Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Another post on Revkin's blog

Sometimes, for sport and to keep my mind working at a level appropriately higher than that of some of the students I teach, or indeed the bad TV I watch when I'm too exhausted from teaching (only some of) the students I teach, I post on Andy Revkin's blog at the New York Times. It seems a shame to lose this writing, so I sometimes copy it here to my own blog where I can at least keep it "for posterity," if there is such a thing in the Google-sphere we all live in these days.

(Tom Paine had it so much easier. Sigh.)

This was in response to Andy's post on the current climate change bill and whether or not it would actually work well enough. Some well meaning criticism in this regard from policy folks at the EPA will have the effect of helping to scuttle the bill.

(On the efficacy of the current bill in the Senate, or why it doesn't matter so much that it probably won't work that well.)

This problem is of the same nature as the kind of large scale market-conditioning programs in Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, or FDR's depression era Ag bills.

It will take decades, and many many adjustments to meet the ultimate goal of reducing all climate emissions, including CO2 which is the primary focus of the current bill, to safe levels. We'll be tweaking these regulations for generations to come, and we'll need to have subsidiary programs in land use management, household and building energy efficiency, and since we are unlikely to be 100% successful, emergency management for floods and wind and such.

Likewise, the various Great Society welfare programs conditioned the labor market for decades and their various descendants still do. The results vary by state and manifest themselves in different ways, but the primary result is to set the break-even point at which a person must enter the workforce to improve their living standard. This is not an insignificant calculation, and has knock-on effects in crime and population, among others.

Likewise the federal form for financial aid, or FAFSA, which unites most of the Great Society and other educational programs, conditions the market for higher education, setting the hurdles which students must jump over, or crawl around somehow, to get the education that will make up for what seems from my jaundiced vantage point to be the routine failure of the high schools.

(Want to reduce the cost and time involved in college education? Pry the high-schoolers away from their cell phones and actually teach them algebra, or how to parse a sentence in English.)

And the regular round of Ag bills conditions and reconditions the market for commodities and farm aid of all different kinds.

The result in many cases are less than efficient in operation. There are large transactions costs which create a market for middlemen and arbitrage of all different kinds. Sometimes these are officially approved and fully socially acceptable, such as college student financial aid officers. We see the inverse in the recent ACORN scandal. In some cases the transactions costs create economies of scale, so for instance, major research universities have an easier time getting Ag Bill research grants than small private colleges. (He said somewhat sadly.)

Strict conservatives might like to do away with all of these systems and have a fully \"free market\" but are routinely defeated in this by their own favorite special interests who have some sacred cow to defend. 'Twas ever thus, I believe, in American society. I'm reading Brinkley on Roosevelt (TR) right now, and the history of the patronage-infested \"spoils\" system he fought, and Mancur Olsen (\"The Logic of Collective Action.\") came to speak to my graduate class in environmental governance.

So, although I'm much in favor of climate legislation and anyone of reasonable intelligence should be too, it would seem at least likely that if this continues to be a priority, which it will because nature is in charge of that timetable, not us, then we will make a start with a first climate bill and then add programs and amendments and probably in twenty or thirty year's time there will even be a climate reform movement, much as there was a welfare reform movement in the 1990s.

This sort of result is what you get when you have as many checks and balances as we do in American legislative life.

From this point of view, climate is like health care. It may not matter much where you start. If even one state solves the problem of un-insurance and under-insurance using tools made available by a national bill, then others will follow suit, albeit in their own way and own sweet time. Even one successful state-level co-op will serve. Opponents of government-run or-sponsored health care realize this, I believe and are out to scuttle even the foot in the tent door, thinking it more of a camel's nose. Although the metaphors are murdered, they are probably right.

So does it really matter that much where we start? We probably aren't going to do anything terribly serious until another city or two is destroyed in any case.

We just aren't that bright. But we will muddle through somehow.

Meanwhile, in case no-one noticed, the stimulus package is also a climate bill of sorts, as it has already shifted resources into weatherization, wind, and the like. Because although solar PV power may not be cost effective right now, good building design and insulation certainly is, and so, thanks to some subsidies already in place as well as some expert technical developments on the part of GE and Vestas, is wind power, and so is solar thermal hot water. Right now there is enough work for two or three of me just at my one small college.

Anyone who believes renewable energy and green building is not currently cost-effective is an idiot who doesn't know how to read a spreadsheet.

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