Scientific Environmentalists are Junior Coalition Members

David Roberts at Vox has a long article on Initiative 732 in Washington state, which I found through this article at Marginal Revolution.

The Vox article is worth reading in the entirety, but the summary version is that Washington’s Initiative 732 is a carbon tax proposal that seems very well-crafted to actually reduce carbon emissions, and to do so in a way that could be a template for other states or federal level regulations.  But the initiative is receiving no support from either environmentalist organizations in the state nor from broader “left” organizations.

This is, in my view, something of a piece with why the environmental movement (and/or the left) is not going to embrace nuclear power or geoengineering.  There is a subset of the environmental movement that I’ll call “scientific environmentalists,” which have these traits:

  1. They genuinely believe that there is currently one or more environmental crises going on that could have catastrophic consequences in the course of the next few decades.
  2. They want to take actions to prevent those catastrophic consequences at all costs.
  3. They believe that the traditional tools of western rationality can tell us how to avoid those catastrophic consequences.

Now, the thing to understand is that this is a group who look pretty good on television, but they are none the less just a part of a coalition  — both within the environmental movement and in the broader left.  And that means that they basically don’t get to put any of their ideas into practice.

The environmental movement is a coalition of the scientific environmentalists along with people who I’ll call “spiritual environmentalists,” who are broadly people who regard either industry, modernity, or western rationality as suspicious and unnatural.  Spiritual environmentalists are not on board with nuclear power or geoengineering.  They aren’t necessarily opposed to things like the carbon tax of Initiative 732, but it also doesn’t excite them.  It doesn’t play to their interests, which aren’t about technocratic solutions to mitigate climate damage, but about making a visible shift away from industry, modernity, and western rationality.

The environmental movement tends to put scientific environmentalists in a more visible position than the spiritual environmentalists.  The left is committed to telling the right that the left is smarter, better educated, and more rational than the right, and the scientific environmentalists play into that narrative.  Meanwhile, the left is still trying to distance itself from the perception that they’re hippies, and the spiritual environmentalists have a worryingly hippie-ish vibe.  But despite that visible nature, my guess is that the majority of the environmental movement is spiritual environmentalists, not scientific ones.

Even moreso than that, environmentalists per se are junior members of the left coalition.  Again, they may get a pretty large amount of visibility.  Environmentalists (especially scientific environmentalists) look pretty good on TV, compared to say labor union leaders.  Especially if you’re playing to centrists.  But they don’t have any money, they don’t control large organizations that get out voters, and they don’t hold onto people’s loyalty the way that ethnic or cultural blocs do.

The way that life works when you’re a junior coalition member is that you bring your assets to the table to support initiatives created by the senior members of the coalition, and they in turn craft their initiatives to have incidental benefits to your cause, and they also pay lip-service to your cause.  You don’t lead policy as a junior coalition member.

So the disconnect is that scientific environmentalists have a prominent public facing role in the left coalition, despite being junior members of a junior member of the left coalition.  And they get lip-service, and because of what scientific environmentalism is, that lip-service means saying things like “if we don’t act now, billions of human lives may be taken by dramatic climate change.”

But don’t take that to mean that scientific environmentalism is powerful, or able to lead policy.  If they’re to get their agenda advanced, they need to find ways to attach it to the interests of more powerful coalition members.  Or find a new coalition, but honestly I don’t see any place more hospitable to them.  Maybe if Trump breaks the Republican party completely, one of its successors will be a more natural place for scientific environmentalism, but the current Republican coalition is just obviously not going to advance their agenda.

No Successor to Lithium-Ion Batteries has Arrived

Robert Cringely wrote, in March 2014,

[A]lternative battery chemistries intended to dramatically increase the range and decrease the cost of electric cars. I don’t know which of these will ultimately dominate but I am sure one will which is why I can be so confident in predicting a black swan. With dozens of groups working on the problem and an eventual market worth probably $1 trillion I have no doubt there will be a solution within the next couple of years.

He describes them as in the general range of “Twice the range, one tenth the recharging time and safer, too.”  It’s been more than two years since he made that prediction.  Alternative battery chemistries remain lab-bound and none of them are noticeably closer to being industrialized today than they were two years ago.

Predictions are hard.

No Return to Apple’s Glory in Cars

Recently, Neil Cybart got a lot of attention on Hacker News for an article claiming that Apple would “pivot” into cars.  This is a very, very stupid claim.

The reason it’s very, very stupid is that Apple isn’t going to “pivot” into anything.  Pivoting has a meaning, and that meaning is not “introduce a new product.”  It’s changing your focus.  Apple is not some small agile startup with nothing to lose and everything to win.  It’s the most valuable company in the world, and if the iPhone and iPad lines are past their peaks, they are none the less incredibly valuable properties that will continue to produce gigantic profits for Apple for many years to come, and obviously Apple, while interested in finding another big product or two, will continue to focus the majority of its organizational weight behind the iPhone until the iPhone is doing much, much worse than it is now.

Okay, you say.  But you’re just poking at the sensationalist headline.  The meat of Cybart’s claim is that Apple will make a big bet in cars and has a chance to resurge from its current doldrums on the back of a big play in cars.

That claim is not very, very stupid.  But it’s still wrong.

The car industry simply isn’t big enough to compensate for a (let’s say for the sake of argument) rapidly weakening smartphone market.  Not even if driverless cars are coming.  Not even if the ownership model for cars changes.  In fact, especially not in that case.

First, to be clear, let’s look at the Apple of 2015.  Apple of 2015 had revenue of $234 billion, with a gross margin of nearly 40% (!!!) and a net margin of about 20%, meaning it racked up somewhere in the vicinity of $50 billion in profit over the course of the year.  Holy shit, guys.

Toyota is the most valuable auto company in the world, with a market cap of $150 billion.  So just to be super clear, Toyota’s market cap is less than 2015 Apple’s revenue, and right around 3x of 2015 Apple’s profit.  It’s market cap is around 1/5th of 2015 Apple’s.  Its gross margin hovers around 20%, or half of 2015 Apple’s.  In fact, even today, the somewhat diminished Apple’s market cap still exceeds Toyota’s + Ford’s + Honda’s + GM’s.

So what does that tell us?  It tells us that even if Apple is wildly successful in the car business, it would have to fundamentally change the car business to support a valuation that comes close to the height of the smartphone wave.

Okay, you say.  But maybe Apple can make such a change.


I think it goes without saying that you can’t overturn the car industry with a car that looks cool or has a really nice entertainment system or extremely clever rear-view mirrors.  No amount of design that Apple brings to the table is going to change the auto industry from a capital-intensive, low-margin, hyper-fragmented industry to a extremely high-margin, unified one.

So what else might happen to cars soon?  Obviously, cars might go electric (or hydrogen-powered, I suppose) and they might become driverless.

The size of opportunity of cars going electric is more or less the value of fuel savings.  A 20mpg car that drives 15,000 miles per year uses about 750 gallons of gas.  At $4 per gallon, that’s $3,000.  So far, even a pretty compromised electric car costs at least $6,000 more than a comparable gas-powered one — there’s no way we’re getting from there to Apple convincing everyone to plunk down an extra 20% margin to support a smartphone-like business.  The market for people who’ll pay lots of extra money for the dubious environmental benefits of an electric car just isn’t that big: if it’s overall a big waste of money to avoid gas, people aren’t going to avoid gas.  If it’s not a big waste of money, you can’t support Apple 2015-style profit margins, and that means you can’t support Apple 2015-style valuations.

A move to full-on driverless cars is potentially a much bigger revolution.

Before we go into that, though, let’s take a realistic view of Apple.  Apple is not an AI titan.  Probably the biggest AI play that Apple has ever made was Siri.  And Siri was an acquisition.  And Siri has been, I think it’s fair to say, pretty disappointing.  Even if Apple has somehow built a world-class AI team with relatively their (characteristic) secrecy, you can’t bring a self-driving car to market without testing it on real roads in real driving conditions, and to do that lawfully, you need to notify the government, and Apple hasn’t done that (I also don’t believe that Tim Cook’s Apple just decided to cowboy it without the necessary permits).  You have to believe a real series of improbabilities to imagine that Apple has best-in-class driverless cars up its sleeve.

But let’s say that against all odds, Apple comes to market with driverless car technology that’s much better than all the known players in the market, in a similar way to how iPhones were so much better than any other smartphone in 2008.

Even then, how does Apple get to the high margin, high volume business that would support a circa 2015 valuation?  Cars are expensive.  I think it’s reasonable to say that people just can’t pay afford to pay a massive premium on the cars they already have, even if those cars are really, really, really cool.

Going to an Uber rides-on-demand model is even worse.  The entire point of driverless cars + rides on demand is that it increases the utilization of each vehicle and lowers the cost that each consumer pays for cars by allowing them to share the costs of each vehicle with some number of other consumers.  Even if Apple swallows the entire auto industry (and just think of the capital costs associated with trying to produce tens of millions of vehicles — these things are way more expensive to manufacture than iPhones), the entire auto industry does not currently add up to the market cap of Apple, and the entire point of rides-on-demand + driverless cars is that the total market for vehicles would shrink!  If it wouldn’t — if the market would grow instead — that means that ipso facto, consumers are spending more on cars in the rides-on-demand world than they were on their cars today.  At which point why wouldn’t they just buy the cars?

In conclusion:

Might Apple be planning a foray into the automobile world?  Sure, it might.

Could Apple imagine that an Apple Car would become the main pillar of its business?  I very much don’t think so, but maybe they know something I don’t.

Would an Apple-as-principally-an-auto-company future be good news for Apple?  Not compared to the heyday of smartphones it wouldn’t.  If Apple were genuinely planning to in even the broadest and most loosest of terms pivot into automobile manufacturing, that suggests that they know some really unbelievably dire news about their personal electronics business.

Much more likely, any foray into the auto business would be a side venture for Apple, one where they’d stick to a small luxury market where they can have good margins at the cost of being a relatively small minority of their overall business.

Libertarianism & Marxism Are Siblings

I recently saw this post on Stumbling & Muttering alleging that there are a lot of similarities between libertarianism and marxism, but that libertarians are deeply in horror of this idea and refuse to acknowledge it.

So, as a basically libertarian kind of guy:  I acknowledge it.  Libertarianism is essentially a slightly tweaked form of marxism.  Both philosophies are extremely materialistic and principally concerned with the ways in which coercion and freedom interact with economic need.  They have slightly different views of “human nature” that lead to very different preferences about future policy, but they usually share a view of history and a critique of the many political philosophies that come from a very different fundamental understanding of importance of economic need.

Predictions are Hard

In February 2015, I made some predictions.  Specifically, I predicted that the 2016 update of the Apple Watch would sell about as well as the 2015 version, and that 2018 would be the first year in which iPhone sales declined year-over-year.

There is no 2016 Apple Watch update (well, yet.  There may still be one, but the Apple Watch is officially not on a 12 month product refresh).

Q1 2016 was the first quarter in which iPhone sales declined year-over-year (by, like, 13% (!!) and guidance for next quarter is pretty dismal, so I think that 2016 overall will have YOY declines compared to 2015, though that’s admittedly not proven yet).

Do Not Compare NYC and SF

Here’s a quick little factbook:

New York City — Area: 468 square miles.  Population:  8.5 million

Los Angeles — Area: 503 square miles.  Population:  3.9 million

Chicago — Area:  234 square miles.  Population:  2.7 million

Dallas — Area:  386 square miles.  Population:  1.2 million

San Francisco — Area:  47 square miles.  Population:  864,000


What is the upshot of all that?  The upshot is that more of the residents of the San Francisco area live outside the city of San Francisco proper and in surrounding cities, compared to other major US cities.

That’s pretty straightforward.  But it’s something that just totally falls by the wayside of most analyses of the cost of living of SF, its potential for in-fill development, and gentrification.

Do not, as one HN commenter recently did, say, “New York adds more housing units per year than SF does in a decade.”  Well, yeah, dude.  New York is 10x the size of SF.

Do not imagine that you can compare being priced out of SF to being priced out of one of the above cities — being priced out of SF is more like being priced out of the core downtown of one of those cities.

And do note, when you demand in-fill development of SF, that it is already the second-densest major US city (after New York).