Some More Thoughts on Airport Security

Via Tyler Cowen, I found this wonderful BusinessWeek article about the cost (both in lives and money) of heightened airport security. Matt Yglesias responded here. The best part of his post is this pity sentence:

If commercial airplanes were no more secure than your average city bus, planes would be blown up as frequently as city buses—which is to say never.

Of course, a critic might point out that blowing up a plane is not the greatest fear. Under the 9/11 model, a plane has many benefits over a bus as a weapon — it is much more mobile than a bus, can hit targets that buses can’t and from more vulnerable angles, and packs a larger punch because of the enormous amount of jet fuel planes carry. Sure, many cockpits nowadays have secure, reinforced doors, but again a critic might be wary of the I’ll-kill-one-passenger-a-minute-until-you-open-that-door threat that was parodied in the slapstick comedy Passanger 57. Wait, that wasn’t a comedy? And then again in Air Force One, and probably again in a hundred other bad ’90s action films.

However, it’s important to note that under a model of zero percent airport security the Air Marshal program could be drastically expanded to basically insure that every major commercial flight had a marshal onboard. I think that’s overkill, but it could squelch fears of a 9/11-style repeat. I’m also curious, though, about evasive action by the pilots. It seems like a significant roll and pitch back and forth a few times could basically disarm any passenger with a weapon before they even knew what was happening. Presumably anyone standing at the time would suffer significant injuries, but it seems like this would be a simple, second-best option that could immediately be followed by an emergency landing. Also, to take over a plane you basically have to ensure you are standing and mobile while everyone else is seated as to suppress resistance, which makes this method doubly effective and likely to minimize non-combatant injuries.


The Chronicle of Higher Education releases a fantastic graphic detailing female academic authors’ contributions to scholarly paper publication since 1665.

Obama’s second chance on human rights.

How to make an oil rig turn “invisible.” 

The prospect of Catalonia independence from Spain. (HT: Marginal Revolution)

The economic development sphere of the Twitterverse explodes following this post by Acemoglu and Robinson. (HT: Marginal Revolution)

Gawd, That’s a Lot of Space Junk

Copyright Gizmag

Just how important is the problem of orbital debris? At present (2012), there are roughly one thousand operational satellites, half of which are in near-Earth space, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists Satellite Database. But in addition to about 40 derelict satellites, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network is tracking more than 22,000 pieces of debris, each of which is larger than about 4 inches (10 cm), the reliable detection limit of their radars and telescopes. Only two weeks ago the explosion of a Russian upper stage rocket added over 500 large pieces of debris to the problem.

Read the accompanying article here.

GMOs and the Environment

The following post is an excerpt and ellaboration of a longer post I wrote entitled The Future of Zambian Agriculture.

The dialogue surrounding the commercialization of food is fraught with unintuitive results that seem to run counter to much of the public discourse regarding the benefits of local, organic food sourcing. Many consumers and advocates around the world now view locally grown, organic produce as superior — both environmentally and in terms of health — to large-scale agribusiness reliant on extensive use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Some NGOs beg to differ, however. Chief among them is the powerful Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has recently invested more than $1.8 billion in agricultural development, primarily in Africa, with hundreds of millions directed toward GMO crop programs.[30] The foundation is drawing on a growing body of research that, perhaps surprisingly, suggests GMOs may provide a healthy, environmentally friendly, and highly productive agricultural option.

For instance, in 2008 two researchers from Carnegie Mellons published a study in Environmental Science and Technology, which looked at the lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of food production. Surprisingly, the study found that the production phase dominated all other phases of the cycle, accounting for a staggering 83% of emissions.[31] All told transportation made up just 15% of GHG emissions despite an average “food-mile” distribution distance of 6,760 km when all transportation factors were added. The authors found that cutting meat consumption just slightly was much more effective at cutting total GHG emissions than consuming locally grown food. A 2011 study published in the same journal by a team of researchers at UC-Santa Barbra found similar results.[32]

When economist Steve Sexton examined the efficiency of local versus commercial agriculture in the Unites States, he found an all-local, “150 food-mile rule” would require an extra 214 million acres of arable land, a roughly 30 percent increase in fuel costs, and increased fertilizer use between 35 and 61 percent depending on the crop.[33] “The direct environmental costs of large-scale agriculture are clearly non-trivial,” wrote Sexton, however, the key question, he concluded, is whether a system based on local agriculture is superior in terms of its environmental, economic, and health outcomes.

A study published earlier this year in the journal Nature found that Bt cotton, a common genetically engineered version of the crop, reduces pesticide use, thereby encouraging natural predators that can help minimize the harmful aphid population.[39] What’s more, these benefits extended to crops like soybeans and groundnuts in neighboring fields. The study was conducted over a twenty-year period (1990 – 2011) and took place in China where 95% of the cotton grown is now of the BT cotton variety. A separate study, which appeared late last year, also in the journal Nature, found that globally, non-organic growing methods produced five to 35% more yield than organic crops.[40] Since GHG emissions are embodied mostly in production, higher per-hector yields mean a more environmentally friendly product.

Even the technologically conservative Amish have embraced GMOs. “Amish law doesn’t say anything about growing genetically modified tobacco,” Amish tobacco farmer Dan Dienner told Joshua Davis of Wired Magazine back in 2003.[41]

The benefits of high-productivity are especially evident when compared with the effects of locally grown food. As economist Ed Glaser has point out on many occasions (see here, here, and here, for instance) “the city” is the most efficient social arrangement in human history along a number of dimensions — including that of the environment. One big contribution of cities is that they increase population densities and allow people to live closer to work. Cities also contribute greatly to energy savings. Glaser finds that “[e]lectricity use is about 88 percent higher in the average single-family detached home than in the average apartment in a big building.” Urban gardening and locally grown food simply acts to decrease densities, which leads to more carbon output. Glaser estimates that allotting just 10% of farmland into urban areas would increase carbon emissions by 75%.

For those with a sophisticated palate, organic food may taste markedly better; and, indeed, certain types of fine dinning may necessitate limited quantities of local ingredients. For most of us, however, the difference in taste between the produce and meats we can buy at a modern supermarket any day of the week and what may be available at the Sunday farmer’s market is minimal. The question is whether, on net, eating food that tastes marginally better and is slightly fresher calls for what would amount to a drastic increase in carbon output. I don’t think it does, and presented with the evidence I think local-food advocates would agree. Technology may one day change this calculus, but for now I see the cost of local food far outweighing any benefits. Also, note that current evidence does not support the view that organic foods produce better health outcomes.

Others stress the community aspect of local food and community gardens. First, it hardly needs to be said that these farming and distribution arrangements are simply one of many, many ways that community can be promoted for any given neighborhood, town, or city. Second, this argument is highly variant on the definition of “community” being used. If I feel that, for example, we should promote the concept of a “world-wide community,” any notions that I should help my neighbor down the street at the expense of a Mexican tomato farmer quickly becomes misplaced.


[30] Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “Agricultural Development Strategy Overview”, August 2011.

[31] Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews, “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States,” Environmental Science & Technology 42, no. 10 (May 1, 2008): 3508–3513.

[32] David A. Cleveland et al., “Effect of Localizing Fruit and Vegetable Consumption on Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Nutrition, Santa Barbara County,” Environmental Science & Technology 45, no. 10 (May 15, 2011): 4555–4562.

[33] Steve Sexton, “Does Local Production Improve Environmental and Health Outcomes?,” Agricultural and Resource Economics Update 13, no. 2 (2009): 5–8.

[39] Damian Carrington, “GM Crops Good for Environment, Study Finds,” The Guardian, June 13, 2012,

[40] Verena Seufert, Navin Ramankutty, and Jonathan A. Foley, “Comparing the Yields of Organic and Conventional Agriculture,” Nature 485, no. 7397 (May 10, 2012): 229–232.

[41] Joshua Davis, “Come to LeBow Country,” Wired Magazine, February 2003,


As reported by Slashdot:

“Denied the right to travel without consent from their male guardians and banned from driving, women in Saudi Arabia are now monitored by an electronic system that tracks any cross-border movements. Since last week, Saudi women’s male guardians began receiving text messages on their phones informing them when women under their custody leave the country, even if they are travelling together. ‘The authorities are using technology to monitor women,’ said columnist Badriya al-Bishr, who criticised the ‘state of slavery under which women are held’ in the ultra-conservative kingdom. Women are not allowed to leave the kingdom without permission from their male guardian, who must give his consent by signing what is known as the ‘yellow sheet’ at the airport or border.”

You can read the full article here. I had hoped this was an Onion-style satirical piece, but it does appear to be real.

The Bureaucracy of American Healthcare

…has many dimensions. For example, 36 U.S. states currently have so-called Certificate of Need laws on the books, which govern a surprisingly wide array of healthcare activities. I first heard about these laws earlier this week thanks to this conversation between economists Russ Roberts and John Cochrane. Under the laws, certain health-related institutions must get approval before facilities expansion, capital or technology purchases, or the addition of more licensed beds. I pulled the following information from my state’s (Washington State) government website:

Certificate of Need Overview

The Certificate of Need (CoN) program is a regulatory process that requires certain health care providers to obtain state approval before building certain types of facilities or offering new or expanded services.Program staff is available to provide technical assistance to you before submitting your application. Staff is also available to help you determine if a Certificate of Need is necessary.

For example, a Cerfificate of Need would be required if a hospital wants to add to the number of its licensed beds. The Certificate of Need process is intended to help ensure that facilities and new services proposed by healthcare providers are needed for quality patient care within a particular region or community.

Certificate of Need review is required for:

  • Construction, development, or establishment of the following healthcare facilities:
    • Hospitals
    • Nursing Homes
    • Kidney Dialysis Centers
    • Medicare or Medicaid Home Health Agencies
    • Medicare or Medicaid Hospice Agencies
    • Ambulatory Surgical Centers
    • Hospice Care Centers
  • Increases in the number of stations at a kidney dialysis center.
  • Sale, purchase, or lease of all or part of an existing hospital, regardless of profit/non-profit status.
    • Increases in the number of licensed beds at a hospital, nursing home, or hospice care center.
    • Offering a new tertiary health service. These include:
    • Level I Rehabilitation Programs
    • Open Heart Surgery
    • Therapeutic Cardiac Catheterization
    • Organ Transplantation Specialty Burn Services
    • Intermediate Care Nursery and/or Obstetric Services
    • Level II Neonatal Intensive Care Nursery and/or Obstetric Services
    • Level III Specialized Inpatient Pediatric Services
  • A capital expenditure made by a nursing home exceeding 1 million dollars (adjusted for inflation). The 2012 minimum is set at $2,403,990.
  • Nursing home bed banking transactions.
  • Nursing home replacements.

Below is a U.S. map of those states that have CON laws. There is a tremendous amount of valuable information on the subject at this wonderful site maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Government certainly has its place, but if a kidney dialysis center determines that it needs to increase the number of stations available, I’m not sure why a government board should have any say in the matter. These laws undoubtedly increase healthcare costs by adding a bureaucratic layer of processing to many common health facility activities as well as reduce competition by raising barriers to entry for for-profit and non-profit healthcare providers. Wondering if any healthcare economists have done work on the impact of these laws.