David Brooks’ silly season seems to have found an Indian Summer, as he goes on about his imaginary friends Mr. Bentham and Mr. Hume:
If you put Mr. Bentham in charge of the government, he’d proceed with confidence. If you told him to solve a complicated issue like the global-warming problem, he’d gather the smartest people in the country and he’d figure out how to expand wind, biomass, solar and geothermal sources to reduce CO2 emissions.
“I don’t know the best way to generate clean energy,” [Hume]’d whine, “and I don’t know how technology will advance in the next 20 years. Why don’t we just raise the price on carbon and let everybody else figure out how to innovate our way toward a solution?
Brilliant…except the mechanism to achieve Bentham’s goal is Hume’s tax. Way to find a distinction without a difference.
The debate in government is not between people who want to command every detail of change and those who want to try to use market forces to achieve it. We are not having the debates of 1980s France. The debate is between people who want to encourage change and those who want to resist it.
The status quo has great power. It is what we understand, and it is at least one possible equilibrium from all of the incentives we have known historically.
Maybe there are good reasons for sticking with the way things are. Commercial airplanes could carry a lot more people if they were designed as flying wings (the B-2 design) as opposed to the typical cigar-and-wings design we have used since moving away from biplanes. But the flying wing is more difficult to maintain and hell on passengers – not much room for windows and a nonstop roller-coaster if you are stuck out towards the ends of the wings. We will probably have the current basic design for a while.
The energy system, however, is a fluke of history:
- For the first seventy-five years of its widespread use, oil was an American export, and American firms dominated the globe;
- The Texas Railroad Commission took it upon itself to regulate oil prices, functioning as the original OPEC;
- Mexico nationalized its oil industry at a time when Americans were still sore at the oil companies for monopoly behavior and the government was unwilling to intervene;
- The Cold War and the Arab-Israeli conflicts forced us to play nice with the Gulf states;
- We developed the cultural habit of allowing free (unmetered) access to roads and charging for access to mass transit;
- We did not know about the influence of carbon on the atmosphere;
- We had a cultural norm until fairly recently that littering was acceptable;
- We consider our military an expression of the common interest and pay for it out of general tax revenue, even if it needs to intervene or garrison somewhere for a specific economic interest;
These historical events have created massive stakeholders, from Permian Basin wildcatters and Detroit car manufacturers to defense contractors and the arts institutions sponsored by oil companies. As Paul Krugman has put it, the past has a better lobby than the future.
Any act of changing the status quo therefore requires the radical break of imagining a better future. It could be a world where people are not driven into bankruptcy by medical expenses, or where a beige cloud does not hover over the San Fernando Valley, or where Americans do not regularly return from Iraq in body bags.
It also requires figuring out how to get from here to there, despite all the opposition of people who don’t want to leave here. To take the example of mandating various power plants versus imposing a carbon tax, the main difference is how much leaks out of the system – how much the old way has to be paid to acquiesce to the new way. It would be fantastic to impose a carbon tax and simply let loose innovation. We would likely have the most carbon reduction at the lowest cost. But the high carbon producers who cannot easily ramp down their pollution don’t like that. So what then? Do you try to find a way to accomplish something, even at the cost of paying off the bottleneck, or do you stand on principle?
I’d suggest a little of both. If it is simply a payoff that accomplishes nothing – building an unwanted weapons system because the contractors want to sell one – then yes, try to oppose it by any means. But if the outcome is a perversion of a good program – running student loans through banks as a means of paying off the banks to allow the program – perhaps it’s worth the price to get the program in place. It would be nice, of course, to imagine a country sufficiently free of corruption and unified in national interest that we would not need these games. But that would be a very different country, and how we get from here to there is beyond me.
The climate change discussion in the comments brings to mind the far-right arguments that “well, the Earth was much warmer millions of years ago.”
Suppose we accepted, for argument’s sake, that the earth is warming for reasons completely unrelated to human activity. That doesn’t mean that it will have no impact on human life, or that humans should do nothing to counter it. From time to time cosmic bodies collide, but that doesn’t mean we should view an approaching asteroid with equanimity.
To argue in support of the James Inhofe approach requires denying not only that climate change is manmade but that it is happening. And there isn’t a whole lot of science supporting that perspective.