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.