ITQs and organisational costs

There is a fair bit of controversy in fisheries science on the merits and caveats of ITQs, catch shares, or whatever you want to call them. I won’t go into the details of that debate here, but the following news caught my attention (H/T Adam Soliman/Ecology Action Center):

California fishers say quota system is all wet
(…) Commercial fishers, industry experts and government officials are among those who say that while fish populations are recovering, too few people in California are benefiting from that rebound in part because there aren’t enough qualified monitors to oversee the program. (…)

Apparently, all fishers under the California catch share system are required to have on-board observers to monitor their catch. This is quite expensive, especially for small-scale fishers. It is one of the great disadvantages of an ITQ system: how do you make sure that fishers do not catch more than their fair share? Monitoring landings, if at all possible, runs the risk of increasing discards. The latest trend in the EU is to install cameras, something which the Californian fishers in the article seem to favour as well.

Monitoring costs are part of the organisational costs of a policy instrument: you need people to do the paperwork, to decide who gets what, to monitor compliance, and so on. These costs usually depend little on the size of the transaction or the parties involved in it. That’s why the fishers complain:

Also, operators of small, family-run boats say the costs of the monitors, which are the same for them as for corporate boats, have created inequality.

I’m not sure what to say about this complaint. I don’t agree small-scale fishers or farmers should be protected for the sake of being a small-scale fisher or farmer; neither am I buying the argument that small-scale fishers are inherently more ‘sustainable’, whatever that means. Small-scale fisheries can offer valuable sources of income in developing countries, where poverty is rife and people have little to fall back on when they lose their job. California is not a developing country; although few Europeans would be impressed with its social security system, you cannot expect the local fishery to provide one. But I do believe that transaction costs usually prevent markets from finding efficient solutions, so a system that requires such heavy monitoring costs is likely to cause substantial losses in efficiency.

Matilda, three songs, and the melancholy of travelling

‘Tis the season again. In The Netherlands this means that a bunch of radio jocks have a public fasting exercise to collect donations for the Red Cross. Serious Request it’s called, and, guess what, the main thing is to make your donation together with your request for your favourite song. I’m not too much of a listener to 3FM (their radio station), but it’s becoming a bit of a tradition for me to request Tom Waits’s Tom Traubert’s Blues every year:

Waits wrote the song in the 1970s, when his music was usually a bourbon-soaked mix of jazz and blues, with a Sinatraesque ballad thrown in here and there, and as major themes booze, gambling, and bad women. Everything changed, however, when he met Kathleen Brennan. She got him to give up drinking, introduced him to the music of Captain Beefheart, and thereby induced his major shift to the almost absurdistic albums he made from that point on, like Swordfishtrombones, Raindogs, and Bone Machine. I must admit I usually prefer the post-Brennan crazy stuff. His 1970s ballads could verge dangerously on the sentimental and the cliche-ridden; meanwhile, nothing beats the spooky weirdness of What’s he building in there?, or the brutal stomp of Singapore.

Except, that is, for this one song. The lyrics conjure up strong images, yet are sufficiently abstract to give the song an enigmatic quality – and to provoke lots of debate on what the song is about. Some think it is about addiction, or even suicide. Tom Waits himself usually introduces the song by saying “this song is about throwing up in a foreign country.” Supposedly he wrote the song after a drinking binge in Copenhagen with Danish singer and violinist Mathilde Bondo (hence the subtitle “Four sheets to the wind in Copenhagen”). Another story is that he wrote the song after hanging out with LA’s down-and-out (“every single guy…a woman put him there” he is reported to have said).

I used to think the song was about the First World War – seriously. When I started listening to Tom Waits I had been playing Irish music for a few years. The standard repertoire includes The Band Played Waltzing Matilda by the Scottish-Australian songwriter Eric Bogle:

That song is about WW1, telling the story of one of the many Australian soldiers caught up in the murderous meat grinding machine of Gallipoli, in what was in those days the Ottoman Empire. The title of Bogle’s song (and the chorus in Waits’) refers to Waltzing Matilda, an Australian folksong about a transient worker that was (and still is) Australia’s unofficial national anthem. Apparently, ‘To waltz Matilda’ is Australian slang for travelling by foot with your belongings stuffed in a rucksack. Bogle’s song describes how Waltzing Matilda accompanied the soldiers’ march to and from the battlefield, their remembrance marches, and perhaps even their afterlife:

And their ghosts may be heard as you pass by a billabong
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

So when I heard Waits sing:

I’m an innocent victim of a blinded alley
And I’m tired of all these soldiers here
No-one speaks English and everything’s broken
And my stacys are soaking wet

I couldn’t help but imagine a lonely American, lost somewhere in a faraway corner of the crumbling Ottoman Empire (say, present-day Egypt, or Jordania), with nothing but his once fancy, but now torn and dirty clothes and shoes. And what about these lines?

You can ask any sailor and the keys from the jailer
And the old men in wheelchairs know
Matilda’s the defendant, she killed about a hundred
And she follows wherever you may go

I figured the old men in wheelchairs could very well be the veterans in Bogle’s song:

And now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Renewing their dreams of past glory
I see the old men, bent, stiff, and sore
These tired old heroes of a forgotten war
And young people ask: what are they marching for?
And I ask myself the same question

Bogle wrote his song in 1971, so it is possible – but I’m quite sure it is a coincidence and Waits did not have The Great War in mind when he wrote Tom Traubert’s Blues.

Not that I care much for whether he did. To me, this image of a forlorn Westerner, lost in a country where he does not speak the language while the world is crumbling all around him, fits the lyrics perfectly. The song has a loneliness and a lostness to it that Waits must have recognized in the LA skid row (or in the Copenhagen porcelain truck after his drinking binge with Mathilde). I usually play the song on my mp3 player when I’m abroad for work. When you are in the bus from the center of Reykjavik to your hotel in a depressing office quarter at the border of town, nothing fits your mood better than hearing this grinding voice wail

It’s a battered old suitcase
To a hotel some place
And a wound that will never heal

Just writing it gives me goosebumps: a wound that will never heal. When we travel, we leave behind the places and people we know and love. But we also develop a fondness for the place we’ve travelled to, which only gets stronger as we stay there longer. What I’d give for just one more bike ride along the coast of Santa Barbara, or a Guinness in Gogarty’s, Dublin, or a fried fish and a vinho verde in some small unassuming restaurant on the Azores… Wherever you go, even if you go home, part of you still wishes you were back somewhere else.

The curious silence on activist science

My two cents on the Seralini retraction story (Retraction Watch has all the details which I won’t rehash here):

The first author, Gilles-Eric Séralini, is board member of an anti-GMO lobby group. Its website presents rather gleefully the horrible pictures of lab rats with huge tumors. What it does not tell you is that no matter what you feed them, this type of rats is highly likely to grow such tumors – indeed, they were bred for this very purpose. Previous research by Mr Séralini was funded by Greenpeace. Mr Séralini has been accused before of questionable, politically motivated scientific practices.

To me this reeks of the kind of political bias in research I come across all too often. What bothers me most, however, is the deafening silence about it in the news media. Accept a cup of coffee from a Monsanto employee and your reputation as an independent scientist is in tatters; but when it comes to furthering your own political views everything seems to be allowed, including sloppy science and misleading, exaggerated headlines. I wonder which is the more damaging.

The other problem is the natural law that it is always the initial headline that sets the image. The retractions, the errata, and the rectifications at best get page three. A few months ago heavy accusations of highgrading and overfishing thrown at a Dutch fishing company were all over the news. The news of its acquittal by the authorities never made the papers.

Grow Fins likes Cow Burps

And the latest contender for the title of “Funniest Titled Environmental Economics Blog” is the UK-based Cow Burps:

  • We like to think ‘Cow Burps’ is a humorous and unique name therefore reflecting the idea that the blog should be fun both to write and read
  • We liked the idea of ‘burps’ as a euphemism for the interesting blog posts that we hope to write
  • The predicament of rising beef/dairy demand from an increase in population and rising middle classes in conflict with climate change impacts and habitat damage/deforestation is a perfect example of a situation where the use of environmental economics can provide better information to decision-makers. You can read more about this on the post How many cows?
  • And lastly, it reminds everyone to examine conventional wisdom, with cow burps being a much higher source of methane than cow farts!