January 31, 2009

Adapting to Adaptation

Helmut, citing a recent report describing the persistence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (about 1,000 years, it seems), says it's time to get serious about adaptation to climate change:
Look, emissions credit trading is fine in my view as a stopgap measure, as are carbon taxes. But neither present a real answer to climate change, as I've been saying over the past few years (see here, and more here, here, here, and here). Much of the international negotiations over climate change are, however, based on the extent of trading regimes, taxes, etc. I'm not saying that this is not important. Mitigation is crucial, and these mitigation policy options are crucial, but a wise overall climate policy will view them as part of a larger basket of diverse policy efforts.
I'm more sanguine about the potential effectiveness of climate change mitigation than Helmut is, but I fully agree that more attention needs to be paid to adaptation policies. Already it's a point of contention in international climate change negotiations, as the question of how to dole out money to developing countries for adaptation purposes gets hashed out.

Part of the problem, I think, is that talking about adaptation involves questions of justice that have mostly vanished from the policy conversation, at least in this country. It's relatively easy to sell carbon regulation as a means of transitioning to a new, greener economy; that appeals to American ideals of progress, and has the potential to make some people very rich -- Tom Friedman, for example, embodies this line of argument. It's a bit harder to say that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, the source of so much prosperity, so that we don't leave our descendants a ruined climate; and harder still to say that we need to not only compensate the most vulnerable to climate disruptions in our own society, but also those in other countries, which would entail acknowledging that we in the Global North have inflicted -- and will continue to inflict -- massive harm upon those living in the Global South.

Now, all of those arguments are valid reasons to take action on both climate change mitigation and adaptation. But these days you mainly hear about the first argument (economic opportunity), a bit less about the second (intergenerational equity), and almost nothing about the third (justice for the world's poor). A lot of it has to do with what Matt Yglesias has aptly termed the solipsism of public discourse in the United States: The idea that we need to place some constraints on our own consumption so that places like Bangladesh and Chad don't become uninhabitable is, simply, beyond the pale. Likewise, providing compensation to Bangladeshis and Chadeans means admitting that we in the US have obligations to people outside our borders, something a disturbingly large number of our elites seem to have a hard time doing. Thanks to years of mau-mauing from conservatives, for example, ratifying treaties has become so difficult that even no-brainers like the Law of the Sea Convention have yet to be passed. Existing treaties fare little better: the ease with which the Geneva Convention's ban on torture was deemed "quaint" by the Bush administration -- and acceptance of torture made a mainstream position in our public discourse -- astonishes me to this day.

January 30, 2009

Everything's Better with Zombies

Via John Holbo, a, uh, interesting reinterpretation of the classics:
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen's beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton—and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she's soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead. Complete with 20 illustrations in the style of C. E. Brock (the original illustrator of Pride and Prejudice), this insanely funny expanded edition will introduce Jane Austen's classic novel to new legions of fans.
This reminds me that there was a glaring deficiency in my undergraduate education; namely, not enough about zombies. Not just in English literature, but throughout the whole Western canon. For example:
  • The Republic and Zombies: Holed up in a safehouse during a zombie infestation of Athens, Socrates discusses with Glaucon and Adeimantus the nature of justice, the well-ordered soul, and the best-ruled society -- preferably one without the undead. Things get off to a rocky start, however, when Thrasymachus attacks old Cephalus and starts eating his brains.
  • On the Nature of Things and Zombies: Lucretius' epic work on the atomistic philosophy of the Epicureans sweetens the bitter pill of living in a world without gods -- but with zombies -- with the honey of poetry. By breaking the bonds of religion, and by building up adequate fortifications against the zombie hordes, one can live a life of pleasure and understanding. Fun fact: the "swerve" of the atoms that enables us to have free will? It also reanimates the dead. Reality's a bitch.
  • Aristotle's On Zombies: This newly-discovered treatise shows the Philosopher trying to pin down the precise nature of this undead creature. How can something be dead and still have a source within itself of motion and rest? There must be a separate quality, a being-at-work-staying-itself-hungering-for-brains, that enables the zombie to operate. Sadly, the part where Aristotle discusses the best way to defend against zombies remains lost.
  • The Iliad and Zombies: Basically, every place where Homer kills off a soldier, replace "darkness covered his eyes" with "darkness covered his eyes -- and then he sprang up, bared his teeth, and pounced on an unsuspecting Achaean." It scans better in the original Greek.
And that's just the classical era!

January 29, 2009

How the Romans Handled Financial Crises

Tom Ricks tells us:
The Roman equivalent of the Fed then pumped tons of money into the financial system, and also cut interest rates to zero, which is about where we are now in our own mess.


Tiberius also raised funds by accusing Sextus Marius, the richest man in Spain, of incest -- almost certainly a trumped-up charge -- and then having him thrown headlong from the Tarpeian Rock... a cliff at the edge of Rome's Capitoline Hill. "Tiberius kept his gold mines for himself," Tacitus notes. It makes me think that Wall Street is getting off easy.
Too right. Compared to this, bank nationalizations look downright tame.

What Digby Said

Concerning the total lack of support from House Republicans for the stimpak, despite President Obama bending over backwards to accommodate them:
At some point, the Democrats are going to have to confront their central political problem, which is that the conservatives are not appeasable and that political and media elites have either been brainwashed by conservative propaganda or are conservatives by choice and they have to convince the citizenry that their ideology is better for their personal well being and the well being of the country. Until that happens, the conservatives will remain in power even as an opposition force and their failed ideology will continue to destroy this country. This isn't a game anymore. They have to pass good policies.


David Roberts says that, if his contacts in Congress are right, it's either a cap-and-trade bill or nothing:
Calls for a carbon tax, to the extent they have any effect, will complicate and possibly derail passage of carbon legislation.

It's possible that a carbon tax (and/or cap-and-dividend) bill will be introduced. One or both might even make it to a full vote, though I doubt it. But they won't pass. If you want carbon pricing out of this Congress, cap-and-trade is what you're getting. It follows that your energies are best spent ensuring that cap-and-trade legislation is as strong as possible.
I happen to agree with this, insofar as it means green groups need to rally around a particular carbon pricing scheme, whether that be a carbon tax or cap-and-trade. (With auctioned carbon credits for the latter, the two are functionally identical.) The key, as Ryan Avent and I (to blow my own horn) have noted, is there should be a rough consensus about how to proceed, just as health care advocates have come together around a Massachusetts-style plan for universal coverage. It might be better to have a single-payer system, but we can get most of what we want out of a Massachusetts-style plan, and have an easier time of getting it passed, too.

Of course, that doesn't mean we ought to accept any cap-and-trade system: For myself, a worthwhile scheme should, at a minimum, auction off the vast majority of carbon credits from day 1, make as little use of carbon offsets as possible, and rebate a substantial portion to the public, with a focus on low-income families. That leaves a lot of wiggle room, but understanding what our short-term priorities ought to be (i.e., getting political buy-in to carbon regulation, while laying groundwork for aggressive reductions in carbon emissions down the road) is essential to getting an effective climate change policy off the ground.

One other note about the politics of cap-and-trade: Besides achieving consensus on the desirability of carbon trading over a carbon tax, the success of a climate change bill depends on whether it can get shepherded through Congress without getting larded with earmarks, amendments, etc. (Already we're hearing talk from Nancy Pelosi and others of using cap-and-trade as a revenue stream, rather than as primarily a regulator of pollution.) Honestly, I think the best thing to do -- and which I've heard is being considered -- would be to just amend the Clean Air Act to authorize the EPA to create a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide, and let them take care of the details. Otherwise you risk trying to pass a 1,000 page monstrosity like Lieberman-Warner, which presents too many targets and can easily be watered down to insignificance.

January 23, 2009

Unemployment Blogging, Day 33

Good news, everyone, as Hubert J. Farnsworth would say: I have a job interview Monday. Time to rifle through Lifehacker's archives on job interview tips...

Meanwhile, in the "misery loves company" department, 62,000 people joined the unemployment rolls last week. And at least two states -- New York and South Carolina -- have unemployment insurance funds in the red. Good times!

January 22, 2009

We May Well Be Doomed

Via Ryan Avent, not only has public support for action on global warming declined in the face of the recession, but it seems we're even going backward on the causes of warming:
Forty-four percent (44%) of U.S. voters now say long-term planetary trends are the cause of global warming, compared to 41% who blame it on human activity.

Seven percent (7%) attribute global warming to some other reason, and nine percent (9%) are unsure in a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey.

Fifty-nine percent (59%) of Democrats blame global warming on human activity, compared to 21% percent of Republicans. Two-thirds of GOP voters (67%) see long-term planetary trends as the cause versus 23% of Democrats. Voters not affiliated with either party by eight points put the blame on planetary trends.

In July 2006, 46% of voters said global warming is caused primarily by human activities, while 35% said it is due to long-term planetary trends.
Ryan's comment on this is spot on:
Our political leaders have to see themselves as having the responsibility to educate voters on this. They have to make warming an issue. And this is why its so damaging for newspapers to believe that it’s ok to run “contrarian” takes on climate change, or to use “fake balance” — finding some wingnut denialist to counter the opinion of an actual climate scientist in the name of fairness. Opinions on the shape of the earth differ, it’s true, but we can say definitively that some are right and others wrong. If the stewards of the press can’t tell the story like it is, then I don’t know how we can hope to educate voters on the topic.
I would add to this the dead-ender behavior of the Republican Party, which exploits traditional media's obsession with balance on political issues to obfuscate even the underlying science on global warming. It's true, of course, that there a wide range of potential responses to global warming, from carbon pricing to energy efficiency to biofuels to new nuclear plants to carbon sequestration, with some being more effective than others. But it's hard to have an honest discussion of these options when you have a political party whose leaders routinely alter the facts to fit their ideology.

At the same time, as I've said, environmental groups seem not to be sufficiently mobilized to push Congress to adopt a comprehensive climate change bill, in the way that health care advocates are for health reform. It feels weird to say, but it seems like there was stronger support for action on global warming in 2006-2007, when environmentalists were largely shut out of power, than there is now, with a much more hospitable President and Congress. Part of that was likely the galvanizing effect of Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth; but I also think that, as we get closer to actually passing a climate change bill, we may lose a lot of people who will flinch at the possibility of adding untold new costs on the economy. I'm not convinced that climate change regulations will be an economy-wrecker, for reasons Carl Pope mentions here, but overcoming faintheartedness, I think, will be the greater task than overcoming denialist propaganda.

UPDATE: Brad Plumer has a less alarmist take.

January 21, 2009

Random Thought About Externalities

I am convinced that there is something in the behavioral economics literature that compares the relative effectiveness of resolving positive externalities through subsidies vs. resolving negative externalities through taxes. (E.g., subsidizing renewable energy vs. taxing fossil fuels.) My hypothesis runs like this: when you apply theories of loss aversion to energy consumption, people will tend to react more strongly (i.e., consume fewer fossil fuels) to the lost purchasing power that comes from paying more for fossil fuels than they would to the gain in purchasing power that comes from paying less for renewables. I have so far found no papers on Google Scholar or elsewhere that address this specific matter, but I think it would make for an excellent experiment.

Unemployment Blogging, Day 31

So after a month of being out of work, I will finally start receiving unemployment benefits, having spoken with a person from the unemployment bureau and confirming with them that I was in fact laid off, not fired (and thus ineligible). All I have to do now is continue to make at least two job contacts a week, and hopefully get back to work. Fortunately, I think I have the inside track on a sales position at Vandelay Industries...

January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day

This more or less sums up my feelings about the beginning of Barack Obama's presidency:
We have called by various names brothers and sisters of a single principle.

If a republican cherishes free government under law, we are all republicans.

If a democrat believes that the voices of all the people should count, we are all democrats.

If it is conservative to defend the Constitution, we are all conservatives.

If it is liberal to to live for liberty - and die for it, if need be - we are all liberals.

If a progressive dreams that tomorrow will be better than yesterday, we are all progressives.
I still want investigations of Bush administration officials for torture, though.

Are We Doomed?

Reading this piece makes me nervous about the prospects of comprehensive climate change legislation. Are all the green groups and Democrats as prepared to fight for its passage as the oil and coal companies and the Republicans are to quash it?

Let me put it this way: Bill Clinton and the Democrats got burned when they tried to enact universal health care in 1993-1994, in part because they underestimated how much the opposition would resist them (not to mention that they committed a lot of unforced errors). Things are much different now, however: we have a coalition spearheading the push for health care reform that has been relentless in defining the contours of the coming debate; and a newly ascendant Democratic Party that is not about, even amid a recession, to let slip away another opportunity to realize something liberals have been dreaming about since the days of FDR. In other words, Democrats are ready for a fight about health care, and aren't going to let up until they have achieved something of significance.

Can anyone say honestly that this is the case with respect to climate change? Where, for example, is the environmental equivalent of Health Care for America Now? Of course, compared to climate change, getting together support for universal health care is a veritable cakewalk. At least ensuring affordable health care for all Americans doesn't involve a multi-decade effort to significantly alter the nature of how we produce energy and manage land use, in which international cooperation will be an absolute necessity, and where the benefits of action are diffuse and the costs are direct, while the costs of inaction will be disproportionately borne by those who had nothing to do with causing the problem in the first place.

This seems to be why, for some pundits, the election of Barack Obama seems to be inducing, not hope for renewed effort on climate change, but rather pessimism that anything can be done of the scale needed to avoid catastrophic warming in the necessary time frame. Yes, it's great that Obama supports modernizing the electric grid and boosting renewable energy production and mass transit; but on the hard problems -- 1) adopting a strong loophole-free carbon pricing scheme and 2) getting developing countries to commit to reducing emissions -- I am less certain that he can get the job done. Partly this is because of the lackluster success that Europe has had on these same issues (the ascension of climate change denier Václav Klaus to the EU presidency doesn't help either), but also because the basic structural hurdles to vigorous action haven't changed; these include the many veto points in the American system of government, the entrenched nature of the fossil fuel lobbies, and the broken state of international negotiations on climate change. And then there's the problem of China...

Of course, I'm not at all ready to say that we're doomed -- yet. I certainly hope (!) that President Obama and the new Congress demonstrate that they are serious about reducing carbon emissions, and can then work with the EU to persuade the leading Third World economies (China, India, et al) to join in the effort. At the same time, however, we need to start hedging our bets. There are three legs in the stool of climate change policy: mitigation, adaptation, and geoengineering. (I'm separating the latter out from mitigation so as to distinguish it from more conventional mitigation measures, like energy efficiency.) So far we've been focused, rightly, on mitigation, in part because talk of adapting to climate change comes off as an admission of defeat. At this point, however, this planet is going to warm by some significant amount this century, and having a coordinated plan for how to deal with it is simple prudence. Similarly, many geoengineering ideas sound rather daft; but others, like a global campaign to paint roofs white, would probably be a good thing to do in conjunction with other policies.

January 19, 2009

The Energy Tax Code

Aside from the question of pricing the externalities of carbon emissions, a key question about the future of US energy policy is whether the existing tax code is well-suited for promoting a sustainable system of energy. This Oil Drum post provides a good overview of what the situation is like now. Here's the nickel version:
  • The tax code is not at all generous with respect to investments in the electric grid. The effective tax rate on these investments is very close to the unadjusted statutory tax rate of about 39%. If investment is to be encouraged in the electric grid, Dr. Metcalf believes that this tax rate must be lowered.
  • The current tax code, especially since enactment of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, strongly encourages investment in nuclear, wind, and solar power, which enjoy tax subsidies ranging from nearly 100 percent, for nuclear, to more than 200 percent, for solar. In other words, tax subsidies for these forms of energy generation are sufficiently generous that investors may use them to offset tax liabilities for capital gains and income derived from non-energy investments. The telephone discussion indicated that these provisions are not currently working as intended for wind and solar, because of lack of "tax appetite".

Yet More on Green Jobs

Another point about green jobs worth chewing on is that the question of whether they're a good idea depends on your assumptions about economics. If you believe, in accordance with standard economics, that economic growth is an unalloyed good and that maximizing productivity (labor productivity in particular) is key to raising living standards, then a green jobs agenda, which promotes labor-intensive projects, is not necessarily a good idea.

On the other hand, if you subscribe to various heterodox schools of economics, then green jobs becomes a more reasonable response: In ecological economics, for example, preventing natural resources from being depleted at an unsustainable rate means maximizing the productivity of natural resources relative to labor; an economy based around manufacturing and increasing consumption gives way to one based around maintenance and repair, but little growth, if at all. Similarly, many heterodox economists have argued that the returns to increased efficiency should come in the form of reduced working hours instead of more production. This would not only have the potential to increase employment, but could also reduce energy consumption and, by extension, carbon emissions.

Now, I'm skeptical of how useful such perspectives would be for the current debate about green jobs and a greener economy -- I doubt you'll see Herman Daly, say, in Barack Obama's company anytime soon. But as I said, it's worth contemplating.

January 18, 2009

More on Green Jobs

Solar Panel install
Originally uploaded by richardmasoner
One argument against green jobs, at least from the economic perspective, is that one of the perceived virtues of projects like renewable energy production and energy-efficient building retrofits -- that they are relatively labor-intensive, and thus would employ more people than would the oil, coal, and gas industries -- is in fact a big drawback: all else being equal, you want to maximize labor productivity, the amount of economic output generated per unit of labor, rather than minimize it. The fact that the oil industry, for example, produces the same amount of energy with fewer workers than the solar industry, may not be so good for job-seekers, but it's good for the economy as a whole -- at least in the sense that it reduces the labor costs of the energy produced.

With unemployment currently at 7.2% and rising, that's an argument that may not find much support -- getting people back to work, by hook or by crook, is rightly the more pressing concern. Yet it's one that needs to be addressed as we exit the recession and try to develop cleaner sources of energy in the long run.

One point I would make is that any discussion of the relative costs of fossil fuels and renewables needs to price in the externalities of releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere -- i.e., global warming. Oil may be less labor-intensive than solar, but that advantage is likely offset by the harm that oil production inflicts on our climate over time. Obviously, once you throw in all the various subsidies that various energy sources receive, not to mention the ecological problems found even with renewable energy, the cost-benefit analysis will shift around; but that kind of broadened perspective is necessary before you can make any kind of judgment about the merits of one kind of energy regime over another. This also underscores the necessity of getting the prices right as a prerequisite to creating a low-carbon economy, where the labor-intensive nature of some renewable energy sources is not such a sticking point.

January 16, 2009

Wasting Time Productively

As is well known, the problem with combating global warming is that the costs of mitigation are mostly upfront, while the benefits, in terms of avoided destabilization of the Earth's climate, are in the future. This doesn't jibe well with human behavior, which is more attuned to taking on direct and immediate threats, such as war or terrorism or (for some people) same-sex marriage.

But suppose that failing to control pollution and develop clean energy resources resulted, not in extreme weather patterns and rising sea levels, but ZOMBIES??! That's the premise of the Web game Super Energy Apocalypse, which take real data on the cost of energy and toxic waste removal and pairs it with a typical "defend your base against enemies" scenario. It's pretty amusing, both for its playablity and for its assumptions about human psychology. Sustainable resource management? Boring! Killing zombies with wind-powered gun turrets? Fun!

January 15, 2009

The Problem With Bridal Movies

Amanda Marcotte nails it:
We are supposed to think that women have all the power in these situations, because they do all the planning and men are mere props in the game. But really, that’s not how it goes in this narrative, not really. After all, men carry with them that all-important power, to whip out the ring and rescue a woman from the horrible non-life of the spinster and grant her entrance into the land of the living. The reason men don’t really have personalities in these stories is not because they’re of secondary importance at all. It’s because they fill the role of the gods in this story, and as gods, they must seem slightly distant and above it all.

January 14, 2009

Revenue Recycling

Word seems to be coming down the pike that comprehensive action on climate change is going to be delayed, possibly to next year: Nancy Pelosi has gone on record saying a cap-and-trade bill is unlikely to be passed in 2009, and incoming OMB director Peter Orszag has suggested that health care is the Obama administration's top agenda item, rather than energy and climate change, as Obama had said earlier.

I hope that's not the case -- though getting health care reform passed would a fantastic development. But further delay on mitigation, the global economic downturn notwithstanding, just makes it harder to do anything meaningful to reduce carbon emissions and the dangerous increases in global average temperatures that they entail. Moreover, as John Whitehead recently noted, now would actually be a good time to start instituting a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax, as a way to begin shifting incentives away from fossil fuel consumption, if only incrementally.

I don't, however, agree with this comment by Whitehead (emphasis added):
One reason why it might be difficult to enact climate legislation during 2009 is that raising broad-based taxes during a recession is not a great idea (see Keynes). However, one of the features of carbon taxes and cap-and-trade with auctioned permits is that revenue is raised for the government in addition to achieving reductions in pollution. The typical next line in this story is that these new revenues could be used to offset cuts in income, capital gains, business and other distorting taxes while keeping the government budget situation at least as sound as it was when we started. I've argued in the past that revenue recycling is a separate policy and should not be paired with a carbon tax in the minds of decision makers (since this second policy might not take shape). But during a recession we're already talking about cutting taxes. Indeed, during the 2009 recession we're talking about cutting taxes and increasing government spending so that the budget deficit is bigger than ever (as a percentage of GDP) while the budget debt is as big as ever. A new revenue source would help offset deficit risks.
Carbon pricing and revenue recycling may be separate policies conceptually, but with respect to building legitimacy for carbon regulation, I think they need to be paired. Assuming Congress creates a cap-and-trade system that auctions off its permits (if they're smart -- I know, I know), what happens to the money raised is going to be a big question; likewise with a carbon tax. And in a time when how federal money is spent is under intense scrutiny, we had better make sure that it's spent in a way that 1) isn't wasteful, and 2) helps compensate low-income households for any potential energy price increases from carbon pricing. If the majority of Americans perceive climate change regulations as merely jacking up their energy bills with no tangible benefits, even something benign like increased funding for renewable energy deployment, that could undermine the long-term viability of efforts to reduce carbon emissions and bring us back from the brink of runaway climate change.

This is why I'm coming around a bit to the cap-and-dividend proposal that's garnered some endorsements lately, including Ezra Klein and James Hansen. True, funding for things like renewables and mass transit is really important, and there's reason to believe that a carbon permit auction or carbon tax could raise enough revenue to offset most or all energy price increases for the poor and middle class, with enough left over for energy R&D and the like. But I think the value of having a tangible return on investment in a stable climate -- which is essentially what cap-and-dividend is -- shouldn't be underestimated. Getting Americans to accept tax increases is a fairly difficult exercise, particularly on energy; a carbon dividend would make it clear that the purpose of carbon emissions regulation is not to raise taxes, but to shift economic activity away from fossil fuel consumption and toward more sustainable purposes.

January 13, 2009

Unemployment Blogging, Day 23

I received my benefits card in the mail (a prepaid debit card courtesy of Citi -- speaking of which, do check out this post by Felix Salmon on its possible demise); now I'm waiting for the actual money to be added on.

I am trying to articulate my current position in the arc of my career. I suppose I would count, in terms of relevant experience, as entry-level, but entry-level employees don't have Master's degrees. If I had spent the first few years after St. John's doing office assistant duties at a DC think tank, then maybe things would be different. As things are, however, I can count, as a base of relevant policy and political experience, on a nice series of internships, a GA'ship, my stints in the Young Democrats and Drinking Liberally, and my work on Free State Politics. Everything else, and this includes most of my paid work experience, belongs in the category of "stuff done to get by, but not build a set of marketable skills." I imagine that job gurus would tell me that you can harvest useful experiences out of even the worst jobs, but in truth, I haven't yet worked out how to sell the story of myself to potential employers -- perhaps because I haven't yet worked out how to sell the story of myself even to myself.

January 12, 2009

A Film For Our Times

At a time when the princes of high finance are held in such utter contempt, the makers of this film must be overjoyed at their great timing. It probably won't do much for their box office, though.

More Current Reading

I'm also re-reading Watchmen, in anticipation of the movie which may (or may not) come out in March. I'm struck, reading it this time, at the level of symbolism and visual punning that goes on, and how it avoids becoming mannered -- an easy trap for anything that aspires to serious art, as Watchmen does. Not to mention the telling details that are casually strewn throughout the book: right now, I'm marveling over the fact that, at the climactic scene in Antarctica where Adrian Veidt sets his master plan into action, he is wearing his Ozymandias costume -- which he never wears elsewhere, except in flashbacks. Not only that, he's wearing his costume, but not his mask. Compare this to Rorschach and his belief that only when he's in costume is he his true self -- he calls his mask his "face" -- and you begin to understand the level of unspoken commentary that goes on constantly in Watchmen.

Current Reading

In a bid to improve my urban policy cred, I've picked up How Cities Work by Alex Marshall. Thus far, it's really good: Rather than writing a brief for urbanism, Marshall tries to explain how all types of developments -- urban and suburban -- come into being around certain types of economic activity, political priorities, and transportation options. The upshot seems to be that incorporating more density and mass transit into regional planning takes a lot more thought and effort than most people are willing to admit. I look forward to reading the case studies, which include Portland, Oregon, Silicon Valley, and a planned community created by the Disney corporation (!).


The Windy recently published a fascinating piece on the embattled Office of Thrift Supervision, which ostensibly regulates savings and loan banks but in recent years has been more notable for failing to identify problems in such companies as Washington Mutual, IndyMac, and Countrywide as they each went down in flames. It seems that OTS, which many in Washington would like to see abolished, has been gaining support from insurance companies eager to purchase failing thrifts in order to qualify for some of that $700 billion in bailout money.

What's interesting about this, for me, is comparing OTS to another banking regulator that's been making headlines recently, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. There are obviously many differences in what both agencies do, but one major difference is who they identify as their primary constituency: Whereas the FDIC, as the name implies, sees itself as protecting the interests of individual depositors, OTS is notorious for having "overly close identification with its banks," as the Washington Post put it in their investigation of the agency.

This question of constituency -- to whom a government office feels itself most beholden -- is a really important one and really underappreciated. Ezra Klein, for example, frequently draws attention to the fact that the Department of Agriculture sees itself as representing the interests of food producers -- i.e., farm states and agribusiness -- rather than food consumers -- i.e., everybody else. It's no surprise, then, that the USDA is more supportive of policies that subsidize food producers rather than ensuring that Americans are getting an nutritionally adequate diet.

January 11, 2009

Of Steel-Toed Boots and Solar Panels

So there's a tiff that went on this week between Joe Romm, on one side, and Robert Stavins and his fellow environmental economists, on the other, concerning Van Jones' green-collar jobs movement. Stavins starts off with this comment in the latest New Yorker:
“Let’s say I want to have a dinner party. It’s important that I cook dinner, and I’d also like to take a shower before the guests arrive. You might think, Well, it would be really efficient for me to cook dinner in the shower. But it turns out that if I try that I’m not going to get very clean and it’s not going to be a very good dinner. And that is an illustration of the fact that it is not always best to try to address two challenges with what in the policy world we call a single-policy instrument.”
To which Romm replies:
In short, whatever we do to address climate must not attempt to create jobs. And whatever we do to create jobs should make no effort whatsoever to get off our self-destructively unsustainable economic path. That would not be a Pareto optimum, I guess.

Seriously, Dr. Stavins, just because you haven’t figured out how to walk and chew gum at the same time, doesn’t mean nobody else can.
That's rather unfair, as Tim Haab and others have pointed out; it shouldn't be controversial to say that, conceptually, the problems of economic recovery and curbing carbon emissions are distinct, and may -- may -- require separate policy tools to address. That said, there's no reason why, if there is an overlap between the two areas, why we shouldn't tackle both at the same time. Starting a nationwide effort to install more energy-efficient insulation, windows, etc., for example, could be a significant boost to the construction sector, which just lost about 100,000 jobs in the last month alone. (See, e.g., the Center for American Progress' recent proposal to green the nation's stock of federally-assisted affordable housing.) It would certainly be a more sensible allocation of resources than, say, building more McMansions.

To me, there are two things that need to be thought about in regards to a green jobs agenda. First, there's the question of how many people can be put to work on projects that could qualify as "green" (besides energy-efficiency retrofits, things like mass transit and alternative energy development) within the time frame of the next two years. Economic stimulus plans don't work unless they're done rather quickly, and the number of infrastructure projects that can get started quickly (i.e., have had all their environmental impact statements done, have overcome any NIMBY resistance) doesn't appear to be all that great -- and that's before you divide it into "green" and "not-green" projects. To the extent that this country needs changes in its infrastructure that reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, funnelling stimulus money toward green projects makes sense as a down payment, as it were. But a down payment doesn't buy you a house.

The other thing about green jobs relates specifically to Van Jones' take on the matter: that greening houses and developing a clean energy infrastructure can serve to revitalize parts of the country, particularly urban areas, where jobs are scarce and crime is high -- "greening the ghetto," as Jones puts it. That's an excellent idea that shouldn't be forgotten, whether we're talking about infrastructure or carbon pricing or whatever. But two points of contention spring up: 1) Much like with renewable portfolio standards, there's a danger that trying to direct jobs to specific areas can be distortionary, in the economic sense -- what positive features do places like west Baltimore and southeast DC have as a labor pool for green-collar jobs? and 2) Are job opportunities enough to break the vicious cycle that many poor urban communities find themselves in -- or does an environment in which poor schools, high crime, high drug use, poverty, and unstable families feed on each other need more than jobs to turn around? Now, Jones has been working on this issue for a long time, so I won't presume to know more about it than he does. And there are concrete examples of what Jones has in mind, like the Oakland Green Jobs Corps. But even that has yet to be fully tested as being effective, much less scalable.

Again, I'm not against the idea of green jobs -- investing in a low-carbon economy has the potential to be a driver of economic growth well into the future, and we should try to have as many people share in that growth as possible. But I'm beginning to think of a green jobs agenda as more of an overlap between two separate policy domains -- climate change and poverty -- than as a pure identity. To use Stavins' metaphor, there are some things you can use in both the kitchen and the bathroom, e.g., soap and washcloths. But you wouldn't use a frying pan in the shower, nor would you use a plunger to make scrambled eggs.

January 8, 2009

Unemployment Blogging, Day 18

A brief update:
  • I officially applied for unemployment benefits, and should be getting the first check next week. Actually, it's not a check, it's a prepaid debit card, similar to the cards used for food stamps, only there's no limit, of course, to what you can spend it on. And it seems you can transfer the money into your own bank account.
  • The Pew Center for Global Climate Change rang me up yesterday regarding a position that would involve working on corporate energy efficiency issues. Hopefully, I'll have a chance to follow up that pre-interview with an actual interview.
  • I just realized that the etiquette concerning blogging your job search is rather murky: If you talk about the places you've applied to and what sorts of interactions you've had, is that bad form -- even if you speak of it in fairly neutral terms?