The Closet Moderate: December 2009

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Hot air

I don't normally involve myself in the fine points of reducing carbon dioxide output -- asking me what carbon tax I prefer is like asking me which rope I'd prefer to be hanged with (sisal, for the record) -- but I'm intrigued by this week's tête-à-tête between Paul Krugman and James Hansen. It seems to illustrate the difference between social scientists and science scientists fairly well.

It's definitely a New York Times type of disagreement, in that both men are proposing to tax the American people, they just disagree on the best way to do it. The plan currently proposed by the Obama administration is to create an artificial market in carbon dioxide using what's called a "cap-and-trade" system. That is, the government invents a limit on the amount of that gas that we may produce, and creates permits that allow us to create it. They then give out these permits -- mostly gratis -- to the more important campaign donors in swing states. The permits may then be traded among the various companies that need to let out some CO2. This is what the Democrats in Congress call "a free market".

Hansen, a "climatologist," wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday suggesting that this system has been ineffective wherever it's been tried. As Hansen writes, "[c]onsider the perverse effect cap and trade has on altruistic actions. Say you decide to buy a small, high-efficiency car. That reduces your emissions, but not your country’s. Instead it allows somebody else to buy a bigger S.U.V. — because the total emissions are set by the cap." I'm not big on altruism, as such, but Hansen is correct that this system would mean that any individual action would not necessarily give you anything to feel good about. And if there's one thing the environmental movement demands, it's feeling good about themselves.

Hansen proposed instead a "fee and dividend." As he describes it:
Under this approach, a gradually rising carbon fee would be collected at the mine or port of entry for each fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas). The fee would be uniform, a certain number of dollars per ton of carbon dioxide in the fuel. The public would not directly pay any fee, but the price of goods would rise in proportion to how much carbon-emitting fuel is used in their production.

Good so far, but here's the kicker:
All of the collected fees would then be distributed to the public. Prudent people would use their dividend wisely, adjusting their lifestyle, choice of vehicle and so on. Those who do better than average in choosing less-polluting goods would receive more in the dividend than they pay in added costs.

Yeah, that's right: the government doesn't get to keep the money. Clearly, the Second Coming of Keynes would have to inveigh against this assault on central planning. Sure enough, he does not disappoint, stating that Hansen "hasn’t made any effort to understand the economics of emissions control." Meow!

Krugman continues, telling us that the result is the same either way:
A tax puts a price on emissions, leading to less pollution. Cap and trade puts a quantitative limit on emissions, but from the point of view of any individual, emitting requires that you buy more permits (or forgo the sale of permits, if you have an excess), so the incentives are the same as if you faced a tax. Contrary to what Hansen seems to believe, the incentives for individual action to reduce emissions are the same under the two systems.

The difference, as this bloggard points out, is that Krugman assumes we live in the fantasy world of economists, where there are no transaction costs and no corruption. The House cap-and-trade bill already would distort this artificial market by passing out free permits to important interest groups. Would a rational anti-carbon bill really give $60 billion to coal companies? Given that coal is made of carbon, this seems counter-productive from an environmental point of view. Further, the auction system would require the creation of a whole new bureaucracy, and would remove more money from the economy by not refunding the cost of the permits to the people.

Hansen's plan would tax all carbon dioxide in fuels at the same rate and at the same time (either at extraction or at importation). It would take Congress a few years to distort that effect, while cap-and-trade comes pre-distorted for your campaign fund-raising pleasure. Fee and dividend would then give the money back to the people where they, not some central planner, could decide its best use for themselves. One of these proposals sees an imperfect world and imposes a simple solution; the other picks a complex solution, and assumes a simple world. I'm inclined to see this as the difference between a hard science, which must deal with the absolutes of a physical world (pace East Anglia) and a soft science, which fudges the world to fit its theories.


Monday, December 07, 2009

Advertising Disaster

Tim Fernholz's article about the AfPak escalation reminded me of a soda I used to drink when I was a lad. Commercial below:

Wanna tour the planet? Grab a 20 oz. Surge (SUUUUURGE!) Play "Surge Around the World" and you and your buds can win four days with a fully-loaded jet to go to Athens, Rome, Tokyo, or almost anywhere you like!
That advertisement could be a recruiting ad if you just fuck around with the numbers and listed destinations. Now, depending on how shameless you think the board at Coca-Cola Inc. is, they're either thankful that they didn't have to deal with the PR nightmare or sad that they missed out on all the free marketing. Either way, it was a soda ahead of its time.



and this is what I did to your daughter's boobs
I don't like Thomas Friedman, and I'm pretty up front about that. I don't know the guy personally, but he strikes me as one of those folks who had a moment of excellence a while back, and since then has become some sort of human alchemical process through which information is transformed into idiocy. I wouldn't consider it a problem if the NYT didn't afford him a mechanism for turning his personal stupidity into our collective stupidity. I'm a fan of Bill Clinton, but even he thinks T-Fried is a "gifted journalist."

Now I know what you're thinking: this Statler fellow is just some grumpy Muppet named after a hotel, out to make Thomas Friedman his Fozzie Bear. And that's all true, as far as it goes. But let me make my case to you, as briefly as I can:The prosecution rests.

[Photo: on Meet the Press, Thomas Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer winner and NYT op-ed columnist, explains how his date with your daughter went.]


Thursday, December 03, 2009

On Language (II)

Low-hanging fruit

1. Goals that are easily achievable and don't require a lot of effort.

I don't know about you, but whenever I hear this phrase it seems to carry a mild stigma. It's as if reaching for ripe, succulent fruits within easy reach is some how a demeaning activity for modern humans. I think it's worth noting that when no less a pantheon than the Gods of Olympus wanted to punish Tantalus for either trying to feed his dismembered son to them or sharing divine ambrosia with other mortals (accounts vary), they rewarded his culinary impertinence by banishing him to a place where low-hanging fruit was perpetually just out of reach. From his fate we get the verb "to tantalize," a verb that's frequently used by the same wordy folks who disdain the very idea of easy food.

Anthropologically speaking, any Homo Erectus who was too good for low-hanging fruit got his balls chewed off by a leopard that wasn't as picky. So the next time you make a fat joke about your fat friend and somebody throws that "low-hanging fruit" shit in your face, remember this: you're an heir to a proud human tradition. They're going to be eaten by lions.


Mysteries of Modern Medicine

I'm a bit amazed that we haven't managed to cure breast cancer yet. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single anti-breast group out there. Simply put, the entire human race, independent of color, creed or sexual orientation, is objectively pro-boob.

Maybe, maybe there's some troglodyte fashionista out there who objects to breasts because they ruin the waifish silhouette he's trying to achieve, but that seems to suggest he's rather bad at his job and his views should be discounted. (Protip: don't design for women if you can't deal with female anatomy!) You could also make a case for the mythical Amazons, who supposedly cut or burned off their right breast so that it wouldn't obstruct their draw when using a bow. However, every artistic representation of Amazons depicts them with both breasts, suggesting one of two things:
  • Artists are pro-boob, willing to indulge in a little artistic license (see: Wonder Woman)
  • The whole a-mazon (without breasts) etymology is just another example of the ugly trope that a strong woman must therefore be less feminine
If I were to bet on the origins of a rumor about a mythical society of woman-warriors, I'd bet on the latter option. But I wouldn't do that, because that would be dumb. Anyway, to recap: the entire human race likes breasts, and breast cancer reduces overall breast prevalence. And yet we haven't cured it.

Come on, everybody!


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A Speech of Necessity

After a lengthy review process, President Obama has authorized an additional 30,000 troops for the Afghanistan war. I harp on this constantly, but there are two countervailing pressures affecting this decision. Hamid Karzai is famously corrupt, and the obvious method to coerce him into shaping up is to threaten to leave him to the Taliban's tender mercies. That said, to get Afghans to buy into our nation-building process we need to convince them that we'll be there to defend them from the Taliban until such time as the Afghan security forces are ready to take over. Clearly, these two ideas are in tension.

If you're interesting in more reading about The Speech and AfPak broadly, read these folks. While you read, I'll drink.