Nightcap

  1. Exercising religion and taming faction Lael Weinberger, LARB
  2. Out of a silent planet Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex
  3. The broken promises of mid-century liberalism Kim Phillips-Fein, Nation
  4. Grand plans and failed forests Kelvin Mulungu, Africa is a Country

Nightcap

  1. Is Trump more of a socialist than Biden? Shikha Dalmia, the Week
  2. How millennials became the burnout generation Anne Petersen, Buzzfeed
  3. The myth of harmonious indigenous conservation Baz Edmeades, Quillette
  4. Russian history through the Westerner’s gaze Ellie Holbrook, History Today

Watson my mind today: culture change

That, and spring time: that mystical time of year when a young student’s fancy turns to their neglected grades and wonders if there is anything they can do once the semester is over to raise them.

Culture is an emergent order. It cannot be owned, so you can’t have a “right” to a culture. It can’t be controlled, and while it can be influenced, it’s a complex system so beware lest your efforts backfire.

— Change doesn’t come, until it comes quickly. This serves as another reminder of the importance of keeping true ideals alive even when they are unpopular and they seem doomed to obscurity.

— It is also a warning about other changes, such as the growing anti-natalism of the left, brought in through environmentalism.

Caplan’s review of Moller’s Governing Least. “Instead of focusing on the rights of the victims of coercion, Moller emphasizes the effrontery of the advocates of coercion.” Even if “exceptions abound” to the “common-sense morality … that rights to person and property are not absolute … Moller sternly emphasizes … that these exceptions come with supplemental moral burdens attached.” Highly recommended.

— Responding to Ambassador Araud’s claim that the culture of neoliberalism and free trade are dead, Sumner says “Intellectuals focus too much on interesting rhetoric and too little on mundane reality.”

— On the importance of a culture that allows people to repent and change, that allows someone to apologize, make amends, and receive public forgiveness.

Nightcap

  1. U.S. environmentalism is a success story Patrick Allitt, Liberty Forum
  2. Don’t blame Karl Marx for “Cultural Marxism” Brian Doherty, Reason
  3. Texas and the white-washing of the American Revolution Michael Oberg, Age of Revolutions
  4. How would we recognize an alien if we saw one? Samuel Levin, Aeon

On 7 million deaths from air pollution

ATTN published a video of An-huld (the really cool guy who made my childhood by being in all my favorite action movies like Predator* and who ended up being the governor of California). In that short clip, Schwarznegger starts by saying that 7 million individuals die from pollution-related illnesses.

That number is correct. But it is misleading.

People see pollution as “all and the same”. But some forms of pollution increase with development (sulfur emissions and some would argue that too much CO2 emissions is pollution as it causes climate change). However, others drop dramatically – especially heavy particules (Pm10) which are a great cause of smog. Julian Simon (the late cornucopian economist who is one my greatest intellectual influence) pointed out this issue and noted that the deadliest forms of pollution are those that relate to underdevelopment.

Back in 2003, Jack Hollander published the Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty, Not Affluence is the Environment’s Number One Enemy. Hollander pointed out that simply from the combustion of organic matter (read: firewood and animal manure – literally burning fecal matter) indoors for the purposes of heating, cooking and lighting was responsible for close to 2 millions deaths.

Since then, the WHO came out with a study pointing out that around 3 billion people cook and heat their homes with open fires and stoves that rely on biomass or anthracite-coal. They put the number of premature deaths directly resulting from this at over 4 million people. This is close to 60% of the figure cited by the former President of California (yes, I know he was governor – see here). In other words, 60% of the people who die prematurely as a result of strokes, ischaemic heart diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and lung cancers can be attributed to indoor air pollution. That means pollution resulting from the fact that you are so poor that you have to burn anything at hand at the cost of your health.

True, richer countries pollute and there are policy solutions (I have often argued that governments are better at polluting than at reducing pollution, but that is another debate) that should be adopted. But, these forms of pollution do not harm human life as much as those that come with poverty.

* By the way, when you watch Predator, do you realize that there are two future American governors in that movie? I mean, imagine that when Predator came out, some dude from the future told you that two of the main actors would end governing American states. Pretty freaky!

“Statogenic” Climate Change?

Is climate change government-made? For some years, I have been saying to my colleagues that climate change is real. Nonetheless, I am not an alarmist and I do not believe that stating that there is a problem is a blank cheque for any policy. Unlike many of my colleagues who believe that climate change is “anthropogenic”, I argue that it is “statogenic” in the sense that government policies over the last few decades basically amplified the problem.

Obviously, there is a social cost to pollution – an externality not embedded in the price system. On that basis, many have proposed the need for a carbon tax to “internalize the externality”. The logic is that anything that brings the “market price” closer to the “social cost” is an improvement.

Rarely do they consider the possibility that governments have “pushed” the market price away from the “social cost” (Note: I really hate that term as it has been subverted to mean more than what economists use it for). Consider the example of road pricing. In my part of Canada (Quebec), road pricing was eliminated in the 1970s. By eliminating road pricing, the government incentivized the greater use of vehicles and, basically, the greater burning of fossil fuels. Thus, by definition, the return of road pricing would bring the market price and the social cost closer together (and it might do so more efficiently than a carbon tax). Thus, there can be “statogenic” climate change because governments encourage indirectly the greater use of fossil fuels.

How big is that “statogenic” climate change? I think it is pretty “yuge.” For the last few months, I have been involved in a research project with Joanna Szurmak and Pierre Desrochers of the University of Toronto regarding environmental indicators in the debates between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon (see Joanna’s podcast with Garrett Petersen here at Economics Detective Radio). In that paper, we mention the fact that roughly a quarter of the world consumption of fossil fuels is subsidized directly or indirectly (through price controls setting local prices below world prices). That is a large share of total consumption and, according to an OECD paper, 14% of the effort needed to attain the most ambitious climate change mitigation plan could be made by eliminating those subsidies.

Now imagine that estimate was made in 2011. These policies have existed since the 1970s! One paper from the World Bank from the 1990s argued that eliminating them back in the 1980s would have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 5% to 9%. Imagine a level lower by 9% (just for the sake of illustration) and imagine that the growth rate of greenhouse gases would have been reduced by 9% as well. Using CAIT data, we can see how this oversimplified scenario (which is by no means a general equilibrium scenario – which is the only way to measure the overall lower levels) means in terms of lower levels of GHGs. Relative to the observed data, a 9% drop back in 1990 with a 9% reduction in the growth rate of GHGs mean that the level of GHGs in 2012 in a world without subsidies would have been more than 12% lower relative to what they were in a world of subsidies.

subsidies

Again, this is an oversimplification. However, it works against my claim. The use of sophisticated methods is likely to yield much larger differences over time. Think about it for a second – alone the policy of fossil fuel subsidies explains a lot even with the oversimplification. Now, imagine adding the fact that many countries do not practice road pricing; that some countries tax the resale of used goods forcing the production of more goods; that they discourage construction in urban environments forcing a greater population sprawl; that trade barriers in agriculture prevent us from concentrating production where it is the most efficient; and the list goes on!

When people say “anthropogenic” climate change, I hear “incentives-driven” climate change or “statogenic.”

Why Rising Prices May Indicate Abundance

I am currently writing a piece with Pierre Desrochers (University of Toronto at Mississauga) regarding environmental trends and economic theory for the conference of the Association for Private Economic Education (see here). In the process of writing up the first draft of the article, I had to revisit another article I wrote (with Desrochers) and I found a passage which now offers me a greater value than when I initially wrote it. In that piece, me and Desrochers basically argued that rising prices for certain environmental goods may not always indicate rising scarcity. In fact, we argued that prices could increase even if a resource grew in abundance.  Here is the passage from our article currently undergoing revise and resubmit:

Thirdly, technological innovations that increase productivity might drive up the price of a commodity without this truly reflecting the scarcity of the resource. Whale oil is a case in point. The decline of the whaling industry in the United States began around 1850 at which point real prices began to increase (Bardi 2007). However, economic historians agree that this was not because of resource depletion or overfishing (Davis, Gallman and Hutchins 1988). Brook Kaiser (2013) thus found that the increasing demand for illuminants created pressures on prices, which in turn motivated the development of substitutes like petroleum-derived kerosene. However, whale bone and oil prices did not fall as kerosene production expanded and, in spite of falling demand, prices stayed high and even increased. The answer to this conundrum is opportunity cost as the important surge in American labor productivity was greater than the observed increase in productivity in the whaling industry. This meant that the opportunity cost of using workers, capital and other resources in the whaling industry was great. These workers, capital goods and other resources were progressively reallocated to other industries. In the process, the whaling industry faced higher costs relative to productivity. While marginal players in the whaling industry exited, the supply of inputs to the whaling industry decreased and prices had to be increased [by the remaining firms in order for economy-wide equilibrium to be achieved]. Hence, prices in that situation are not reflective of depletion or expansion of resource stock.

 

Critics of Markets have Intervention Denial

There is a meme, an infectious idea, that has spread like a mental plague among advocates of greater governmental intervention. This idea is “intervention denial,” the claim that the US and other developed economies have had complete economic freedom. The critics of markets usually use deliberately mind-numbing language such as “capitalism,” although sometimes they do claim more starkly that today’s economies are a “free market” and practice “free banking” and “free trade.”

Many examples of intervention denial can be found by searching for the submeme “unbridled capitalism” as well as “greed” combined with “capitalism” or statements such as “people over profits.” For example, there is a web article titled “Unbridled Capitalism and the Blight of Greed” which defines “capitalism” as “the economic system in which the pursuit of wealth remains in the control of individuals, free from government regulation or interference.” The article states that “Capitalism, after all, suffers from a fatal flaw – Greed.” Intervention denial has infected well-meaning people in high places, such as the Pope, who declared, “Unbridled capitalism has taught the logic of profit at any cost.”

“Denial” in this context means the refusal to believe in evidence. For example, Holocaust denial is the refusal to accept the enormous evidence of mass murders by the Nazis. There are science denials of various sorts. Intervention denial is one of the most destructive memes in the mental universe human beings live in, because intervention denial blocks effective solutions to social problems.

Consider the claim that the US has had destructive “free banking.” This false meme originated in historians who called the US banking system prior to the civil war “free banking,” even though the banks were tightly controlled by state governments, such as prohibiting banks from establishing branches beyond the state. In true free-market money and banking, there is no restriction or imposed cost on any currency, account, or financial institution so long as its operation is honest and peaceful.

The intervention deniers claim that the USA has a free market in money and banking, disregarding the obvious facts that the US financial system is tightly regulated by the Federal Reserve (“the Fed”), the FDIC, the SEC, and the US Treasury Department. These institutions and Congress bailed out the financial system after the interventions caused the Depression of 2008, as they did with previous busts. The US dollar and interest rates are controlled by the central planning of the Fed. This is the system that intervention deniers call a “free market.”

In a truly free market, there would be no restriction, tax, subsidy, or mandate that alters honest and peaceful human action. Those who claim the US economy is “unbridled” talk as though there were no regulations nor any taxation, let alone subsidies. The extent and effects of regulations on the US economy can be read in the study “Ten Thousand Commandments” published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, as well as the regulations data base of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. The economic damage done by intervention can also be read in the on-going study “Economic Freedom of the World,” at freetheworld.com.

How can an economy be “unbridled” if enterprise, consumption, and produced wealth are all afflicted with heavy taxation? Intervention deniers talk as though there were no income tax, federal excise taxes, state sales taxes, value-added taxes, and taxes on buildings and equipment. A truly free market would also not have any subsidies, such as the billions of dollars now going into the big farms, along with other corporate welfare.

All these interventions – taxes, subsidies, restrictions, and mandates – distort prices, wages, interest rates, profits, and quantities. The social problems we can observe: unemployment, low wages, unaffordable housing, slow growth, recessions, pollution, can be traced back to government intervention. Consider pollution, for example. Intervention deniers claim that “capitalism” and “greed” result in pollution and environmental destruction. But a truly free market is free of subsidies. When firms and their customers do not pay the full social cost of the products, as the social cost of pollution is imposed on others, that is an implicit subsidy. In a truly free market, with full enforcement of property rights, pollution is treated as a trespass, an invasion of others’ property, requiring full compensation. The problem is not that firms and markets are unbridled, but that ecological destruction is subsidized. The subsidies combine with a legal system that bridles the population with a legal inability to sue the polluters for damages.

There is indeed a bridle to a free market: laws prohibiting force and fraud. A pure market economy consists of voluntary human action. The bridle is on thieves, not on peaceful and honest producers, traders, and consumers.

When interventions are pointed out to the deniers, they respond that these taxes, restrictions, subsidies, and mandates are of little significance. This is similar to Holocaust deniers who respond that perhaps a few Jews and Gypsies were murdered by the Nazis, but not on the large scale that they deny. Intervention deniers do not deny the existence of the Federal Reserve system, but they claim it is a private free-market organization. Deniers of all sorts reject data and other evidence, use undefined terms such as “capitalism” and “greed,” and point to their favored authors, articles, and data as though these present unbridled truth.

“Greed” means wanting and taking more than one morally deserves. A person morally deserves that which is earned by labor and received from voluntary gifts. The honest acquisition of wealth may be avarice, but not greed. Thieves are greedy, and those who indirectly steal by getting government to do or protect their forced taking are also greedy. Intervention denial is ultimately a refusal to think it through, to fully understand the ethics, politics, and economics of human life.

A vision for environmentalists

The sun is setting and people start settling in for bed instead of staying up late and watching TV. As fast as battery technology advances, it’s imperfect so we deal with it by using less electricity at night. Similarly, on windy days, people stay inside, but leave once the wind calms down and it’s nicer to be outside. This is a world where people are in tune with the weather and adjust their behavior accordingly.

How can we get such a world? Education won’t be enough (though it will be necessary) because, let’s face it, people are creatures of habit, and lazy people (i.e. 80%+ of the population) would rather leave any given habit alone. We could try to mandate behavior, but that will be costly and the Law of Unintended Consequences promises ironic blow-back.*

Luckily there’s a fairly simple way to effectively nudge people in the direction we (environmentalist-types) would like to see: flexible prices! In a world where a lot of electricity is generated by solar and wind** market determined prices would automatically encourage people to conserve resources and set the pace of their lives to match natural rhythms. Will it be enough? Probably not, but it will certainly be an essential step in the right direction.


* I recently came across the following in The Complete Walker:

I’m tempted to suggest they [trowels] be made obligatory equipment for everyone who backpacks into a national park or forest. I resist the temptation, though–not only because (human nature being what it is, thank God) any such ordinance would drive many worthy people in precisely the undesired direction but also because blanket decrees are foreign to whatever it is a man goes out into wilderness to seek, and bureaucratic decrees are worst of all because they tend to accumulate and perpetuate and harden when they’re administered, as they so often are, by people who revel in enforcing petty ukases. Anyways, a rule that’s impossible to enforce is a bad rule. (p. 698)

** Obviously the likelihood of such a world is a whole ‘nuther can of worms. Let’s leave that for another post.

On the value of nature

I was listening to a really cool episode of RadioLab. The third act asks the question, “what is nature worth?” During part of it they discussed the fall and rise of bees in Mao county, China. Bees disappeared after farmers started using pesticides and had to be replaced with human labor. Against all expectations output actually increased 30% (they never did say how much these workers impacted bottom lines compared to when the bees were doing the job). But then economic growth happened and increased wages and put pressure on farmers.

This lead to a question about how to go about discussing the issue of conservation. On the one hand, this economic analysis means that we don’t take nature as being implicitly worthless and discussing it this way will help the cause of conservation. On the other hand, it doesn’t jive with our intuition (or perhaps our moral sense) that if some aspect of nature appears worth very little or seems irrelevant we still probably shouldn’t downsize nature.

All fair enough. So here’s where things go bad… the host then asks if there is an alternative to the conservationists moralizing and the economists’ cold calculating. Economics does in fact have an answer! Two if we can call Nassim Taleb an economist (surely one who does a lot of normative work).

Taleb would argue (with allusions to the argument I’ll present below) that prudential risk management (i.e. management of fluctuations in those economic values brought up above) calls for an appreciation of the potential for black swans. In the case of the bees there was a series of black swans; the bees disappeared (-), human workers were more productive (+), economic growth (+) made human labor too expensive (-, for farmers and pie-baking grandmothers). We want to be averse to the sorts of risks that might be wildly negative and so should diversify our approaches and bee (that was a typo but I’m keeping it) sure we’re not opening ourselves up to negative black swans–which would involve being very skeptical of cost benefit analyses that justify excessive environmental harm. This point was made (but not fully appreciated, I would argue) by an environmental economist on the program in pointing out that some changes are irreversible.

Taleb’s argument works because the complexity of ecological and economic systems means that such wild variation is possible. There can be cascades of cause and effect that create dire consequences to what may look like a small change. In other words it would be a fatal conceit to imagine that anyone can engineer an environment.

Not so obvious is that if we don’t want to deliberately prune too aggressively we also don’t want to sterilize nature by trying to stop all change. We are part of this environment after all; glorified beavers at the end of the day.

That said, what they closed with was good thought: biodiversity [like market diversity] serves as an extension of our brains. We can draw on the imagination evolution provides us to live better lives. I would add that you can view that as narrowly economical (imagining “imagination capital” being depleted along with rainforests) or more broadly as pursuing “the good life.”

Hayekian Environmental Policy

Just as decentralized knowledge implies economic non-intervention, so too it implies environmental non-intervention.

One of the contributions to economics made by the Austrian-school economist Friedrich Hayek is the theory of scattered knowledge. In his famous article, “The use of knowledge in society,” Hayek analyzed how the knowledge needed for economic activity by consumers, producers, legislators, and bureaucrats is dispersed, tacit, and ever-changing. Sellers of goods can conduct surveys to find out what people want, but such data collection reveals only a small fraction of the subjective desires of buyers. The knowledge of how to produce goods is decentralized among the firms, each of which has its own local knowledge of the costs and the demand for its goods.

Much of the knowledge about goods is tacit, not written down. A label can list the ingredients, but it will not tell the buyer about how good it will taste, and does not reveal the full story about the nutritional benefits and harmful effects. A government bureaucrat cannot know all the details about the way a company handles its goods. The biggest and fastest computers cannot be programmed to know everything the economy is doing. The supplies and demands for goods are dynamic, always changing, like the weather, so that even when knowledge is gathered and analyzed, it soon becomes obsolete.

The Hayekian knowledge problem is one reason the Austrian school of economic thought concludes that only a truly free market can effectively apply the relevant knowledge. Government officials who try industrial policy, the promotion of some goods at the expense of others, often fail. For examples, subsidies to energy from the wind end up wasting resources, as a uniform policy cannot be applied to suit local conditions, and the full effects (such as windmills killing birds) are not known in advance, resulting in bad unintended consequences.

The natural environment, everything apart from human action, is too complex for human beings to fully understand it. As with economic knowledge, the data needed to understand human effects on the environment is both global and local. The knowledge of environmental conditions is tacit, and changing. The ecologies of the earth, like the economies, have interconnected elements with feedback loops. Kill the mountain lions, and the deer multiply, eat up the vegetation, and then the rains wash away the soils.

The Hayekian perspective on global climate change as well as local impacts is to admit that we don’t know the full effects of human activity, but we do know that interference with long-established interconnections can be deadly. The policy implication is that we should minimize unnecessary human interference with the natural environment. Any human presence displaces the natural presence, as a farm replaces meadows and forests. But it is excessive to burn down large areas of rain forests in order to have a few years of crops until the soil nutrients are depleted.

The optimal application of the knowledge issue is to understand that we can apply some general knowledge but not specific knowledge. For example, we know that emissions from power plants, factories, and vehicles have bad effects. Costs are ultimately subjective, but some costs, such as lost income and resources, can be quantified. We cannot precisely measure the social cost of pollution, but by comparing places with various amounts of pollution, and the various rates of diseases in those places, we can obtain some estimates of the ill effects. Policy can therefore require a payment for emissions that invade others’ property. To do nothing is to declare a price of zero, which is less accurate than the positive price obtained by statistical means.

The Hayekian policy for emissions is therefore a payment for the estimated damage. A pollution charge requires less knowledge than detailed regulations such as engine requirements, gasoline additives, and smog tests. The emissions charge would not be based on uncertain climate changes, but on the proposition that human interventions into the atmosphere and oceans could be catastrophic. The probabilities are uncertain, but what we do know is that a small probability times a huge cost equals a substantial present value. Because the earth’s environment is a balance of water and air temperatures, cycles of carbon emissions and absorptions, feedback loops, and substances such as the ozone layer, the probability that human interventions are harmful is much greater than the chance that they are beneficial. The mutual relationship of wolves, deer, and vegetation imply that killing off either the wolves or the deer will have bad effects.

The knowledge problem implies that policy has to confront the environmental issue rather than ignore it, because human activity is inherently environmentally interventionist. In some cases, intervention can help the environment, such as with artificial coral reefs. But large interventions such as deliberately dumping iron compounds into the ocean should be avoided.

The Austrian school of economic thought is critical of central planning due to its absence of economic calculation via market prices, and due to the knowledge problem. But the absence of pollution charges itself implies mispricing and the presumption that we know nothing about the effects of emissions. Given today’s highly regulated economy, the implication of Hayek’s thought on knowledge is to replace regulations and emissions trading schemes with the requirement to pay the estimated social costs. Firms (and their customers) can then either pay that cost or else avoid that cost by polluting less. To be most effective, pollution charges would need to be applied globally.

Some free-market economists respond to the pollution issue by stating that property rights are sufficient to solve the problem. But any negotiation or lawsuit to compensate others for negative external effects necessarily requires an objective estimate of the damages. A complete prohibition of an external effect, whether of emissions or noise or visual effects, imposes a cost on the emitter. Tort law, with transferable lawsuits, as well as arbitration and mediation, could replace governmentally enacted pollution levies when the victims can be identified, but there is no avoiding some objective estimate of costs. And where torts are not effective, an international agreement on pollution charges would be warranted.

Economists and Environmentalists: Divergent Values?

Following Simon, the author of The Bet suggests that the disagreement between environmentalists and economists may be due to a divergence in values. People in Ehrlich’s camp believe that values can exist outside human minds and claim priority over human values. Although Sabin does not go there, the practical implication is that people in Ehrlich’s camp feel justified in imposing their ideal society on those who don’t share their values, which they disguise under the mantle of science. Hence the environmentalists’ inclination to boss people around.

This is from Pierre Lemieux’s new review of The Bet, a book on an infamous bet between an economist and a biologist in 1980 (the economist won).

One could easily replace ‘economist’ with ‘libertarian’ and ‘environmentalist’ with anything and could find the same debate being played out. This observation of mine, if correct, prompts a number of questions (such as “why aren’t all economists libertarians?” or “why are libertarians so pugnacious?”), but so does the loser of the bet’s reaction to his loss (you’ll have to read the review to find out!).

The Bet is by Yale historian Paul Sabin. Here is the link to his book.

Australia may ban [more] boycotts…

Australia has been in the news quite often in the last year for its new Prime Minister’s controversial legislation that protest groups say put vast areas of Australian nature in threat of destruction.  Environmental issues are one of the more complex issues facing libertarians today.  The vast entanglement of property rights can make explaining those issues to non-libertarians quickly and clearly quite difficult.  Luckily for me the Australian government is currently attempting to assault a far more basic set of rights.  The right to organize, the right to persuade, and the right to spend your money and time how you wish.  We are, as the title implies discussing the right to organize a boycott of a product or products.

The Australian secretary of agriculture Richard Colbeck wants to “remove an exemption for environmental groups from the consumer law ban on so-called “secondary boycotts”.  These secondary boycotts are also illegal in the UK and the United States.  For clarification a secondary action is industrial action by a trade union in support of a strike initiated by workers in another, separate enterprise”.  

Libertarians often find themselves on the wrong side of both environmental and union actions but it is important to remember that liberty also means the freedom to refuse to purchase a product for any reason you can imagine; whether it is because the company that makes the product is partaking in actions you disagree with or because their logo is yellow.

Even though libertarians disagree with the end goals of the hard-line environmentalist movements (namely government control of industry) we cannot forget to support situations like this on principle and also to remember that environmental issues are essentially property rights issues and thus core to libertarian ethics.

Thoughts on climate change

Last week I heard a sermon on climate change (no, it was an actual sermon). I’m roughly agnostic on the existence and degree of climate change, but I err on the side of assuming it is a large problem of externalities with no obvious property rights solution and will have costs. And I think that under those assumptions there is an important moral element to it. With that in mind, below are some of my thoughts on the weak points of the sermon:

1) Authority is only a starting point; we cannot defer ultimate responsibility to authority. If an expert or someone I trust tells me something about X, and I don’t have any prior knowledge about X, then I believe them. In the case of global warming there are two basic sorts of information you will get from information: a) diagnosis (temperatures could rise X degrees in the coming century), and b) prescription.

The climatology involved in a) is well above my pay grade, and so rather than undergo the costs of informing myself on the existence or importance of climate change, I just figure the truth is somewhere in the middle of what reasonably informed people say and instead focus my effort on my areas of comparative advantage. Now the actions in b) are typically about reducing waste and that’s well within the realm of economic thinking, so I’ll comment on that!

1b) Blindly deferring to authority to assuage your guilt is wrong and bad. Someone says you should drive an electric care to save the environment? Don’t do it before thinking through the matter, this is a big decision for most people. Where’s the energy coming from to power that car? (Coal. That is burned hundreds of miles away from your car… that’s like having a car with a hundred mile long drive shaft.) How much energy and material does it take to make the car? (Hint: look at prices.)

2) It’s called climate change, not climate universal and uniform worsening. If climate change means a warmer climate for Canada and Russia, that will come with extended growing seasons and savings on winter heating costs. Burma? It’s probably going to suffer a lot. Climate change will surely have the biggest impact on the poorest people in the world, and this is where I see the real moral issue because…

3) We can respond to climate change in a way to reduce suffering. Specifically, we can open borders. First off, that would increase human well being, with an enormous benefit to the world’s poorest people. Second, the effects of climate change won’t harm the poor as much as they could. Is climate change still a bad thing if we do this? Sure, but if a building is burning, why not help people get out?

Loose ends:

Should I recycle everything? Only if it will actually help. Recycled aluminum is chemically identical to virgin aluminum and uses fewer resources to produce (which is why it’s cheaper!). Recycling paper creates a lower quality product, uses a lot of energy and creates pollution.

Paper bags are brown, that’s good, right? Plastic bags are almost ethereal; they use a fraction of the material per unit of carrying capacity resulting in big savings. Yes, there are offsetting costs to using plastic, but it isn’t as simple as “this brown, it must be natural and therefore good!” And while we’re on the topic, brown M&Ms are stupid. There’s a layer of white sugar between that brown outer layer and the actually brown chocolate. Brown M&Ms are as unnatural as any of the other colors.

Should I buy local? Maybe if you live in California, but not if you live in Massachusetts. The biggest environmental impact of food is growing it; plowing fields, planting, watering (outside where the water could just evaporate!), and harvesting use a lot more energy than transportation. So if you live in a place with poor growing conditions, then buying local only does more harm. That said, fresh food tastes better, so by all means pay the cost if you value the flavor, just don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re reducing energy usage by doing so.

Consider opportunity cost and present value! So you’ve got a solar panel and now electricity is free for the next 20-30 years! Or you’ve installed new modern insulation for your home. Or you bought a car that costs less to run (and you’ve promised not to increase your usage). But at what cost? If your solar panel used 40 years worth of energy to build and install, then you’ve done more harm than good. And you’ve done that harm upfront. Even if one of these investments has a positive return (it saves more resources than it uses), you should still consider whether it’s a good investment. We don’t have unlimited resources, and that means that if you spend $10,000 on insulation that will give you a 0.4% ROI then you’ve given up the chance to invest that money into something that will generate more good.

Risks Of Regulation

A bit dated but still very relevant.

Regulation; the four letter word of the business world.  Many people see regulation as a protective shield from the ‘dangers’ of the businessman; a way to protect people, property and the environment.  The oil industry is one of the most heavily regulated enterprises in the United States.  Despite being intended to protect us; these regulations failed catastrophically on April 20th, 2010 when the Deep Water Horizon oil rig suffered a mechanical failure resulting in an explosion which sank the rig two days later(1).  Yet, when the disaster happened, we were met with pleas for more government oversight and more red tape.  The regulations on that industry, both in the Gulf Mexico and throughout the country, helped cause the Deepwater Horizon disaster and removing them would help prevent similar disasters in the future.

Regulations in the Gulf of Mexico begin with the Minerals Management Service (MMS).  Created in 1982 due to the Federal Oil and Gas Royalty Management Act the MMS “both regulates the [gulf oil drilling] industry and collects billions[of dollars] in royalties from it”(2, 3).  The MMS’s responsibility to regulate includes monthly inspections, issuing safety documentation, and issuing safety citations(3).  Royalty collection is based on number of barrels of oil removed and varies from well to well.  The MMA also provides  “royalty relief“ to a number of rigs based on previous legislation. Until November of 2000 the royalty relief was issued based on the Outer Continental Shelf Deep Water Royalty Relief Act of 1995, better known as DWRRA.  This act “relieves eligible leases from paying royalties on defined amount of deep-water production”.  At depths over 2,526 feet oil companies did not have to pay the United States royalties on 87.5 million barrels of oil, between 1,312 and 2,625 feet the relief was 52.5 million barrels and between 656 and 1,312 feet the relief was only 17.5 million barrels.  While this act expired in the year 2000 it was replaced by an incentive program that allowed royalty relief to be “specified at the discretion of the MMS”(4).  This incentive program provides more relief if a drilling site is “more expensive to access” even if it is at the same water depth as another rig receiving less relief (2).  The royalty relief system provides incentives for Oil Rigs to operate in deep waters, especially those classified as “Ultra-Deepwater” by reducing the royalties paid on those sites(5).

While not specific to the gulf, there are a variety of moratoria on drilling throughout the country.  These moratoria take two forms.  The first set, known as “leasing moratoria” are general bans on drilling in select areas , the second set are temporary bans due to specific incidents.  Since   the fiscal year 1982 congress has denied funds to the MMS to “conduct leasing for the specified Outer Continental Shelf areas”.  Currently there is a “blanket moritorium” on leasing in effect “through 2012” that covers a large portion of both the East and West coasts( 2).  One of the largest bans on drilling however exists in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge(ANWR).  Located in the “northeast corner” of Alaska over ten million acres of land are off limits to drilling.  In this wildnerness it is estimated that there exists “between ten billion and sixteen trillion barrels of oil” that could supply twenty percent of U.S. demand for nearly thirty years(6).  The most recent temporary bans have been a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  A “30-day pause in offshore drilling” followed the sinking of the Horizon rig(11).  This did not only cover BP’s rigs but all offshore drilling “based on water depth”(7).  That ban was removed by a federal court, but was replaced with a revised ban that will be in effect until November, 2010(7).

Beyond physical limitations on drilling there are also economic regulations.  There are a number of federal subsidies and tax breaks for the drilling industry.  David Kocieniewski says that “examination of the American tax code indicates that oil production is among the most heavily subsidized businesses”.  These tax breaks occur for a number of reasons.  Many are simply to lure oil companies to American shores, others were “born of international politics” or “date back nearly a century”(8).  Beyond that the United States government has put “Liability Limits” on drilling operations.  The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 limits an oil companies liability for damages to only $75 million dollars.  Any remaining damages, up to $1 billion, are payed through the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.  This fund is “financed primarily through a fee on imported oil”(1).  Senator Robert Menendez from New Jersey recently introduced bill, S. 3305 which would raise that cap to $10 billion(9).

All of these laws and regulations have one thing in common.  They increased the probability of a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Each regulation increased the risk of such a spill in some way and when combined they resulted in the disaster that is causing massive destruction in the Gulf today.  The Minerals Management service was organized to be the overarching regulatory body for the Oil Industry.  Why did it fail in its duty?  Why did “spills from offshore oil rigs…in U.S. waters more than quadrupled this decade” despite the MMS’s oversight(10)?  This question was answered by economist Walter Block in his book The Privatization of Roads & Highways (12).  Quoting Cecil Mackey, former Assistant secretary of transportation, he says:

“As the more obvious regulatory actions are taken; as the process becomes more institutionalized; as new leaders on both sides  replace ones who were so personally involved as adversaries in  the initial phases, those who regulate will gradually come to reflect,     in large measure, points of view similar to those whom they regulate.”

Quite simply, the MMS adopted the views of the Oil Industry completely negating their ability to regulate it.  Congressman Nick J. Rahall confirms this saying “MMS has been asleep at the switch in terms of policing offshore rigs”.  Using numbers supplied by the MMS in the prior 64 months before the incident “25 percent of monthly inspections were not performed”(3).  Are we to believe another agency would be any more efficient?  Bureaucracy and corruption are not the only things to blame however; legislation played a vital role in this disaster as well.  DWRRA, for example, incentivized the risk to drill in deep waters.  Under DWRRA the greater the depth being drilled the greater the royalty relief amount.  These waters are inherently less safe to drill in.   It is easy to compare the difficulties in dealing with a site 5000 feet below the ocean against one 500 feet below the surface.  These incentives were made worse when DWRRA expired.  Under the new program “the most economically risky projects would receive the most relief”, safer projects on the other hand would receive “little or no relief”(4).

While acts like DWRRA incentivize the risk of deepwater drilling the greater incentive to drill in the Gulf of Mexico is simply that there are so few places to drill in the continental United States.  The United States Exclusive Economic Zone extends “200 nautical miles” from all of it’s shores(2).  Yet, much of this area is off limits to drilling.  The “blanket moratorium” issued by former President George H.W. Bush in 1990  restricts drilling in “all unleased areas offshore Northern and Central California, Southern California except for 87 tracts, Washington, Oregon, the North Atlantic coast, and the Eastern Gulf of Mexico coast”.  The Gulf of Mexico is the only economically viable offshore area left for them to drill.  This of course pales in comparison to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Most of the 10-million-acre area is not even adjacent to the ocean, surely drilling on land or in shallow water is much safer than drilling 5000 feet under the ocean(6).  Beyond helping to cause the spill in the first place the government is increasing the risk of future disasters.  The temporary ban issued in response to the Horizon spill “neither improves safety nor mitigates risk”(11).  By forcing drilling to stop you immediately cause a number of problems.  Reentering a location is as dangerous, if not more so, than the original drilling operation.  Experienced workers have been fired, laid off, or relocated and will need to be replaced with less experienced ones.  Equipment in worse quality will be all that remains when the moratorium ends(11).

The economic regulations were the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  A single tax break for the Deepwater Horizon oil rig covered “70 percent of the rent” or “$225,000 a day”.  Or, as policy analyst Sima J Gandhi describes it “We’re giving tax breaks to highly profitable companies to do what they would be doing anyway”(8).  These breaks are not only an unfair advantage, they incite these companies to make riskier choices.  If the potential cost of the Deepwater Horizon rig wasn’t offset by these breaks it may not have been economically viable to drill in such a dangerous location.  On top of the lower cost of the initial operation; the Liability Caps ensured that any potential risk was marginalized by the government.  The $75 million limit that has been in effect since 1990 was a message to the industry to attempt increasingly risky drills(1).

The oil companies should be liable for the full cost of any damages done by their rigs.  The worry that “operators and nonoperators in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico will be unable to obtain adequate protection from insurance” is totally unjustified (1).  If the site is not economically viable then there is no reason to drill there.  If BP and Transocean knew they would have been liable for all damages they would not have received a citation for “not conducting well control drills as required and not performing ‘all operations in a safe and workmanlike manner'”(3).  There would have been an incentive to spend money on safety, training and equipment instead of the incentive to take risks knowing they would be protected.  Or as one lawyer explained the situation “arbitrary liability caps are just not reasonable.  You cannot decide the expense of a disaster before it happens.  Liability caps allow companies like BP to avoid bearing the responsibility for the full cost of the damage they inflict”(9).

The oil has stopped flowing from the bottom of the Gulf; for now.  The question remains: How can we prevent this from happening again?  There, of course, is no easy answer.  Accidents, mistakes, and disasters can never be guarded against completely.  We can however mitigate the risk involved in those dangerous operations that are needed for the sake of humanity.  The best way to increase the safety of the oil industry is to remove the regulations that incentivize the risks involved in their industry.  Preventing drilling in safer areas, tax breaks, royalty reductions, liability limits; all these things make an already dangerous prospect that much more perilous.  We need to neither help nor hinder these companies, they must succeed or fail on their own merits.

Sources available upon request.