Sunday, July 12, 2009

Gosh it's hot

Back from NY. Judge Smails continues the climate discussion:
Let me press you on your central point: What percentage of your personal salary would you be willing to give up to ensure that none of these three things happened? I'm not willing to cut every American's standard of living by 80% to save New Orleans, and I doubt you are either. So there's clearly a number.

That is, after all, the question we're asking here. I don't disagree that it's tough to price these things, but I do agree with Manzi that at some price point it becomes no worth it to save the polar bears.

Of course, you correctly point out that there's a brick wall at the end of all this, because of course we can't really price out human extinction. But that again goes to Manzi's point: human extinction due to climate change isn't necessarily coming for hundreds of years. What proportion of your personal wealth are you willing to fork over now such that your great-great-great-great-grandkids may survive? The answer isn't obvious to me, but I know it's not 80% (or whatever).

But here's the problem... we're not talking anything close to 80% (I know the Judge is just throwing out an extreme number). And if everyone had to give up, say, 10% of their salary, then prices for things would drop, and probably more importantly, we wouldn't feel poorer, because one's relative place in the economic ladder wouldn't change. Certainly one can argue about how much various countries are sacrificing, but right now we're the world's worst offenders, so it seems silly to suggest that we do nothing now because later China and India might be worse than us.

Smails counters:
Perhaps that's right --- I don't know enough about economics to understand the deflationary aspects of massive taxation, although I suspect it's not quite the same as everyone literally burning 10% of their cash. We wouldn't be taking the money out of the system.

But surely your larger point is correct --- we're not talking 80%, because if that's what it will take, we're probably doomed. But it does raise another key question: is the amount of sacrifice required too demanding for a democratic society? That is, is it possible to put the necessary costs on the public prior to truly impending doom? You watch things like Waxman-Markey develop, and you get scared the answer is no. It's the classic problem of democracies as a form of government --- long-term planning that requires sacrifice is almost impossible.

The last point is perhaps the most crucial. But there have been points in our history where sacrifice was possible, most notably WWII. Another point could have been 9/11, but instead of saying, jeez, mucking about in the Middle East for the past 30 years to protect the oil supply isn't really paying dividends to the country as a whole, we doubled down on that policy and have sunk even more money into that shitstorm. But that wasn't the only option -- we could have, instead, used 9/11 as a stimulus to wean ourselves off Persian Gulf oil. I'll conclude with the words of Matt Yglesias, in writing about the generally-idiotic state of public debate:

My strong sense is that contrarianness reached its apogee in the 1990s when a general sense took over that politics was basically silly and that punditry should be seen as basically akin to the college debate circuit wherein the idea is to construct the most clever possible argument rather than to actually hit on the truth. When this general spirit of the times merged with the elite press’ inexplicable loathing of Al Gore you started getting really bizarre arguments being made with a straight face. People would say that one good thing about George W. Bush was that he was dimwitted, which made him understand leadership. Or that a big problem with Gore was that he was interested in public policy.

This attitude brought us thousands of Americans killed in a terrorist attack, thousands more killed in a senseless war, and eventually the collapse of the world economy. But that in turn has at least to a small extent reminded people that it actually does matter what happens and who’s right.