks like one. It’s unnatural for a delta to form like that, and it’s a consequence of 100 years of levees upriver and in the delta itself. He’s right – all the sediment is going to exactly the wrong place.


There is a way to fix this.


The Morganza diversion needs to be a sediment trap:

We need clean water to flow down the Mississippi to New Orleans (thereby eroding and deepening the built-up channel), and muddy water to pass down the Atchafalaya (thereby building up that lower-elevation lobe). How can we separate the muddy water from the clean water? Build a sediment trap!


The Army Corps of Engineers needs to create a small lake at the point of the diversion. When muddy water flows into a lake, the mud settles to the bottom as sediment. Clear water flows beyond that inflow delta, and eventually flows out of the lake. This is why Lake Powell is getting filled up with sediment in its upper reaches, and why the Grand Canyon is sediment-starved. The lake should have two major outflow pipes: one positioned at the lake bottom close to the inflow, and the second positioned near the lake surface at the downstream end of the lake. The “bottom near the inflow” pipe feeds sediment-laden water down the Atchafalaya river. The “surface downstream” pipe feeds clear water down the Mississippi. After decades, and some big floods like the current one, the Atchafalaya lobe will build up and the New Orleans bird’s-foot will erode away.


The Morganza spillway already has a stilling basin, but that’s designed to dissipate energy, not separate out the sediment.


Yes, it will cost a lot of money to build the sediment trap, but the alternatives are a lot more expensive. What is the cost of relocating New Orleans and Baton Rouge? We are hoping to accomplish here a controlled stream capture and relocation of the sediment load. By the way, the natural event when a river distributary carves a new channel is called a “crevasse event.” The river catastrophically breaks through the natural levee and forms a crevasse where the new channel pours out. A lot of people in the John McPhee article were terrified of a crevasse event happening on its own.


We need a sediment trap and decades of patience to let it work.


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Competition versus Choice

OK, if Rand Simberg can write that he wants to ditch the label “capitalism” and replace it with free markets, I’m going to ask that we stop talking about competition in the free market and talk about customer choice instead. I think that choice is the better term because the only competition that helps is where the customer choice determines the winner. Customer choice free from restriction or coercion is really what we mean when we say free in free market. We need to get the focus off the company and on to the customer where it belongs. Sometimes people get the wrong idea with competition and think that if company A does something to hurt company B – like pay stores to not carry the other guys products, or spread false rumors – that is good because it is “competition”.

We’re really not interested with actions that reduce competition between firms in the market place, but with actions that reduce customer choice – and that includes government actions, not just company actions. When the customer isn’t free to choose, then the market isn’t really free, which is both economically inefficient and yes, morally wrong.

I’m going to harken back to my Hayek – who basically said a society should be built on private property, free markets, representative government, and the rule of law. And they really aren’t 4 separate things.

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How I Learned to Love Economics

I disliked economics in college. I agreed with the claim that the subject was dismal.

And then I started to read economics books and articles on my own, and I discovered a practical use for it.

I’m sure you’ve heard sometime in your life the statement “If it helps only one person (or the common variation if it saves only one life), it will have been worth it.” This is always said in an attempt to end all further debate on the subject and usually is offered as an argument to continue whatever “it” is – typically spending money on the speaker’s pet project. Once upon a time, I used to nod my head and give the matter no further thought.

Economics changed that.

Now when that line of argument is used, I respond with “No, you have to look at other courses of action (or ways of spending money) and choose an option or mix of options that helps (or saves) the most people. ” In other words, if you spend a million dollars to save just one life, but there are other ways to spend a million that save more than one life, then no, all things being equal, it wasn’t worth it, it was a mistake.

One word of warning – you’re not likely to change the person’s mind when you go this route. I’d leave off the mistake part if I were you, and just get to them to think about better ways. And don’t mention the economics angle – instead tell them about the Zen of chess and how the way to win is always make the best possible move. They might actually see it your way.

People want to get better at chess, or think about how they can apply game related insights to their lives. They don’t want anything to do with economics, which is forever telling them they have can’t have it all but must make difficult choices. You can’t win at economics, but you can win at chess, and that makes all the difference in persuading people.

Cost to School Doesn’t Equal Value to Society

I could ramble on at great length and venom on this subject, but as time is short I’ll let Captain Capitalism handle Why Social Sciences are Pushed More Than the Hard Sciences in College:

The school I was at needed equipment and gear to teach the kids. This would have required a new building and new equipment. However, somebody got the ingenious idea that they would rent some nearby cheap office space and require the students to get “general ed requirements.” Then in shifts the kids would come in and take their general education requirements while the other students used whatever lab equipment they needed. They more or less doubled enrollment without having to spend twice on the gear.

We go on to find out why there are so (too) many lawyers and why certain fields like, oh, feminist studies, to use the actual example from the post, have become so popular with universities and why there are too few scientists and engineers graduating from same. Although I will say, in agreement with Michelle Obama here, K-12 education in America has some significant problems, and lack of rigor in those years is a huge reason there are way too few American born scientists and engineers.

The Rest of The Circuit City Story

So I’m enjoying reading The 101 Dumbest Moments in Business, 2007 (via Joe Sherlock) And then I come across the answer to an earlier post about Circuit City’s novel approach to cost cutting — firing the highest paid, i.e. the best, salespeople:

Since I’m not one of the people being fired, I can be detached and think that this will provide a nice economics case study in cost cutting. Arguably (i.e. I’m leaving wiggle room for later) it will be used as a case study in business school – but I will leave it up to an excercise for the reader to decide if it will be held up as an effective, an ineffective, or a disastrous way to cut costs.

And now, the rest of the story:

In a cost-cutting move, Circuit City lays off all sales associates paid 51 cents or more per hour above an “established pay range” – essentially firing 3,400 of its top performers in one fell swoop. Over the next eight months Circuit City’s share price drops by almost 70%.

I think, unsurprisingly, disastrous is the final answer. I guess companies will go back to laying off the bottom performers instead of the top.


Weather Economics

I’m kind of shocked about a newspaper story I’m NOT seeing, namely the story that says that the recent slowdown is do the the harsh winter we’ve been having. They used to run stories about how warm weather increased spending:

The warmest January in more than 100 years lured consumers out to the shopping malls to spend money at the fastest clip in six months, giving a strong boost to the economy as the new year began.

So, does the weather play a role? My wife last night was lamenting that she hadn’t been able to do any real shopping in a long while because of the lousy winter weather. Yes, an anecdote, but a perusal of back issues says the weather spending connection was once taken seriously by the media. I don’t recall one story yet this winter making that claim.

Could it be that the media is trying to (1) tarnish Bush and (2) affect the outcome of the election?

Another interesting part of the 2 year old story:

However, a third report showed construction spending managed only a 0.2 percent increase in January, the weakest gain in seven months and far below the 1 percent analysts had expected.A big reason for the slowdown was a tiny 0.1 percent increase in private home building, the poorest monthly performance since an actual decline of 0.4 percent last June.

It was a further indication that residential construction, which has enjoyed five boom years, is beginning to slow.

Sales of both new and existing homes fell in January despite the warm weather. Economists predict continued increases in mortgage rates will slow housing further in coming months.

What’s this, a slowdown in the housing market 2 years ago? I thought the current slowdown was just that – current and because of the current sub-prime “debacle”. Sometimes it really pays to go back and read old news because the news itself has so little correct historical context to it and too much current narrative.

Clinton: “Prius Owners Won’t Get Mortgage Deduction”

I know I’m just a country bumpkin from Missouri, but when a politician says this:

“In addition, Hillary will end the tax incentives to companies that ship jobs overseas, and invest those resources in creating good, high-paying jobs here in the U.S.”

I can’t help but think

“In addition, Hillary will end the mortgage income tax deduction to individuals who buy Priuses, because they are shipping those good, high-paying jobs overseas. Instead, they should buy cars manufactured right here in the U.S.”

Of course, you’ll never hear a politician actually say that, although for the life of me I can’t see the difference between a company buying products from overseas and an individual buying products from overseas. Companies are just aggregators of all the people necessary to make a product for the purchasers of the product. Economically or morally, it makes no difference if the purchaser or the company aggregates from foreigners – the foreigners are employed just the same (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In fact, from this nativist point of view, isn’t better to buy from a company that outsources than from a foreign company because the outsourcer preserves more American jobs?

The Empire Strikes Back …

And so it begins:

French Strike Tonight to Protest Sarkozy Plan

I think it’s a remake of the classic: Margaret Thatcher and the Unions.

Does representative government work? Yes, so I’m saying Sarkozy will win this one.

Assolutamente! And I Don’t Even Drink Coffee

Someday, I’ll finish the tale of the Murphy Family’s European adventure and include pictures of Venice, my favorite of all cities. Until then, you’ll have to make due with this story:

Immediately upon arriving in Venice, Italy, a friend asked a hotel concierge where he and his wife could go to enjoy the city’s best. Without hesitation, they were directed to the Cafe Florian in St. Mark’s Square. The two of them were soon at the cafe in the crisp morning air, sipping cups of steaming coffee, fully immersed in the sights and sounds of the most remarkable of Old World cities. More than an hour later, our friend received the bill and discovered the experience had cost more than $15 a cup. Was the coffee worth it, we asked? “Assolutamente!” he replied.

Venice is that good. Heck, I’d take up drinking coffee just for that experience.

The post I took it from is also quite good, and explores the difference between cost and price and why music, even in the digital age, won’t be free. The value (and thus the price a consumer is willing to pay) of an experience to a consumer is not the sum of the costs that go into that experience.

And who says posts about economics have to be dismal and boring?