Articles

Trolleytrucks + Autonomous Cargo Handling = Clean, Cheap Transportation 

Countries to Watch: El Salvador

The Birthplaces of China’s Leadership

When Autonomous Vehicles Leave the Nest

The Geopolitics of Saudi Arabia

Everyone for Tennis?

North Korea and the Olympics Curse

Don’t Discount Reunification

North Korea in the Next Five Years

Spanish Geo-Economics: Past, Present, and Future

Ontario: The Borderland Economy

An Electric Car and Bike Lane Plan 

Morocco the Outlier 

Like Night and Day

In Politics, the Triple Crown is Even More Elusive

Examining China’s M&A Boom

The Lay of the Land

Valuing Italy 

North Side, South Side: Real Estate in the Golden Horseshoe

On Pulling Your Goalie: Unconventional Factors to Consider 

Unconventional NHL Strategies, continued 

Humans, Computers, and Telecommuters

High-Speed for Rail in Ontario 

Boomeroomba, part 2

Gliders, Gondolas, and Gravity

Trump and the Turks

Waterworld: 10 Cities To Watch On Lake Ontario’s Southern Shore

Geopolitics in Canada

Call for Submissions: “Robots & _____”

Should Hockey Fans Be Keynesians? 

Political Dynasties and their Discontents

Guest Post: Babbit, by Sinclair Lewis

The Father, Son, and Holy Mackinaw

Geopolitics within China

Toronto’s Railways to Nowhere

The Minimum Wage in Ontario

Time-Sharing Toronto Transit

Devils’ Advocate: Elon Musk

Wall-Ball: Sport of Heroes 

Light Rail and Autonomous Vehicles in Toronto 

The Hamilton Double-Double LRT

If I ran an NBA team…

Travel by Hibernacula

If I were an NHL coach…

If I were commissioner of the NHL… 

The Café Train 

Upstairs, Downstairs

Robots and NHL Expansion

Secession Procession

Demographics, Drivers, and Dreams 

The League of the Overshadowed

Peace and Prosperity in Israel’s Future?

Was That Joke On Us? 

Deep State vs Deep South?

A Bazaar Alternative 

Cable-Cars in Toronto 

The Witching Hour

Go East, Young Canuck!

Grandfathers

Toronto Real Estate Prices – Five Factors To Consider

Cable-Cars: The Third Way

A Look Back At Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

Presidential Beginnings and Regionalism in America

Captain Compromise’s Golden Goal

Electoral College Blues

Canada Needs A Red-Green Party

Talking Trade With Trudeau And Trump

The Blessings of St Catharines

Night Moves: The Future of Charging Electric Vehicles in Ontario

Robots and the Middle East

Complacency over Coal’s Collapse: Five Factors to Consider 

Fasten Your Snowbelts: Technology and the Great Lakes

China and the Price of Oil

It’s Finally Time For A Toronto Ziggurat

The Giving Tree: Tu Bishvat and Israeli Economics 

Guest Post: Political Turnover in the United States 

Labour Strikes in China

On Numerology and Public Transit

Finally Passing Gas: 10 Winners and Losers of the Panama Canal Expansion

Eurozone Geopolitics (and the Future of “Czechia”)

Seniors Discount? Oil Prices and Old Rulers

Expect the Unexpected: 10 Reasons North Korea Could Finally Change Course

US Politics: The Real Swing State

The Other Greek Economy

The Provincials

On Politics and the Weather…and Bike Lanes

The Physics of Japanese Economics

Bricks, Mortar, and Wireless Headphones

The Geopolitics of Cheap Energy

Northeast Asian Trade

Forest and Farm 

Geopolitics in Iraq

Islands of the Pacific

The Return of the Atlantic

Europe’s Mountain Lands

The Eternal Question

Germany at a Crossroads 

Satellite Geopolitics in Eastern Europe

Canada Goes to Vote! 

US Politics: Unique New York

Turkish-Russian Geopolitics

Why Iraq is Still So Important

The Day After Tomorrow, in Morocco

Europe and Arabia: A Geopolitical Perspective

China’s Hidden Regionacracy

Legal US Immigration

Russia, Turkey, and Greece: Clash of “Civilizations” 

Motor Vehicle Production

Capital Idea

5 Challenges for Canada’s Economy in 2015

New Website: Investors Aloud

America’s Domestic Environmental Geopolitics

10 Consequences of US-Iranian Reengagement

Why Israel Won’t Let the West Bank Go 

The Geopolitics of Ukraine 

Internal Chinese Geopolitics, part 1

Iran’s Weakening Position

 Greek and Mediterranean Islands

Estonia in 2015: Energy, the Euro, and Elections

Germany’s Trade Empire

The 10 Largest Relative Trade Networks 

The PIPEs are Calling

New Jersey: The Densest State

China’s North-South Split

The Not-So-Tiny Baltics

Now That’s A Basin!

US Politics: Changing Electoral Demographics

Regional Canadian Politics 

Why Iraq?

The Coming US-Argentine Tango

The Uncertain Future of Bulgaria

Turkish-Israeli Geopolitics

8 Reasons Canadian Home Prices Might Fall

Japan from 1995 to 2035

What if Syria Fragments

10 Myths About the Global Economy

You Didn’t Build That

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North America

An Electric Car-Bike Lane Plan, for Cities like Toronto

Many Conservatives disparage electric cars and bike lanes, while many Liberals fetishize electric cars and bike lanes. The correct approach lies between: some bike lanes and some electric cars are good. Others are not.

For bike lanes, geography can be decisive. Cities like Amsterdam—which is almost entirely flat, and which has no months in which average daily highs exceed 22 degrees celsius or fall below 6 degrees celsius—are ideal for cycling. But most cities are much hillier, hotter, and colder than that. These cities need bike lanes too, but not the same type of bike lane system that Amsterdam has.

For electric cars, size and speed can be decisive. The electric cars currently being marketed to us—the Tesla S, the Nissan Leaf, etc. — are actually far too big and fast to be environmentally or economically efficient. Their batteries expend a lot of pollution during their production, do not provide enough range before needing to be either charged or swapped-out (plus, slow-charging stations, fast-charging stations, and/or battery-swapping stations are all problematic, for various environmental or economic reasons) and are too heavy and bulky to come even close to being  ideal.

This is a shame, since electric vehicles in general can be more efficient and eco-friendly than gasoline-fueled vehicles. This is (among other reasons) because they do not contribute to local air pollution, and because they receive their power from power plants, which can be several times more energy-efficient than internal combustion engines and can use energy sources other than fossil fuels.

Electric cars that are much lighter and/or slower than, for example, the Nissan Leaf do not face the same significant battery limitations that electric cars like the Leaf face. If, hypothetically, we all were to decide to buy cars that are closer in their size and speed to golf carts rather than to today’s style of North American automobile, urban areas would very likely experience a substantial economic and environmental gain as a result. The reduced speed limit of the cars would not even cause average driving speeds to drop by much during rush hour, because traffic congestion in urban areas is usually severe enough that vehicles’ average driving speeds already tend to be far below speed limits.

Of course, the goal is not to make people drive tiny cars. Apart from being illiberal, such cars would not be practical or safe on expressways and in suburban areas in which low speed limits would be limiting. The goal, rather, should be to make it safe and comfortable for drivers in urban areas to use small lightweight cars (whether privately owned or, more likely at first, car2go-style rentals), even while they sharing the road with much larger, heavier conventional cars.

Designating certain road lanes (or, better yet, entire streets or downtown cores) as slow-speed limit lanes might accomplish this. Lighter and slow electric cars could safely drive in these lanes alongside conventional vehicles.

Moreover, this could also allow for bike lane systems ideal for cities like Toronto; cities that have a lot of days that are too hot and a lot of days that are too cold/snowy/icy/ to bike comfortably or safely, especially up hills (in summer) or down hills (in winter):

Like electric vehicles, cyclists too would be able to use the slow-speed car lanes relatively safely and comfortably. This could mean three things, all of them good:

  1. the city would generally be much more bike-friendly than would otherwise be the case
  2. if you put a two-lane bike lane on one side of the street (see image below), then cyclists would have the option of either using the bike lane or using the slow-speed car lanes — in other words, cyclists would have the option of biking on the sunny side or the shaded side of the street, no matter what time of day it was. This should be very useful on hot days, when cyclists are trying to get to work without breaking a sweat
  3.  instead of having three or four winter months a year in which bike lanes are extremely underutilized, you could instead use the bike lanes during the winter as a parking lane and extra slow speed lane for some of the smaller very small cars (one-seaters or especially narrow 2-4 seaters) that would become common as a result of the slow-speed car lanes. Having a parking lane in the winter would be useful for older people who are at risk of slipping on ice and falling if they have to walk longer distances from their car to their destination.

bike lane.png

So, there it is: a plan to promote efficient electric cars, rather than inefficient ones or none at all; and a plan for having bike lanes that could be useful during hot summers as well as during cold winters.

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North America

Trolleytrucks + Autonomous Cargo Handling = Clean, Cheap Transportation

It takes a lot of time to unload a large truck and sort and store its contents. This means that trucks tend to make deliveries during the daytime, when the cost of paying people to unload trucks is relatively low.

If, however, the process of unloading trucks and handling their contents becomes automated, overnight deliveries may become much more common. At night trucks are able to avoid being caught in, and contributing to, traffic jams.

Making more deliveries in the evening or overnight may, in turn, lead to an increased demand for electric trucks. Electric trucks are far quieter than diesel trucks, which is obviously an important trait for nighttime delivery vehicles. They can also be operated relatively cheaply overnight, given the generally much lower price of nighttime power.

If – an enormous if – electric trucks do not need batteries that are heavy, bulky, pollute, and frequently need to be recharged, they can also operate many times more efficiently in general than can diesel trucks.

This is mainly because electric vehicles do not pollute city air, and because electric motors and the power plants that generate their electricty can be several times more energy-efficient (and potentially far more eco-friendly) than internal combustion engines. But it is also because electric vehicles can have regenerative breaking systems that recapture some of the power they expend, and because they have dynamic break systems and motors with very few moving parts, and because they have far stronger torque that helps them climb hills.

Unfortunately, the batteries needed to power trucks are too heavy, bulky, polluting, and range-limited*. This is especially true of batteries for large trucks**, which are the most cost-efficient and eco-friendly types of truck — and which would remain generally the most efficient types of truck even if all trucks were to become self-driving.

[*There may be three main options for dealing with batteries’ limited ranges: slow-charging, fast-charging, or battery-swapping. All three options are problematic. Slow charging is problematic because the nighttime is short, so to spend several hours charging a large truck battery is a waste of precious time. Fast charging is also problematic, because it requires a very large amount of energy at one time, which would then increase peak nighttime energy demand for the grid when lots of trucks are fast-charging their batteries at the same time. If, for example, the wind stops blowing at the same time that many trucks are using wind power to fast-charge their large batteries, power might need to come from fossil fuels, making them much less environmentally friendly. Moreover, if fast-charging stations were used during the daytime too – which presumably they would be, because why spend the money to build fast-charging stations if you are only going to use them at night – it could then lead to increased peak demand in general, which would be both inefficient and environmentally problematic. Battery-swapping stations, then, might be the best option — but building them is easier said than done, given the huge size of truck batteries. Even then, however, they would still not overcome any other issues associated with battery use in trucks.]  

[**To quote The Globe and Mail: “Battery powering of heavy duty vehicles may not be expedient. To match the range provided by the diesel fuel tank of a typical long-distance heavy-duty truck, which when full weighs about a tonne, a heavy-duty battery-powered electric-drive truck would have to carry almost 30 tonnes of battery, which is much more than the average payload of heavy-duty trucks.” ]

Barring a breakthrough in battery technology, this only leaves one other option: electric trolleytrucks. These get their power from overhead power wires, somewhat like streetcars do. They then use small batteries in order to travel short distances away from these overhead wires.

Some cities already have large wire-powered networks. Vancouver, for example, which is a city especially suited for electric vehicles given its hilly terrain and cheap, clean, hydropower-generated power, has close to 300 kilometers of wired roads, which it uses for trolleybus transit.

Luckily, trucks making overnight deliveries can avoid the challenges that have thus far prevented trolleytrucks from being commonly used. The main challenge for trolleytrucks has been city traffic. Because they can only travel a few kilometres away from their power wires, they cannot handle the risk of getting caught in stop-and-go traffic.

Overnight, however, the lack of traffic and much longer green light-red light cycles removes this risk. It also means that should a mistake occur that does leave a trolleytruck stranded away from its power wires and out of battery power, it could simply wait for a support vehicle to come and charge its battery, without causing any road traffic blockage as would occur if it ran out of power during the day.

This effectively much extended range away from the wires at night also helps solve another main challenge: lots of people find trolley wires unaesthetic. The ability of trucks to travel further away from the wires at night means you don’t need as many streets wired. You might even be able to get away with only having some highway corridors — where aesthetics is not a problem – wired. The trucks could run on the wired highways during the daytime, then run mostly off-wire overnight to get a few km in the city to make deliveries further from the wired corridor.

A final, hugely significant challenge, which trolleytrucks must face regardless of whether they run during the day or night, is the cost of intermodal cargo transfers. Even if a trolley wire-building spree were to occur, most roads will remain unwired for the foreseeable future. As such, for trolleytrucks to be competitive with diesel trucks, the cost of transferring cargo between trolleytrucks and other vehicles – notably, diesel trucks and trains – must fall. Trolleytrucks being more efficient than diesel trucks will not be sufficient to make them ubiquitous. This can be seen already by looking at the fact that trucks transport much more freight than do railways, despite railways being more efficient than trucks.

If autonomous loading and unloading of trucks, and autonomous sorting and storing of trucks’ cargo, dramatically reduces the cost of intermodal cargo transfers, as seems likely to occur (or at least, plausible), then we might expect the use of cargo railways and of trolleytrucks to increase relative to the use of less efficient diesel trucks.

Indeed, if the automation of intermodal transfers serves to increase
railways’ share of freight transported relative to trucks, one result may be that a larger share of trucking will take place in hilly or urban areas where railways are less competitive. And, since hilly and urban areas are precisely the areas where electric vehicles are most useful — in hilly areas because of their torque, dynamic breaking, and ability to go through tunnels without spewing exhaust that requires ventilation; in urban areas because of their low air and noise pollution – this might further increase the use of trolleytrucks (and trolleybusses!) relative to diesel.

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East Asia

The Birthplaces of China’s Leadership

In democratic countries, political analysts often try to sniff out any regional divisions that exist within a given country by looking at the voting patterns of that country’s electorate. In Italy’s recent election, for instance, it has been thought to be significant that Italians living in northern Italy tended to vote centre/right (including for the Northern League), whereas in southern Italy people tended to vote for the Five Star Movement.

In countries like the People’s Republic of China, however, where no such elections are held, different factors may be looked at instead, in order to gauge the level of regionalism that might exist.

One interesting thing to note here is that almost none of modern China’s top politicians were born in peripherally located areas in the country’s southeast, southwest, northwest, or northeast. The only province in southeast or southwest China to have produced a somewhat notable number of Politburo members is Fujian, a relatively small province where Xi Jinping served 17 years of his career, which is important to China in part because it shares unique social and linguistic connections with the nearby island of Taiwan.

China birthplaces .png

chinese_provinces-map

The chart above shows, by birth-province, the number of members in the politburo, politburo standing committee, party secretariat, central military commission, provincial party secretary, or members of previous party secretaries going back to 1990, adjusted to take into account the varying population sizes of each province. Apart from Fujian and Qinghai (which ranks high on this list only because it has such a tiny population, by China’s standards), all of the provinces at the top of this list are in the north or central coastal regions.

China’s most populous province, Guangdong, has had no leaders on this list. As of 2017, Guangdong may have also broken a thirty year tradition by having its provincial governor not be a native of the province. It is now one of the few provinces not to have a native-born governor.

china standing committee birthplaces.png

Birthplaces of China’s new Politburo Standing Committee

In this picture above, we see the birthplaces of China’s current top leadership, the members of the Standing Committee. Here we also see the one big exception, Qinghai-born Zhao Leji. Zhao’s career is noteworthy. Zhao served as party chief of Qinghai, breaking the unwritten rule that a person should never be party chief in their birth-province. Zhao was later party chief in Shaanxi, where his parents were from; this too broke an unwritten rule, that a person should not be party chief in their “native” province. Now, Zhao has not only reached the Standing Committee, but has taken over Wang Qishan’s anti-corruption job, a critical position. Some have argued that Zhao has been able to rise in this way mainly because Xi Jinping’s family is also from Shaanxi.

1941_China_from_the_East

china birthplaces graph .png

A chart of the birthplaces, by province, of Chinese members of the Politburo, the Politburo Standing Committee, the Central Military Commission, the Communist Party secretariat, provincial party secretaries, provincial governors, or past politburo standing committees going back all the way to about 1990, not adjusted for provincial population sizes. —  Correction: Yunnan, the largest southwestern province (unless you count Sichuan as southwestern too), I left off this list by accident. It would have been right near the bottom of the list, just above Hainan

Here’s a map of the birth-provinces of the current 25-member Politburo Central Committee (which includes within it the 7 members of the higher-ranked Standing Committee):

communist politburo central committee

And here, finally, is a map of the birth-provinces of the current provincial party chiefs:
provincial party chiefs.png

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North America, South America

Countries to Watch: El Salvador

El Salvador .png

I made this article for Rosa & Roubini Associates. You can read it here: Emerging Markets – El Salvador.

…And here’s an extract from the article:

While this story is indeed a negative one, this negativity also serves to obscure the potential of Salvadoran-Americans, a diaspora group that, when measured in size relative to the size of its home country’s population, exceeds all other countries’ diasporas living within the United States. (See chart above). The Salvadoran American population is currently estimated to be 2 million, 31% as large as the entire population of El Salvador.

The Salvadoran-American diaspora is a direct product of the terrible 1980-1992 civil war in El Salvador. Most Salvadoran emigrants arrived in the United States during or immediately after the war. This means that the second generation of Salvadoran Americans, the more than 1 million born in the US, most of whom are bilingual, some of whom will achieve­ the American Dream of getting rich quick, and none of whom were directly impacted by the civil war, is now coming of age. The big jump in US-born Salvadorans came in 2000: they are turning 18 years old this year.

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Europe

Valuing Italy

The results of the 2018 election in Italy reflected two main economic realities: the economic struggles in Italy relative to northern Europe, and the economic struggles in southern Italy relative to northern Italy. The former helped  anti-establishment parties to gain a large share of the country’s vote. The latter resulted in Lega Nord and centre-right parties performing well throughout much of the north of Italy, and the 5-Star Movement performing well in the south of Italy.

In geopolitics, the school of thought that argues that geography is the most significant or  fundamental element in politics, these two economic realities have the same obvious source: mountains. Italy and southern Europe are much more mountainous than northern Europe, and southern Italy is much more mountainous than northern Italy. Mountainous regions tend to be much poorer than non-mountainous regions. Italy is no exception.

The question most analysts are now asking is what the broader consequences of Italian politics will be. On the one hand, Italy is too big for Europe to bully. On the other hand, Italy is too big for Europe to ignore. I do not have any insight as to how one might succeed or fail at predicting the short-to-medium term financial outcomes of this political situation.

A question that analysts are not asking, though, is whether the geographic realities that are underpinning current Italian and European economics may change as a result of technological developments. To put it directly, will modern technology — the Internet, automation, etc.– alter the economic disparity between mountainous and non-mountainous areas?

If they were to do so, Italy would be in a far more advantageous position than it is today. Its internal economic disparities between north and south would shrink, while at the same  it would likely be able to capitalize on its central position within the mountainous Mediterranean region. Its entire territory of 301,000 square km (84 percent as large as Germany’s, but with much greater proximity to the sea) and population of 61 million (74 percent as large as Germany’s) would suggest that Italy’s GDP might not, in the long run, remain as small (53 percent as large as Germany’s) as it is today. For this reason, if current politics cause Italian markets to turn negative, then long-term investment opportunities in Italy may grow.

So, will new technologies help the economies of mountainous areas to catch up with those of non-mountainous economies?

My suspicion is that they will. Companies like Google are now trying to develop technologies that will allow cheap, high-speed Internet to become accessible even in rural and mountainous areas. Logically, it seems plausible that mountainous areas would benefit from high-speed Internet more than non-mountainous areas, as the benefits of virtual accessibility may be more significant in areas where real, physical accessibility is low.

Automation may have a similar impact. If autonomous logistics facilities (warehousing, loading and unloading vehicles) allow for efficient intermodal cargo transportation, it could benefit geographies like Italy by making it easier to transfer goods between ships, railways, or large trucks (which do not operate well or at all in most mountainous areas) and small trucks (which do operate relatively well in mountainous areas, but are generally not efficient elsewhere).

And if transport vehicles themselves become autonomous, it could greatly increase the efficiency of using trucks, and particularly small trucks, and particularly small trucks operating in mountainous areas where speed limits are lower and safety risks are higher, as the labour costs involved in (especially small) trucking are far higher than in rail or sea transport.

In my view, the question of mountainous relative to non-mountainous areas may be the key long-term question in determining the north-south balance in Europe (just as the question of coastal relative to continental areas may be the key long-term question determining the east-west balance in Europe). Non-mountainous areas have performed extremely well economically during the past two centuries, presumably as a result of the spread of canals, railways, and highways, all of which are much better suited to flat landscapes than to mountainous ones.

But we should not assume that flat areas will continue to so outperform mountainous ones going forward. We should try not to lose sight of this long term question; it may ultimately be easier to answer than the questions about what will happen to Italian and European politics and markets in the shorter term.

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North America

Devil’s Advocate: An unconventional, long-shot case for Elon Musk

I would not invest in Tesla. I think Elon Musk’s style is a little bit annoying, and I think many of his supporters are very annoying. More importantly I am not sold on the claim that Tesla will be able to compete against other auto or tech firms, even assuming that electric vehicles really do become widespread soon.

Looking at Musk’s business moves individually they appear, at best, to be high risk, high reward.

For example:

— Tesla’s approach to autonomous driving is not to use LIDAR, because LIDAR is expensive. This is unique: the other auto and tech firms are all betting on LIDAR. And because the economic viability of electric vehicles probably depends on autonomous driving (the vehicles need to be able to drive themselves to and from charging stations, as otherwise charging batteries may be too inconvenient when compared to conventional or hybrid vehicles), if this LIDAR-free strategy fails, it might put Tesla in a very tough position.

— Large electric trucks do not seem to make obvious economic sense: the batteries are too big, bulky, and expensive. It is difficult to see why these would be able to compete, in the short run, against conventional trucks, and in the long run against robots making it much easier to transfer cargo between electric railways and “first-mile/last-mile” conventional trucks or smaller electric trucks.

— Solar City. Even assuming that solar can compete with other power industries, and even assuming that using batteries to store power can compete with other forms of energy storage, it is difficult to see why a diffuse system of rooftop solar panels would be able to compete with solar farms, where installation and maintenance costs per panel are lower and where there is less shade.

–Boring company. Even assuming that Musk does succeed in reducing urban tunnelling costs, such tunnels would still be hugely expensive, so it is not clear why you would use them to move cars or people on `sleds`, when it would be much more efficient from a capacity point of view to simply use an existing technology within the tunnels: namely, trains.


The Unconventional, Long-Shot Case: Tesla Parking Lots 

Readers of this blog will know I have a weird obsession with parking lots, because parking lots are the most ubiquitous type of American real estate and because they may be impacted more than other types by technologies like e-commerce and autonomous parking. Let’s imagine what Elon Musk might be able to do with a typical supersized suburban parking lot:

— No LIDAR, no liability, no problem: while autonomous vehicles in general might need LIDAR and might face liability issues, in a controlled, pedestrian-free environment — for example, in a designated autonomous zone of a parking lot — an autonomous car could function without LIDAR. This would have two benefits: one, it would act in effect as a valet service, making it easy to park; two, the parking lot could have an autonomous charging station for electric cars, so that your car could be charged while you are in the mall

—  Sledding. The car-carrying ‘sleds’ imagined for use inside the Boring Company’s tunnels may not make economic sense within those tunnels, but they could make sense as  sleds that could carry conventional, non-autonomous cars (there are hundreds of millions of these cars in America today, and they aren’t going to disappear overnight) to and from parking spots.

— The Boring Company. If the Boring Company ends up reducing the cost of conventional subway trains, the value of autonomous valet parking lots could increase, as people will drive their car to a parking lot at the nearest subway station, then get on the subway train while the car goes to park itself. (They may also be able to get in another car at their destination station’s parking lot, thus overcoming the ‘first-mile, last-mile challenge’ that plagues suburban transit in America today). Short-distance tunnels created by the Boring Company could also be used to link together parking lots that are close together: lots of suburban parking lots are giant ‘archipelagos’ separated by highways, for example.

— Electric Trucks. Electric trucks may not be economical in general, but could be economical in a specific situation: driving short ‘first-mile/last-mile’ distances, in daytime or overnight (electric vehicles are quiet, so better for nighttime use) between, for example, a commercial/industrial parking lot and a rail or conventional truck logistics station. So, for example, a company like Walmart could use electric trucks to bring in cargo quietly at night when its parking lot is empty, and also charge their batteries in the lot.

— Solar City. Rooftop solar panels may not be economically competitive in general, but on large flat roofs with little shade — notably, on large commercial/industrial roofs, next to large parking lots — they may be more economical. It may even become economical to put a solar roof above the large parking lots, to generate power while also helping to keep the parked cars shaded.

Okay, I admit, this is all unfounded, unclear, and far-fetched. Ultimately, it is based on the assumption that if wholly autonomous cars do not become widespread in the near future, then the most efficient, clean, and convenient methods of transportation and commerce may instead involve a combination of electric cars, conventional transit, and autonomous parking. Elon Musk’s unique mix of assets may be uniquely suited for this outcome.

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Uncategorized

Humans, Computers, and Telecommuters

Let’s discuss two sets of three: the land-labour-capital trinity of conventional economics, and the human-computer-telecommuter set that may soon become the three main categories of labour.

To state the obvious, the key relationship during the past generation has been the “capital” of North Atlantic economies (whether that capital be military power, technological innovation, or consumer demand), chiefly that of the United States, and the labour and “land” (most notably, the fossil fuels in that land) of Asia, chiefly that of the Chinese.

Even in recent years, this relationship between North Atlantic capital and Asian land and labour has arguably continued to intensify. Specifically, if we characterize “land” as being the type of energy production that has the greatest impact on local environments — if, for example, we define it as coal production, coal consumption, and the building of massive hydroelectric dams — then we can see that in recent years the employment of Asian “land” has continued to grow at a rapid pace relative to that of the North Atlantic economies.

This has been the result of a number of different significant trends: the growing “green economy” of Europe, the coal-to-gas electricity switchover in the United States that has been the result of shale gas production, the growth of coal and gas consumption in Japan as a result of Fukushima, the growth of hydroelectric power in China (though China’s coal industry growth has been flattening), and the growth of coal industries in southern Asia.

We know that poorer Asian populations in countries like China and India hold the weaker positions in this trade relationship. They supply the labour and “land” chiefly because the wealthier economies of the world mostly do not want to allow large-scale immigration or domestic environmental despoliation, yet are not able or charitable enough to furnish poor countries with capital wealth without demanding labour and natural resource wealth in return.

We also know that this global trade relationship might soon decrease to some extent, whether because of automation or protectionism in capital-rich countries, aging labour forces in Northeast Asia, or an attempt to reduce pollution in China.

The view of world trade decreasing because of automation and protectionism has become especially popular during the past year, because of political developments in both the US and China. Upon closer investigation, however, a reduction in trade may not actually be likely. The hitch here is the limitation of automation in wealthy economies. While computers and computer-run machines may now be excellent at doing tasks that humans are bad at — like being a grandmaster at chess or driving a truck for days without taking a pit stop — they are still terrible at a task that even human children find easy: manipulating objects.

The result of the limitation of automation may be the second set of three mentioned above: a human-computer-telecommuter division and cooperation of labour. Imagine, for example, an industrial or commercial site in the US that employs not only human labour, and not only machine labour, but instead a combination of a small number of on-site labourers, a large number of autonomous machines, and a large number of machines controlled by lower-wage labourers working remotely from poor locations in foreign countries.

In one sense, every party involved would gain in this relationship: rich countries would gain access to cheap labour without needing to outsource, poor countries would receive wages, and both would be allowed to harness the productive power of machines without having to wait until robotic technology is good enough to allow machines to replace labour altogether. Or without having to deal with the economic and social consequences of that day finally coming.

On the other hand, “telecommuters” might further income inequality within wealthy countries, by forcing labourers in those countries into even closer competition with labourers in poor countries. Moreover, it might make it more difficult to ignore the unfairness that exists as a result of real wages in rich countries far exceeding those of poor ones.

The effect of telecommuting — which includes, but is not limited to, a worker being able to control a machine that is located thousands of kilometres away — may be to make labour much more easily tradable across long distances. Since “capital” is easily tradable too, this may leave “land” as the odd man out. Land considerations, for example the location of cheap and/or clean electricity, or of ports capable of importing natural resources from abroad, may therefore become more important, at least relative to labour considerations, when choosing where to locate a new industrial or commercial site.

A place like Iceland, for example, which has abundant and clean power, difficulty in exporting that power directly because of its island location, ports proximate to North America and Europe, and yet no real labour force to speak of, could use a combination of autonomous and remotely-controlled machines to become a major industrial or commercial production site. A similar thing may be true of economies like Quebec, Norway, Manitoba, or British Columbia.

Remote-controlled machines do not get very much press — even if you Google it, you will probably not find much, with the exception of medical tele-surgeries — when compared to discussions of a far future in which widespread, wholly autonomous machines run the labour force. What is so scary, or exciting, about the possibility of remote-controlled machines, and of telecommuting labour forces in general, is that we may not have to wait until the far future for them to become widespread.

 

 

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