Why Not Tax Carbon?

If the price elasticity of oil is low, then people will cut back only modestly if the price goes up. Ryan Avent argues that (a) even a modest cut is better than nothing, and (b) higher oil prices are also a good way to spur development of alternative energy technologies. Jim Manzi isn't impressed:

Now to evaluate Avent’s argument that taxing fossil fuels is a good way to induce new technology, consider an analogy. Suppose that there is a chemotherapy drug that increases five-year survival rate for a specialized type of cancer from 10 percent to 60 percent, but with horrible side-effects. Some scientists in a couple of university labs have had some promising results with basic compounds that might or might not ultimately be precursors to a new drug that could get better increases in survival rates, and without many of the awful side effects. If you believed that improving treatment for this disease should be a major public priority, would your preferred approach be to add a large tax to chemotherapy? This is, in effect, what Avent is proposing as way to encourage the development of alternative energy technologies. I’d fund NIH research into the new alternative drug.

I don't think this analogy holds water. In the case of the drug, you have something that, even though it's imperfect, is better than nothing. In the absence of alternatives, most of us would prefer to make the bad drug as widely available as possible even if it does have horrible side effects. After all, those side effects affect only the patient, and we all assume that she can make her own decision about whether they're worth it.

That's not true when it comes to energy policy. At least, it's not true for anyone who accepts the science of global warming. For us, fossil fuel use is something that we'd like to see cut back as a positive good all by itself. This is, to restate the obvious, because the side effects of fossil fuels don't affect only the person driving his car to work. They affect everyone.

Now, it's true that carbon taxes have only a modest effect on fossil fuel use. If the IMF's estimates are correct, this is partly because even the long-term elasticity of oil is fairly low, and partly because when we cut back on oil in rich countries it immediately gets snarfed up by developing economies eager for growth. But this is why no serious environmentalist thinks of carbon taxes as anything other than one piece of a broader plan to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions — sort of like providing a tail wind for everything else that you're doing. And I think that's the best way of thinking about it. You want to fund research into alternative energy sources? Me too! But that means you need funding, and what better way to fund energy research than with a carbon tax? It not only provides the money you'll need anyway, but also helps push public demand in the direction of the very alternatives you're subsidizing.

Given that we're quite obviously going to need new taxes in the future, I have a hard time seeing the downside of a carbon tax. I mean, what would you rather tax instead? Labor? Capital? Consumption? No matter what your political preferences are, surely taxing carbon is a better bet than any of those three?

No Gay Judges, Please

The anti-gay dead-enders in California continue to argue that it's unpossible for a gay judge to rule objectively in a case about gay marriage:

Attorneys for ProtectMarriage, the group that sponsored the 2008 ballot initiative, said in a legal motion that Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker, who retired from the San Francisco-based district court earlier this year, had a duty to disclose his relationship and step down before deciding whether a ban on same-sex marriage violated the federal Constitution.

"Judge Walker's ten-year-long same-sex relationship creates the unavoidable impression that he was not the impartial judge the law requires," said Andy Pugno, a lawyer for ProtectMarriage. "He was obligated to either recuse himself or provide full disclosure of this relationship at the outset of the case. These circumstances demand setting aside his decision."

Roger that. Clearly the only possible unbiased ruling in this case would have been handed down by a straight judge upholding the sanctity of straight marriage. Because everyone knows that straight judges can keep their personal feelings in check but gay judges can't.

Krugman Then and Now

Ben Wallace-Wells has a nice profile of Paul Krugman in New York magazine this month, and it's worth a read. For some reason, though, it prompted me to reread my interview of Krugman from back in 2003. Here's a snippet of our conversation that picks up at a point where we were talking about long-term economic woes and the Republican desire to slash entitlement programs:

I don't think politically you can cut those programs.

Train wreck is a way overused metaphor, but we're headed for some kind of collision, and there are three things that can happen. Just by the arithmetic, you can either have big tax increases, roll back the whole Bush program plus some; or you can sharply cut Medicare and Social Security, because that's where the money is; or the U.S. just tootles along until we actually have a financial crisis where the marginal buyer of U.S. treasury bills, which is actually the Reserve Bank of China, says, we don't trust these guys anymore — and we turn into Argentina. All three of those are clearly impossible, and yet one of them has to happen, so, your choice. Which one?

Well, how about your choice? What's your best guess?

I think financial crisis, and then how it falls out is 50-50, either New New Deal or back to McKinley, and I think it's anybody's guess which one of those it is....I don't see any noncatastrophic solution to this, I don't see an incremental stepwise resolution. I think something drastic is really going to happen.

....What happens if [] foreign countries stop buying U.S. bonds? Is this a real concern, or a tinfoil hat kind of thing?

Oh, I don't think China is going to do it to pressure us. You can just barely conceive of a situation where they're mad at us because we're keeping them from invading Taiwan or something, but more likely they just start to wonder if this is really a good place to be putting their money.

So what happens is a plunge in the dollar when they decide to stop buying and start cashing in, and a spike in U.S. interest rates. But you might also get in a situation where the interest rates the government has to pay to roll over its debt become so high that you get an accelerating problem, which is what happened in Argentina. What happened was that suddenly no one would buy Argentine debt unless they paid a twenty something percent interest rate, and everybody says, but if they have to roll over their debt at a twenty percent interest rate, there's no way they can pay that back. So the whole thing grinds to a halt and the cash flow just dries up.

....If you were king of the economy, what's the Krugman plan?

A phased elimination of all the Bush tax cuts, plus some additional taxes. I'd probably look first at some way to make the corporate profits tax actually effective again — the nominal rate is 35% but the effective rate is only 15% or so. Look at some cuts, maybe you start to talk about retirement age, and possibly some means testing of Medicare, and that's enough to bring the budget under control.

Obviously the financial crisis of 2008 has intervened since then, but I wonder how much of this still represents Krugman's current thinking?

Civility and Lying

Politicians have always lied, says Rick Perlstein. So why does it seem like there's so much more lying than there used to be? The difference, he says, isn't with the politicians, it's with the right's successful attack on the liberal media in the post-Nixon era:

There evolved a new media definition of civility that privileged "balance" over truth-telling — even when one side was lying. It's a real and profound change — one stunningly obvious when you review a 1973 PBS news panel hosted by Bill Moyers and featuring National Review editor George Will, both excoriating the administration's "Watergate morality." Such a panel today on, say, global warming would not be complete without a complement of conservatives, one of them probably George Will, lambasting the "liberal" contention that scientific facts are facts — and anyone daring to call them out for lying would be instantly censured. It's happened to me more than once — on public radio, no less.

....The protective bubble of the "civility" mandate also seems to extend to the propagandists whose absurdly doctored stories and videos continue to fool the mainstream media. From blogger Pamela Geller, originator of the "Ground Zero mosque" falsehood, to Andrew Breitbart's video attack on Shirley Sherrod — who lost her job after her anti-discrimination speech was deceptively edited to make her sound like a racist — to James O'Keefe's fraudulent sting against National Public Radio, right-wing ideologues "lie without consequence," as a desperate Vincent Foster put it in his suicide note nearly two decades ago. But they only succeed because they are amplified by "balanced" outlets that frame each smear as just another he-said-she-said "controversy."

I guess I'll need to think about this. Rick might be right. But then again, many thoughtful conservatives would place the blame elsewhere. I recommend that the New York Times public editor assemble a panel of media analysts from across the political spectrum and hold a round table discussion on this topic. That should clear things up.

If it weren't for the fact that they're a gang of murderous 13th-century religious fanatics, you could almost admire the Taliban's latest prison break. Sort of embarrassing for the putative good guys, though.

Terrorism and the ISI

Here's an interesting tidbit from today's WikiLeaks release of the military's assessment of every prisoner ever held at Guantánamo Bay. Neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times bothered to mention it, so this passage is from the Guardian:

US authorities listed the main Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), as a terrorist organisation alongside groups such as al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iranian intelligence. Interrogators were told to regard links to any of these as an indication of terrorist or insurgent activity.

....The inclusion of association with the ISI as a "threat indicator" in this document is likely to pour fuel on the flames of Washington's already strained relationship with its key regional ally. A number of the detainee files also contain references, apparently based on intelligence reporting, to the ISI supporting, co-ordinating and protecting insurgents fighting coalition forces in Afghanistan, or even assisting al-Qaida.

As with so many documents released by WikiLeaks, this is hardly a surprise in one sense. Still, it's one thing to "know" something and quite another to see it officially documented in a classified file.

Easter is the excuse for today's bonus catblogging, but really, who needs an excuse? Yesterday Marian brought home a couple of new catnip plants, and as you can see, Inkblot got blissfully stoned out of his little feline gourd on one of them. Happy Easter, everyone!

The cats were a little boring this week, so I didn't have a lot of new pictures to choose from. So here's the same bench from last week, but this time with both cats on it. I should note that this little scene of domestic bliss didn't last long. They never do. Eventually Inkblot gets a burr up his butt and ends up with the bench all to himself.

In other cat news, here's the story of George, who survived the fires raging in Texas this week and returned home in fine fettle. Apparently sardines did the trick. And I want to remind everyone that next Friday is the day of the royal wedding of Wills and Kate. With the help of my Anglophile sister, I'll try to have appropriate catblogging pictures to mark the great occasion. Assuming the cats cooperate, of course. Which they might. Or might not. Check in next week to find out.

The Washington Post reports that blacks are increasingly migrating into the suburbs, making the GOP's "pack and crack" gerrymandering strategy even easier than it used to be:

“The practical effect is great for the GOP,” said Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. “In state after state, it’s allowing Republicans to pack more heavily Democratic close-in suburbs into urban black districts to make surrounding districts more Republican.”

....Over the last few rounds of redistricting, Republicans have made a habit of “packing” as many reliably Democratic black voters into as few districts as possible, virtually guaranteeing black representation for those districts while also making nearby ones more winnable for the GOP.

In a way, this is almost a bipartisan, or perhaps biracial, strategy. Republicans like it because packing all the black voters in one place gives them more winnable districts elsewhere, and Democrats go along with it because it gives African-American candidates a chance to win congressional seats. Unfortunately, this is pretty much their only chance: only a handful of black members of Congress come from majority white districts because the sad truth is that, for the most part, white voters are still largely unwilling to vote for black candidates. And just to restate the obvious, this works out pretty well for Republicans, which goes a long way toward explaining why Fox News spent practically the entire summer last year scaring the hell out of white people.

When I first heard that Apple iPhones were collecting location data on users, I was a little skeptical of the possibility that this was just a mistake. The data, you see, was collected in a .db file, and that's not really something you're likely to do by accident. If your intent is to hold just the current location data in memory (and there are plenty of good reasons to do that), you'd just hold it in memory. You wouldn't create a database structure to do it.

Well, according to the Wall Street Journal, my skepticism was warranted:

Apple Inc.'s iPhones and Google Inc.'s Android smartphones regularly transmit their locations back to Apple and Google, respectively, according to data and documents analyzed by The Wall Street Journal—intensifying concerns over privacy and the widening trade in personal data.

Google and Apple are gathering location information as part of their race to build massive databases capable of pinpointing people's locations via their cellphones. These databases could help them tap the $2.9 billion market for location-based services—expected to rise to $8.3 billion in 2014, according to research firm Gartner Inc.

Neither Apple nor Google have deigned to comment on this issue. If they actually have an explanation for this, that better change pronto.