Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nuclear Energy and Earthquakes

As pretty much everyone knows, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan has created serious problems with several of their nuclear reactors. Naturally people are wondering if this means that nuclear energy is unsafe. Of course the situation remains fluid and the answers are not yet in. However we can say some things for certain.

First, of course neither nuclear energy nor anything else is 100% safe. You could die in your back yard from a lightening strike, a heart attack, or even a meteor strike. Asking for total safety is the wrong question. The right question is if nuclear safety is safe compared to other sources. So far the answer seems to be that it is. The number of people killed by electricity producing nuclear reactors is miniscule compared to those killed by other problems. In fact the number of Japanese killed by that quake and tsunami far exceeds what the reactor problems are likely to cause.

Second, 'nuclear' is a witch word, a word that tends to end rational discussion. (cf All too many people react emotionally rather than rationally to the term. If we are to decide wisely about the future of nuclear energy we will have to overcome that problem and think about not only the dangers and benefits of nuclear reactors but about the dangers and benefits of not using it. This is back to the question of alpha vs. beta risk that I've discussed previously. (

Third, if we continue to use nuclear reactors we must learn from the past. If news reports are correct, General Electric ignored some of the recommendations of its own engineers who thought that reactor model was unsafe. The dispute was so severe that the engineers resigned. Also, the Japanese put those reactors within reach of a tsunami knowing that they live on the Pacific Ring of Fire, and area of extreme earthquake danger. Clearly that is not the place for a nuclear reactor.

So what is the upshot of all this? My conclusions are:

1. We should re-examine the nuclear program to see where improvements can be made.

2. We probably should continue developing nuclear energy, using reactors improved by what we have learned. Not to do so would leave us a choice of more fossil fuel burning or going back to the pre-industrial age when people died from lack of food, clean water, or shelter. The dangers from that almost certainly exceed the danger from a well-run nuclear program.

3. We should continue looking at other energy sources. Wind, solar and similar new sources are not yet ready to displace fossil fuels but we should continue research.

4. If we continue a nuclear program (which I suspect we should), we must require that such facilities be located away from known faults and where tsunamis and other known hazards cannot reach them. We must also require use of the best safety measures reasonably available.

And of course we can all do our part to help the people in Japan. They will need help for a long time.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Who Really Cares, Book Review

Book Review, Who Really Cares, America's Charity Divide, Who Gives, Who Doesn't, and Why It Matters by Arthur C. Brooks, 183pp plus appendix and notes. Basic Books, 2006

Arthur C. Brooks, professor of public administration at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, has written what I regard as a very important book. This book reports his researches into charitable giving, especially in the U.S. He admits that he was surprised at the results.

Brooks' studies used voluntary giving as the primary measurement but also looked at things like blood donations, volunteering time, returning the extra when a cashier gives too much change, and even being willing to give directions to a stranger. With monetary and time donations he looked at both the fraction of each group donating and how much each group donated per person. Results were quite consistent, a group that donated more money was also more likely to donate time and blood, return too much change, etc.

Contrary to popular perceptions, “conservatives” are more generous than “liberals.” However the real key is not political belief but religion. After controlling for religion he found that conservatives were only slightly more generous than liberals. However religious people, and even those who are not now religious but were raised in religious homes, are much more generous than the non-religious. Nor does this apply only to donations to churches. The religious contribute significantly more to secular causes as well. While political conservatives are significantly more charitable than are liberals, that is mostly due to the fact that conservatives are more likely to be religious.

While religion is the biggest key to giving, there are other factors as well. Surprisingly the class that gives the highest percentage of their income to charity is the working poor. Percentage-wise they donate more than the middle class and even than the wealthy. The poor who receive welfare, on the other hand, are the least charitable.

Marriage and family also make a big difference. Married people, especially those with children, are more likely to be charitable than the unmarried or childless. Brooks speculates that the reason is that having children is itself a charitable act (except for those on welfare who get money for each child).

Charity is negatively correlated with welfare and with the belief that government should re-distribute income or care for people's needs. As the availability of government welfare increases, voluntary giving declines. Even in the absence of increased welfare, people who believe government should provide such welfare or re-distribute income are much less likely to voluntarily donate money or time, to give directions to a stranger, or return too much change. There seems to be a sense among those people that “it's not my job to do what government should do.” On the other hand, those who oppose easy welfare and income re-distribution tend to be generous, voluntarily donating to causes they support.

Throughout the book are comparisons between the U.S. and other countries. Other countries have more welfare and believe that is the way to go. Hence their people leave it to the government and do not voluntarily donate very much. The U.S. is, by a wide margin, the home of the charitable. Our citizens lead the world in voluntary giving. Others, particularly the Europeans often accuse us of selfishness because our government does not give as much to disaster recovery as their governments do. However when we add in voluntary donations we are actually more generous than they. That does not faze the Europeans who want to count only government largesse.

The author also spends considerable ink on why charity matters. He points out that the charitable tend to be healthier, happier, and more likely to improve their own lot in life. In fact one chapter is entitled, “Charity Makes You Healthy, Happy, and Rich.” He attributes this to the fact that the charitable are likely to have more social connections and to feel better about themselves. Personally I believe there is also another factor: the charitable are taking action, being proactive. That is the sort of thing that leads to success in the workplace, and to better mental and physical health.

Not only does charity have individual benefits, but countries with more voluntary giving tend to have the advantage over those with less charity. This is partly the result of individuals being healthier, happier, and richer. It is also the result of the good works done by the charitable. However the biggest factor may be that the charitable tend to be involved not only in charity but in the community and politics.

The author includes suggestions for how to teach children to be charitable and to increase voluntary giving generally. Then the appendix covers the author's sources, how he did his calculations etc. Here he gets into some of the gory detail that would make the book less readable if included in the body.

Charity benefits the recipient, the giver and the country. As a result, I think this is a book that can make a big difference in our country if only people will read and apply it. Any book that points the way to more civic involvement, better health and happiness, and the other benefits Brooks here describes, deserves our attention.