Kevin Drum

Adapting to Climate Change

| Sat Sep. 26, 2009 5:39 PM EDT

Are conservatives stuck over climate change because they're devoted to free market principles and there just aren't any free market solutions to reducing CO2Matt Yglesias thinks this is too kind an interpretation:

How about reductions in subsidies for fossil fuel production and consumption? The free market credentials seem impeccable. Or how about a “green tax shift” in which carbon is taxed or carbon emission permits are auctioned and the revenue is used to finance deficit-neutral reductions in other taxes?

....But that’s not what we have. Not because market-oriented approaches are inadequate to the challenge but because too many of the key institutions that espouse market-oriented approaches are run by people who are too corrupt, incompetent, immoral, stupid, or cowardly to get their side to take the problem seriously.

Generally speaking, I agree.  There are a few conservatives out there who have argued in favor of free-marketish solutions like Pigouvian taxes and the like, but they're pretty thin on the ground.  The vast bulk of the conservative movement has simply decided to declare climate change a hoax and refuse to even consider doing anything about it.

Still, there really is a philosophical problem here too.  Eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels is a good idea, but it's also a drop in the bucket.  (And Democrats tend to be pretty big offenders on the subsidy front too.)  Revenue-neutral taxes could go a lot further, but they're not enough either.  Conservatives know that if they actually fess up to the full scope of the global warming problem, they're eventually going to have to accept some pretty serious government intervention to halt it.  Things like fuel economy standards, green research and development programs, moratoriums on coal-fired plants, tax incentives for conservation, new building efficiency standards, and much, much more.  There's nothing wrong with any of this stuff, but there's no question that it's a considerable amount of interference in the market.

Still, conservatives could adapt if they were smart.  After all modern conservatives have never really been very dedicated to free markets.  They're dedicated instead to being business friendly, which is quite a different thing.  And while not every business sector can benefit from new climate change regulations1, an awful lot of them can2.  So why not accept the science of climate change and then simply press for the most business friendly solutions possible?  It would mean rewarding a different set of business partners than they're used to, but so what?  Might as well start currying favor (and campaign contributions) from the businesses of the future instead of the businesses of the past.  Right?

1Coal-fired electricity, beef production, and SUVs, for example.  Those are almost certainly losers no matter what approach you take to limiting climate change.

2Nuclear/wind/solar electricity, biofuel production, weatherproofing, electric cars, etc. etc.

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Of Frogs and Demagogues

| Sat Sep. 26, 2009 3:38 PM EDT

Let's revisit the boiling frog controversy, shall we?  Basically, it's an urban legend: it says that if you toss a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump out (or try to).  But if you put it in a pot of cold water and turn up the heat slowly, it will sit idly by as it boils to death.  Turns out it's not true, though: the second frog will indeed try to jump out when the water temperature gets too high.

So why the persistence of the legend?  If it's such a useful metaphor, why don't we have any good substitutes?  Well, James Fallows, who started all this, says we do.  For example, people with cats slowly get accustomed to the smell of a litterbox in their home:

So, to answer Kevin Drum's question: we don't cling to the frog story, even knowing it's false, because there is no possible other illustration from the realm of shared human experience that would illustrate progressive desensitization. The litterbox problem is one that is actually true — and I bet a million times more people have experienced it than have actually seen a boiled frog. There's some other psycho/linguistic reason why the boiled frog story has caught on. But for the moment, this is my candidate for a new image: the reeking kitty-litter box. If someone has a better candidate, great.

Two similar suggestions are here.  But there's a problem: none of them are a substitute for the boiling frog.  The difference is simple.  In the case of the litterbox, we're slowly acclimating to something unpleasant.  There are a million examples of humans doing this.  But the frog is doing something else entirely: it's dying.  Nobody ever died from an overripe litterbox.

That's the power of the frog metaphor.  Not merely that we can get used to unpleasant things, but that we'll literally allow ourselves to be killed as long as the pain is turned up slowly enough.  And that's not all: not only will we die, but we'll hardly even notice that it's happening.

Now, I'd argue that the reason there are no good substitutes for the frog metaphor is because this never happens1.  No normal animal, human or otherwise, will fail to react to death-inducing pain.  Period.

So that explains that.  But we're still left with a question: why then is the boiling frog metaphor so popular and enduring?  If, despite being technically wrong, it were a genuinely useful illustration of a rare but not unheard-of human condition, that would be one thing.  But it's not.  So what gives?

That's a little more difficult, but I think I'd chalk it up to the common human desire to incite dire fear about things we dislike.  (This is probably a very rational desire, too, since it's hard to get people to rouse themselves from their sofas unless you get them pretty riled up.)  So it's not enough to say, for example, that healthcare reform will lead to higher taxes and a somewhat bigger role for government in our lives, just as it's not enough to say that post-9/11 security measures will put everyone under a little more scrutiny than we're used to.  In both cases, we want to make a much more dramatic point: maybe not literally death, but the end of freedom as we know it.  The frog is a pretty useful and homey way of illustrating it.  The boiling frog is the demagogue's best friend.

1Climate change (and related slow-motion catastrophes) may seem like examples of this, but they aren't.  Even if climate change does end up killing a lot of people, it won't be because we never noticed the pain it was causing.  Just the opposite: it's because the pain is too subtle to notice.  If it ever gets to the point where we're all genuinely suffering and we know the source, we'll notice it and try to do something about.  It might be too late by then, but we'll try.

Chart of the Day

| Sat Sep. 26, 2009 1:43 PM EDT

Via Zubin Jelveh, this chart comes from Princeton economics professor Hyun Song Shin.  The data is taken from the Fed's Flow of Funds report, which shows you — unsurprisingly — how much money is flowing through various sectors of the economy.

Basically, from 1954 through 1980, the household sector grew 10x.  The corporate sector grew 10x. Commercial banks grew 10x.  And the securities sector grew 10x.  All very balanced.

The came the great deregulation. Between 1980 and 2008, the household, corporate, and commercial bank sectors once again grew by about 10x.  But securities dealers?  They exploded.  The securities sector grew by nearly 100x.

And then imploded, taking the rest of us with them.  Roughly speaking, though, the securities sector still needs to shrink by a factor of about five before they get back to the size they should be.  Here's Shin:

Overall, it would be reasonable to speculate that the securities sector that emerges from the current crisis in sustainable form will be smaller, with shorter intermediation chains, perhaps less profitable in aggregate, and with less maturity transformation. The backdrop to this development will be the regulatory checks and balances that are aimed at moderating the fluctuations in leverage and balance sheet size that were instrumental in making the current financial crisis the most severe since the Great Depression.

I'm not feeling especially optimistic right now about the the creation of new "checks and balances that are aimed at moderating the fluctuations in leverage and balance sheet size," but here's hoping he's right.

Friday Cat Blogging - 25 September 2009

| Fri Sep. 25, 2009 3:17 PM EDT

Last night, while I was doing the NYT crossword puzzle, I thought for a while that the answer to one of the clues might be the word for an inability to get to sleep.  But I just couldn't think of the word.  (And the answer turned out to be something else anyway.)  After I was finished, I turned off the light and went to bed — and then tossed and turned for an hour, unable to get to sleep because I was trying to remember the word for being unable to get to sleep.

Finally, I got up and went to lie down in the guest bedroom, thinking vaguely that a change of surrounding might work.  And it did!  I fell right to sleep.  An hour later, though, I woke up totally disoriented.  There was a box of stuff at my feet!  Why did Marian replace Domino with a box of stuff?  And there was no radio next to the bed.  Why did Marian steal my radio?!?  Then, just as I was feeling totally deranged, I shot up and realized where I was.  A diffent room entirely.  One without either a cat or a radio.  Whew.

So I went back to my usual bedroom and fell back asleep.  This morning, I woke up, went out to get the paper, and as I was halfway out to the sidewalk I suddenly thought, "Insomnia!"  Jeebus.  My brain is now officially defective.

This is a totally true story.  It has nothing to do with cats, though, aside from Domino's absence from the guest bedroom.  And the fact that cats never seem to suffer from insomnia.  Not ours, anyway, who are currently doing their best beached whale imitations.  On Wednesday, however, they were out in the garden with us.  On the left, Domino is examining one of our plants.  On the right, Inkblot — who, unlike Domino, likes being held — is being hauled around while Marian searches for tomato worms.  In this picture, I think he's staring at Domino, who has just passed by his field of vision and is obviously up to something he feels he should know more about.

Cantor on Healthcare

| Fri Sep. 25, 2009 2:53 PM EDT

Politico's Glenn Thrush talks to Republican congressman Eric Cantor about the lack of a GOP healthcare plan 100 days after they promised to provide one:

In my sit down with Cantor earlier this week, he pointed to a more nuanced approach — offering a "pretext" rather than a proposal — eschewing the kind of sweeping, vague alternative that earned the party such ridicule when they rolled out their alternative budget in March.

I think Cantor needs to look up "pretext" in the dictionary before he uses it again.  It's actually completely appropriate in this case, but probably not in the way he was hoping to get across.

Amusing cheap shops aside, Cantor's problem is obvious: He can't provide a full-scale Republican plan because it's simply not possible to provide universal coverage without the government taking a big role in things.  So he's stuck.  Ditto for things like climate change, which for some reason I was reminded about by this post from libertarian Matt Welch.  I mean, suppose you accepted that climate change was both real and catastrophic.  What options would you have if you insisted on sticking solely to free market principles?  Beats me.  Hell, it's hard enough to address even if you don't.  But that's where we are these days: an awful lot of our most pressing problems simply can't be solved unless you accept that the government has to be involved.  So conservatives are stuck.

Unless they can offer up a pretext, of course.

Non-Shocking Iran News

| Fri Sep. 25, 2009 12:46 PM EDT

I'm just catching up on the news this morning, but apparently Iran is building a second nuclear enrichment facility:

White House officials said Western intelligence agencies have known about the facility for several years and believe that Iran acknowledged its existence Monday in an attempt to head off intense criticism that they knew was coming.

"We believe that the Iranians learned that the secrecy of the facility had been compromised," a senior White House official said Friday morning. "We've been aware of this facility for several years, building up a case so that we had very strong evidence."

Officials from the United States, France and Britain rushed to brief the IAEA in Vienna on Thursday on what they knew about the facility. U.S. officials said that detailed briefing was provided in an attempt to spark an immediate investigation by the international organization.

I don't have much to say about this except to note that all our previous intelligence estimates about Iran's capabilities obviously took this second plant into account, so presumably this doesn't change our forecasts about how far away they are from enriching enough material to build a bomb.

Hard to say exactly what's next.  Hillary Clinton noted dryly today that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent statements "illustrate attitudes and approaches that are really at variance with almost universal principles and understanding of historical reality."  You can say that again.  He certainly seems to be doing everything he can to unite the world against him.  Quite a feat.

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Shutting Down Guantanamo

| Fri Sep. 25, 2009 12:21 PM EDT

Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert is obviously a starry-eyed liberal appeaser who wants to weaken America:

In late 2001, when the Pentagon decided to put detainees at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the task of setting up a camp and establishing its rules went to Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert.

....On Thursday, as the 58-year-old officer prepared to retire after 36 years in the Marine Corps, he expressed his deep disappointment about what happened at Guantanamo after he left. "I think we lost the moral high ground," Lehnert said. "For those who do not think much of the moral high ground, that is not that significant.

"But for those who think our standing in the international community is important, we need to stand for American values. You have to walk the walk, talk the talk."

Lehnert says he's fully in favor of shutting down Guantanamo.  "I think the information we're getting is not worth the international beating we're taking," he says.  Semper fi.

The Public Option Revisited

| Fri Sep. 25, 2009 11:50 AM EDT

Ezra Klein quotes Congress Daily on the cost of healthcare reform that includes a public option.  The estimates are from the CBO:

The original House bill required the public plan to pay providers 5 percent more than Medicare reimbursement rates. But as part of a package of concessions to Blue Dogs, the House Energy and Commerce Committee accepted an amendment that requires the HHS Secretary to negotiate rates with providers. That version of the plan will save only $25 billion.

In total, a public plan based on Medicare rates would save $110 billion over 10 years. That is $20 billion more than earlier estimates, a spokesman for House Speaker Pelosi said.

So a public option would save anywhere between $2 billion and $11 billion per year depending on whether or not it's based on Medicare rates.  That's savings to the government, and it's based on the fact that the public option would lower the cost of insurance and the feds would therefore have to pay lower subsidies to low-income households buying coverage under the individual mandate.  However, if the private plans lower their prices to compete with the public option, then everyone buying insurance would save money, not just low-income families, and the total cost savings to consumers would be much higher.

It's hard to say how significant this would be without seeing the actual CBO report, but in any case the point is clear: the public option saves money.  Supposed "fiscal conservatives" who oppose the public option are either poorly informed or simply hypocritical.  It's not only good for the public, it's something that's more fiscally responsible than a healthcare plan that's purely private.  That's why we need it.

Clinton on Gore

| Fri Sep. 25, 2009 5:00 AM EDT

It's Laura, back with a few frog-free potboilers from the rest of the crew:

1) The new Black Panthers and me: Obama's DOJ is under fire for dropping a controversial voter intimidation case. Our reporter caught the whole incident on camera.

2) Did Clinton compare Gore to Mussolini? David Corn's favorite excerpts from the Clinton bio you can't read yet.

3) Meet the spy who loved Hamas. And Hezbollah. And Iran. Just who is ex-MI6 superstar Alastair Crooke working for, anyway?

4) Rare photos from inside a (completely macrame-free) Hamas summer camp for young Palestinian boys.

Laura McClure hosts weekly podcasts and is a writer and editor for Mother Jones. Read her recent investigative feature on lifehacking gurus here.

Picture of the Day

| Fri Sep. 25, 2009 1:46 AM EDT

This is a spectacular gold scabbard boss with inlaid garnets, circa 700 AD, part of a huge hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver discovered recently in Staffordshire:

The first scraps of gold were found in July in a farm field by Terry Herbert, an amateur metal detector who lives alone in a council flat on disability benefit, who had never before found anything more valuable than a nice rare piece of Roman horse harness. The last pieces were removed from the earth by a small army of archaeologists a fortnight ago.

....Leslie Webster, former keeper of the department of prehistory at the British Museum, who led the team of experts and has spent months poring over metalwork, described the hoard as "absolutely the equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells".

....[Kevin] Leahy said he was not surprised at the find being in Staffordshire, the heartland of the "militarily aggressive and expansionist" 7th century kings of Mercia including Penda, Wulfhere and Æthelred. "This material could have been collected by any of these during their wars with Northumbria and East Anglia, or by someone whose name is lost to history. Here we are seeing history confirmed before our eyes."

More at the link.  Enjoy.