TEKNOIOT: Environment
Showing posts with label Environment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Environment. Show all posts

22 Aug 2020

Cause, effect, and carbon - Barokong

“As fires rage up and down the state of California, costing our taxpayers billions of dollars and threatening our families’ health—- the need for California to move to 100% clean, renewable energy could not be more urgent,” said Mr. de León in a statement.
Sen. Kevin de León, a Democrat who is waging a long-shot run for a U.S. Senate seat against incumbent Dianne Feinstein.
Reported in the Wall Street Journal

The context is

California passed legislation Tuesday that would make it the first large state to mandate completely carbon-free electricity generation, with a target of 2045.
My understanding is that nuclear does not count as "carbon free."

Just to belabor the obvious, the central part of our state has been living under a blanket of smoke most of the summer. Smoke causes an immediate and local pollution problem, which is a direct threat to human health -- fine particulate matter.  Yet the state has cut its firefighting air fleet and budget over the past few years, and also let fuel accumulate in forests over the winter.

California contributes maybe 1% of global carbon emissions. Guesstimate for yourself how much California carbon-free energy by 2045 will do to reduce wildfires in your grandchildren's lifetime.  "Urgent?"

If you think global warming is real, and that it will increase wildfires, it seems you would be rushing to spend money on putting out fires.

Instead, our state government seems to regard wildfires as punishments for our carbon sins, that only praying to the Temple of Carbon with largely symbolic billions of dollars can salve. Actually doing something about problems the West has always had -- wildfires -- that may be moving north a bit due to global warming seems to be regarded as an immoral act.

I am also interested by the fantastical cause-and-effect thinking going on here, and the flight from any vaguely quantifiable dollars per unit of effect. And this from the self-described "party of science."

20 Aug 2020

Testimony 2 - Barokong

On the way back from Washington, I passed the time reformatting my little essay for the Budget committee to html for blog readers. See below. (Short oral remarks here in the last blog post, and pdf version of this post here.)

I learned a few things while in DC.

The Paul Ryan "A better way" plan is serious, detailed, and you will be hearing a lot about it. I read most of it in preparation for my trip, and it's impressive. Expect reviews here soon. I learned that Republicans seem to be uniting behind it and ready to make a major push to publicize it. It is, by design, a document that Senatorial and Congressional candidates will use to define a positive agenda for their campaigns, as well as describing a comprehensive legislative and policy agenda.

"Infrastructure" is bigger in the conversation than I thought. But since there is no case that potholes caused the halving of America's trend growth rate, do not be surprised if infrastructure fails to double the trend growth rate. It's also a bit sad that the most common growth idea in Washington is, acording to my commenters, about 2,500 years old -- employment on public works.

Washington conversation remains in thrall to the latest numbers. There was lots of buzz at my hearing about a recent census report that median family income was up 5%. Chicagoans used to get excited about the 40 degree February thaw.

The quality can be very very good. Congressman Price, the chair of my session, covered just about every topic in my testimony, and possibly better. Congressional staff are really good, and they are paying attention to the latest. If you write policy-related economics, take heart, they really are listening.

The questions at my hearing pushed me to clarify just how will debt problems affect the average American. What I had not said in the prepared remarks needs to be said. If we don't get an explosion of growth, the US will not be able to make good on its promises to social security, health care, government pensions, credit guarantees, taxpayers, and bondholders. Something's got to give. And the growing size of entitlements means they must give. Even a default on the debt, raising taxes to the long-run Laffer limit, will not pay for current pension and health promises. Those will be cut. The question is how. If we wait to a fiscal crisis, they will be cut unexpectedly and by large amounts, leaving people who counted on them in dire straits. Greece is a good example. If we make sensible sustainable promises now, they will be cut less, and people will have decades to adjust.

Ok, on to html testimony:

Growing Risks to the Budget and the Economy.

Testimony of John H. Cochrane before the House Committee on Budget.

September 14 2016

Chairman Price, Ranking Member Van Hollen, and members of the committee: It is an honor to speak to you today.

I am John H. Cochrane. I am a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University 1 . I speak to you today on my own behalf on not that of any institution with which I am affiliated.

Sclerotic growth is our country's most fundamental economic problem. 2 From 1950 to 2000, our economy grew at 3.6% per year. 3 Since 2000, it has grown at barely half that rate, 1.8% per year. Even starting at the bottom of the recession in 2009, usually a period of super-fast catch-up growth, it has grown at just over 2% per year. Growth per person fell from 2.3% to 0.9%, and since the recession has been 1.3%.

The CBO long-term budget analysis 4 looks out 30 years, and forecasts roughly 2% growth. On current trends that is likely an over-estimate, as it presumes we will have no recessions, or that future recessions will have not have the permanent effects we have seen of the last several recessions. If we grow at 2%, the economy will expand by 82% in 30 years, almost doubling. 5 But if we can just get back to the 3.6% postwar normal growth rate, the economy will expand by 194%, almost tripling instead. We will add the entire current US economic output to the total. In per-person terms, a 1.3% trend gives the average American 48% more income in 30 years. Reverting to the postwar 2.3% average means 99% more income, twice as much. And economic policy was not perfect in the last half of the 20th century. We should be able to do even better.

Restoring sustained, long-term economic growth is the key to just about every economic and budgetary problem we face.

Nowhere else are we talking about doubling or not the average American's income. 6

Nowhere else are we talking about doubling or not Federal revenues. Long-term Federal revenues depend almost entirely on economic growth. In 1990, the Federal Government raised $1.6 trillion inflation-adjusted dollars. In 2016, this has doubled to $3.1 trillion. Wow! Did the government double tax rates? No. The overall federal tax rate stayed almost the same -- 18.0% of GDP in 1990, 18.8% of GDP today. Income doubled.

Whether deficits and debt balloon, whether we our government can pay for Social Security and health care, defend the country, and fund other goals such as protecting the environment, depend most crucially on economic growth.

Why has growth halved? Some will tell you that the economy is working as well as it can, but we've just run out of new ideas. 7 A quick tour of the Silicon Valley makes one suspicious of that claim.

Others will bring you novel and untested economic theories: we suffer an ill-defined "secular stagnation" that requires massive borrowing and spending, even wasted spending. The "multiplier" translating government spending to output is not one and a half, and a temporary expedient which can briefly raise the level of income in a depression, but six or more, enough to finance itself by the larger tax revenues which larger output induces --a proposition long derided of the "supply side" --and it can now kick off long-term growth. 8 Like 18th century doctors to whom disease was an imbalance of humors, modern macroeconomic doctors have one diagnosis and remedy for all the complex ills that can befall a modern economy: "demand!"

I'm here to tell you the most plausible answer is simple, clear, sensible, and much more difficult. Our legal and regulatory system is slowly strangling the golden goose of growth. There is no single Big Fix. Each market, industry, law, and agency is screwed up in its own particular way, and needs patient reform.

America is middle aged, out of shape and overweight. One voice says: well, get used to it, buy bigger pants. Another voice says: 10 day miracle detox cleanse! I'm here to tell you that the only reliable answer is good old-fashioned diet and exercise.

Or, a better metaphor perhaps: our economy, legal and regulatory system has become like a hoarder's house. No, there isn't a miracle organizer system. We have to patiently clean out every room.

Economic regulation, law and policy all slow growth by their nature. Growth comes from new ideas, new products, new processes, new ways of doing things, and most of these embodied in new companies. And these upend old companies, and displace their workers, both of whom come to Washington pleading that you save them and their jobs. It is a painful process. It is natural that the administration, regulatory agencies, and you, listen and try to protect them. But every time we protect an old company, an old industry, or an old job, from innovation and competition, we slow down growth.

How do we solve this problem and get back to growth? Our national political and economic debate has gotten stale, each side repeating the same base-pleasing talking points, but making no progress persuading the other. Making one or the other points again, or louder, will get us nowhere. I will try, instead, to find policies that think outside of these tired boxes, and that can appeal to all sides of the political spectrum.

Rather than "more government" or "less government," let's focus on fixing government. We need above all a grand simplification of our economic, legal, and political life, so that government does what it does competently and efficiently.

Regulation: fix the process.

"There's too much regulation, we're stifling business. No, there's too little regulation, businesses are hurting people." Or so goes the tired argument. Regulation is strangling business investment, and especially the formation of new businesses. But the main problem with regulation is how it's done, not how much. If we fix regulation, the quantity will take care of itself. We can agree on smarter regulation, better regulation, not just "more" or "less" regulation. 9

Regulation is too discretionary --you can't read the rules and know what to do, you have to ask for permission granted on regulators' whim. No wonder that the revolving door revolves faster and faster, oiled by more and more money.

Regulatory decisions take forever. Just deciding on the Keystone Pipeline or California's high speed train --I pick examples from left and right on purpose --takes longer than it did to build the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. By hand.

Regulation has lost rule-of-law protections. You often can't see the evidence, challenge witnesses, or appeal. The agency is cop, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner all rolled in to one. [And, a Congressman pointed out during the discussion, recipient of collected fines.]

Most dangerous of all, regulation and associated legal action are becoming more politicized. Each week brings a new scandal. Last week 10 , we learned how the Government shut down ITT tech, but not the well-connected Laureate International. The IRS still targets conservative groups 11 . The week before, we learned how the company that makes Epi-pens, headed by the daughter of a Senator, got the FDA to block its competitors, Congress to mandate its products, and jacked up the price of an item that costs a few bucks to $600. This is a bi-partisan danger. For example, presidential candidate Donald Trump has already threatened to use the power of the government against people who donate to opponents' campaigns. 12

America works because you can lose an election, support an unpopular cause, speak out against a policy you disagree with, and this will not bring down the attentions of the IRS, the EPA, the NLRB, the SEC, the CFPB, the DOJ, the FDA, the FTC, the Department of Education, and so forth, who can swiftly put you out of business even if eventually you are proven innocent, or just slow-roll your requests for permissions until you run out of money.

This freedom does not exist in much of the world. The Administrative state is an excellent tool for cementing power. But when people can't afford to lose an election, countries come unglued. Do not let this happen in the US.

Congress can take back its control of the regulatory process. Write no more thousand-page bills with vague authorizations. Fight back hard when agencies exceed their authorization. Insist on objective and retrospective cost benefit analysis. Put in rule-of law protections, including discovery of how agencies make decisions. Insist on strict timelines --if an agency takes more than a year to rule on a request, it's granted. [I later learned this is called a "shot clock" in Washington, a nice metaphor.]

Health care and finance are the two biggest new regulatory headaches. The ACA and Dodd-Frank aren't working, and are important drags on employment and economic growth. Simple workable alternatives exist. Implement them.

The real health care problem is not how we pay for health care, but the many restrictions on its supply and competition. 13 If hospitals were as competitive as airlines, they would work darn hard to heal us at much lower --and disclosed! --prices. If the FDA did not strangle new medicines and devices, even generics, prices would fall.

Competition is always the best disinfectant, guarantor of good service and low prices. Yet almost all uncompetitive markets in the US are uncompetitive because some law or regulation keeps competitors out.

Rather than guarantee bank debts, and unleash an army of regulators to make sure banks don't risk too much, we should instead insist that banks get their money in ways that do not risk crises, primarily issuing equity and long-term debt. Then banks can fail just like other companies, and begin to compete just like other companies. 14

"The planet is dying, control carbon!" "Your crony energy boondoggles and regulations are killing the economy!" Well, that argument is not getting us anywhere, is it? The answer is straightforward: A simple carbon tax in exchange for elimination of all the growth-killing, intrusive, cronyist, and ineffective micromanagement. We can continue to argue about the rate of that tax, but it will both reduce more carbon, and increase more growth, than the current ineffective policies --and stagnant debate.

None of these recommendations are ideological or partisan. These are just simple, clean-out-the-junk, workable ways to get our regulatory system to actually work, for its goal of protecting consumers and the environment, at minimal economic and political damage.

Social programs: Fix the incentives.

"Cut spending, or the debt will balloon!" "Raise spending or people will die in the streets!" That's getting nowhere too. And it ignores central problems.

In many social programs, if you earn an extra dollar, you lose a dollar or more of benefits. Many programs have cliffs, especially in health care and disability, where earning one extra dollar triggers an enormous loss. Even when one program cuts benefits modestly with income, the interaction of many programs makes work impossible. 15 No wonder that people become trapped. We need to fix these disincentives. Doing so will help people better. If we fix the incentives, though it may look like we spend more, in the end we will spend less --and encourage economic growth as well as opportunity.

Spend more to spend less. "Spending is out of control! We need to spend less or there will be a debt crisis!" "Oh there you go being heartless again. We need to invest more in programs that help Americans in need." I feel like I'm at a dinner party hosted by a couple in a bad marriage. This isn't getting us anywhere.

It is important to limit Federal spending. However, we tend to just limit the appearance of spending by moving the same activities off the books. Off-the-books spending does the same economic damage. Or more.

For example, we allow an income tax deduction for mortgage interest, in order to subsidize homeownership. From an economic point of view, this is exactly the same thing as collecting higher taxes, and then sending checks to homeowners. It looks like we're taxing and spending less than we really are. But from an economic growth point of view, it's the same thing.

Actually, it's worse, because it adds unfairness and inefficiency. Suppose a colleague proposes a bill to you: The U.S. Treasury will send checks to homeowners, but high income people get much bigger checks, as will people who borrow a lot, and people who refinance often and take cash out. People with low incomes, who save up to buy houses, or don't refinance, get a lot less. You would say, "You're out of your mind!" But that's exactly what the mortgage interest deduction achieves!

If we were to eliminate the mortgage deduction, and put housing subsidies on budget, where taxpayers can see where their money is going, the resulting homeowner subsidy would surely be a lot smaller, much more progressive, helping lower income people, better targeted at getting people in houses, and less damaging of savings and economic growth. Both Republicans and Democrats should rejoice. Except the headline amount of taxing and spending will increase. Well, spend more to spend less.

We allow a tax deduction for charitable deductions. This is exactly the same thing as taxing more, but then sending checks to non-profits as matching contributions --but much larger checks for contributions from rich people than from poorer people. Then, many "non-profits" spend a lot of money on private jet travel, executive salaries, and political activities. Actual on-budget federal spending, convoluted and inefficient as it is, at least has a modicum of oversight and transparency. If we removed the deduction, but subsidized worthy charities, with transparency and oversight, we'd do a lot more good, and probably overall tax less and spend less. Except the headline amount of taxing and spending might increase. Well, spend more to spend less.

Mandates are the same thing as taxing and spending. Many European countries tax a lot, and then provide services, like health insurance. We mandate that employers provide health insurance. It looks like we're taxing and spending less, but we're not. A health insurance mandate has exactly the same economic effects as a $15,000 head tax on each employee, financing a $15,000 health insurance voucher.

Economics pays no heed to budget tricks. Spending too much rhetorical effort on lowering taxes and spending induces our government to such tricks, with the same growth-destroying effects. If you want economic growth, treat every mandate as taxing and spending.

Taxes: break up the argument.

The outlines of tax reform have been plain for a long time: lower marginal rates, broaden the base by getting rid of the massive welter of special deals. But it can't get done. Why not?

When we try to fix taxes, 16 we argue about four things at once: 1) What is the right structure for a tax code? 2) What is the right level of taxes, and therefore, of spending? 3) What activities should the government subsidize -- home mortgages, charitable contributions, electric cars, and so on? 4) How much should the government redistribute income?

Tax reforms fail because we argue about all these together. For example, the Bowles-Simpson commission got to an improvement on the structure of taxes, but then the reform effort fell apart when the Administration wanted more revenue and congressional Republicans less.

I am back at my dysfunctional dinner party. Sometimes, in politics as in marriage, it is wise to bundle issues together, each side accepting a minor loss to ensure what they see as a major gain. You clean up your socks, I'll clean up my makeup. Sometimes, however, we bundle too many issues together, and the result is paralysis, as each side vetoes a package of improvements over a small issue. Then, it's better to work on the issues separately.

So, let's fix taxes by separating these four issues, in four commissions possibly, or better in four completely separate sections of law.

1) Structure. Agree on the right structure of the tax code, with its only goal to raise revenue at minimal economic distortion, but leave the rates blank.

2) Rates. Determine the rates, without touching the structure of the tax code. A good tax code should last decades. Rates may change every year, and likely will be renegotiated every four. But those who want higher or lower rates know they can agree on the structure of the tax code.

3) Separate the subsidy code from the tax code. Mortgage interest subsidies? Electric car subsidies? Sure, we'll talk about them, but separately. Then, we don't have to muck up raising revenue for the government with subsidies, and the budgetary and economic impact of subsidies can be evaluated on their own merits

4) Separate the redistribution code from the tax code. Then we don't muck up raising revenue for the government with income transfers.

The main point is that by separating these four elements of law, each with fundamentally different purposes, we are much more likely to make coherent progress on each. You need not oppose beneficial aspects of an economically efficient tax simplification, say, if you wish to have a greater level of redistribution --well, at least any more than you might oppose any random bill in order to force your way on that issue.

Some thoughts on how each of these might work:

Structure. The economic damage of taxation is entirely about "marginal'' rates --if you earn an extra dollar, how much do you get to enjoy it, after all taxes, federal, state, local, sales, estate, and so forth. Economics has really little to say about how much taxes people pay. The economists' ideal is a tax system in which people pay as much as the Government needs --but each extra dollar earned is tax-free. Politics, of course, focuses pretty much on the opposite, how much people pay and ignoring the economically-distorting margins.

Thus, if you ask 100 economists, "now, forget politics for a moment --that's our job --and tell me what the right tax code is, with the only objective being to raise revenue without distorting the economy,'' the pretty universal answer will be a consumption tax --with no corporate tax, income tax, tax on savings or rates of return, estates, or anything else, and essentially no deductions. (They will then say "but..." and go on to demand subsidies and income redistribution, at which time you have to assure them too that we'll discuss these separately.)

A massive simplification of the tax code is, in my opinion, as or more important than the rates --and it's something we're more likely to agree on. America's tax code is an obscenely complex cronyist nightmare.

For example, that's why I favor, and you should seriously consider, eliminating the corporate tax. Corporations never pay any taxes. All money they send to the government comes from higher prices, lower wages, or lower returns to shareholders --and mostly the former two. If you tax people who receive corporate profits, rather than collecting taxes from higher prices and lower wages, you will have a more progressive tax system.

But more importantly, if you eliminate the corporate tax, you will eliminate the constant stream of lobbyists in your offices each day asking for special favors.

Far too many businesses are structured around taxes, and far too many smart minds are spending their time devising corporate tax avoidance schemes and lobbying strategies. A much simpler tax code even with sharply higher rates --but very clear rates, that we all know about and can plan on --may well have less economic distortion than a massively complex code, with high statutory rates, but a welter of complex schemes and deductions that result in lower taxes.

Subsidy code. Tax expenditures --things like deductions for mortgage interest, employer provided health care, charitable contributions, and the $10,000 credit my wealthy Palo Alto neighbor got from the taxpayers for buying a Tesla -- are estimated at $1.4 trillion, 17 compare with $3.5 trillion Federal Receipts and $4 trillion Federal Expenditures. 18 Our Federal Government is really a third larger than it looks.

While the subsidy code could consist of a separate discussion of tax expenditures, it would be far better for the rules of the subsidy code to be: all subsidies must be on budget, where we can all see what's going on.

Redistribution. Even a consumption tax can be as progressive as one wants. One can use the regular income tax code with full deduction of savings and omitting capital income, thus taxing high consumption at higher rates and low consumption at lower rates.

Again, however, it might well be more efficient to integrate income redistribution with social programs. Put it on budget, and send checks to people. Yes, that makes spending look larger, but sending a check is the same thing as giving a tax break. And spending can be more carefully monitored.


Infrastructure is all the rage 19 . America needs infrastructure. Good infrastructure, purchased at minimum cost, that passes objective cost-benefit criteria, built promptly, can help the economy in the long run. Soft infrastructure --a better justice system, for example --matters as much as hard infrastructure --more asphalt.

However, there is no case that the halving of America's growth rate in the last 20 years is centrally due to potholes and rusting bridges. Poor infrastructure is not the cause of sclerosis, so already one should be wary of infrastructure investment as the central plan to cure that sclerosis.

The claim that infrastructure spending will lift the economy out of its doldrums lies on the "multiplier" effect, that any spending, even wasted, is good for the economy. That is a dubious proposition, especially when the task is to raise the economy by tens of trillions, over decades.

Modern infrastructure is built by machines, and not many people; even less people who do not have the specialized skills. A Freeway in California will do little to help employment of a high school dropout in New York, or a middle-aged mortgage broker in New Jersey. Neither knows how to operate a grader.

The problem with infrastructure is not lack of money. President Obama inaugurated a nearly trillion dollar stimulus plan 8 years ago. His Administration found out there are few shovel-ready projects in America today. They're all tied up waiting for historic review, environmental review, and legal challenges.

The problem with infrastructure is a broken process. Put a time limit on historic, environmental, and other reviews. Require serious, objective, and retrospective cost-benefit analysis. Repeal Davis-Bacon and other contracting requirements that send costs soaring. If the point is infrastructure it should be infrastructure, not passing money around. You ought to be able to agree on more money in return for assurance that the money is wisely spent.

Debt and deficits

This hearing is also about budgets and debts, which I have left to the end. Yes, our deficits are increasing. Yes, every year the Congressional Budget Office declares our long-term promises unsustainable.

I have not emphasized this problem, though in my opinion it is centrally important, and I think I was invited here to say so.

Recognize that computer simulations with hockey-stick debt, designed to frighten into submission a supporter of what he or she feels is necessary government spending, are as ineffective as computer simulations with hockey-stick temperatures, designed to frighten into submission a supporter of current economic growth and skeptic of draconian energy regulation. Yelling about each, louder, is not going to be productive.

And there are many voices who tell you debt is not a problem. Interest rates are at record lows. Why not borrow more, and worry about paying it back later? So, let me offer a few out of the box observations, and suggestions that you might agree on.

It is useful to clarify why debt is a problem. The case that large debts will slowly and inexorably push up interest rates, and crowd out investment, is hard to make in this era of ultra-low rates. Debt does place a burden of repayment on our children and grandchildren, but if we have reasonable economic growth they will be wealthier than we are.

The biggest danger that debt poses is a crisis.

Debt crises, like all crises that really threaten an economy and society, do not come with decades of warning. Do not expect slowly rising interest rates to canary the coalmine. Even Greece could borrow at remarkably low rates. Until, one day, it couldn't, with catastrophic results.

The fear for the US is similar. We will have long years of low rates. Until, someday, it is discovered that some books are cooked, and somebody owes a lot of money that they can't pay back, and people start to question debts everywhere.

For example, suppose Chinese debts blow up, and southern Europe as well. Both Europe and China will start selling Treasury debt quickly. Suppose at the same time that student loans, state and local pensions, and state governments are blowing up, along with some large U.S. companies, and banks under deposit insurance. A recession looms, which the US will want to fight with fiscal stimulus. The last crisis occasioned about $5 trillion of extra borrowing. The next one could double that.

So, the U.S. needs to quickly borrow additional trillions of dollars, while its major customers --foreign central banks --are selling. In addition, the U.S. borrows relatively short term. Each year, the U.S. borrows about $7 trillion to pay off $7 trillion of maturing debt, and then more to cover the deficit.

Imagine all this happens 10 years from now, with social security and medicare unresolved and increasing deficits. The CBO is still issuing its annual warnings that our debt is unsustainable. Now, bond investors are willing to lend to the US government so long as they think someone else will lend tomorrow to pay off their loans today. When they suspect that isn't true, they pull back and interest rates spike.

But our large debts leave our fiscal position sensitive to interest rate rises. At 100% debt to GDP ratio, if interest rates rise to just 5%, that means the deficit rises by 5 percentage points of GDP, or approximately $1 Trillion extra dollars per year. If bond investors were worried about sustainability already, an extra trillion a year of deficits makes it worse. So they demand even higher interest rates. Debt that is easily financed at 1% rates is not sustainable at 5% rates and a catastrophe at 10% rates --if you have a large debt outstanding.

This is a big part of what happened to Greece and nearly happened to Italy. At low interest rates, they are solvent. At high interest rates, they are not.

Debt crises are like an earthquakes. It's always quiet. People laugh at you for worrying. Buying insurance seems like a waste of money. Until it isn't.

So, the way to think about the dangers of debt is not like a predictable problem that comes to us slowly. View the issue as managing a small risk of a catastrophic problem, like a war or pandemic.

The easy answers are straightforward. Sensible reforms to Social Security and Medicare are on the table. Fix the indexing, improve the incentives for older people to keep working. Convert medicare to a premium support policy.

The harder problems are those less recognized. Underfunded pensions, widespread credit guarantees, and explicit or implicit too big to fail guarantees add tinder to the fire. Dry powder and good credit are invaluable.

Above all, undertake a pro-growth economic policy. We grew out of larger debts after World War II; we can do that again.

You can also buy some insurance. Every American household that takes out a mortgage faces the choice: fixed rate, or variable rate? The fixed rate is a little higher. But it can't go up, no matter what happens. The variable rate starts out lower. But if interest rates rise, you might not be able to make the payments, and you might lose the house. That is what happens to countries in a debt crisis.

For the US, this decision is made by the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve. The Treasury has been gently lengthening the maturity of its borrowings. The Federal Reserve has been neatly undoing that effort.

Both Treasury and Fed need direction from Congress. The Treasury does not regard managing risks to the budget posed by interest rate rises as a central part of its job, and the Fed does not even consider this fact. Congress needs to decide who is in charge of the maturity structure of US debt, and guide the Treasury. I hope that guidance leans towards the fixed rate plan. By issuing long-term debt --I argue in fact for perpetuities, that simply pay a $1 coupon forever with no fixed roll over date -- and engaging in simple swap transactions that every bank uses to manage interest rate risk, the U.S. can isolate itself from a debt crisis very effectively. 20 But at least ask that fixed or floating interest rate question and make a decision.

As I have warned against focusing too much attention on on-budget spending, so let me warn against too much attention on deficits rather than spending. If you focus on debt and deficits, the natural inclination is to raise tax rates. Europe's experience in the last few years argues against "austerity" in the form of sharply higher tax rates, as always adding to the disincentive to hire, invest, or start innovative businesses.

Concluding comments

I have sketched some novel and radical-sounding approaches to restoring robust economic growth. Economic growth, together with commonsense fiscal discipline are keys to solving our budget problems.

This is not pie in the sky. These are simple straightforward steps, none controversial as a matter of economics. And there really is no alternative. Ask of other approaches: Does this at all plausibly diagnose why America's growth rate has fallen in half? Does the cure at all plausibly address the diagnosis? Is the cure based on a reasonable causal channel that you can actually explain to a constituent? Does the cure have a ghost of a chance of having a large enough effect to really make a difference?

You may object that fundamental reform is not "politically feasible." Well, what's "politically feasible" can change fast in this country. This is an exciting time politically. The people are mad as hell, and they're not taking it any more. They are ready for fundamental changes.

Furthermore, it is time for Congress to take the lead. These are properly Congressional matters, and no matter who wins the Presidential election you are unlikely to see leadership in this direction.

Winston Churchill once said that Americans can be trusted to do the right thing after we've tried everything else. [NB: apparently this is an urban legend. Oh well, it's a good quip if not a quote] Well, we've tried everything else. It's time to prove him right.


1. You can find a full CV, a list of all affiliations, and a catalog of written work at http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/john.cochrane/index.htm. ↩

2.This testimony summarizes several recent essays. On growth and for an overview, see "Economic Growth." 2016. In John Norton Moore, ed., The Presidential Debates Carolina Academic Press p. 65-90. http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/john.cochrane/research/papers/cochrane_growth.pdf; "Ending America's Slow-Growth Tailspin." Wall Street Journal, May 3 2016. http://www.wsj.com/articles/ending-americas-slow-growth-tailspin-1462230818, and "Ideas for Renewing American Prosperity" Wall Street Journal July 4 2014. http://online.wsj.com/articles/ideas-for-renewing-american-prosperity-1404777194. ↩

3. https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/GDPCA, Continuously compounded annual rates of growth. Per capita https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/A939RX0Q048SBEA ↩

4. https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/114th-congress-2015-2016/reports/51580-LTBO-2.pdf ↩

5. 100*exp(30 x 0.02) = 182. 100*exp(30*0.035) = 286. ↩

6. As an example of agreement on the fundamental importance of growth among economists of all political leanings, see Larry Summers, "The Progressive Case for Championing Pro-Growth Policies," 2016. http://larrysummers.com/2016/08/08/the-progressive-case-for-championing-pro-growth-policies/ ↩

7. For an excellent recent exposition of this view, see Robert J. Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War. Princeton University Press 2016. http://press.princeton.edu/titles/10544.html ↩

8. An influential example of these views, including self-financing stimulus: J. Bradford DeLong and Lawrence H. Summers, "Fiscal Policy in a Depressed Economy" Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. Spring 2012. https://www.brookings.edu/bpea-articles/fiscal-policy-in-a-depressed-economy/. Interestingly, DeLong and Summers condition their view on interest rates stuck at zero, a cautionary limitation that current stimulus advocates seem to have forgotten. ↩

9. See "Rule of Law in the Regulatory State." 2015. http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/john.cochrane/research/papers/ rule_of_law_and_regulation essay.pdf ↩

10. http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-clinton-for-profit-college-standard-1473204250 ↩

11. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/sep/7/irs-refuses-to-abandon-targeting-criteria-used-aga/ ↩

12. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2016/02/22/trump-ricketts-family-better-careful/80761060/ ↩

13. See "After the ACA: Freeing the market for health care." 2015. In Anup Malani and Michael H. Schill, Eds. The Future of Healthcare Reform in the United States, p. 161-201, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/john.cochrane/research/papers/after_aca_published.pdf ↩

14. See "Toward a run-free financial system." 2014. In Across the Great Divide: New Perspectives on the Financial Crisis, Martin Neil Baily and John B. Taylor, Editors, Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, p. 197-249. http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/john.cochrane/research/papers/across-the-great-divide-ch10.pdf, and "A Blueprint for Effective Financial Reform." 2016. In George P. Shultz, ed, Blueprint for America Hoover Institution Press, p. 71 - 84. http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/john.cochrane/research/papers/george_shultz_blueprint_for_america_ch7.pdf ↩

15. See Casey Mulligan The Redistributon Recession, Oxford University Press 2012. ↩

16. See "Here's what genuine tax reform looks like." Wall Street Journal, December 23 2015. http://www.wsj.com/articles/heres-what-genuine-tax-reform-looks-like-1450828827 ↩

17. https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Analytical_Perspectives Table 14; http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/briefing-book/what-tax-expenditure-budget ↩

18. https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/W019RCQ027SBEA ↩

19. See "The Clinton Plan's Growth Deficit." Wall Street Journal, August 12 2016. http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-clinton-plans-growth-deficit-1470957720. Also, for an excellent and well documented review of these issues, see Edward L. Glaeser, 2016, "If you Build it..." City Journal, Summer 2016, http://www.city-journal.org/html/if-you-build-it-14606.html ↩

20. For more details see: A New Structure For U. S. Federal Debt." 2015. In David Wessel, Ed., The $13 Trillion Question: Managing the U.S. Government's Debt, pp. 91-146. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press. https://www.brookings.edu/book/the-13-trillion-question/ and http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/john.cochrane/research/papers/Cochrane_US_Federal_Debt.pdf. For a clear analysis of the problem, that recommends the opposite action --shortening the maturity structure to take advantage of low rates --see Robin Greenwood, Samuel G. Hanson, Joshua S. Rudolph, and Lawrence H. Summers, "The Optimal Maturity of Government Debt" and "Debt Management Conflicts between the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve," also in David Wessel, Ed., The $13 Trillion Question: Managing the U.S. Government's Debt.↩

30 Jul 2020

Carbon compromise? - Barokong

In a remarkable and clear oped "A Conservative Answer to Climate Change" James Baker and George Shultz lay out the case for a carbon tax in place of the complex, cronyist and ineffective regulatory approach to controlling carbon emissions.

A plea to commenters. Don't fall in to the trap of arguing whether climate change is real or whether carbon (and methane) contribute to it. That's 5% of the debate. The real debate is how much economic damage does climate change actually do. Science might tell us that the temperature will warm 2 degrees in a century, with a band of uncertainty. But the band of uncertainty of the economic, social and political consequences of 2 degrees is much bigger. Moreover, the band of relative uncertainty is bigger still. Does "science," as the IPCC claims, really tell us that climate change is the greatest danger facing us -- above nuclear war, pandemic, state failure, and so on?

And most of all, given that our governments are going to do something about climate change, how can we do something much more efficient, and (plea to environmentalists) much more effective? That's the question worth debating.

Both sides have fallen in to the trap of arguing about climate change itself, as if it follows inexorably that our governments must respond to "yes" with the current system of controls and interventions. The range of economic and environmental effects from the "how" question are much, much larger than the range of the effects of the "is climate change real" question.

So, Baker and Shultz lay out in gorgeous clarity the kind of compromise we all hope our governments can still occasionally achieve: Given that we're going to do something, trade a carbon tax for the removal of intrusive regulation. You get more economy and less carbon.

The oped refers to a report from the Climate Leadership Council, which is here and worth reading. TheNiskanen Center has also been championing the case, and reaching out to environmental groups.

There is a natural bargain, if our political system can get around its current habit of take-no-prisoners maximalism.

Environmental groups that really care about carbon are starting to realize that the current system produces symbolism at great cost but will never produce the kind of carbon reductions they think are necessary. High speed trains and electric coal-powered cars may make you feel good, but they don't make a dent in carbon. They are also realizing that climate is swallowing up the world's attention for other pressing environmental problems. Endangered species need habitat, now, not 2 degrees cooler in a century. People are dying of dirty water and particulate pollution now. Yes, they'd prefer carbon tax and controls, since they don't trust the tax incentive alone. But given the choice, I've met serious environmentalists who would take the deal.

Alas, the sad fate of the Washington (state)  carbon tax is not encouraging. Maximalism won. Some large environmental organizations are going to have to realize, in the current era, this is their best deal. Perhaps staring in the face that waiting for a progressive uprising that takes back house, senate, presidency, state legislators, governors, and turns back to tide of global nationalist populism, allowing regulations of the scale that actually would cut back carbon --without using nuclear power -- will induce a little deal-making will. It also feels good to be part of the "resistance," but the climate keeps warming while you feel good.

Those on the other side, horrified at the waste, cronyism, and economic damage of our current controls would prefer nothing, and hence keep arguing about the science. But a straightforward carbon tax would be immensely less distorting than what they will get otherwise. This one will not go away. Removing energy regulation, even with Rick Perry in charge of DOE, will be a miserable mess against an entrenched and very politically effective opposition. If you can get them to accept the deal, it will go much more easily than trying to shove no carbon regulation down their throats.

Of course, the major problem in any deal is trust. The environmental side may not trust that carbon taxes will be high enough to abandon command and control. And the market side certainly does not trust that controls will be removed, or not reimposed -- especially given the large amount of money that green subsidy-seekers can get from them.

Minor quibbles: The oped and council report refer to steadily increasing carbon taxes. Ideally, in my view, a big advantage of the carbon tax is that it is easily adjustable -- much more adjustable than direct controls. Implement a carbon tax at say $40 a ton. Keep fighting about the science, and the level of the carbon tax. There is uncertainty about the science, face it. Once in place it's easier to raise if we learn carbon is a bigger problem than thought, and vice versa.

Also, I think it will be much easier to agree on the principle of a carbon tax if each side knows it can keep fighting about the rate than if they have to agree on the principal of carbon tax + deregulation and the rate, and the schedule of future rates. (Generally, I think things would go much better to debate the structure of the tax code separately from the rates.)

Not mentioned, of course, is that it is vital for a tax like this that the law forbid any of the special credits and deductions that people will instantly start asking for. "Family farmers can't pay the carbon tax on their diesel fuel....; low income americans need a break so they can drive to work...." The incentive to make every single tax redistributive is strong.

Second, what to do with the money? Greg Mankiw has, on other occasions, argued that the carbon tax revenue should offset other, more distorting taxes. It is a double-whammy -- most taxes, in order to raise revenue, reduce some desirable economic activity. A carbon tax, to raise revenue, reduces an undesirable economic activity. As a matter of economics, Greg is exactly right.

The Oped and council propose instead that the tax is rebated to Americans, so the tax is revenue-neutral. That is, I think, politically attractive. A $2,000 check to each taxpayer is a nice way to build a political consensus for keeping the carbon tax, much as using the tariff to fund civil war pensions kept a strong pro-tariff constituency in the late 1800s. In a previous post, I suggested carbon rights instead: Each American owns the rights to emit X tons of carbon, which he or she sells on an electronic marketplace. Or throws away, if they want to do their bit. That too gives people a stake in keeping the system going.

But we should be clear when as economists we are treading into political waters. Giving up on a optimal tax in order to produce political support for a project is the kind of tradeoff that we're not as good at as we are at figuring out optimal taxes in the first place, and figuring out compromises between current political groupings is really not our strong point. Perhaps it would be better to outline the possibilities -- rebate if you think it's politically necessary, use to eliminate other distorting taxes if you can -- and let politicians figure that one out.

Quibbles over.

I must add that Shultz is an inspiration. I hope that at 96 I can write opeds half this good. Heck, I wish I could do it now!

Update: A Conservative Case for Climate Action by Martin Feldstein, Ted Halstead, and N. Gregory Mankiw in the New York Times, describing the same plan, also excellent.

22 Jul 2020

Douthat and Feldstein on Euro - Barokong

In case you missed it, this Sunday featured a creditable effort by the NY Times to look out of the groundhog hole. You have likely followed the explosion resulting fromBret Stephens' first column. Likewise,Ross Douthat tried to explain the attraction of Marine LePen.  I'm not a LePen fan, but appreciated his honest effort to explain how the other side say things.

I was interested in Douthat's views on the euro:

But on the other hand, our era’s “enlightened” governance has produced an out-of-touch eurozone elite lashed to a destructive common currency,..
There is no American equivalent to the epic disaster of the euro, a form of German imperialism with the struggling parts of Europe as its subjects...
And while many of her economic prescriptions are half-baked, her overarching critique of the euro is correct: Her country and her continent would be better off without it.
Douthat does not pretend to be an economist, and I have no beef with his expressing such views. Because such views are commonplace conventional wisdom from our policy elite. And if the euro falls apart, they will bear a lot of blame for its passing. Be careful what you write, people might be listening.  No, when Germany sends Porsches to Greece in return for worthless pieces of paper, it is not Germany who got the better of the deal. And while you're at it, get rid of that silly common meter, and restore proper nationalism of weights and measures too. (Of course perhaps my admiration for the euro is wrong. Then they will deserve credit for the wave of prosperity that flows over Europe once it unleashes the shackles of the common currency dragging it down. )

As a concrete example, consider  Martin Feldstein writing in the Il Sole series on the Euro, (I don't mean to pick on Feldstein. He has been a consistent anti-euro voice, arguing the great benefits for Italy and Greece of periodic inflation and devaluation. But he is just a good sober example of the common view in Cambridge-centered economic policy circles.)

Topic sentences:

Although Italy was an enthusiastic adopter of the euro when the single currency began, the Italian experience of the past decade suggests that was a mistake.
...it seems plausible that Italy’s economy would be in better condition today if Italy, like Britain, had decided to keep its own currency and therefore to be able to manage its own monetary policy and its own exchange rate.

Advocates of adopting the euro argued at the time that members of the Eurozone would be forced by market pressures to converge to a high common level of productivity and a corresponding level of real wages. That never happened. Instead, Germany powered ahead with rising productivity that has resulted in real per capita income 30% higher than Italy’s, an unemployment rate that is less than half Italy's and a trade surplus that is 8 % of its GDP.
Huh? It is a new proposition in monetary economics to me that adopting a common currency forces countries to move to common productivity, any more than adopting the meter forces countries to do so.  Alabama and California share a currency and not productivity. Fresno and Palo Alto share a currency and not productivity.   A common market in products with free movement of capital and labor might force out economic, legal, and regulatory inefficiency, but that would happen regardless of the units of measurement.

The most basic proposition in monetary economics: The choice of monetary unit has no effect on long-run productivity or any other aspect of the long-run real economy. Using the euro vs. the lira has no effect on long-run productivity, any more than using the meter forces Italian tailors to cut Norwegian-sized suits, or that using the Kilo forces Italian restaurants to serve bratwurst and beer rather than pizza and wine.

The countries that adopted the euro never satisfied the three conditions for a successful currency union: labor mobility, flexibility of real wages, and a common fiscal policy that transfers funds to areas that experience temporary increases in unemployment.
This is another repeated truism. In my view the main condition for a currency union was present in the euro and the problem was forgetting about it when the time came. In a currency union without fiscal union, bankrupt governments default just like bankrupt companies. Neither labor mobility (which exists in Europe), flexibility of real wages (doubtful in the US) or common fiscal policy (also limited in the US) are necessary. Europe lived under a common currency -- the gold standard -- for hundreds of years. Sovereigns defaulted.

I suspect Feldstein means by "common currency" far more than I do. I mean, we agree to use a common currency. I suspect Feldstein means far more than that, including that no government debt may ever default and that the ECB must print money to ensure that fact. Like all disagreements perhaps this one simply reflects a difference in meaning of the words. If so, it would be good to say so. Objections to "the euro" are not objections to a common currency per se, but objections to the rest of the legal, regulatory, banking, fiscal, and policy framework that accompanies the euro.

To be fair, there is also a different underlying world view here. In Feldstein's world, national governments and central banks can be relied on to diagnose "shocks," and artfully devalue currencies just enough to "offset shocks" when and only when needed; in the european case likely imposing "capital controls" as well, but to do this rarely enough that investors will still buy government bonds, invest in their countries, and avoid the slide to banana republic inflation, repression, and trade and investment closure. In my world, as I think in the real world of Italy and Greece before the euro, national currencies are not such a happy tool of benevolent dirigisme. The commitment not to devalue, inflate, and grab capital after the fact is good for growth and investment before the fact. A government sober enough to use Feldstein's tools wisely is also sober enough to borrow wisely when offered low rates. A government not sober enough to borrow wisely when offered low rates is not sober enough to artfully devalue, inflate, grab capital "just this once" in response to shocks.

12 Jul 2020

On Climate Change - Barokong

David Henderson and I wade in to perilous waters in the July 31 Wall Street Journal. We try to stake out a different and more productive conversation than the usual shouting match between alarmists and deniers.

Climate change is often misunderstood as a package deal: If global warming is “real,” both sides of the debate seem to assume, the climate lobby’s policy agenda follows inexorably.
It does not. Climate policy advocates need to do a much better job of quantitatively analyzing economic costs and the actual, rather than symbolic, benefits of their policies. Skeptics would also do well to focus more attention on economic and policy analysis.
As usual, I have to wait 30 days to post the whole thing.

As economists, we both have a healthy skepticism of large computer based forecasting models. The famous 1972 club of Rome forecast that we would run out of resources, and the grand failure of large scale Keynesian models in the late 1970s are two humbling examples. The "climate" models also feature a lot of questionable economics. A crucial question -- how much carbon will the world's economies add on their own, without Paris-accord policies? That's economics, very questionable economics, and not meteorology.

That said, however, the point of the oped is to try to shift the debate away from climate science and mixed climate-economic computer models. Stop arguing about climate, and let us instead investigate costs and benefits of policies. That strikes us as a much more fruitful place for discussion. If you are wary of the climate policy agenda, the costs and benefits of those policies are more fertile ground for discussion than the science of carbon emissions and atmospheric warming. If you only argue about the climate, then you implicitly admit that if the models are right about climate, the whole policy agenda follows. Do not admit that point. They may be right about climate and wrong about policy.

In California, it is seriously suggested that the way to get more water is to build a high speed train, which will save carbon, which will cool the earth, which will... actually, it goes the other way, but never mind. To address an argument like that, you should not get dragged in to whether human-released carbon warms the planet. A simple dollars per ton and tons per inch of water would do.

If it is not clear enough, nothing in this piece takes a stand on climate science, either affirming or denying current climate forecasts. I will be interested to see how quickly we are painted as unscientific climate-deniers. Shifting a politicized debate is hard. That is, if anyone pays any attention.

A few other choice bits:

Global warming is not the only risk our society faces. Even if science tells us that climate change is real and man-made, it does not tell us, as President Obama asserted, that climate change is the greatest threat to humanity. Really? Greater than nuclear explosions, a world war, global pandemics, crop failures and civil chaos?
No. Healthy societies do not fall apart over slow, widely predicted, relatively small economic adjustments of the sort painted by climate analysis. Societies do fall apart from war, disease or chaos. Climate policy must compete with other long-term threats for always-scarce resources.
As something of a conservative libertarian, I do worry about the end of western civilization and our society falling apart. And I worry about the natural environment as part of that. Still, slow warming in the next two centuries, and a sea level rise (much smaller than the one that happened a mere 10,000 years ago), while a worry, is not obviously the top worry.

Global warming is not even the obvious top environmental threat. Dirty water, dirty air and insect-borne diseases are a far greater problem today for most people world-wide. Habitat loss and human predation are a far greater problem for most animals. Elephants won’t make it to see a warmer climate. Ask them how they would prefer to spend $1 trillion—subsidizing high-speed trains or a human-free park the size of Montana
I'm also something of an environmentalist, with a soft spot for people living in terrible conditions and for the awful permanence of species extinction. Starting with wooly mammoths.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “scientific” recommendations, for example, include “reduced gender inequality & marginalization in other forms,” “provisioning of adequate housing,” “cash transfers” and “awareness raising & integrating into education.” Even if some of these are worthy goals, they are not scientifically valid, cost-benefit-tested policies to cool the planet.
When I read the IPCC report, starting on p. 26, I had to check that I was not unintentionally reading The Onion. We cut for space. A longer list (from that p. 26) of the IPCC's policy ideas

Reduced gender inequality & marginalization in other forms…. Improved access to & control of local resources; Manipulation of disturbance regimes; Community-based natural resource management…. Provisioning of adequate housing,… Micro finance; Disaster contingency funds; Cash transfers; Public-private partnerships…Patent pools & technology transfer…: Awareness raising & integrating into education; Gender equity in education; Extension services; Sharing indigenous, traditional & local knowledge; Participatory action research & social learning; Knowledge-sharing & learning platforms… behavioural shifts, or institutional & managerial changes that produce substantial shifts in outcomes. (under”practical” subheading) Individual & collective assumptions, beliefs, values & worldviews influencing climate-change responses.
Again, you do not have to get deep into cloud modeling and ice melt feedback loops to wonder if all of this list necessarily follows. And, for the record, I have no qualm with lots of this list. Gender equality and equity in education? Improved access to resources? Who can object? But this is supposed to be about effective policies to cool the planet, not a grab bag of things that would be nice. (I do have qualms with a lot of the list, of course. It's a rather Orwellian and statist vision. "Public-private partnerships" characterizes much of contemporary Russia.)

I like our last paragraph.

Climate policy advocates’ apocalyptic vision demands serious analysis, and mushy thinking undermines their case. If carbon emissions pose the greatest threat to humanity, it follows that the costs of nuclear power—waste disposal and the occasional meltdown—might be bearable. It follows that the costs of genetically modified foods and modern pesticides, which can feed us with less land and lower carbon emissions, might be bearable. It follows that if the future of civilization is really at stake, adaptation or geo-engineering should not be unmentionable. And it follows that symbolic, ineffective, political grab-bag policies should be intolerable.
For the record, I favor a uniform carbon tax in place of all the other direct energy regulations and subsidies. (A neighbor just showed me his electric car, purchased in addition to a regular car, for one reason only: you can ride it solo  in the HOV lane, a right worth thousands in California.) The rate on such a tax can be raised or lowered as politics and science see fit. If we're going to do something, and if the health of the economy is a prime consideration, then we must do something economically efficient. (David disagrees, but he can explain his views in his own blog.) As I favor a uniform VAT in place of the idiotically complex income and corporate tax system. I recognize the essential failure of our political system to enact simple transparent reforms, but that's a question for another day.

I do think there is hope however. A while ago I went to a meeting organized by the Niskanen Center bringing together free-market and libertarian types with some large environmental organizations. The environmentalists were concerned about climate change, understand that feel-good policies (like the subsidy for my neighbor's car) aren't going to slow down climate change, and will suck resources away from policies that could. The free marketers were largely a bit skeptical about just how much of a threat climate change is, but appalled at the inefficiency of IPCC style regulations. There is a deal to be had -- we'll do something efficient and effective (say, a carbon tax) in return for eliminating the junk.  We can agree to disagree about the level of that tax. My sense is that environmental groups are not ready to say this in public, for fear of angering allies who want to use the environmental label for a grab bag of policies (see IPCC list!), and the libertarians and free market types don't trust the "get rid of" rather than "in addition to" everything else part of the bargain. But there is a bargain to be made, and strong political leadership could bring it about.

(By the way, we didn't choose the figure caption. We know that Rotterdam is not prone to floods. Much of it is below sea level, and Miami is 9 feet above sea level.)

Update: Ian Martin and Bob Pindyk have a classy AER paper on the subject of "insurance" and multiple potential catastrophes. They go beyond our point -- if you buy overpriced insurance for each catastrophe you exhaust GDP quickly -- and consider the general equilibrium interactions. Catastrophes affect marginal utility a lot, so when you insure against one you change the state-contingent valuations of another. Evaluating policies in isolation is doubly bad.

11 Jul 2020

On climate change 2 - Barokong

Now that 30 days have passed I can post the full Wall Street Journal climate change oped with David Henderson. The previous post has more commentary. A pdf is here.

By David R. Henderson and  John H. Cochrane

July 30, 2017 4:24 p.m. ET

Climate change is often misunderstood as a package deal: If global warming is “real,” both sides of the debate seem to assume, the climate lobby’s policy agenda follows inexorably.

It does not. Climate policy advocates need to do a much better job of quantitatively analyzing economic costs and the actual, rather than symbolic, benefits of their policies. Skeptics would also do well to focus more attention on economic and policy analysis.

To arrive at a wise policy response, we first need to consider how much economic damage climate change will do. Current models struggle to come up with economic costs commensurate with apocalyptic political rhetoric. Typical costs are well below 10% of gross domestic product in the year 2100 and beyond.

That’s a lot of money—but it’s a lot of years, too. Even 10% less GDP in 100 years corresponds to 0.1 percentage point less annual GDP growth. Climate change therefore does not justify policies that cost more than 0.1 percentage point of growth. If the goal is 10% more GDP in 100 years, pro-growth tax, regulatory and entitlement reforms would be far more effective.

Yes, the costs are not evenly spread. Some places will do better and some will do worse. The American South might be a worse place to grow wheat; Southern Canada might be a better one. In a century, Miami might find itself in approximately the same situation as the Dutch city of Rotterdam today.

But spread over a century, the costs of moving and adapting are not as imposing as they seem. Rotterdam’s dikes are expensive, but not prohibitively so. Most buildings are rebuilt about every 50 years. If we simply stopped building in flood-prone areas and started building on higher ground, even the costs of moving cities would be bearable. Migration is costly. But much of the world’s population moved from farms to cities in the 20th century. Allowing people to move to better climates in the 21st will be equally possible. Such investments in climate adaptation are small compared with the investments we will regularly make in houses, businesses, infrastructure and education.

And economics is the central question—unlike with other environmental problems such as chemical pollution. Carbon dioxide hurts nobody’s health. It’s good for plants. Climate change need not endanger anyone. If it did—and you do hear such claims—then living in hot Arizona rather than cool Maine, or living with Louisiana’s frequent floods, would be considered a health catastrophe today.

Global warming is not the only risk our society faces. Even if science tells us that climate change is real and man-made, it does not tell us, as President Obama asserted, that climate change is the greatest threat to humanity. Really? Greater than nuclear explosions, a world war, global pandemics, crop failures and civil chaos?

No. Healthy societies do not fall apart over slow, widely predicted, relatively small economic adjustments of the sort painted by climate analysis. Societies do fall apart from war, disease or chaos. Climate policy must compete with other long-term threats for always-scarce resources.

Facing this reality, some advocate that we buy some “insurance.” Sure, they argue, the projected economic cost seems small, but it could turn out to be a lot worse. But the same argument applies to any possible risk. If you buy overpriced insurance against every potential danger, you soon run out of money. You can sensibly insure only when the premium is in line with the risk—which brings us back where we started, to the need for quantifying probabilities, costs, benefits and alternatives. And uncertainty goes both ways. Nobody forecast fracking, or that it would make the U.S. the world’s carbon-reduction leader. Strategic waiting is a rational response to a slow-moving uncertain peril with fast-changing technology.

Global warming is not even the obvious top environmental threat. Dirty water, dirty air and insect-borne diseases are a far greater problem today for most people world-wide. Habitat loss and human predation are a far greater problem for most animals. Elephants won’t make it to see a warmer climate. Ask them how they would prefer to spend $1 trillion—subsidizing high-speed trains or a human-free park the size of Montana.

Then, we need to know what effect proposed policies have and at what cost. Scientific, quantifiable or even vaguely plausible cause-and-effect thinking are missing from much advocacy for policies to reduce carbon emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “scientific” recommendations, for example, include “reduced gender inequality & marginalization in other forms,” “provisioning of adequate housing,” “cash transfers” and “awareness raising & integrating into education.” Even if some of these are worthy goals, they are not scientifically valid, cost-benefit-tested policies to cool the planet.

Climate policy advocates’ apocalyptic vision demands serious analysis, and mushy thinking undermines their case. If carbon emissions pose the greatest threat to humanity, it follows that the costs of nuclear power—waste disposal and the occasional meltdown—might be bearable. It follows that the costs of genetically modified foods and modern pesticides, which can feed us with less land and lower carbon emissions, might be bearable. It follows that if the future of civilization is really at stake, adaptation or geo-engineering should not be unmentionable. And it follows that symbolic, ineffective, political grab-bag policies should be intolerable.


A good recent summary of the calculations of economic damage of climate change in an NBER working paper:

2.  A Survey of Global Impacts of Climate Change: Replication,

Survey Methods, and a Statistical Analysis

by William D. Nordhaus, Andrew Moffat  -  #23646 (EEE PE)


....the estimated impact is-2.04 (± 2.21) % of income at 3 °C warming and -8.06 (± 2.43) % of income at 6 °C warming.  We also considered the likelihood of thresholds or sharp convexities in the damage function and found no evidence from the damage estimates of a sharp discontinuity or high convexity.


28 Jun 2020

Economists' letter on carbon - Barokong

The "Economists’ Statement on Carbon Dividends" in the Wall Street Journal this week is a remarkable document. It's short, sweet, and signed by, as far as I can tell, every living CEA chair, every living Fed Chair, both Democrat and Republican, and most of the living Nobel Prize winners. (Thanks to a commenter who corrected an earlier count.)

It offers four principles 1. A carbon tax, initially $40 per ton. 2. The carbon tax substitutes for regulations and subsidies and (my words) the vast crony-capitalist green boondoggle swamp, which is chewing up money and not saving carbon. 3. Border adjustment like VAT have 4. "All the revenue should be returned directly to U.S. citizens through equal lump-sum rebates."

That the carbon tax is better than regulations and subsidies in choosing technology gets a lot of press. Yes, should we have rooftop solar cells or utility cells in the desert? Is it better to have battery powered cars or high speed trains? Do we really have to have washing machines that no longer actually clean clothes? And the only way to actually save lots of carbon -- nuclear -- has a much better chance under a carbon tax than hoping our political system will allow it.

But most people forget what economists know best -- that a carbon tax is the only way to change behavior. The answer to energy savings isn't as much new technology as in old behaviors. Turn the lights off. Take fewer trips. Turn the heat down. Move nearer your work. Carpool. Without a carbon tax there is no way for the average bleeding heart Palo Alto climate worrier to realize that one trip to Europe is like driving a car for 10,000 miles. (Planes get about 80 passenger miles per gallon -- but it's a lot of miles to Europe.) Twenty years ago, my then 8 year old daughter, reading about fuel economy standards, piped up "if they make cars more fuel efficient, it will be cheaper to drive. Won't people just move further away?" Indeed.

I try to sell a carbon tax deal to friends who are climate skeptics. Well, our government is going to do something. Given that fact, the carbon tax will cause much less damage than ever increasing regulations and subsidies. And I try to sell it to carbon warrior friends too. The tax instead of the regulations and subsidies, in our political system, is going to save you a lot more carbon.

The last proposal is, I think, the most contentious. Optimal taxation theory, as several of the signatories pointed out in other contexts, says that the carbon tax should go to reduce other distorting taxes. This will create more economic growth. AsHolman Jenkins  put it,

A tax reform that included a carbon tax to replace taxes that depress work, saving and investment would be an incentive to do everything in a less carbon-intensive way, bringing forth new technologies
Here the authors step back from benevolent-planner optimums and think politically. Well, we live in a political system.

But there is a bright side. One big point of the dividend is to guarantee that revenues willnot go to financing ever larger green boondoggles like the California high-speed train to nowhere, or to subsidize a Tesla in every VCs driveway. Carbon dividend means no "green new deal." The view that the tax system is what it is, and a major new source of revenue will not go to reducing marginal tax rates in a growth-oriented reform sounds quite realistic to me. If our Congress were interested in growth-oriented tax system it would already look a lot different than it is today.

A flat dividend is also immensely progressive. It is, effectively a universal basic income. And casual observation on ownership of large houses and jet travel suggests wealth people spew a lot more carbon than poor ones. I guess that is an effort to get Democrats to give up some of their cherished regulations and subsidies to get these long sought goals. (Like any UBI, it's going to make immigration a tougher issue, but we won't go there today.)

Tyler Cowen disagrees with the dividend.

"It strikes me as economists thinking they know what makes good politics, something which economists are rarely good at."
Well, he has a point, and I also think economists should emphasize more when they have expertise and when they don't. On the other hand, I don't see anybody else having much better idea what makes good politics these days, and the list of "economists" that created and signed the letter, starting with George Shultz, have immense political experience.

The dividend may not be the economically most efficient thing to do, but it will guarantee a lifetime of political support for the carbon tax! Hamilton figured this out with the assumption of national debt.

It has taken me some time to come around, as attached as I am to reducing marginal tax rates, but the political advantage that out keeps the money from being spent on boondoggles, and creates a constituency in favor of the tax and against spending the results on boondoggles, is strong.

I also worry about the wide range of environmental issues that have been forgotten in the Great Carbon War. Butterflies and Frogs are disappearing. The pacific garbage patch grows. Rhinos and Elephants will be gone long before climate bothers them. Take your pick, if we passed the carbon tax, and if this issue could disappear as one of the issues uniting partisanship and sweeping up the entire environmental movement, it would be a lot better for life on the planet.  Once upon a time, there were Republicans in the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Greenpeace, and other formerly non-partisan organizations. Put carbon behind us, and it could be so again.

"Big Names Bake a Climate Pie in the Sky"complained Holman Jenkins. His complaint, largely, is that the deal won't be kept -- we'll get the taxand regulations, and the dividend promise will disappear into the bowels of Washington.

Besides, since we face a “climate emergency,” wouldn’t the money be better spent on speeding up deployment of wind and solar? As for existing mandates and subsidies, sure, we might expend additional political energy to repeal these. And pigs might fly.
This is an important point. As reducing marginal rates and removing deductions sounds nice, our tax reforms (especially the last) reduce marginal rates but don't remove deductions. The VAT with no income tax is a much better system, but many free market economists don't favor it because they don't trust the deal. Trusting the deal, carbon tax in return for no regulations, is a stretch.

However, I can hope that a deal could be struck, carbon tax in return for nonewregulations and subsidies, or subsidy extensions -- no "Green New Deal."  If we give up that deals can ever be struck and kept, we might as well give up on democracy.

Of course, in the 5th week of a shutdown, over a completely symbolic issue, with great deals on the table that benefit both sides, if only each could let the other have a symbolic victory, is not a great time to advance such hope. But even here, once you realize the shutdown has nothing to do with immigration, you see hope. This is a battle to the end over the Trump presidency. If he backs down, his presidency is finished. The Democrats think they can achieve that, and if they back down their left wing takes over. There is no way out of that one -- and reason to hope that when Washington is bargaining over actual policy and not over a symbolic but life-and-death battle, that they can do it.

Carbon tax update - Barokong

An interesting question emerged from some discussion surrounding my last carbon tax post. How big will the tax be? The letter says $40 a ton, but then rising. But how far? And in response to what question?

It occurs to me that the two obvious targets lead to radically different answers.

1) The social cost of carbon. This is what economists usually think of as the appropriate Pigouvian tax. In order to pollute, you pay the cost you impose on others by your pollution.

Even the worst-case scenarios now put the cost of carbon emissions at 10% of GDP in the year 2100. Discount that back, divide by all the carbon emitted between now and then, and, you're going to get a pretty small tax.

2) Temperature or quantitative guidelines. Or, "whatever it takes to stop the global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees C." Such a tax has to be high enough to basically stop us  from using fossil fuels. It would be radically higher, and impose economic costs far higher than 10% of GDP.

When you set a goal of a quantity with no attached price, the price can get pretty high.

I see now some of the back and forth chatter. Anti-carbon types warn that any tax "won't be enough." Now I know what they mean.

So who sets the tax, and on what basis, are important issues we're all fudging over.

Of course, a cynic would take the view that the tax will be set to

3) Maximize government revenue.

Given the behavioral elasticities, that is likely to be a good deal less than #2, as to high a tax will quickly erode the tax base.

PS: to my may CO2-is-not-a-problem commenters. If (or perhaps when) it's all proved to be a hoax, a carbon tax is a lot easier to undo than the alternative regulatory approach!

27 Jun 2020

EPA, the nature of regulation, and democracy - Barokong

My Hoover colleague Richard Epstein posted a revealing essay on the nature of environmental regulation last week, with environmental regulation as a particular example. The contrast with "Environmental Laws Under Siege: Here is why we have them" in New York Times and the New Yorker'sScott Pruitt's Dirty Politics is instructive

Epstein's point is not about the raw amount of or even what's in the regulation, but the procedure by which regulation is imposed:

As drafted, NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 ] contains no provision that allows private parties to challenge agency decisions in court. Instead, the NEPA approval process is a matter for internal agency consultation and deliberation that takes into account comments submitted by any interested parties.
One year after its passage, NEPA was turned upside down in a key decision by Judge J. Skelly Wright of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals... Wright read the law as giving private parties the right to challenge government actions. Indeed, Wright welcomed such challenges, writing (admiringly) that the change, “promises to become a flood of new litigation—litigation seeking judicial assistance in protecting our natural environment.”
Giving private parties the right to challenge an agency decision grants enormous leverage to the private parties most opposed to letting projects go forward. In the case of nuclear power, delay became the order of the day, as the D.C. Circuit on which Judge Wright sat arrogated to itself the power to find that any EA or EIS was insufficient in some way, so that the entire project was held up until a new and exhaustively updated EIS was prepared—which could then be duly challenged yet again in court.

Epstein offers another case:

... the approval process for the construction of the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), and its offshoot, the 163-mile Bayou Bridge Pipeline, ...Both pipelines are capable of transporting close to 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day by incorporating state-of-the-art technologies that make them far safer than the alternative means used for shipping crude oil long distances: the railroads and trucks that create logistical nightmares and are capable of causing catastrophic spills, and the older pipelines that are still in service....In case you missed it, the pipelines have large net environmental benefits. Pipelines are better than trucks.

Nonetheless, the completion of DAPL has been delayed by fierce objections from both Native American groups and environmental groups. Under NEPA, they have legal standing to object to any proposed project by pointing to improbable risks while ignoring the undisputed gains in safety and efficiency that these pipelines promise. ...
...The sustained objection to the pipelines is driven not by any concern for safety, but by an overarching effort to use the NEPA process to stop the production, distribution, and use of fossil fuels.If you want a left of center example, environmental suits have been used to slow down the still nonexistent California high speed train.

Epstein offers procedural remedies, not ram-my-view-down-their-throats

NEPA thus needs to be cut down to size. For starters, courts should reject Calvert Cliffs. Today’s courts must be much more sensitive to the necessary trade-offs before overturning the detailed factual findings that government agencies make on technical matters in approving projects. In addition, courts should be reluctant to stop projects because of some gap in an EA or EIS.... And third, they must explicitly take into account the major environmental, economic, and political gains that the project has to offer, such as the removal of more dangerous modes of transportation in the case of the pipelines.This reflects my larger view in an earlier essay on regulation. The issue is not a simple "more vs less" regulation, the issue is how regulation proceeds.

The New York Times offers an interesting contrast. In an article titled "Environmental Laws Under Siege: Here is why we have them" --- in the news section, not opinion -- reporters Livia Albeck-Ripka and Kendra Pierre-Louis remind us of some of the environmental disasters of the 1960s. For example, the Cuyahoga River really did burn, 13 times. They conclude

Waterways across the United States are markedly cleaner though half still fall short of national goals. Recent decisions, though, could lead to backsliding.
The E.P.A. has suspended the Obama-era Waters of the United States rules, which sought to clarify which waters are considered part of the national water system...Air and water is a lot cleaner than in the 1970s, a huge and praiseworthy accomplishment of environmental law and regulation. But that does not mean every current action of the EPA is "progress," and any criticism is "Backsliding."

All the Times offers a reader is a simple morality play of "progress" vs. evil forces of reaction. If you have doubts about the Waters of the United States rules, which basically put every mud-puddle under federal control, then you must be part of a cabal who wants to "backslide" us all the way to rivers that burn. And likely bought off by nefarious corporate interests.

Not even the article title is right. The Waters of the United States is a rule, not a law. The law gave the EPA authority over "navigable waters." The EPA decided to interpret that rather broadly to put it mildly. Your kitchen sink is connected to navigable waters too. And your kitchen sink is not unregulated. States forbid you to throw motor oil down the kitchen sink, so the issue is federal preemption of state regulation -- which can cut both ways, forbidding states to impose higher standards. (Politico's coverage, the first that came up in a google search, was actually pretty good on covering both sides.)

Anyway, you can see there are subtle procedural issues here. Did the EPA exceed its legal authority over "navigable waters?" The house thought so and passed an over ride of the rule. Should, as politico mentioned, federal environmental impact review be triggered every time a farmer drains a mud puddle? Maybe. Should you be able to file environmental suits to stop your neighbors from construction projects you don't like, as Epstein bemoans?

These are the tough questions in a democracy, which you do not learn from the Times' simple morality tale.

In the New Yorker, ground zero of Trumpoplexy, Margret Talbot finished herlong attack on Scott Pruitt (yes, I read the New Yorker, and yes, I often actually finish articles) with

"One of the engineers said that it might take a while to “rebuild capacity” after Pruitt. But it would be done. The public, he reminded everyone, “is expecting us to protect the planet.” He said, “Pruitt is a temporary interloper. We are the real agency."My jaw dropped. No, I am not making this up. This is not fake news from some alt-Right website. Here's a screenshot.

Nor was it at all ironic. Ms. Talbot clearly meant this to reassure us that everything will be ok.

In case I have to pound you over the head with it, this is exactly the kind of bureaucratic obstructionism that those who bemoan the "deep state" point to.

This would not be so ironic if it were not so blatantly hypocritical. The New York Times and the New Yorker are also ground zero for authoritarian alarmism -- Trump is trampling democracy, checks and balances, he is the new Mussolini. Yet notice here who is for democracy and who is against it.

Democracy worries that unchecked power -- the power to write laws (regulations are laws), interpret them after the fact, impose large fines and jail sentences, hear appeals to such judgments, and to set standards on which citizens can sue each other and block each other's affairs -- must be constrained by judicial review, congressional review, and the ballot box. If those get it wrong at times, so be it. Democracy was never about superb technocratic competence (!) Democracy is a last ditch safeguard against little tyrants run amok. And large ones.

Democracy is not about what is the right answer and then ram it down their throats. Democracy is about the subtle question of who shall decide that answer and how.

If the New Yorker and New York Times were honest, they would write that in their view, the environment (along with about 50 other issues) is so important that democracy must be abolished. If deplorable yahoos vote in a president who clearly campaigned on a regulatory roll back, and then appoints agency heads who do exactly that, then the president's power -- the electorate's power -- to change the nature of regulation must be abolished. Likewise if the same deplorable yahoos vote in a Congress who passes a law countermanding the agencies action. Hooray for the agency that can obstruct these efforts and fight on! (It will be interesting to see their attitude when Trump appointees at, say, the CFPB, similarly resist President Elizabeth Warren's reforms.) The right of people to even express contrary views is dubious in the quest for "progress." Just who decides what news is "fake" will soon be up for grabs.

That would be honest, and a fair description of their position. Authoritarians have made similar arguments through the ages. China makes it today. Democracy is too messy, the wrong people can take power.

Let's just be clear who is making the authoritarian argument, and who the democratic one. And this predates Trump by decades.

Let us indeed celebrate the remarkable improvement in the environment in America. And let us hope that the anti-democratic forces among us do not succeed in their effort at such over-reach that the whole edifice loses its bipartisan credibility and comes tumbling down, or the nation screeches to a halt.

23 Jun 2020

Ip on carbon tax - Barokong

Over the weekend, Greg Ip at WSJ wrote a nice piece on the carbon tax.

Greg addresses some common objections.

This urge to stop at nothing to find an effective solution is understandable. How can you put a price tag on the future of the planet?
..Green New Deal backers make another powerful argument: Global emissions levels are still rising, and to reverse them, carbon prices would have to be so high they’d be politically toxic. Better, the activists argue, to simply go straight to a massive, government-directed transition.
This attitude is common. But there is no evading economics. Either you have visible economic damage (carbon tax) of $1,000 per ton or invisible economic damage of $10,000 per ton.  Prices are better than restrictions because you can see where you're wasting $10,000 per ton, which money could reduce 9 times as much carbon properly deployed.

There is also a political judgment here that people will not stand for a visible tax, but will stand politically, or perhaps be too stupid to notice, the much larger shadow price of direct controls. They won't pay $5 at the pump for gas, but will stand for banning cars. I don't think that's true. I don't think the left thinks it's true either. The way the Green New Deal and even the IPCC reports now bundle carbon reduction with a vast left-wing political agenda, and a rather Orwellian drive to silence criticism confirms it.

"Experience demonstrates that these methods work. In 2013, the U.K. levied a tax on carbon dioxide emitted in electricity generation. Within four years, British emissions dropped 20%, while the European Union’s fell by just 7%. Last year, coal accounted for only 6% of British electricity generation, down from 44% in 2012.
How did the British do it? Their carbon tax was just high enough to give natural gas and (to a lesser extent) wind and solar power an advantage over coal,
...To many Green New Deal advocates, this isn’t good enough. Replacing coal with natural gas only reduces carbon-dioxide emissions; it doesn’t eliminate them. This misses the point. The climate doesn’t care if we eliminate a ton of carbon dioxide by replacing coal with natural gas or solar power..
Green New Deal enthusiasts correctly note that simply reducing carbon emissions isn’t enough: To save the planet, renewable and nuclear energy will eventually have to replace most oil, natural gas and coal."
I think here too Greg misses that climate policy advocates have gone far beyond a technocratic idea of simply, well, reducing carbon. "And nuclear energy" is usually noticeably absent. Carbon capture technologies, equally good at reducing carbon are usually noticeably absent. Other agendas like "climate justice" creep in -- worthy or not, anything else that creeps in means less carbon reduction per dollar. A carbon tax reduces carbon any way that reduces carbon, which is really good at, well, reducing carbon, and not getting distracted with other agendas. That is a strong reason why carbon taxes, and especially such taxes in return for less regulation are resisted on the left.

A quibble

"So market purists should acknowledge that government subsidies and regulations have a place: They can create sufficient demand for low-carbon technology to achieve the manufacturing economies of scale necessary to compete with fossil fuels. In 2000, Germany began requiring utilities to dramatically boost their use of renewable electricity, which spurred so much investment in solar manufacturing that prices have fallen for everyone. It is now often competitive with coal and natural gas."
In the long history of subsidizing and regulating industries, the usual outcome has been gross inefficiency and the demand for more subsidies. Technology is global too. The decline in, say, solar panel prices is not caused by Germany's subsidies. It came from China. The US promptly put in tariffs against cheap Chinese solar panels, and regulatory barriers make solar installation outrageously expensive, even in green and sunny Palo Alto. The climate does not care where solar panels are produced, but US producers and unions do, and they are able to channel subsidies and regulations their way.  Carbon taxes deny politicians the opportunity of big ribbon cutting ceremonies.

Subsidies and regulations have an even longer history of backing the wrong horse -- switchgrass, bio fuels, and high speed trains, say. A hefty carbon tax has exactly the same incentive to innovate and lower prices for non-carbon alternatives. This market purist needs a lot more persuading. (I think Greg was fishing hard to find something nice to say, in order to sound balanced.)

"the opposition that has resisted carbon prices—rooted in short-term self-interest or skepticism about climate change—would likely sink the Green New Deal. No senator from West Virginia will vote to put coal miners out of work."
This is a great point that needs more attention. In any large-scale project, we need to form a coalition of people who agree, I give up my benefit if you agree to give up yours. A carbon tax forms such a coalition automatically -- it guarantees equal pain across carbon emitters, and equal benefit across low-carbon alternatives. Any regulatory or subsidy response is negotiated bit by bit. Regulations on coal, oil, fracking, and cars; subsidies to solar, wind, nuclear (ha!), capture, buses, and trains, each clamor separately. If you want to see the result of this approach, look at the tax code. It is much more effective to say "the limit on coal production from West Virginia needs to be expanded to save my constituent's jobs" than it is to say "the national carbon tax must be reduced to save my constituent's jobs," or even "we need an exemption to the carbon tax to save my constituent's jobs." The visibility of a price rather than controls is a political advantage too, in forming this coalition.

Greg also misses two huge points about carbon taxes. First, How do you know if, after accounting for carbon used to make the batteries and to make the electricity, a Tesla really is greener than a BMW? It's really hard to find out. But carbon taxes build all that into the final product and the cost itself is the guide. Prices are the signals in the economy (Hayek) -- and they are really the only signals that work.

Second, an observation from my daughter, then age 8: "Dad, if they make everyone drive high mileage cars, won't people just move further from work and drive more?" The most carbon-efficient car out there is a Chevy suburban, with all the seats filled, operated by someone who chooses to live a lot nearer to work. The same technology can use a lot of carbon or a little carbon. You can replace all the lights with LEDs, or just turn them off more religiously.   Behavioral responses by consumers, and careful process responses by companies are the thousand points of light in carbon reduction, and they cannot possibly be achieved by regulation.

Also, Greg ends

"Whether greenhouse-gas emissions are slashed via a Green New Deal, a carbon price or both is a secondary challenge. The main one is for political leaders to accept the problem of climate change and invest political capital to tackle it. Once they do, they will ask, “What’s the cheapest way to do this?” Markets will win, hands down."
I think this is flat out wrong. The main problem is not for "political leaders to accept the problem of climate change." We don't just need more crowds of young activists singing songs at protests.

The main obstacle to substituting carbon taxes for regulation right now comes from the left. The left has bundled climate change with a vast other agenda, of which the Green New Deal is a good but not the only example.  They certainly are not asking "what is the cheapest way to do this?"  The Green New Deal is not a minimalist, technocratic, policy package aimed narrowly at reducing carbon, marred only by command and control rather than market techniques. It is, and reflects the widespread movement for, a total overhaul of society, of government, and of political power, with green only a minor element. Opposition to carbon taxes is not just "deplorable" gillets jaunes too obtuse to understand greenhouse gases, or nefarious oil companies.  Resistance to climate policy is not pig-headed anti-scientism, needing only for "leaders" to "accept the problem." It flows from resistance to the rest of the now-bundled political agenda.

Climate policy was headed to this kind of bipartisan technocratic resolution in the 1990s before it became a tool of partisan warfare. The challenge, from both sides, is to remove the political baggage that climate policy has accumulated. And frankly, that challenge seems to me mostly to fall on climate policy advocates right now. Those genuinely concerned about climate have made allies with a far left wing. Resistance to that far left wing agenda now imperils necessarily bipartisan progress on climate policy. Hoping that this far left will quash its political opposition for the two generations needed to advance a climate agenda seems pretty hopeless. At least, being in the freedom-oriented political camp, I hope so.

To my climate-skeptic friends: Given that the government is going to regulate carbon, this is the way to do it with least damage. To my green-warrior friends, if the government is actually going to reduce carbon, not just subsidize cronies and engage in worthless value-signaling gestures, a trade of carbon taxes for absurdly costly regulations and subsidies is the only way to get anywhere.


Anies Baswedan