Kill Your Status Quo

Adventures of a Postdoc

Post-2013, see The Annual Report


Looking back at 2012

Southeast Asia, 22 Jan 2013

I'm writing this on the plane between Bali and Singapore, near the end of a very fun (if rather frenetic) 7-week trip to Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore. You may be amused to know that I was "forced" to take this trip after accumulating too many vacation days; I get 8-9 weeks of vacation per year in the Netherlands, and it's a pity that North Americans don't get the same.

North Americans?

For those of you who haven't heard (how can you NOT hear from me!?), I've been dating Cornelia, a Romanian-Canadian chemical engineer from Calgary, Alberta, CANADA. So we're doing our bit for North American harmony :) We met at an energy-water conference in Dublin in May, had a few dates (Amsterdam, Interlocken, Prague and Como), and got serious. She moved in with me, and we've had a lovely time since then (some of our photos would make Hallmark weep :)

Our trip out here has contributed to a number of interesting conversations on water, energy and the environment. It's also put another few layers on my knowledge and experience of how "development" works in different countries.

Nearly ninety

I've enjoyed travelling in other countries to learn about other cultures and challenge myself (kysq!) since I was 21, and this trip puts me near to 90 countries visited. As usual, there are surprises, differences and similarities in every new country, so I'm still enjoying travelling. On the current trip, I've been surprised by Malaysia's conversion of vast tracts of rainforest into palm oil (not the conversion, per se, as much as the apparent concentration of benefits to those in power); the ominous boredom in Brunei, where the Sultan plays at God with ideas that are often good but sometimes bizarre; the happy friendliness of Filippinos, their bright red hotdogs and cultural proximity to India; and the many narrow escapes from bad weather (and worse roads) that we made in Indonesia.

You can see all my travel photos here -- including some from my Feb 2012 trip to the Shetland (=Zetland!) Islands in Scotland.

Working and playing at water economist

This year has been less busy with formal work and more busy with the informal variety. As you may recall, I am employed at Wageningen University to help with a project evaluating water policies in Europe. In 2011, I spent quite some time on early phases of the project (co-editing the "framework" [pdf] we used to assess policies from economic, social and environmental perspectives). In 2012, I had fewer formal responsibilities but co-authored a paper on a "green" Dutch groundwater tax that was not so green.

In other work, I published a chapter [pdf] on land and water grabs in Africa (hard to know if they are bad grabs or good investment), my favorite way to reallocate water rights via auctions [pdf], a survey [pdf] of water tariffs around the world (they vary by a lot but are still pretty cheap), and a proposal [pdf] for promoting competition among monopolistic water utilities using performance insurance.

Although that's quite a bit of academic output, I am still shifting my time towards non-academic public discussions of how to improve water management and environmental outcomes,i.e., Wow, I did a lot last year!

If you (or someone you know!) want updates on what I'm doing, then subscribe here to my weekly newsletter.

I am still pretty excited about improving people's understanding of economics and how bad policies make our lives worse and good policies make us happy and wealthy. After ten years on this topic, I have started to call it my "career" because I like how it interests me, matters to people, and how I may even be making some progress (even if it's a struggle, I carry on). It's VERY hard to know if I am, to be sure, but little moves and conversations here and there are encouraging. This means that I am not planning on quitting to live on a beach somewhere or bake bread in the redwoods (just yet), but it's nice to know that I have several excellent Plans B.

From Amsterdam to where?

My contract ends in June, and Cornelia and I are throwing around ideas of where to go and what to do next. I've REALLY enjoyed living in Amsterdam, and I'd stay there if you told me I'd have to choose one place to live for the rest of my life, but I don't. There are many other interesting places to live, and where you live has a big impact on how "close" people feel to you personally and professionally (same time zone matters, even if you're 500 km away!)

I'm looking for a well-paid job in a lovely city where I get to pursue the work I want -- just as I've done in the past four years in Berkeley and Amsterdam, but it's not always easy to get paid to have fun, so I may end up working without a salary while taking project work here and there. I don't know what will happen now, but I'll be sure to tell you when I find out :)

Cheers!
David


Looking back at 2011

Amsterdam, 2 Jan 2012

Wow. It's been a busy year, and here's a brief description of my past activities and future plans.

I am still living in Amsterdam and enjoying it very much. The Dutch are different from Americans in several ways: quiet in public, but forthcoming in private; "precisely relaxed" as they take the necessary time to complete activities on their agendas. They are quite open to speaking English when a non-Dutch speaker is around (although I've become adept at nodding and smiling in an appropriate way when someone yells in my ear at a party). Most Dutch are quite diligent at work without taking it home with them. Most offices are abandoned after working hours and on weekends. Amsterdam is a lovely place to cycle around, and the relative lack of car traffic means that everything is calmer than in most US cities (or London, for that matter). Here are a bunch of photos from events in Amsterdam and the Netherlands.

Anne and I split up in September after two lovely years together. Several factors were involved, one of them being my desire to "chart my own path" here and in the future. She and I still chat over dinner or drinks every so often, so it's nice to keep that friendship. Around that time, I moved into a temporary apartment (basically a tiny studio) in the 4th floor garret in a block of flats that's 5 minutes away from "my" train station (Amsterdam Zuid). I am only here for a few months, as I am subletting from a co-worker of Anne who's off in India until end-Feb. I am going to look for a new place VERY soon, as the housing market is quite tight in Amsterdam. I've also started to meet some people via the "expat network" -- mostly events organized on meetup.com but also via couchsurfing -- and that's been an interesting experience. It's been helpful to be an American and traveler in these groups, as it makes it easier for me to walk into a room of strangers and find someone to talk to. I've also met Dutch people here and there, but it's tough to find a balance between imposing ("hey, how about a drink?") and facing resistance from a people who tend to keep to smaller groups of close friends that expand to include others very slowly.

I've gone on many international trips in the last year -- about 16 for work and 4 for pleasure. I've also been traveling around the Netherlands for work and an occasional fun visit. Sometimes, I ride my motorcycle (a BMW 750RT), but the cost of fuel and additional effort/safety concerns means that I often take the train. It appears that I will be taking just as many trips in 2012 -- I've already got seven on my agenda!

Here are photos from trips to Venice, Bruges, Israel, Copenhagen, Rome, and Burning Man.

Egypt

I just got back from my second trip to Egypt (my first was in 1997). Since the country is in the news, I'll give you a few impressions.
  • I had much more buying power: lunch for a dollar, a room with a sea view for 20 dollars. That said, it was possible to spend 10x as much; coffee cost from $0.25 to $2.
  • There were people everywhere: 90 million of them, concentrated in the Nile river basin.
  • But far more men on the streets than women; 90% of women covered their hair. Of these, about 20% covered their faces, but sometimes they removed their veils in restaurants, which doesn't quite mesh with the point of avoiding showing one's face to strangers.
  • It was noisy and dirty; drivers tap their horns every few seconds and people casually drop garbage where ever they are.
  • Everyone has a mobile phone, many of them ring with religious songs.
  • Subsidized gas is cheap -- about $0.70/gallon or EUR0.12 per liter -- and drivers often leave their cars running. The Egyptian government is asking for international aid to help them in this post-revolutionary time, but this subsidy is quite expensive.
  • I crossed the Nile Delta twice to see Egyptian agriculture. Most fields are small scale (unproductive) and irrigation ditches are often poorly maintained. Egypt is having trouble feeding its citizens from domestic production (bread subsidies don't help).
  • I did drink tap water in Cairo once (by accident), but nothing happened. My impression is that it's safe to drink, but I drank bottled water ($0.50 for 1.5 liters).
The post-Mubarak era is slowly developing. The military is still trying to control events (the generals basically kicked out Mubarak and took power), and that's what many protests are about. The opposition to the nationalist-military junta comes from two sources: islamic conservatives and secular liberals. The 70% vote share of the islamicists in (ongoing) elections indicates that they have a much stronger support [good article] than liberals who took about 20% of the vote but have a disproportionate presence in the media. In the coming months, I am betting that the islamicists will form a government that gives some extra powers to the military and keeps some liberals on the inside. The former because the generals will just take over if they are excluded; the latter because a shift to the conservative (salafist) right would upset many people who like Egypt's secular dimensions. It's perhaps helpful to draw parallels to the development of democracy in Chile, Turkey and the failure of religious rule in Iran. (When I suggested this to an Egyptian, he said that "Shia Iran" has NOTHING in common with Sunni Egypt -- since Shia are blasphemers. Whoops. I ran into several "strong muslims" on this trip -- far more than I remember from last time.)

Also note the money at stake. Mubarak's cronies controlled a big chunk of the economy, but the military controls 30-40 percent of it. Those businesses need to be privatized (as has been happening in China with the PLA). I saw soldiers tending to greenhouse tomatoes!

I had my biggest scare in Ismalia, when the guy sitting next to the taxi driver saw me take a photo of a canal and -- since there was some military wall in the vicinity -- accused me of being an Israeli spy. (I don't speak arabic, but I got the jist of his shouting.) Funny enough, he was ok with me taking photos if I paid 5LE more (about $0.80), but I got out of the car ASAP. The man who changed my money to pay the fare was sympathetic to my plight and gave me a free ride to my hotel. The shouter was not alone -- the (military) government has said on TV that journalists are working for foreign governments intent on interfering with Egyptian affairs. They raided the offices of several pro-democracy NGOs in Cairo the day after I left the country.

Later that day, I spent 10 minutes negotiating with soldiers to take a photo of an election poster outside a voting station. They couldn't understand why I would care about elections there ("not important to you; go to your own country"), but then allowed that my job -- water economist interested in politics -- may give me an excuse to take the photo.

Speaking of elections and protests, I went to Tahrir Square in Cairo one afternoon. It was mostly quiet, but there were tents and soldiers standing ready. Several protests resulted in shooting deaths during my trip. This article discusses the soldiers' disgusting "virginity tests" on women protestors ("We didn't want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren't virgins in the first place," the general said.)

I was very happy to snorkel- and scuba-dive [links to videos] in the Red Sea (near Dahab and Ras Mohammed National Park), but sad to see fewer fishes than I remembered from last time. One diver observed that fish was a popular dish at Dahab restaurants. That's not good news.

The garbage problem was quite annoying, so I spent a few hours cleaning up a beach with an Aussi guy Tristan. Here's a video about that effort -- and my ideas on why local people need to take care of their own trash instead of waiting for the "post-revolutionary" government to fix things. The garbage problem can also be blamed on a lack of deposits on plastic bottles and (I think) a government-awarded monopoly on garbage collection in cities. (There are certainly enough un- and under-employed people around to clean the place up!). Besides being an eyesore, rubbish everywhere contributed to overflowing sewer and storm drains that made streets treacherous after any rain.

Here are a bunch of photos from that trip.

Work

I started my job as a senior water economist at Wageningen University one year ago. I'm working on an EU-funded project ("Evaluating Economic Policy Instruments for Sustainable Water Management in Europe"). The project involves 20-30 researchers at 11 locations in 9 countries. I've enjoyed meeting and working with these new colleagues, and we've done some interesting case studies (mine were about groundwater taxes in the Netherlands and the implementation of water metering in England and Wales). I work at home most of the time and take the train to work once or twice a week. The 100km trip takes about 80 minutes door-to-door, but it's relaxing to sit on the train and read or look out the window.

Besides that project, I've spent a lot of time giving talks on water policy (those 16 trips), keeping my aguanomics blog going (nearly four years!), and writing, publishing and marketing my book.

I self-published The End of Abundance: economic solutions to water scarcity in June 2011. Since then, I have distributed about 900 copies (20% free and 80% sold). Self-publishing has turned out to be a fantastic move, as I have been able to sell the book at a lower price but a higher profit, with much more control over production and marketing. I also had a LOT of help from volunteer readers. You can read more about this process in the microeconomics and macroeconomics of publishing.

Looking ahead, I've been thinking about my career as a public intellectual, wondering if I could succeed (on my own terms) by continuing to pursue a combination of outreach, teaching and research that puts much more emphasis on public than academic discourse. (I reckon that a typical professor shares his time 5/15/80 into outreach, teaching and research, respectively; I allocate my time about 50/15/25.)

As I've said several times before, the academic business model is based on research a lot, teach a bit, get tenure and then consider public outreach while you enjoy tenure (lifetime job security). (Many professors who spend 5 years in graduate school and 6 years writing academic papers are not later inclined nor accustomed to outreach.)

That's not my business model for several reasons:
  • I don't want lifetime job security now (maybe ever)
  • Academic research and publication is not producing good results (post to come).
  • I see outreach as a critical function for academics who study what makes things work.
I was thinking that I might quit my current job to become a vagabond economist, but I reconsidered for two reasons: (1) I enjoy the academic environment and my colleagues and (2) I think that I may be able to move ahead in my career (in terms of jobs and impact) on an academic path.

This means that I need to get more academic work into publication at the same time as I look for an opportunity that allows me to continue a career that places more weight on outreach. That probably means an academic job (maybe a think tank), but my disinterest in tenure makes it easier to imagine a series of visiting lecturer positions around the world.

And let's remember the big picture here: The importance of sound water policy is growing, and my interest in it remains strong. That said, I am spending less time thinking about headlines that seem drawn from the same file year after year and more time thinking about how to implement good policies. That task requires reputation, connections and luck -- in addition to good ideas.

The world

I am also happy to live in the Netherlands right now, away from the American political circus and mismanaged economy. Europe is also facing a financial crisis (misnamed the "euro crisis"), but that one is easier to solve (Greece and other indebted countries go bankrupt -- writing down their bonds' value -- but stay in the EU and keep the euro). That's not happening, I think, because bankers and investors with political power are running the show. The same can be said for the problems in the US, and I wonder when people are going to finally get around to accepting the reality that their homes, investment portfolios and salaries have been inflated to unrealistic levels. The Americans are also suffering from a political discourse that's both shallow and extreme. I blame a (government-controlled) educational system that fails to produce citizens with critical thinking skills and a media that sells fun over content.

I don't know when that will change (I still have plans to run for political office), but I'm hoping that the continued failure at the center helps people realize that they need less government and more responsibility. It's perhaps ironic that the "big government" Dutch are closer to this model.

Until then, I expect we'll muddle along, wasting time, money and human lives. I hope not for too long.

Have a great 2012!

Looking back at 2010

Amsterdam, 22 Dec 2010

Today is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, and that means less than eight hours of daylight here in Amsterdam. That's not a problem until you ride your bike outside -- in the snow and ice! It's not as dangerous as it sounds, even when your brakes are frozen solid. You just need good boots, so that you can jump off and slide to a stop :)

It's been quite a year since the last update. After I finished teaching at Berkeley, I left to travel with Anne in Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. During those three months, I had planned to write the first draft of my book (The End of Abundance: a guide to the new economics of water scarcity), but travel takes a lot of time! No worries (as they say Down Under), since we made the best of the trip -- meeting lots of great people, seeing lots of beautiful places and very much enjoying ourselves. 

We came back to Berkeley in April, where I sat down to put words onto paper. After so much time thinking about the book (writing several thousand blog posts, talking to people everywhere and teaching the class), I was able to get a first draft of about 85,000 words written in two months. After that, I sent the draft manuscript to about 35 people who volunteered to read all or part of it. Then Anne and I went to Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. After that amazing trip (we got sick now and then, but didn't get robbed; the people were lovely), we landed in California and drove to Bozeman, MT to revise the draft at PERC. That was a lovely trip to and from, although I think I am done with the rolling plains for awhile; we also stopped by to see my cousin Mick for the first time in about 30 years. (American families can get a little loose.)

Just a little footnote: Anne and I intended to go to Montana first and then go to Central America, intending to renew her visa in Montana with a short trip to Canada, but it turns out that Canada is not "foreign enough" for such a renewal. We had to go over Mexico (still not foreign) to Central America to officially "exit" the US. Weird.

That  return trip was also the end of my postdoc in Berkeley, so we came back to Holland (with a brief stop at  Burning Man). Anne got into the freelance writing business (success=enough to pay the bills) and I continued to work on my book, blogging (3,000 posts!) and giving talks and doing other water-related geekery. In other words, I was totally unpaid but fully employed.

I went on the job market to look for an assistant professor position (having decided that I could do quite a bit as a postdoc), but recently got offered, and took, a postdoc position at Wageningen University. I am a senior water economist  working on an EU-wide project (Evaluating Economic Policy Instruments for Sustainable Water Management in Europe) for the next 30 months. In other words, I got the perfect job!

My book ran into trouble in the "I don't have a publisher" category. They were having a hard time with my "casual academic" style of presentation. So now the manuscript is out for evaluation at two good presses. If they don't come through, I will self-publish the book (how's Aguanomics Press sound?). Anyway, I hope to get the revised manuscript published by one of these firms; I am happy to get a professional finish on the material.

So I am finishing the book and getting ready for my office job; I am getting legally registered as a resident (being a UK citizen helps) to live in the Netherlands for a few years. That means, of course, that I need to get a better bike and a good English-Dutch dictionary, but that price seems acceptable as the cost of moving to a lovely country with great people (who happen to be very tall).

I can't really muster up a lot of philosophical insight on these moves, but they all fit into a wonderful situation that I am enjoying immensely, if a bit anxiously. This is the second time that I am living overseas (after traveling for five years I lived in Croatia), and it's always strange to lose touch with your "homies." The good news is that I have a lot of friends around here (and quite a few willing to sacrifice themselves to visit Amsterdam), and can talk to  (if not visit!) people in the US. So call me at 510-455-4656.  

Cheers!


Looking back at 2009

Berkeley, 20 Dec 2009

Wow. What a year it's been. Today, I am packing for a three-month trip to Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. I will be traveling with Anne, a Dutch girl that I met this summer when I was at a conference in Amsterdam. She was already planning to quit her job, rent her flat and travel for a year when I met her. Then we had the romantic, but inconvenient, fortune of falling for each other. From a little affair, this romance has grown into a full-blown relationship that brings tremendous meaning to my life (for some photos of our travels, go here). If the last half of 2009 was about Anne, then all of 2010 will be about her.

Bet let's step back a little further...

I am now living on the north side of Berkeley in a lovely little (24 m2/260 ft) cottage. 

I moved here in the middle of my second health challenge this year -- an inguinal hernia, which is very common in men (1 in 4 get it!) I got it cleaning the yard at my old place (long story short: I am glad to be in the cottage). The surgery went well (I was out cold) and I recovered pretty quickly. And my first challenge? I think I had swine flu. Whatever it was, I got it in the middle of a crazy rush (three conferences in a week), and then it turned to pneumonia. Luckily, I was in Amsterdam with that, and Anne hooked me up with her doctor. It's sad that we (Americans) have to worry about two things at the hospital -- dying and going bankrupt!

So, here's a photo of Anne and the cottage: 

Gezellig is the first work I learned in Dutch. It means something like cozy and charming and that's the cottage :)

I'll be coming back in April 2010 with Anne, to live here a few months. After that? See below.

Work!

If you didn't know, I went very heavy into the water economics business after I graduated. My work revolves around my blog -- aguanomics -- and I use it to teach, debate, and learn. I got a few consulting jobs from it, and many invitations to speak or write (often for free, but sometimes for good money). 

Check out this page to see the numerous radio interviews, public talks, discussions with student groups, conferences, etc. that I've done in the past year.

Traditional academics will want to know about publications, and I actually got a few papers published (finally!). Here's my CV [pdf] with all the details, but I'll direct you to my best publication to date: 

An auction market for journal articles (with Jens Prufer) in Public Choice (forthcoming)
Abstract:
  
We recommend that an auction market replace the current system for submitting academic papers and show a strict Pareto-improvement in equilibrium. Besides the benefit of speed, this mechanism increases the average quality of articles and journals and rewards editors and referees for their effort. The “academic dollar” proceeds from papers sold at auction go to authors, editors and referees of cited articles. This nonpecuniary income indicates the academic impact of an article—facilitating decisions on tenure and promotion. This auction market does not require more work of editors.

In addition to academic and public writing and public speaking, I was very happy to do some academic speaking, i.e., teach Environmental Economics and Policy 100 to about 90 UCB undergraduates this semester. We had a great time, and I was happy to tape all of my lectures for uploading to YouTube (yes, you can watch me talk for 35 hours! or listen to the MP3s :-) This page has all that material (and exams, if you're looking for a challenge :-).

One of the best things I did in class was auction $1 for $3.75. That auction, which recreates the incentives of political lobbying, got over 10,000 views on YouTube (probably because it's 3 minutes :-). Neat!

My students were also very worried about their grades, so I gave them extra credit assignments. One asked them to solve a collective action problem in their household (5+ people, not family), and I read a lot of clever solutions to "who takes out the trash?" Another assignment had them write to Congressmen, asking why the corn-ethanol program (of no economic or environmental value) was still continuing. Only one person got a reply, and that was close to a form letter. So much for "for the people!" Their other assignment was to interview three panhandlers (beggars), to find out how much they made and what they were going to do next. Many students did this assignment (they went in teams, for safety), and many were affected by the stories they heard. Besides the amazing variety of stories (medical problems, bad wives, losing jobs, just like it, traveling, drugs/booze, etc.), there was the data -- many of these folks make $10-20/day of begging, and many of them like it like that (no future) because it's "easier to ask people for money than work." I'll be posting some "best of" write-ups on my blog.

I could go on about blogging, teaching, etc., but I'll stop there.

The Future 

Anne helped me decide (finally!) to not go after an academic job (i.e., the economics job market that I did two years ago; see VI (1): Job Market Update -- 20 Dec 07 for more on that).

Instead -- according to the Master Plan -- I am going to travel with her, learning about water issues in other countries and enjoying the freedom that I have worked so hard to keep (that's one of the reasons for no kids, no house, etc.) 

During our three months of travel, I will write a draft of my book -- The End of Abundance, a Primer on Water Economics -- that I have under contract with UC Press [proposal removed]

After we get back, we'll find out what to do next. I really enjoy speaking to the public and teaching people about water and environmental issues, so I am going to try to continue that. 

As everyone knows, there is "no business model" for public intellectuals (as I want to be), because they speak for the public rather than a self-interested client; read this for more. I am hoping that I can get by with consulting (you can buy my time but not my opinion :-), writing for clients, public speaking, fellowships, whatever. If you know an organization that supports the public interest, tell me.

(Why not an academic, btw? Because we are hired and employed to write academic papers, i.e., "papers that nobody reads in journals nobody has heard of," and that seems a terrible waste of time and energy to me. I want to have an impact.)

After getting back, we may leave again (South America? Africa?) for more travel and learning about water -- I am going to maintain the blog throughout this process -- until... maybe we live in Amsterdam :-)

I am also strongly considering running for Congress in 2012. It will be a learning experience for me (fun!), and I may even affect the election, debate on policy issues, etc. Stay tuned.

Have a wonderful holiday/solstice and fabulous 2010!

Cheers!


Looking back at 2008

Berkeley, 21 Dec 2008

After I finished my PhD (see Making of a PhD for that story), I went off to Washington DC to do a short postdoc ("Visiting Fellow, Regulatory Studies") at the Mercatus Center.

Since I knew that I was going to come back to California after two months, to start a two-year postdoc at UC Berkeley, I thought of my time in DC as a transition, a vacation, and an exploration of what's there and what's next.

Washington DC

My DC-experience started out badly: Doug Kohler, the guy who agreed to rent me a room (via craigslist), decided to cancel the deal and keep my $500 deposit. (I ended up suing Doug -- and winning -- but I couldn't collect my money. I launched a blog documenting Doug's misdeeds, and four other people found me who had been defrauded for thousands of $$. (Maybe that's nothing compared to the $billions being tossed around these days, but it was real money for us!) In the end, the blog not only helped two people avoid losing more money (they cancelled their checks after reading my blog), but it also helped get Doug arrested (he's negotiating a charge of fraud with all the lying he can muster), and formed the backbone of the prosecuting attorney's case file.

[Unfortunately, I've made the blog private on that attorney's request. Email me if you want "subscriber" access.]

After a week on a friend's couch (thanks Kathryn!), I ended up moving into a group house in Columbia Heights. I lived there with 6 other 20-somethings, and found myself in the middle of a fun -- if sometimes confusing -- bunch of folks.

Work

My work was interesting. At the Mercatus Center, neither of my planned projects (how to make regulators do their job without the prerequisite that they be angels; community water management as an alternative to the private/public debate) went anywhere. On the other hand, my blogging at aguanomics took off when MC's media person put me in touch with Forbes. My forbes.com piece got me a lot of attention -- a spot on Fox Business News (with a tie!), guestposts at the Freakonomics blog, invitations to speak at various places, etc.

Something was working right!

So, I put as much energy into the blog and public outreach as I could find, and now I've got a reasonably solid audience (200 visitors/day plus 500 RSS subscribers) for a blog devoted to water economics. [more on this below...]

Personal

My personal life was rather chaotic. I got involved in the "Burner" social community (going to events at Artomatic, attending the regional burn at TransformUS, hanging out with various firedancers), messed around with dating (the DC social scene is pretty active, with the high turnover of interns and various young things on the prowl), and managed to ride a bike to work through traffic scrums and massive heat and humidity. (If we are ever going to encourage a green commute, we will need showers at work!)

I got to know a number of people in DC who I still talk to, so that was cool.

My overall impression of DC is that it's a place obsessed with power (at work, in the bars) and that it's a pity that air conditioning exists: If there was no A/C, we would have fewer people in DC living off of our money, designing new programs to bring them more power and screw up our lives.

[I think that the founding fathers were rather clever to put the Capitol in a swamp. Too bad A/C came along...]

Berkeley

So, after those two months, I returned to California. (I had already flown back TWICE for conferences; talk about bad planning!)

I rented half of a GREAT house in "the flats" of Berkeley. It's got hardwood floors, a great kitchen, a fireplace and just a super layout. I particularly appreciate having a separate bedroom and office on the 1.5th floor :)

Better yet, I have a cool roommate, Nick, an industrial designer who manages to bring some style into my life!

So, after unpacking, I headed to Burning Man for the second time, taking Steve along for his virgin burn. I was better prepared, and thus able to arrive early, help with selling ice (you can only buy ice and coffee @ BM; everything else is a gift or what you brought), and get into the groove...

I camped with the couchsurfers @ BM, and I have also deepened my connections with that community (800,000 people worldwide who like to sleep on/offer up couches in places far from home). It's a nice coincidence that the "world headquarters" for CS is based in Berkeley for this year.

UCB Postdoc

Once I got back, it was off to work. As a Wantrup Fellow, I have no obligations (teaching, research, publication, office hours, etc.), so you can imagine that I reveled in the freedom.

In fact, I continued to do what I had been doing in DC, which is what I had been doing in Davis before I left -- blogging.

Now this brings us to an interesting question that I have been debating and discussing over the past 6-8 months, i.e., what should I do with my PhD?

Career

The traditional route -- "Academic Intellectual" -- would have me take an assistant professor job with an obligation to publish academic articles in academic journals. Teaching would be of lessor (or zero) importance, and communication with the public (blogs, talks) would have no professional reward whatsoever.

Obviously, I have been doing the opposite -- acting as a "Public Intellectual" -- for a few reasons:

  1. I want to teach more people about economics. If more people understood opportunity cost and comparative advantage, we'd be both richer and happier!
  2. I want to work on relevant stuff. So much academics writing is useless (no practical application or lesson) that I hate to spend my time on the same stuff.
  3. I am still working on some academic papers [they and my dissertation are here] and awaiting a SINGLE acceptance for publication. If I suck so bad (16 rejections so far!), then perhaps I should be looking for work elsewhere.
  4. I LIKE blogging and speaking to the public and teaching. I DO NOT like academic writing, which takes forever to do (document everything), must please anonymous referees looking for holes in your work, and takes months (or years) to get published! That said, I do like to explore and debate ideas, so I think that the main issue is not with that, but the institutional shortcomings of academic publication, i.e., since you need it to get/keep a job, journals are deluged with papers (of VARYING quality), many of which need to be rejected just to keep publication volume down to something manageable.

blah blah blah...

So, what am I doing about all this?

First, I am expanding my public speaking role through a series of "water chats" (provisional name -- got any better?). These will be "author talks without the book" that I will schedule myself as I meander around California (and perhaps neighboring states). I plan to advertise my presence, meet with local water people (to learn), talk to those interested (to teach), and keep up with blogging (to publicize what I learn and where I am going next). I plan to take my first water chat tour soon after the new year.

Second, I am writing up a proposal for Aguanomics, the book. I have been contacted by several good publishers interested in a book on water, and it seems that a trade (NOT text) book on water economics would have a good audience: A Cadillac Desert that teaches non-economists how to look at water management (in its many dimensions) through the eyes of an economist. The book is meant to span the gap between the textbooks (boring, hard and perhaps over-complicated) and the water rants (biased books on "water crisis," "evil corporations," etc.)

Third, I am continuing to blog.

The trouble is that I work on public policy, I don't want to work for the government, and I am unwilling to trade my independence for an adversarial (corporate or non-profit) position that does not allow me to think in terms of what's best for "us" -- not just me, Americans, democrats, etc.

In one year, I will be back on the academic job market (unless I have another job lined up), and I will have to judge whether I can get a non-academic job (public policy researcher?), whether I can get an academic job (liberal arts professor), or whether I should just "retire" to travel and enjoy myself. (It's always good to have a Plan B! I am not rich, but my money/earning power is sufficient to live, and my respect for "status" is insufficient to keep me as a wage slave. I also take the motto of this site (my site) seriously. Kill Your Status Quo can be uncomfortable, but no risk, no reward!)

Libertarians never die -- they just walk off alone...

A Few Asides

I am very pleased that Obama won. I was sad that Hillary went nuts during the campaign. (I predicted in Oct 2007 that it would be Hillary vs. Romney.) I was MORE sad that McCain lost all his maverick in an effort to pander to the worst elements in the Republican party. I think that Obama CAN get stuff done by changing the tone (a la Kennedy), and have been pleased overall with his transition team.

For Christmas, I'd like the following presents from St. Obama:

  • Legalize drugs -- please end the chaos and waste from this failed Prohibition.
  • Redirect the US Military to defense and stop supporting illiberal dictators.
  • Trade with everyone (Cuba, Iran, et al.), freely. Yes, unilateral trade liberalization.
  • Protect people (not jobs or industries) via portable health care, pensions and unemployment support.
  • Get religion out of government (abortion, prayer, etc.) -- those are private matters!
  • Kill the farm bill. If we are going to bribe farm states, just send them money.
  • Implement a carbon tax, unilaterally.
  • Decentralize MANY government functions to states (support the 10th Amendment!), i.e., education, welfare, infrastructure, etc.
  • End corporate taxes and move regulation to agencies that are harder to bribe.
  • Reform income taxes (flat, with an exemption) and payroll taxes (switch social security from pay as you go)
  • Close Guanto and end shameful practices that are ruining (have ruined?) our reputation as a "shining city on the hill"
  • Promote 100% government transparency -- retroactively!
  • ... and a puppy (just kidding on that one!)

The economic meltdown is a fiasco that can be blamed on politicians (who like to manage too much), regulators (leaning too hard on rating agencies, etc.) and corporate managers. I do not blame the capitalists since their job is to be as greedy as possible. It seems that some people forgot that (the Madoff scam makes me laugh and cry).

The environmental situation is NOT looking good. Many people in power do not understand sustainable nearly as well as they understand GDP growth and campaign contributions. Those without power will suffer -- especially as sea levels rise by one meter over the next 100 years, many species go extinct as their habitat disappears, and we all suffer from greater variation in the weather. Seriously -- our lifestyle is going to change, voluntarily or not. That's why I am not having kids, and I am considering retirement (to enjoy what's left) to be such a good option...

All of this makes me feel (and sense in others) a strong need to rest, reevaluate and reconsider what's going on around and within me. We've had quite an eventful six months, and volatility, change and uncertainty are stressful...

Enjoy the winter solstice, hug your loved ones, and enjoy the light to come!