RE: Economists’ Statement on Carbon Dividends

I just got an email asking me to sign on to an open letter arguing for some carbon tax policies. I’m seeing some push back from (smart, economically literate) Facebook friends, but I think it’s a viable step in the right direction.

Here’s the statement paraphrased:

We think global warming is an important and urgent issue and we recommend these five things:

1. A carbon tax is the best, most cost-efficient way to do as much about carbon as needs to be done. [For a given level of carbon reduction, I agree. How much carbon reduction should happen (and how much at government behest) I am deeply agnostic about.]

2. We think this should be phased in over time and should be revenue neutral. [Yes on both points, but the rest of the statement makes it seem like they’re talking about a pretty short time horizon. I’m not sure how fast is too fast, but I’m sure there’s such thing.]

3. A carbon tax is more efficient than a set of specific regulations. [Certainly!] It’s also less likely to be subject to changing political winds. [Is it though?]

4. We should also apply a carbon tax to imported goods. This would reward energy-efficient American firms and prod other countries to follow suit. [Hmmmm… I can’t really disagree with the general principle, but this sounds like it will require bureaucratic oversight that will be subject to regulatory capture. On the other hand, we’ve already got that.]

5. We should give the revenue collected back to U.S. citizens, to offset increases in energy prices. [Okay, but if it’s going to be revenue neutral and come with a transfer scheme, that’s going to take some detangling!]

I buy into the notion that carbon emissions create large scale externalities that will probably be more bad than good on balance. Not universally bad, mind you. And not something that humanity won’t ultimately adapt to. But I think the people who will face the brunt of the bad outcomes will be the world’s poor (who we should help migrate to better climates!).

I don’t think we can just impose “the right” carbon tax and have everything come out just right. Even though I routinely draw out the case with a supply and demand graph in class, the truth is that nobody has access to those curves in real life. But a small tax can serve to reduce the inefficiency of pollution even if we don’t get it exactly right.

The revenue neutral part is important–we’re currently taxing lots of things we actually want more of (like investment). So if we can cut those taxes by taxing things we want less of (pollution), we’re reducing two sources of inefficiency in the current setup. Of course you and I have bolder views about what policy should look like in 100 years, but restricted to a 10 year window, a revenue neutral carbon tax looks pretty good to me.

The letter dramatically over-simplifies things. Climate change is probably a problem, but probably not as big a problem as proffered by proponents of proposals to prepare for apocalypse. It’s not clear to me that we have a good idea of a) all of the effects (good and bad), b) how people will adapt, and c) how people will adapt to a changing policy regimen.

Figuring out how to handle the tax on imports will be difficult and rife with rent seeking. Unmentioned is the impact on exports. If all our trading partners follow a similar policy, there’s no problem, but in the mean time there’s a tension that will probably be resolved with some unfortunate bit of rent seeking.

I’m sure most reasonable people would agree that instantaneous change would probably be unduly costly, but it’s not clear what the right speed of implementation is.

There are some miscellaneous rhetorical points I have issue with, but I suspect those are in there to throw a bone to people who aren’t me.

I hope that 10 years from now this open letter looks a bit silly. But I also hope that 10 years from now pollution taxes start to replace more inefficient taxes. On balance, I’m happy to see the letter prodding us in that direction.

Immigration: Not Opinions, Facts

Immigration is in our newspapers and on our screens every day. Yet, between the factual confusion of most Republicans and the insult-laden cheery irresponsibility of Democrats, little of substance is being said. Here are two central facts that are routinely ignored:

1 In practice, there is no legal path to immigration for 95% + of illegal immigrants. Asylum is a possibility for a tiny number among them. Poverty is not currently grounds for asylum. (See reference below.)

2 A forty year-old single immigrant from India with an engineering degree is unlikely to take more out of the public trough than he puts in. He is also very unlikely to commit a serious crime, especially a serious crime of violence. Now, consider younger immigrants from Central America, who have have few or no skills, who don’t know English, who may be semi-literate, or even illiterate in their own language. If they are female, they will probably cause a draw on the public treasury, if nothing else by sending to school children with special (linguistic) requirements, while contributing little to the financial maintenance of the same schools. That’s the optimistic case, where the children are healthy and normal.

If they are male, they will add to American crime, especially to violent crime because that’s the way it works: Younger, poor men, of no or low literacy are responsible for almost all of the violent crime in America. Note that this pronouncement does not contradict the findings of the excellent article by Michael T. Light and Ty Miller “Does Undocumented Immigration Increase Violent Crime?” published in the Journal Criminology, March 18th 2018. The study on which they report finds that an influx of illegal immigrants does not correspond to a higher crime rate. (Note: It’s a good study by any criteria – I am credentialed to judge.)

The point – beyond the sterile debate about immigrants’ crime rates – is that immigrants of the “right” (wrong) characteristics do not replace the native born one-for-one, including in the commission of crimes. They contribute their own deeds. Take the young California police officer named Singh who was murdered by a crime recidivist illegal alien in early 2019. If Officer Singh had not encountered his particular illegal alien killer, does anyone think that a citizen, or a legal alien would have stepped in to murder him?

This is an abstracted summary from my longer, informational essay on immigration: “Legal Immigration Into the United States.”

Eroding norms and political transformation: A new chance for liberty?

The Hammelsprung

Usually, the debates in Germany’s highest political body – The Bundestag – right before Christmas are not that exciting for the public. Parliamentarians are exhausted from long nights and intense discussions from the past weeks. But on Friday the 14th December, the last scheduled plenary session this year, something remarkable happened in the Bundestag, symbolically standing for the erosion of political norms, which democracies experience for a few years. The topics this day were not too fascinating – they discussed how to make the country more appealing to top-level researchers and if fixed book prices should be abolished. Not trifling, but nothing too crucial either.

But around noon the right-wing party AfD decided to initiate a Hammelsprung. The Hammelsprung is a control mechanism to ensure two crucial things.

First, it can be used to achieve absolute clearness of a voting result. Since the counting of votes mostly takes place via counting hands, a Hammelsprung can help to bring about a final decision in close polls. The process is relatively old-fashioned and quite funny in my opinion: The parliamentarians have to get out of the plenary hall first and then reenter through doors labeled “Yes,” “No,” and “Abstention” while an official counts these votes loudly.

Second, it is a tool to assure that crucial decisions of the parliament are made by a majority of the parliamentarians. If a parliamentary group has doubts that more than half of the parliament’s members are present to an assembly, it can propose a Hammelsprung to determine the exact amount of parliamentarians present. If there are less than half of the parliamentarians present, the parliament does not have a quorum and thus the parliamentary session gets canceled.

How the parliament works

At this point, it is important to mention that the German parliament is a working parliament rather than a debating one (such as the British house of commons). Hence, most of the parliamentary work takes place in exclusive committees. These committees consist of members from each party and are all dedicated to certain political topics such as defense policy, health policy and so on and so forth. Parties look for alliances to back up their policy proposals within these committees. Thus, the majority ratios regarding political proposals are played out not in the big parliamentary debates, but in rather small expert working groups. So one can expect that what gets resolved within a committee, gets resolved in the parliament as well.

These committees meet simultaneously to the parliamentary debates. On top, a parliamentarian has to inform himself, manage his team, be present in his election district and many more things. So it is impossible for him to be present in every parliamentary session. So over the years the norm established, that not every member of parliament need to be physically present during the parliamentary session, but only the experts in the certain relevant subject. During their election campaign, the AfD aggressively attacked this particular norm by labeling parliamentarians of established parties as “lazy” and “self-indulgent”, referring to the many empty seats during parliamentary debates.

A battle against norms and the establishment

The AfD used the Hammelsprung on Friday the 14th December in the second meaning mentioned above: To enforce a cancellation of the parliamentary session regarding the acquisition of top-level researchers. This was not a topic related move to ensure the necessary quota, it was rather yet another milestone in the ongoing battle against existing norms. We can say this for certain because AfD didn’t even re-enter the hall: they purposely stayed outside in order to enforce a cancellation of the session. Alexander Gauland, the party whip of the AfD, explained that they wanted to show that the AfD wants to give the government a “hard time” and added: “He that will not hear must feel.” This can be seen as an act of revenge against the parliament because the AfD’s candidate for the vice presidency of the Bundestag failed to get elected a second time in a row. Contrary to their expectations, enough parliamentarians somehow made their way quickly enough into the parliament to reach the quota necessary to proceed with the debate.

How norms foster social cohesion

But the danger remains: There are several tools populist parties (right or left wing) can use to impede effective governing within a perfectly legal framework. This development is not at all a specifically German one. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt provide an in-depth description of the erosion of norms in the American political system in their book How Democracies Die. According to their theory, functioning democracies do not only rely on a thought-out constitution and functioning political organs but also on shared norms. The most important norms for Ziblatt & Levitsky are mutual tolerance and forbearance.

Mutual tolerance describes the recognition of the political enemy as an opposed actor instead as an existential threat to the country. Contrary, forbearance means to restrain the urge of using every legal means to achieve a political end.

It is certainly not too difficult to quantify the erosion of these two norms in America, specifically when one pays closer attention to the skyrocketing amount of “filibustering” in the Congress or, as seen recently, to the increasing times of governmental shutdowns caused by a lack of agreement between Republicans and Democrats over the federal budget. We can see the effects of this abandonment of norms on a daily basis: The more hostile political environment, the lack of respect for other political opinions, the increasing difficulties for finding a compromise between parties. The political opposition is on the verge of drifting away from constructive criticism towards impeding the government in every possible way.

A liberal response?

In my opinion, there are two ways to react to this threat.

First, we could change the rules of the game and narrow the legal framework for processes which can be used to impede effective governing such as filibustering and the Hammelsprung. I do not think that this is the right way to counteract populist parties (or tendencies more generally). These processes exist for a good reason. But they hinge on the observance of forbearance. There was no extensive problem of filibustering in the Roosevelt, Truman, or Wilson administrations, although their policies were also quite controversial. The problem is not the rules themselves, but the lack of shared norms for a solid foundation to put them to good use. Furthermore, changing the rules would only foster the thought that a perfect constitution is somehow reachable. And here I see the danger, that we might jeopardize the status of the law as a neutral guardrail for society and it instead becomes an arbitrary mean to achieve political ends, as Frederic Bastiat describes in his work The Law.

The second option is to adjust our own behavior to the changing circumstances brought by the new populist players one the pitch. Therefore the established political actors need to carefully reevaluate the importance of certain norms and if necessary transform them. Of course, this is not as easy as said: It presupposes a willingness to cooperate among established actors (which is nothing to take for granted in today’s times) as well as a vigilant public, which backs up those norms. Additionally, norms do not emerge from scratch. They are rather the result of a slow change in the mutual understanding of social human interaction.

What the future will bring

The AfD already has announced that they want to continue to use every legal (and in some cases illegal) way to make it harder to govern the country, which is their way to battle the establishment. Whereas the established parties tried various strategies to cope with this right-wing populist party ranging from ignoring to direct confrontation. Still, nobody knows exactly how to deal with these new political circumstances. But what is for certain is the political landscape is further going to change; and thus also politicians and parties will need new strategies, structures, and norms.

Although this development is mostly seen as the road to a gloomy and authoritarian future, I believe (or at least I hope) that democratic parties will find new ways to counter right and left wing populist proposals. Instead of trying to engineer our legal framework to preclude populist from polls, politicians should focus on giving scope for spontaneous order and new alliances. This process is incredibly exciting to me. As Steve Davies describes it, we are currently witnessing a “great realignment” of party structures in Europe. And where old structures break up, there is room for new ones. European liberal party leaders (carried by the Axis of Linder – Rutte – Macron) are still looking for their place in this new power vacuum. Nobody can predict where this development will lead us. That is why we must proceed to fight for our liberty: inside and outside of political party structures.

The real threat to democracy in Brazil

Earlier this week, Ricardo Lewandowski, a judge in Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court, was in a commercial flight. The passenger sitting next to him turned to the judge and said: “I am ashamed of Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court”. Lewandowski’s reaction was to threaten the passenger with jail. He turned to him and said, “tell me, do you want to go to jail?”  The passenger was indeed stopped by the police at the destination, but released right after. The video of the exchange is easily found on Youtube.

Lewandowski came to the Supreme Court appointed by former president Lula da Silva, today serving time in jail for corruption and still indicted for several crimes. He has been criticized several times for favoring Lula and his party.

I wonder if the press, that complains so much about Jair Bolsonaro being a threat to democracy in Brazil, will have the same treatment for Lewandowski. When you cannot criticize in public a public server or a public institution without being stopped by the police, democracy is no longer in place.

Since the 19th-century Brazilian judges and magistrates believe they are above the law. It is just a sad fact in Brazilian history. The challenge for Brazil is to show people like Lewandowski that they are just humans, open to criticism, like everybody else.

Afternoon Tea: “Confucian Constitutionalism in Imperial Vietnam”

The phantasm of “Oriental despotism” dominating our conventional views of East Asian imperial government has been recently challenged by the scholarship of “Confucian constitutionalism.” To contribute to our full discovery of the manifestations of Confucian constitutionalism in diverse Confucian areas, this paper considers the case of imperial Vietnam with a focus on the early Nguyễn dynasty. The investigation reveals numerous constitutional norms as the embodiment of the Confucian li used to restrain the royal authority, namely the models of ancient kings, the political norms in the Confucian classics, the ancestral precedents, and the institutions of the precedent dynasties. In addition, the paper discovers structuralized forums enabling the scholar-officials to use the norms to limit the royal power, including the royal examination system, the deliberative institutions, the educative institution, the remonstrative institution, and the historical institution. In practical dimension, the paper demonstrates the limitations of these norms and institutions in controlling the ruler due to the lack of necessary institutional independence. At the same time, it also suggests that the relative effectiveness of these norms and institutions could be achieved thanks to the power of tradition. The study finally points out several implications. First, the availability of the constitutional norms and institutions in the tradition is the cultural foundation for the promotion of modern constitutionalism in the present-day Vietnam. Second, the factual material concerning the Vietnamese experiences can hopefully be used for further study of the practice of Confucian constitutionalism in East Asia and further revision of the “Oriental despotism” - based understanding of imperial polity in the region. Third, the findings may also be useful for a more general reflection on pre-modern constitutionalism.

That is from Son Ngoc Bui, a legal scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s law school. Here is a link.

Afternoon Tea: “Highland Chiefs and Regional Networks in Mainland Southeast Asia: Mien Perspectives”

This article is centered on the life story of a Mien upland leader in Laos and later in the kingdom of Nan that subsequently was made a province of Thailand. The story was recorded in 1972 but primarily describes events during 1870–1930. The aim of this article is to call attention to long-standing networks of highland-lowland relations where social life was unstable but always and persistently inclusive and multiethnic. The centrality of interethnic hill-valley networks in this Mien case has numerous parallels in studies of Rmeet, Phunoy, Karen, Khmu, Ta’ang, and others in mainland Southeast Asia and adjacent southern China. The implications of the Mien case support an analytical shift from ethnography to ethnology—from the study of singular ethnic groups that are viewed as somehow separate from one another and from lowland polities, and toward a study of patterns and variations in social networks that transcend ethnic labels and are of considerable historical and analytical importance. The shift toward ethnology brings questions regarding the state/non-state binary that was largely taken for granted in studies of tribal peoples as inherently stateless.

This is from Hjorleifur Jonsson, an anthropologist at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Here is a link.

Afternoon Tea: “Dividing Power in the First and Second British Empires: Revisiting Durham’s Imperial Constitution”

In his Report on the Affairs of British North America, Lord Durham proposed that “internal” government be placed in the hands of the colonists themselves and that a short list of subjects be reserved for Imperial control. Janet Ajzenstat maintains that Durham did not intend to formally restrict the authority of the new colonial legislature by dividing power. This paper argues otherwise: that Durham’s recommendation fell squarely within a tradition of distinguishing between the internal and external affairs of the colony. This was the imprecise but pragmatic distinction that American colonists invoked during the Stamp Act crisis as a means of curtailing imperial authority over internal taxation while maintaining their allegiance to the British Crown. It also was a division that Charles Buller relied upon in a constitution for New South Wales that he proposed prior to sailing to Canada as Durham’s principal secretary. Durham likely was drawing upon this tradition when he made his recommendation, a distinction that began to crumble away almost immediately. In the result, Canadians inherited a robust semblance of self-government, just as colonists during the Stamp Act crisis had desired, but without the need for revolution.

This is from David Schneiderman, a law professor at the University of Toronto. Here is the link.