Thursday, May 28, 2015

I said Good Day!

Alright, I'm all done here.  I've moved on over to The Prediction Racket at

That's where you will find me...

This site will stay up for as long as Google will let it be so, but I won't tend to it.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Trends in Beach Nourishment

The folks at the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines (who maintain the Beach Nourishment viewer highlighted in my last post) have kindly shared some data with me.  Below are a couple of graphs analyzing their data.  

I am grateful for their taking the moment to chat with me and a beach nourishment 101 explanation.  Any error in interpretation here is mine alone.  

The Beach Nourishment viewer keeps track of nourishment "episodes."  This is different from projects.

The US Corps of Engineers (USACE) is responsible for most beach nourishment projects.  When they propose a project to Congress for funding the entire project may contain many episodes.  For instance, the hypothetical "New America Beach Project" includes three episodes in which sand will be placed at the June, July, and August Beaches.

As well, this data contains episodes that include navigation projects in which dredge material from a channel was put on a beach.  USACE does not consider such methods as beach nourishment just navigation.

So, some differences in definition exist depending on where you get your data and you you talk to.

The first graph shows number of beach nourishment episodes indexed to the average number per year.  Clearly, there is an increase in the number of beach episodes each year over time.

It is generally accepted that the first beach nourishment project was on Coney Island in 1923.  This was done at the expense of local government to build up tourism to the area- the project allowed for the famous Coney Island boardwalk..

But beach nourishment didn't really get going as public policy activity until the 1950s.

In the past (though perhaps not so much today), most nourishment projects were characterized as flood control measures.  Around the 1950's the federal government began receiving a lot of pressure to step in an help out with disaster relief and prevention.  I am under the impression that this is why one sees an amp up in nourishment projects around the same time.

Thus, I divided the data in the top graph into a smaller subset in the bottom graph. The year 1955 is an arbitrary start point for 'some time in the 1950's'.  

Over the entire dataset there is an average of 21.6 episodes per year.  Some years see a tripling and many years are around 50% -100% above average.  

Over the 1955-2014 time period there is an average 31.3 episodes per year.  The number of projects varies by about 50%, give or take, around the average with some years seeing a doubling of episodes.  
Roughly the same can be said for the total cost per year in the next set of graphs (regardless of government cost share).   

Since 1955, the average annual cost of episodes is about $196M.  Since about 2000, there appears a generality that most years are about 50% more than the average with a couple years at twice the average annual cost.

The final graphs in the series show the annual cost per year of episodes as a percent of national GDP.

It also shows a bit why I became more curious about the 1950's affect.

The average cost of beach nourishment as a percent of GDP over the entire time series is ~0.003%.

The top graph shows that over the whole data series, the annual cost of nourishment projects has a percent of GDP has decreased.  But notice that some early episode years, when the economy was much smaller, the total cost constituted much larger percentages of GDP.

After the WWII our economy grew substantially.  Since 1955, the cost of beach nourishment as a percent of GDP shows no trend.

I don't know what this means, if anything, for policy or society.  

However, what the data seems to demonstrate is that the nation spends an increasing amount of funds on beach nourishment but this total amount is bound by economic growth (as measured here by GDP).  As a constant proportion of GDP, so long as the economy grows, perhaps funding for beach nourishment will too.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

How much do beach nourishment projects cost?

The Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University has a Beach Nourishment Viewer.

It is a cool tool that demonstrates where nourishment projects have occurred and how much it cost in real and nominal US dollar amounts.  Very cool.

For instance, the south end of Figure Eight Island in NC appears to have had several nourishment efforts since the late 1970's for a total of $6.3M in 2013 dollars.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Ratemaking for North Carolina Hurricanes... just like everyone else

While I am settling in at work and developing a new web site.  I will keep notes here.

Some history:
Back in 1968, Congress passed a ginormous collection of laws better known as the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968.  Within this stack of legislation were two important insurance items: 1) The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and 2) FAIR plan legislation.

Both of these programs were considered key to ensuring the stability and continued growth of the housing market.  Several flood/hurricane events led insurers to pull out of coastal areas (example Hurricane Betsy).  Also during this time, there was a great amount of civil unrest.  Insurers began 'redlining' or rather pulling out of urban areas considered too high risk for riot (and therefore fire, vandalism, etc).

Collectively, legislators considered this a serious economic problem threatening the ability of a great many homeowners to maintain their mortgage.  Also, any inability to access insurance in certain areas stymied real estate growth in those areas.   The ultimate goal for policymakers was to ensure continued access to "essential property insurance" which included extended coverage (that is, the part of homeowners that covers windstorm).

The compromise between Congress and the States was a federally backed riot reinsurance and state run Fair plans.  The deal was that if a state wanted to partake in the riot reinsurance program then they had to provide Fair Plans which would "make essential property insurance more readily available in, but not necessarily limited to, urban areas."

To exemplify what happens in areas that cannot get insurance take a look at google satellite photos of COBRA zones.  My understanding is that it's not that people can't build in these areas it's that they can't get insurance or federal funding of any kind in these areas.  In general, they remain undeveloped.

This enabled and/or led the way for states to create Joint Underwriting Associations and ultimately, "Beach Plans" or rather, joint underwriting associations that covered legislatively defined coastal areas.  While the statute creating the Riot Reinsurance program expired in or around 1983, the state organized JUAs continued on.

North Carolina still has both a FAIR plan and a beach plan the North Carolina Insurance Underwriting Association (NCIUA).  I'm interested in the latter.

The guiding mandate (STAT. 58-45-1) of the NCIUA is as follows:
It is hereby declared by the General Assembly of North Carolina that an adequate market for essential property insurance is necessary to the economic welfare of the beach and coastal areas of the State of North Carolina and that without such insurance the orderly growth and development of those areas would be severely impeded; that furthermore, adequate insurance upon property in the beach and coastal areas is necessary to enable homeowners and commercial owners to obtain financing for the purchase and improvement of their property; and that while the need for such insurance is increasing, the market for such insurance is not adequate and is likely to become less adequate in the future; and that the present plans to provide adequate insurance on property in the beach and coastal areas, while deserving praise, have not been sufficient to meet the needs of this area. It is further declared that the State has an obligation to provide an equitable method whereby every licensed insurer writing essential property insurance in North Carolina is required to meet its public responsibility instead of shifting the burden to a few willing and public-spirited insurers. It is the purpose of this Article to accept this obligation and to provide a mandatory program to assure an adequate market for essential property insurance in the beach and coastal areas of North Carolina. (emphasis mine)
So, there should be no mistaking that NC has every intent of developing its coastline with property in some way shape or form and the state has taken a leading role in ensuring that coastal risk is spread, shared or otherwise "insured."

It's not that NCIUA causes development.  But, the historical precedent is set that it will not be the cause of limiting property development.  No residual market stemming from this era would.

Some info about NCIUA ratemaking...
NCIUA rating statutes is 58-45-45.  It is really this that I find interesting.  It starts out same old, same old:  "Rates shall not be excessive, inadequate, or unfairly discriminatory. Except as provided in subsections  (a1), (a2), and (b)." (emphasis mine)

I am not fully knowledgeable of rating regulation throughout the nation, but I think the "except" is noteworthy.  For those that think "insurer of last resort" a meaningful battle cry, then this is probably a cherished piece of legislation.  The surcharge ensures that NCIUA can never undercut the regular private market.

Section (a1) is most notable:
The Association's rates shall be the North Carolina Rate Bureau Manual Rates plus a surcharge of five percent (5%) of the applicable North Carolina Rate Bureau Manual Rate for wind and hail coverage and a surcharge of fifteen percent (15%) of the applicable North Carolina Rate Bureau Manual Rate for homeowners' insurance including wind and hail coverage. It is the intent of the General Assembly that these surcharges ensure that the Coastal Property Insurance Pool is the market of last resort over and above the manual rate.
The thing is, and likely reasonably so, the Bureau and the Commissioner still control the basic rate prior to the surcharge.

Even granted the surcharge, we can argue about the underlying rate AND a commissioner or some other can mess around with the coastal rate to make sure the surcharge isn't burdensome- (kinda like what they do in Florida with assessments).

One can see a little of this messing around in the Bureaus' January 2014  to the Insurance Commissioners' order (I believe a request for more information).

There the Bureau discusses their hurricane rate making practices.  They use the AIR model.

Quite comical is the challenge to the scientific integrity of the model.  For instance,
The AIR hurricane model has allegedly been extensively peer reviewed..."  (emphasis  mine).
Really?!  Come on now.  So many other bones to pick with a model and the model decision process then whether or not it is actually peer reviewed.  Most certainly, the model has been peer reviewed and is built on peer reviewed literature.  Now whether that matters for what someone is trying to do or say is a separate issue.

Elsewhere, the Bureau challenges the integrity of John Rollins' review of the model because he
"... is a former employee of AIR making his "independence" somewhat questionable."  
Indeed, he is a former employee, Vice President actually.  But also one of the best in the business on cat models and residual markets.

But, this is of no help in examining the interface of ratemaking and public politics.

While the Bureau plays the very NC card of questioning the legitimacy of the science, they outlines reasoning for all these decisions and they describe all of their own decisions they had to make in determining how best to come up with their rate requests.

For instance, they ran the AIR model using the standard catalog not the warm water catalog.  This seems fairly standard for residual markets but is contrary (and one of the biggest gripes) to the private insurance and reinsurance industry.

The Bureau  also excluded experienced historical losses (kinda of a weird move, I think) from the process of developing rates.  There are a bunch of other decisions too no doubt steeped in expert judgement.

So, just to wrap up...
Despite an effort to keep up appearances about a NCIUA that doesn't run counter to the private market, great effort is put towards ensuring that hurricane insurance rates are 'just so' or rather, just politically acceptable.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Wilmington Op- Ed: When science meets politics

As I work on a new website, I'll just update here.  

I have an op-ed in the Wilmington Star News.

The article reflects on the much anticipated and debated update of the 2010 North Carolina Sea-Level Rise Assessment Report.  The update has entered into a year long scientific review/negotiation process. The finalized version is expected in 2016...just in time for the next gubernatorial race.  

My op-ed argues that the issues at stake in coastal development are far greater than revealed by the political focus on the science of sea level.  I n order to improve the democratic process and ensure the public has a say in how their community develops, the conversation must move away from a rate war and onto a debate for the environmental, economic and cultural future of the coast.  Science alone cannot make these moral decisions. 

The whole article is here: When science meets politics

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What now?

Whoa!  I didn't realize it has been quite has long as it has.

Well, at the start of this year I took up an Assistant Professor position of Coastal and Ocean Policy in the Department of Public and International Affairs at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

As I am making this transition, I am also redesigning my 'internet presence.'

I'm thinking of redirecting the blog too.  Maybe something that also reflects a transition from student to professor.  Hmmm, we'll see...

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

What problem does the postdoc pose?

A couple of days ago, a dialog began on an academic listserve.  An article in the Boston Globe citing a glut of postdocs serving a crisis served as the impetus.  (See the National Postdoctoral Association for a definition of postdoc)

The article addresses the"plight" of the biomedical postdoc,
The plight of postdocs has become a point of national discussion among senior scientists, as their struggles have come to be seen as symptoms of broader problems plaguing biomedical research. After years of rapid growth, federal funding abruptly leveled off and even contracted over the last decade, leaving a glut of postdocs vying for a limited number of faculty jobs. Paradoxically, as they’ve gotten stuck, the pursuit of research breakthroughs has also become reliant on them as a cheap source of labor for senior scientists.   ...
Their progress is very poorly tracked; the leader of a national report on the state of postdocs has called them “invisible people.” The National Institutes of Health estimates there are somewhere between 37,000 and 68,000 postdocs in the country. Salaries vary, but rarely reflect their level of education. The NIH stipend ranges from $42,000 a year for a starting postdoc, up to $55,272 for a seventh year.
The listserve discussion introduced a need to lobby Congress on behalf of postdocs and the assertion that postdocs experience very real suffering and systematic oppression.

I am not a biomedical postdoc.  I am a postdoc in the social sciences so maybe, I just don't know how it is.  But, my personal feeling is that identifying the nation's doctoral graduates in a highly technical field as a suffering, plighted group is less than desirable, demonstrates an odd view of the world and need for prioritizing problems.

Based on the Globe report, postdocs appear to be receiving a stipend that outside of the field could be considered a salary.  While benefits may be questionable (I just don't know) and reliability of work unstable, well, that seems a very real problem facing Americans generally, not just postdocs.  Finally, we don't all get to be rockstars, super models, trust-funders or socialites... just like we don't all get our own labs.

But what a great nation is this! Society allots funds to support the advanced training of researchers so they may pursue their dream career that has potential to eventually demonstrate societal benefit.  

My brief involvement in the listserve conversation expressed my feelings of pshaw for a designation of postdoc suffering.  For this I have some regrets.  I realize it is not my place to judge the worthiness of felt plight.

And what a great nation is this!  Those that feel wronged are justified in their feelings and to the extent by which they believe it merits Congressional attention they have the freedom to make their opinions heard.  

So, I, professionally, offer a different discussion:

Career dissatisfaction of University graduates seems a going concern.  This extends even to those with the highest degree attainments, PhDs.  All face a difficult job market, income inequality, lower than hoped for wages, etc.

The debate about PhD and postdoc "glut" has taken place, at least, since the early 1980's.  For instance, William Zumeta of the University of Washington, published a Higher Education article in 1982 titled, "Doctoral Programs and the labor market, or how should we respond to the 'PhD glut?"  At that time, Zumeta argued,
at the margin, some important benefits of doctoral programs have generally been understated.  At the same time marginal costs with respect to doctoral enrollments (and thus potential savings from enrollment reductions) have tended to be exaggerated by higher education policymakers in recent years.
A couple of years later, Zumeta published an article that saught to better understand not just the quality of the postdoc experience, but the quality of the postdoc.  The widespread belief at the time was the best doctoral graduates went right on to faculty positions.  Lesser graduates went on to postdoc.  But if the scientific engine depended on the postdoc worker than what did this all say for the quality of science?

While Zumeta called for further data collection and analysis he also stated, "cause for concern" existed.

Research in this field has continued and there is today, a good amount of information on graduate job attainment, experience, etc.

Perhaps the production of PhDs is a subsidized product, like corn.  The public highly values the idea of the farmer and farming and highly values food production.  So, the public seeks to provide some stability to the corn market.

Similarly, the public highly values education, research and the production of science.  So, society provides some stability to the higher education market.  We can argue about how desirable the situation is in corn and PhDs.

Are we using postdocs as a proxy for arguing about funding for research generally and biomedical specifically?  Probably.  

I think the whole discussion may make a bit more sense in the historical context of science policy.

It is after all, the societal goals for science that has fostered the growth of today's research army.  And to the extent the institution of science has faltered on maintaining its own integrity, then perhaps this has led to unrealistic expectations of the institution and/or a general poor quality experience for the postdoc.  

But, I'm not really sure that PhDs interested in research are so different from aspiring actors.  The difference being the researcher is not solely interested in fame (most aren't), but in the production of work that aids society in bettering itself creatively, pragmatically and respectably.  Some of us get there.  Others of us don't.  Much like Jennifer Aniston and that other actor you've never heard of.

I feel grateful that society supports research in the quest for societal benefit and and values broad access to higher education.  Still, it is highly likely that the whole system could work far better.