Why Criticize Economics

Suppose you believe the things that most people who understand the science believe:

  1. that the changes we are imposing on the world are huge and dangerous
  2. that the impacts follow the causes by some decades
  3. that we have a moral obligation not to trash the whole planet in the future

Then suppose you grant that, as an especially egregious op-ed by Holman Jenkins in the Wall Street Journal has it today:

Our political system has been looking at the problem of climate change for a generation, and lack of action is not due to the machinations of big oil – but to the inability of policy to bridge a giant chasm between proposed costs and benefits. Even if carbon’s guilt is assumed, the economics are far from certain that it wouldn’t be cheaper just to endure a changing climate.

You would conclude that the word “cheaper” in this case is not an example of frugality but of shallowness. You would try to find out how this sort of shallowness managed to position itself as the arbiter of long-range decision making. You would seek intellectually sound alternatives that didn’t yield results absurdly out of line with any remotely moral position that doesn’t have a direct line from God on the date certain of the Rapture.

Then there’s the concluding paragraph:

Voters and their representatives then could at least contemplate supporting a climate policy on cost-benefit grounds, rather than on the religious posturing that Al Gore and others adopt to push what they can’t sell rationally.

Yes, of course, Al Gore, Al Gore, Al Gore. Who’s the rational one here? (Of course, if it weren’t Al Gore it would be somebody else.) This isn’t about personality cults, it’s about physics and biology.

As for costs and benefits, I have been arguing all along that you need to attend to the worst plausible cases for cost-benefit analysis. I welcome the day when people at the WSJ and the like understand that the IPCC median outcome is very far short of the cost-weighted mean outcome.

That’s not my main point, though. Look very carefully at what they are doing. See how “cheaper” is declared “rational”, protecting the earth for our descendants is “religious posturing”. This position is unreasonable, even if you concede that it is in some sense “cheaper” to “endure”. Human beings did not sell the right to a moral compass when we invented money, insofar as I know.

Economics is not the totality of reason, no matter whether it declares itself so or not. There are, as even the WSJ may have heard, some things that money just can’t buy.

A viable planet, for instance. It’s an important case, you know. It’s the one thing that if you don’t have it, money can’t buy anything at all.

Update: Dano didn’t much care for this entry, but he came up with this amazing link, congressional testimony of Jonathan Rowe. That’s the best statement of the problem with the growth imperative that I have ever seen. Except for the (very interesting) history, there’s probably nothing here I or many of us haven’t said in one way or another, but it’s presented powerfully and (for me at least) very persuasively.

Latest delusionism from the WSJ

Because we have been successfully Godwinned out of calling the self-proclaimed “skeptics” “denialists”, I join the new trend in calling them “delusionists”.

Here’s a slightly edited instant messaging transcript you may find interesting. “mt” below is me. The other two people speaking are not climatologists. One (here called ‘Fred’) is well-known as an author of operational weather forecasting codes. The other (here called ‘Barney’) is a very clever high performance computing expert who has seen weather and climate codes but does not specialize in them.

It is interesting that Barney was quick to violate Godwin without any prompting. I do not think he has heard of “denialism”.


mt says, “<a href="http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/hjenkins/?id=110009914&mod=RSS_Opinion_Journal&ojrss=frontpage
“>The Wall Street Journal is at it again.” [linked]

… pause …

Fred: Mr. Jenkins is pissing in the wind. If the world scientific community *and* the U.S. Supreme Court aren’t enough for him then I guess he’s just gonna have to suffer.

Fred says, “I like how he slams Gore for what Jenkins thinks Gore’s going to say.”

Fred says, “Ought to at least let him say the thing first before criticising it. What’s wrong with public discourse in this country?”

Fred says, “Are the people I agree with this strident and obnoxious too, and I just don’t notice it because I agree with them?”

Fred . o O ( I’d like to think not, but we’re all creatures of our own biases. )

Barney . o O ( What’s wrong with “such a belief [being] the ‘consensus’ of scientists”? Perhaps Mr. Jenkins only shares beliefs with a plethora of tooth faries, or he only believes things written in invisible ink he cannot see drafted by an invisible man he does not know, or maybe god just tells him what to believe… or maybe he just knows better. )

Barney says, “A consensus of scientists have a theory of gravity — but they’re all wrong: The earth just sucks.”

Barney says, “”Obviously we need a better theory than Mr. Inhofe’s of when head-counting is a useful way of estimating the validity of a factual proposition and when it isn’t.” Yeah… How about a “scientific theory”?”

Barney assumes fetal position on floor in corner.

Barney can’t tell if the WSJ is anti-science, or anti-intellectual.

Barney says, “What other well documented facts does WSJ provide coulmn space debunking? Anything on holocaust denial? What, exactly, is WSJ’s point in running this dribble?”

Barney says, “There’s a reason why it’s always non-scientists who discover “mistakes” in cimate change studies: Lack of skill in the field leads to difficulties in self-assessing one’s own incompetence.”

Fred says, “Well said. I like the tooth fairy plethora consensus.”