Monday, September 25, 2023

Unintended Consequences: The California Electric Truck Mandate


If you own a trucking company that picks up shipments from California ports, you now have to deal with the consequences of a new law designed to reduce your carbon footprint.


Trucking is one of the vital ingredients in our infrastructure that virtually all parts of the economy rely on.  About two-fifths of all containerized imports to the U. S. come through one of California's twelve commercial ports.  According to a recent report in National Review, beginning January 1, any trucker doing "drayage" (the technical term for transporting stuff to or from a seaport) in California can only buy zero-emission vehicles, although they can hang on to their existing diesel fleet for a while.


Trucks don't last forever, however, and evidently the court of wisdom otherwise known as the California legislature decided this was the best way to get truckers used to the additional coming mandate that in 2035, all trucks entering California seaports and intermodal rail yards (where the containers are loaded onto trains) must be zero-emission types. 


The ostensible motivation for these laws is to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, of course.  And careful analyses do show that over the lifetime of an electric vehicle, even if you include the fossil fuels used in the different types of manufacturing (electric versus internal-combustion) and in producing the electricity for the vehicle, less carbon dioxide results from using electric vehicles.  That's the intended consequence, and unless the law is later modified, it will be achieved.


But the devil is in the details, and some truckers interviewed about the mandate pointed out several unintended consequences that may follow from these laws.  For one thing, the number of electric trucks in California will have to go from about 300, where it is today, to around 500,000, and some way will have to be found to charge all those trucks, and to keep them running farther than the alleged 60 miles that the California regulators said was the typical drayage daily mileage.  A lot of truckers drive a lot farther than that every day, and if you add several hours a day to charge the trucks, it turns a normal workday into a 20-hour day. 


And then there's the cost.  Even if you can find a zero-emission truck that will do the job, it will cost three or four times what a diesel vehicle costs.  And one trucker asked what bank will finance such a purchase if you can't show where you're going to charge it and how you will work out a schedule that will let you stay in business. 


So if California doubles down on enforcement, we can anticipate something like a gradual strangling of commerce flowing through its ports as the few truckers who manage to jump through the hoops of regulation are all that's left.  And maybe that was what the lawmakers really wanted anyway.  If the idealist dream of a zero-emission society were to come to pass in the next couple of years, millions would die of starvation and cold, and those few who are left would be reduced to living a life that would be familiar to a denizen of 1880. 


At the very least, essentially shutting down 40% of containerized imports to the U. S. would cause massive supply-chain disruptions that would make what happened during COVID look like a hiccup.  If you say no one would let things get that bad, well, we did let things get that bad during COVID, and it can happen again.


I recently came across a true story that should become the paradigm cautionary tale for those who close their eyes to the unintended consequences of legislation. 


In England in the mid-1800s, dogs were quite commonly used for transportation.  Poor people who couldn't afford a horse and wagon to carry their goods to market could nevertheless use a dog and a "dog-cart" (not to be confused with the horse-drawn carriage referred to in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales).  But in 1841, the recently founded Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) successfully lobbied to pass a law prohibiting the use of dogs for transportation.  In urging this measure, the SPCA cited a few highly publicized instances of cruelty to transport dogs, although it appears that many if not most of the dogs were well-treated.  For good measure, a dog tax was also passed around the same time, further discouraging the use of dogs for business purposes.


I can't be positive, but I suspect that the SPCA members were largely upper-class types who, if they thought ahead at all, imagined all the dogs formerly used for transport would revert to being beloved pets.  Think again.  According to Stanley Coren, a dog psychologist and historian, when the law took effect it led to something close to a dog holocaust:  


"Dreadful massacres of dogs took place all over England when they could no longer legally be used for cartage but were now taxable.  In Birmingham, more than a thousand were slaughtered, and similar carnage took place in Liverpool.  In Cambridge, the streets were littered with dead dogs.  Because these bodies were becoming a health hazard, the high constable of Cambridge arranged a mass burial of four hundred dogs."


So much for good intentions.  The SPCA survived this debacle somehow, and so did the use of dogs for transportation in other parts of the world, but no longer in England.


No one can be certain of exactly what will happen if California enforces their zero-emission truck mandate.  But they are meddling with a piece of infrastructure that is crucial to the entire U. S. economy, and if the law has the unintended consequence of disrupting commerce in ways that harm millions of U. S. citizens, those harms should be weighed against whatever essentially unmeasurable good that may eventually come a century or so after California's greenhouse-gas emissions go down by a few percent as a result of this law.  In my view, the law will do a lot more harm than good, and most of the California truckers think so too.


Sources:  National Review's website carried the article "California EV Rules 'Totally Impractical,' Truckers Say; Might as Well 'Build a Spaceship and Go to Mars'" at  I also referred to,, and Stanley Coren's The Intelligence of Dogs:  Canine Consciousness and Capabilities (Macmillan, 1994), pp. 155-156. 

Monday, September 18, 2023

Is Attribution Science Really Science?


A recent issue of Physics Today described a new field called "attribution science" which endeavors to attribute certain extreme weather events to human-caused climate change.  I'm not going to get into the specifics of the particular examples it cites, because they are many and varied.  But I will note that this kind of activity is becoming quite popular, not only in the physics community, but in geosciences as well.  I have read several papers in which the authors make statements like "This Japanese heat wave is virtually certain to have been caused by human-induced climate change."


What I would like to examine is the philosophical bona fides of this type of activity.  That is, what is the logical chain, assuming there is one, from the starting premises of such a statement's argument that leads to such disturbing and definite conclusions?


To say A is caused by B with some degree of confidence, we can do one of a number of things.  One way to verify such a statement is to take B away and see if A still happens.  Unfortunately, we can't just take another identical Earth, remove most of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and then see how it runs after that.  The experiment we are running with this planet is unique, as far as we know, and so our ability to fiddle with the variables in different experimental runs is nil. 


Another way to verify causality is to show that when A happens, B happens shortly afterwards and not when A doesn't happen.  The Physics Today article calls this kind of causality "Granger causality" and says there are statistical methods to predict B happening based on statistics concerning A and B, whatever they might be.  But, as the article points out, this kind of test is subject to the post hoc, propter hoc fallacy (meaning roughly "afterwards, therefore because of").  That is, just because the New York City blackout of 1965 happened right after a kid hit a light pole with a stick doesn't mean that the kid caused the blackout—despite what the terror-stricken kid confessed to his mother when he got home.


What the attributionists typically do is to gin up some atmospheric models that produce probabilities of this or that event that they are trying to blame on people.  Then they tinker with the atmosphere's CO2 levels, or concentration of aerosols, or something that is pretty clearly due to human activity.  And then they run their models again to see if they get the same disastrous weather that happened before, or whether leaving the human activity out makes it less likely.


The logical problem with this game is that no climate model I know of includes absolutely everything that affects the climate.  They all approximate or ignore certain factors.  So anything claimed for these models can be answered by asking, "Sez who?  And how do you know that something you ignored wouldn't give you different results than you got?"  Logically speaking, there is no defensible reply to that question.


I have done some very simple modeling of physical systems, and let me tell you:  it's very easy to get almost anything you want, and the more variables there are, the easier it is to do that.  And I'm not necessarily accusing the parties involved of fraud.  They may be honestly trying to make their models work better, not make them produce the results they want.  But the dividing line between "work better" and "get the results we want" is a thin and permeable one. 


After reading several such articles, I start to get the feeling that all pretense of what used to be called objective science has been abandoned.  Everybody knows that if you write a paper using a model that shows Hurricane X was conclusively not caused by HICC, the chances of getting it published are small, to say the least.  All the media, all the funding, and all the scientists, nearly, are predisposed to hear the bad news that we humans are the problem that causes every single bad thing that happens weather-wise. 


Was it Mark Twain who said there are lies, damned lies, and statistics?  If so, he was writing at a time when the discipline of statistics was just beginning to be recognized as a new and powerful way of understanding the world.  And don't get me wrong—statistical study is a vitally necessary part of doing big-data science.  It can't be done any other way. 


But when sophisticated mathematics, not comprehensible to anyone except a few experts, is brought to bear on the question of whether HICC "caused" a particular adverse weather event—a flood, a fire, a drought, a tornado, a hurricane, you name it—the average layperson is placed at an unfair disadvantage.  If he denies that this is the case, then the scientist will say the layman doesn't know what he's talking about.  And in a sense, that's true.  But even laypeople can understand that the kind of certainty we can have about the sun coming up tomorrow morning is not obtainable when it's a question of complicated and incomplete climate models and highly localized and specific weather events.


The Physics Today article said as much, if one bothered to read between the lines, or just the lines themselves.  They addressed several types of attribution science and showed there were serious flaws in each one, although not so severe as to render the enterprise completely worthless.  But I wonder.


 Everybody agrees that even if we shut off all fossil-fuel burning tomorrow, we would be stuck with whatever effects our present CO2 levels have for the better part of a century.  It seems to me that scientists would be better employed by looking for ways to mitigate the climate changes we are going to have, rather than disrupting or destroying the world's economy in a fruitless attempt to shut the barn door after the CO2 horse has escaped.


Sources:  The September 2023 issue of Physics Today carried the article "Connecting Extreme Weather Events to Climate Change" by Michael Wehner on pp. 40-46.  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Granger causality.

Monday, September 11, 2023

The Moroccan Earthquake and Building Codes

Last Friday, at 11:11 PM local time, the city of Marrakech in Morocco was hit by a 6.8-magnitude earthquake.  Within a day, the fatality count exceeded 2,000 and continues to rise as this is written (Sunday morning).  Photos from Marrakech and surrounding cities near the Atlas Mountains show cracked and toppled towers and piles of rubble, especially in small villages where enforcement of building codes is lax. 


According to an Associated Press report of the disaster, Morocco lies on the intersection of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates.  Earthquakes tend to cluster where plates collide, but compared to some plate-intersection regions, strong earthquakes in northwest Africa are relatively rare.  When they occur, though, they tend to cause massive destruction.  In 1960, a Moroccan earthquake of magnitude 5.8 caused thousands of deaths as well.   


As earthquakes go, a magnitude 5.8 event is not the worst possible.  The world's record quake in terms of magnitude was a 9.5-magnitude event along a long fault in Chile in 1960.  Bearing in mind that quake magnitudes are logarithmic—a 6.0-magnitude quake has ten times the amplitude of movement of a 5.0-magnitude one—a magnitude-5.8 quake in the U. S. might not even cause any fatalities, depending on how densely populated the region was and the nature of the buildings involved.  For example, in 1973 the 5.8-magnitude Point Mugu earthquake in Ventura County, California caused several injuries and over $1 million in damage, but no one died as a result.


Just quoting the magnitude of an earthquake doesn't tell you everything about how it will affect a given building.  For that, you need something called the modified Mercatili intensity scale.  This scale runs from I (not felt) to XII (third stage of extreme), and why Mercatili chose to use Roman numerals is not known (unless he felt a patriotic need as an Italian to use Roman numerals).  For a given magnitude of quake, there is a maximum Mercatili number it can cause on the surface, because obviously the farther away you are from the epicenter, the less shaking you will experience.  According to Wikipedia, a magnitude-6.8 quake can cause a Mercatili shaking of up to IX (nine, for those unfamiliar with Roman numerals).  This can cause damage even in wood-frame structures, which are much more tolerant of earthquakes than unreinforced masonry and rock buildings.  But typically, such a quake causes only shaking to Mercatili number VII (seven), which according to geophysicist Kelly Martin can be withstood by most small U. S. residential buildings, although with some minor damage but no fatalities.


And that is one of the key reasons why Morocco suffered so much damage in last week's magnitude-6.8 quake.  By its nature, masonry not reinforced with steel reinforcement bars ("rebar"), which is a very traditional form of building, is poorly adapted to resist earthquakes.  If the wall or building is basically one heavy block put on top of another with only gravity to hold them down, the tensile stress that occurs when the bottom layer of masonry moves under the huge inertia of the masonry above makes the joints between the blocks fail.  It's not much different than piling up a pile of children's blocks on a towel, and then pulling the towel.  It doesn't take much of a pull to make the whole pile come apart and fall down.


That being the case, why don't countries like Morocco enforce building codes so that most structures can withstand a Mercatili shaking of VII or more?  The authorities in Morocco are in the best position to answer that question, but I can speculate.


One factor is money, or more specifically, per-capita GDP.  Making a masonry building resistant to earthquakes is not a simple undertaking.  It requires expertise, skilled craftsmen who know how to translate the engineering requirements into reality, and money to pay for extra things like braces, rebar, and other features that will not add anything to the perceived value of the structure unless and until an earthquake occurs. 


For numerous reasons, these factors all militate against the likelihood of your average citizen moving into an earthquake-resistant house in a place like Morocco.  If the citizen has a certain amount of money, and one contractor says he can build a 1,500-square-foot place for that amount, and a second contractor says he can build an earthquake-resistant building for the same amount, only it will be 1,000 square feet, well, most people are going to go for the bigger building.  Much has been made about fatalism in Muslim countries, which is allegedly the habit of attributing disaster to God's will.  By my judgment, there is at least as much fatalism in the U. S. concerning disasters, but what we have here is building codes that are actually enforced, plus a tendency not to make houses out of pure masonry, brick, or stone.


Asking Moroccans to build wooden houses would be like asking to go waterskiing in Death Valley:  the requisite materials are simply not available.  So why aren't building codes for masonry buildings enforced to make them more resistant to earthquakes?


One big problem in very old countries like Morocco is that a lot of the buildings are decades or centuries old.  One famous structure that was damaged in last week's earthquake, Marrakesh's Koutoubia Mosque with a 226-foot-high tower, was built in the 12th century A. D.  It reportedly suffered damage, but the extent is not known and the tower apparently did not fall down.  Even U. S. building codes typically do not require retrofitting of existing structures until they are sold or extensively modified.  If an old structure of importance is judged to be an earthquake hazard in the U. S., more typically it is just torn down and replaced.  But you don't just tear down a historic mosque.


Our sympathies are with the survivors of the Moroccan earthquake, who will no doubt plea for the government and King Mohammed VI to do something to prevent such fatalities next time.  But as next time may not be for a long time, it's quite possible that any efforts to improve building codes, or to remedy hazards in existing buildings, may be forgotten before the next major quake comes along.


Sources:  I referred to an Associated Press article by Sam Metz and Mosa'ab Elshamy that was carried in the Los Angeles Times at  I also referred to articles at,, and the Wikipedia articles on specific earthquakes mentioned and the modified Mercatili intensity scale.

Monday, September 04, 2023

Electric Vehicle Owners Pay Tax in Texas


Last Friday, a new law went into effect that seeks to close a loophole that drivers of electric vehicles have been enjoying:  their freedom from per-gallon road taxes in Texas.  As of Sept. 1, new electric-vehicle (EV) owners will have to pay a $400 first-time registration fee, and $200 annually to renew their registration.  Up to now, EV owners have escaped the twenty-cents-per-gallon state road tax that internal-combustion (IC) vehicle owners pay.  But as Teslas, Chevy Volts, and other less popular EVs show up in increasing numbers, the concern was that these drivers were essentially freeloading on the taxes paid by their fellow drivers who were paying for gas.  Texas now joins 32 other states which have enacted some form of compensatory tax on EVs.


It's interesting that if you do the math, you can figure out what kind of gas-guzzling car you'd have to be driving in order for the EV tax to be equivalent to what you would actually pay in state gasoline taxes for your old-fashioned IC car.  Ignoring for a moment the first-time fee, the Texas gasoline tax rate is 0.20 per gallon.  How many gallons do you have to buy per year to pay $200 in state gas taxes?  That's easy—1000 gallons.  Assuming you drive the fairly typical 12,000 miles a year, that means to pay as much tax as an EV owner does, your vehicle gas mileage would need to be only 12 miles per gallon.  That's in the range of gas mileage of one of the most popular vehicles in Texas:  the Ford F-150.  So while Tesla owners may not appreciate the implied comparison, they'll be paying at least as much road tax as your typical pickup driver does, if not more.


Fairness is always a question when the subject of taxes come up, and depending on your political leanings, what is fair in taxation can look very different to different people.  Libertarians, for example, would turn all roads (at least major roads like highways) into turnpikes and make users pay for them per use.  This idea used to be on the impractical pie-in-the-sky shelf, but with RFID systems, computerized license-plate cameras, and allied technologies, there is no longer a major technical barrier to widespread implementation of this notion.  


The problem with it is that it would be highly unpopular, as well as unprecedented.  The first scream we'd hear would be from the trucking companies, whose vehicles bang up the roads a lot more than passenger cars do.  Of course, they are already paying a lot more in taxes than ordinary cars do.  A 2015 article said that even back then, the trucking industry in the U. S. paid $21.6 billion in state highway use taxes, and almost as much in federal highway taxes.  And there's a 12% federal excise tax on new trucks, which can add up to $30,000 to the price.  So they are not getting a free ride by any means. 


Unmentioned so far in this hypothetical libertarian ideal of paying road taxes per mile is the cost of administrating such a tax.  It costs something to gather the data needed:  those camera and flash bridges over tollroads, or even more intrusive technology such as checking into a car's computer via the Internet to find where and how far it's driven.  We quickly get into privacy concerns there, so perhaps it's just as well that the Texas legislature decided to pass a flat $200 registration fee rather than getting fancy and libertarian about it.


We are so used to large-scale infrastructure systems like the interstate highways being paid for by a combination of federal and state taxes, that we don't stop to consider alternatives that modern technical means could allow us to do.  The rather obscure economic and political system called distributism favors smallness over bigness and local control over centralized control.  Economist John C. Médaille points out that the current funding system for highways is a subsidy for suburbs and for industries that depend on long-distance trucking (think Walmart and groceries shipped across the country).  What should we do instead?  Says Médaille, "The freeways should be replaced by toll roads, roads capable of collecting their building, maintenance, operational, and replacement costs."  He estimates we could reduce the current national budget for transportation by at least half in this way. 


Of course, such a move probably won't happen in isolation, for all the reasons I gave above.  It would have to be part of a larger trend toward the de-centralization of society as a whole. 


In places such as China, and increasingly in the U. S. as well, technology is being used to extract information and money from large numbers of people and concentrate it in the hands of a few, whether those few are government leaders or business owners and operators. 


But as we have seen during the COVID epidemic, technology can also be used to return work to home, to enable small local businesses to establish international markets, and to connect people in the same geographic area together in ways that used to work only when people physically met as they walked to the town grocery store or post office.  I will not go so far as to say technology is neutral—it never is, completely—but just because powerful interests are using it for increasing centralization doesn't mean it always has to be that way.


In passing the annual $200 registration fee, Texas sought to redress an imbalance that new technology has caused.  As we've seen, the legislation has done a reasonably good job of that.  But the larger question of whether power and money, in the form of taxes, should be concentrated or decentralized has been left untouched by this move.  It will take something bigger than the popularity of Teslas to start a larger conversation about the role of technology in the centralization of power, and whether we want to sit back and let it continue, or to try reversing it. 


Sources:  The article "Texas EV Owners Hit With New $200 Registration Fee" appeared on the Forbes website at  I also consulted articles at

and  John C. Médaille's Toward a Truly Free Market, from which the above quotation was taken, was published in 2010 by ISI Press.