I find it enervating to listen to economists trying to explain our circumstances without reference to resource constraints, as if resources were a separate topic. Krugman’s backing of Waxman-Markey carries some weight with me, but not as much as it would if he didn’t totally neglect resource constraints.
I. An Unlikely Distribution
Every inch of the place was economically active, and every inch dedicated to the prosperity of people who obviously lived far, far away. Not a bluebonnet or an Indian paintbrush was anywhere to be seen, not even the sunflowers that the state chooses as its emblem. Nor much in the way of human creativity either. Since a drive diagonally across Kansas is a lengthy prospect, this was a bit discouraging, especially in the wake of the spectacular trip across Texas the previous two days.
A wonderful article by Matthew Crawford appeared in the New York Times Magazine last weekend, called “The Case for Working With Your Hands“. In Crawford’s case, it is about a transition from being a University of Chicago philosopher to being a motorcycle mechanic. Of course, as any well-read baby boomer will know, the idea of mixing philosophy and motorcycle maintenance isn’t without precedent.
Over the next six months I spent a lot of time at Fred’s shop, learning, and put in only occasional appearances at the university. This was something of a regression: I worked on cars throughout high school and college, and one of my early jobs was at a Porsche repair shop. Now I was rediscovering the intensely absorbing nature of the work, and it got me thinking about possible livelihoods.
As it happened, in the spring I landed a job as executive director of a policy organization in Washington. This felt like a coup. But certain perversities became apparent as I settled into the job. It sometimes required me to reason backward, from desired conclusion to suitable premise. The organization had taken certain positions, and there were some facts it was more fond of than others. As its figurehead, I was making arguments I didn’t fully buy myself. Further, my boss seemed intent on retraining me according to a certain cognitive style — that of the corporate world, from which he had recently come. This style demanded that I project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning.
As I sat in my K Street office, Fred’s life as an independent tradesman gave me an image that I kept coming back to: someone who really knows what he is doing, losing himself in work that is genuinely useful and has a certain integrity to it. He also seemed to be having a lot of fun.
In a Jeffersonian democracy, where a great range of practical skills is distributed among the voters, one suspects that the capacity to maintain a fondness for some facts in preference to others would not be among those skills. In a world of specialization, one can be an expert on football scores and used car prices, say, without knowing much else about anything else. Cultural affinities align you with one or another opinion package. Those packages come with supporting facts.
In American politics these days, you only have two packages to choose from. One, increasingly narrowly defined, is also aligned with a narrow and literalist religious philosophy, entraining a certain amount of ugly racism and paranoia, and it is fortunately a little shy of the critical mass required to make the country seriously dangerous in the horrible tradition of 20th century totalitarian regimes. The alternative, though, for which the rest of us have increasing sympathy, is hardly immune from paranoia, selectivity of evidence, and foolish romanticism. Ultimately the selectivity of evidence becomes so severe that the two main groups operate, effectively, in distinct worlds. Their job, then, is not to promote their ideas, but to promote their “facts”, facts whose implication is so overwhelming that no argumentation is necessary.
III. The “Good Guys” Do It Too
In 1999, an odor survey of neighborhood residents was conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). Citizens reported sleeplessness, headaches, nausea, and other ailments as a result of exposure to odors they attribute to MKC.
Bayer pesticides are killing our bees. Please protest against imidacloprid. [v:glynnmoody] http://bit.ly/abZEU
Which leads to a rather typical advocacy article on Salon; the connection to the Colony disorder is made by innuendo. Nobody is denying that this stuff may have damaged a bee or two; this puts the manufacturer in an awkward position, leaving a romantic/absolutist green position easy to take up. But there’s really no evidence presented that bee colony decline is connected with this substance. And normally it would have stopped there.
Bayer found imidacloprid in pollen of flowering trees at concentr’s high enough to kill a honeybee in mins http://bit.ly/9jc3N
Gar Lipow argues, and convincingly so, in a current article on Grist, that Waxman-Markey’s cap and trade provisions are counterproductive.
Mainstream environmental groups are … soooooo happy that climate deniers are not in command of politics any more. They are fighting yesterday’s battle, to get general agreement on the principle that climate change is caused by people, and people need to do something about it. They like the nice feeling that comes from all of us raising our hands and pledging, scout’s honor, to achieve sustainability by 2050. But they are losing today’s battle to put into place a viable means to get from here to there, and judging from their public statements they don’t even know it.
Nos 6 & 7 are creative:
“For us, the annual appearance of potholes is a sign that Nature is constantly retaking the roots of our city. So, before we get around to gving her a good slap in the face, we installed some turf grass in several potholes around the Plateau Mont Royal.”
“Nous estimons que nous ne pouvons nous contenter du statu quo proposé par la Ville de Montréal, si nous voulons voir non pas un maintien, mais une amélioration de notre situation.”
“LA SOLUTION PASSE PAR LE TRANSPORT EN COMMUN, MAIS AUSSI PAR LA RÉDUCTION DE LA CAPACITÉ DE NOS RUES”
We believe that we can’t be satisfied with the status quo proposed by the city if we want to improve our situation rather than just maintaining it. The solution includes public transport, but also a reduction in the traffic capacity of the streets.
I’m trying to imagine Texans arguing for less parking in their neighborhood to encourage more bicycles, trains and busses. Take that, Ben Wear!
Adam Siegel is trying to plow through the details of Waxman-Markey so there is one more reason for me not to.
American passenger train service:
What about just zipping across the southern tier?
For comparison (both one-way), the bus takes 25 hours and costs $71.50 with advanced purchase. Google says it is a 16 hour drive.
In the end, I reluctantly conclude that David Roberts is right that we (and I in particular) should STFU about the Waxman Markey legislation and let the politicians take it as far as they can.
This is what is ironically called a “real world” compromise, in which we understand perfectly what techniques would be needed to make a world of vastly greater human dignity, beauty, mutual support and happiness (though, perhaps, a wee bit less ludicrously funny), but the “real world” of politics interferes to make a thorough bureaucratic muddle of it all.
The NYTimes explains this flavor of realism here.
How did cap and trade, hatched as an academic theory in obscure economic journals half a century ago, become the policy of choice in the debate over how to slow the heating of the planet? And how did it come to eclipse the idea of simply slapping a tax on energy consumption that befouls the public square or leaves the nation hostage to foreign oil producers?
The answer is not to be found in the study of economics or environmental science, but in the realm where most policy debates are ultimately settled: politics.
Cap and trade, … is almost perfectly designed for the buying and selling of political support through the granting of valuable emissions permits to favor specific industries and even specific Congressional districts. That is precisely what is taking place now in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has used such concessions to patch together a Democratic majority to pass a far-reaching bill to regulate carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade plan.
The upshot is a lot of short term gain spread around to specific people, and a balancing amount of unnecessary extra long term pain spread around to nobody in particular. This is the activation energy of politics.
When I discovered the distinction between popular and less popular blogs about global change, I noted that the dominant players, at least so far, are the more politically oriented ones. I inadvertently offended Joe Romm, but whatever his educational background, his thinking is pretty inside-the-beltway. David Roberts, though happily ensconced in the other Washington and pretty critical on the whole about DC, is also in the class of unabashedly liberal/progressive blogs. These are the guys who, at least at present, are getting the traffic, relatively speaking. Maybe that is as it should be. Maybe the group of people I want to reach is intrinsically smaller. Anyway, while we may agree on many things, what they try to do on their blogs and what I try to do on mine are not alike.
I discovered that while there is no doubt that I describe myself as liberal/progressive in contrast to other political postures, that is only a crude generalization in my case, since my politics takes a back seat to evidence-based reasoning, and sometimes I say things that progressives hate, for instance, “CCS sure had better work” and “coal is not the enemy of the human race” and so on.
Consequently, my writing and my thinking is not about how to advance liberalism or progressivism or my preferred political parties, but about what the most effective response to circumstances would be. Almost invariably, these ideas are considered “unrealistic”.
While carbon emission contraints are long overdue and there is a very dramatic mismatch between policy and evidence, it is an unusual sort of slow motion crisis. The effect of delaying a response to the second year of the present congress would be relatively inconsequential, compared to the distorting influences of a bad bill.
And in so saying, I fall into the fourth way: neither partisan nor afraid to draw a conclusion, feeling grimly disappointed that political realism creates such a muddle out of what ought to be a straightforward application of the part of economics that obviously works.
Commercial activity responds effectively to monetary incentives. Seriously. It does.
But I’m not an absolutist. The dominant factor in the present circumstances is the upcoming Copenhagen negotiation. It makes a great deal of difference to all the other countries whether the US shows up having made real substantive cuts, by which the participants will mean, exactly, large symbolic actions that might eventually lead to real substantive cuts.
How much better off will this leave grand gesture us than did the grand gestures of the past, most notably Kyoto?
Oddly, much better, since Damocles’ sword has slipped much lower, and since America would not find itself explicitly rejecting international cooperation. Maybe some of these theoretical cuts will eventually exit the “real world” of politics and enter the other (unreal?) world where the actual radiative properties of the atmosphere are changing at an unusually high and climbing rate.
So it’s perhaps best to leave the politicians to their craftiness or craziness. Because like it or not the radiative properties of the atmosphere for the next 100,000 years may depend sensitively on an all-too-casually chosen word here and there, and on the ensuing future sturm und drang among lawyers and judges and corprate interests about what the word actually means.
After a half century of our warnings and a quarter century of our drum banging, at least they are taking note in their peculiar way. Will it be enough?
The answer seems to be that, enough or not, it is the best we can do this year, and that this year matters.
PS – That’s right, the Canadians are smarter.
China’s catching up alone would roughly double world consumption rates. Oil consumption would increase by 106 percent, for instance, and world metal consumption by 94 percent. If India as well as China were to catch up, world consumption rates would triple. If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates).
Some optimists claim that we could support a world with nine billion people. But I haven’t met anyone crazy enough to claim that we could support 72 billion. Yet we often promise developing countries that if they will only adopt good policies — for example, institute honest government and a free-market economy — they, too, will be able to enjoy a first-world lifestyle. This promise is impossible, a cruel hoax: we are having difficulty supporting a first-world lifestyle even now for only one billion people.
Yes, this is the problem. We can’t equitably sustain the impact we already have. Which means that there are only two possible ways out of an absolute decline:
1) Abandoning the pretense that we have any interest in being fair
2) Reducing the impact per unit of wealth elevenfold
And that is just to break even!
Consider what an economist would consider business as usual.
Consider 2.5% annual growth, wherein the rest of the world can eventually catch up entirely to our final level. Let’s give it fifty years of more growth. Then we hold still and wait for the rest of the world to catch up to us; this will provide a lower bound. (Things are worse if we keep growing after that, but this is a good place to start.)
Plus we suppose a 40% increase in population that the demographers are telling us is what to expect.
And now consider what the world what have to do to break even on impacts.
OK, the 2.5 % growth for 50 years amounts to a 3.4 fold increase in wealth for us. If the population does not increase, that means the 11-fold increase in the prior calculation (for others to catch up only to 2008 levels in the west) has to be multiplied by 3.4 to catch up to the west, plus another factor of 1.4 to account for the increased population.
As a consequence, the impact per unit of wealth has to decline by a factor of 11 * 3.4 * 1.4 = 52.9 .
In order to support business as usual without increasing net impact or abandoning any claim to international equity, impact per unit wealth has to decrease by more than a factor of fifty. Even that may not be sustainable: that is what is needed to fulfill the implicit promise of a growth economy to the rest of the world for another fifty years without increasing the RATE at which the earth is damaged. And even so, the growth idea implies continuing reduction in impact per unit of wealth thereafter.
This entirely leaves aside arguments from energy availability. It’s completely sink-driven. For the most part, supply-side energy depletion arguments (peak all) are “served concurrently”. They don’t make matters easier, but at least they don’t add new multipliers.
What really has me dismayed is the scenario that the west will indeed abandon the pretense of international equity and try to become explicitly cynical and apartheid. This would leave the numbers much more plausible, but the world in sorry shape, mutually hostile, sectarian and violent by choice.
The recent rise of China in particular, and to a significant but lesser extent of India, will probably preclude success of this strategy. I hope so. In that scenario, the “growth” would all be channeled to the military in any case, essentially leaving individuals no additional wealth.
As Diamond points out, our existing patterns, especially in North America, are very wasteful; little actual well-being results from much of the high-impact activity. Oddly, in this wastefulness there is some hope, hope that our inevitable “decline” will not be too severe or disruptive, hope that what we can trim is mostly useless anyway.
Maybe there is some way to impose some sort of “growth” on this just to humor the economists, the bankers and the pension funds, but in actual fact our North American rate of impact on the world is so unsustainable that we will either see a long period of decline or something vastly worse.
People who have put more effort than I have into reading the Waxman-Markey bill are coming up with widely differing interpretations, not just of what its impacts will be, but of what it actually means.
One interesting case against is this analysis by Payal Parekh, who thinks the cap and trade components of the Waxman-Markey bill will do very little for American carbon emissions. Others do interpret the provisions differently; the real question is which interpretation will be advanced by the affected economic interests and how it will stand up in court.
I do gather from the comments to that article that a key flaw in trading emissions rights is double counting: a behavior that would likely have been done anyway can now be sold for credits that greatly exceed the expense of the action. This causes the cost of remediation to increase, not decrease.
On the other hand, I begin to see the urgency arguments as well; they do not stem from any physical process that can’t delay a year for an effort to design an elegant bill and . They stem from the need for the US not to show up in Copenhagen empty-handed. The whole world is desperate for a semblance of major action from the US. Even if the cap-and-trade provision of Waxman is completely toothless, it sounds big. In other words, it’s the semblance that seems to matter.
Of course, the atmosphere pays no attention to symbolic actions. So one question, especially presuming Parekh has it right, is whether a bad bill immediately makes a good bill in the next few years harder to achieve. I suspect so.
This morning’s talk of car free cities put me in mind of Frank Lloyd Wright, a man whose genius is widely but not universally appreciated. His greatest works, I think, happened early in his career (the Dana House in Springfield justifies a day trip from Chicago, assuming you have already seen the Robie House). Irene and I were married in Wright’s First Unitarian Meetinghouse in Madison, which has its delights but is not remotely comparable.
Yes, Rick, that is exactly the question. As far as I’m concerned, you can have all my tax dollars for your superdupercomputers if you can answer that one.