March 30, 2009

Using Cap-and-Trade to Fund Universal Health Care

There's a bit of a "Nuts n' Gum" aspect to this proposal from Harry Reid, but it's kind of fascinating anyway. I'd be interested to see someone work out the distributional effects of this proposal compared to a straight cap-and-dividend program, or a health care plan funded through general revenues. My guess is that most of the people who would benefit most from a climate rebate plan are also uninsured or underinsured, but that making the argument for tying climate change and health care like this would be too complicated to make it worth the effort.

As an aside, Reid's proposal also shows up one of the big dangers of auctioning off carbon emissions credits: The big wad of money it would generate will be very, very attractive to politicians who want to fund this or that project. Some of those projects are no doubt worthy, but one needs to keep being reminded that the purpose of a cap-and-trade system is to put a price on carbon emissions, not to be a cash cow.

More Eastern Europe Blogging

Following up on my post about the Macedonian elections, it seems some Ukrainians are also adopting a very ugly nationalism (via FP Passport):
On March 15, voters in the Ternopil region of western Ukraine elected a new regional assembly. This was an Orange Revolution bastion, a region that has long sought to embrace the West and shun Russia.

But it is also has Ukraine's highest unemployment. In a crowded field, the previously little-known Freedom Party won 50 of the regional assembly's 120 seats as voters embraced its hard Right leader, Oleg Tyagnibok, who has urged the expulsion of all Jews and Russians from Ukraine.

"The problem is less the popularity of the nationalists than the universal disappointment with mainstream parties," said Viktor Chumak, a political scientist in Ukraine's capital, Kiev. "Voters are sympathising with radicals more and more as a result of the crisis."

March 26, 2009

Neodluchnost 2009*

Following foreign elections is kind of fun to do every now and then, especially when they're far removed from the American political tradition. Canadian and British elections have a sort of through-the-looking-glass quality to them, true, but for weirdly fascinating campaigns, you have go to Macedonia, where my mother's side of my family is from. Or rather, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, because its neighbor Greece refuses to recognize the country so long as it has the same name as one of its provinces. This is actually a big deal, because Macedonia has been unable to join the EU or NATO largely because of Greek intransigence on this matter. At the same time, the Macedonians haven't been doing themselves many favors lately: An election last year was plagued with violence and fraud (though that seems not to be the case this time). Meanwhile, the ruling conservative party is whipping up the country into a nationalistic fervor, going so far as to invent a mythology connecting Macedonians to Alexander the Great:
Two years ago, the national airport was renamed after Alexander, infuriating Greece.

In January, despite a recent Greek nixing of Macedonia's NATO bid over the airport name, the ruling nationalists here changed the name of its main roadway to Alexander of Macedon Highway.

In Macedonia, it is becoming all Alexander the Great, all the time. Ahead of Sunday's presidential elections, the ruling party's Alexander ideology is seen as fantastic, even by Balkan standards.

In an intense media campaign, locals are told that ethnic Macedonians are the proud direct descendants of Alexander, and thus a people responsible for spawning the white race of planet Earth, from the Caucasus "to the seas off Japan," according to a public service spot on national TV.
Macedonia was fortunate to have been mostly free of violence and dictatorship during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but I fear that the ruling party, called VMRO, is leading the country down a dangerous path -- one of the people quoted in the CSM article compares the situation to that of Serbia under Milosevic. And Macedonia has a large, and restive, ethnic Albanian minority.

I also fear demagoguery such as this will have an easier time taking hold in the midst of the global economic crisis, which has hit Eastern Europe in particular quite hard. Many obervers have worried about the financial crisis provoking violence or protectionist trade policies; we should probably also add illiberal or reactionary governments to the list.

* Indecision 2009, in Macedonian. Try to imagine a Balkan Jon Stewart while you're reading this post.

(h/t to my cousin Johnny for the CSM link.)

Social Insurance and Carbon Pricing

Hendrik Hertzberg's latest column on a payroll tax holiday begins to explore the possibilities of a green tax shift at the end, arguing that it's time to revisit the foundations of Social Security and Medicare anyway:
The payroll tax now provides a third of federal revenues. And, because it nominally funds Social Security and Medicare, some liberals regard its continuance as essential to the survival of those programs. That’s almost certainly wrong. Public pensions and medical care for the aged have become fixed, integral parts of American life. Their political support no longer depends on analogizing them to private insurance. Besides, the aging of the population, the collapse of defined-benefit private pensions, the volatility of 401(k)s, and pricey advances in medical technology mean that, no matter what efficiencies may be achieved, Social Security and Medicare will -- and should —- grow. Holding them hostage to ever-rising, job-killing payroll taxes is perverse.
This is all true, to a point. But I think part of the reason Social Security and Medicare have been politically popular -- besides the innate appeal of these programs -- has been on the strength of the analogy to insurance. They are not welfare programs, which Americans have historically been cool to, but are part of a social compact between generations. Everyone contributes their fair share during their working years, and in return, everyone enjoys a measure of comfort in retirement based on what they contributed. That's the ideal, anyway; my understanding is that Social Security, at least, is mildly redistributive in its effects, even though it is funded by a regressive payroll tax.

Decoupling funding for Social Security and Medicare from a payroll tax and shifting to either general revenues or a dedicated carbon tax or whatever would require us, I think, to revisit this narrative. We could get rid of the insurance analogy, of course, but preserving a connection between the money we pay into the system and the benefits we get out of it is crucial -- not merely for the viability of Social Security and Medicare, but of all government programs, as Mark Schmitt argues in his column today. This is why I think rebating all or most of the revenue from a cap-and-trade schemes is the best, and perhaps only, way to do carbon emissions regulation in the US. You could structure it so that it would be functionally identical to dropping the payroll tax for a carbon tax, as Hertzberg proposes, but the connection between pricing dirty energy and rebates given back would be much stronger.

March 13, 2009

Full World Blogging

It was a little weird to see Tom Friedman, of all people, dabble into ecological economic thought as much as he did in his column last week; even so, it was refreshing to see a mainstream pundit grapple seriously with the idea that our consumption of natural resources can't go on forever at its current rate -- not without significant changes to our economy. At the same time, transitioning to a new state of affairs, as Geoffrey Styles points out, is going to take a long time, and (at least in the energy sector) it will take the form of gradual shifts, rather than something cataclysmic. This means developing a more sustainable energy regime will require overcoming the natural human urge to pay more attention to cataclysmic events, while still maintaining a sense of urgency when it comes to dealing with climate change and other ecological threats.

I want to also make two points related to this. First, Styles talks about moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but it's worth mentioning that the question of ecological limits encompasses a lot of things, including minerals (e.g., phosphorus), water, and arable land, and there are not necessarily close substitutes available (certainly not for the latter two things) if we cannot provide enough to feed, clothe, and house the world's population -- which is expected to reach 7 billion by 2012 and 9 billion by 2050. Second, any discussion of ecological limits has to take into account the question of lifestyles: A developed world lifestyle likely isn't possible for everyone on Earth; but it's also intolerable to say that Europeans and Americans should downgrade their lifestyles, or that Africans and Asians should be barred from enjoying the fruits of industrial civilization to the same degree that we have. It's an extremely delicate question, at least for those of us in the developed world, but if we're going to leave a livable planet to our children and grandchildren, we'll need to screw up our courage and address it in one way or another.

"This City Is Afraid of Me. I've Seen Its True Face."

My very partial review of the Watchmen movie. Major spoilers follow.

What bothers me most about Zach Snyder's version of Watchmen is his portrayal of Ozymandias. Adrian Veidt is supposed to be this Aryan demigod: enlightened, brilliant, compassionate, handsome, at peak physical condition -- the last person you'd suspect of plotting mass murder. What we get in the movie, however, is this sallow-faced wisp of a man, whose every expression screams "I'm the villain! See how I scowl!" Making him, instead of Captain Metropolis, the organizer of the ill-fated Crimebusters Watchmen supergroup in the 1960s also makes his ambitions less utopian and more a case of petty revenge against the Comedian and others (such as the oil and coal executives he upbraids in one scene). The result is that the big reveal at the end doesn't hit us with the same level of shock that it ought to.

And it ought to: for all the attention paid to the twisted psyches of Rorschach and the Comedian, the place, I think, where Watchmen really overthrows the conventions of superhero stories is with Ozymandias. Adrian's plot is, in a sense, the superhero version of the banality of evil: Rorschach and the Comedian may have killed people, but the most horrific crime is committed by someone who arrives at it as if he were working out the marketing strategy for his latest product line. (Remember the memos in the book that discuss Millennium, the new perfume that debuts after New York is destroyed and the Cold War is ended?) One of the reasons Watchmen upends the traditional superhero story is not only that the "villain" gets away with it, but that it shows how easily the idealism associated with masked vigilantism -- and indeed, all attempts to go beyond the law to do justice -- can curdle into something more monstrous than anything a supervillain could dream up. (Note how little supervillains figure into the world of Watchmen.) The logic of killing millions to save billions -- destroying the village to save it, as it were -- is shot through much of the history of the last century, and it makes sense for a comic book that plays with that history to incorporate it into its story.

The movie doesn't really convey any of those overtones very well. Part of it probably has to do with what Amanda Marcotte notes, which is that it succumbs to the temptation to become just another action movie, rather than seriously questioning it, showing how the so-called heroes become complicit with Adrian's crime, etc. The violence is absurdly amped up, 300-style, and many of Zach Snyder's changes to the story come off as pointless, if not distracting. I would even go so far as to include the new ending among those changes. I flippantly said on Twitter that the movie "needs more squid." But now that I think about it, the original ending -- Adrian fakes a alien invasion that kills half of New York City -- really is appropriate to the story, and to Adrian's ends; it's the ultimate in lateral thinking, as he would say. It's ingeniously demented, too, made all the more demented when presented by someone as cultured and great-souled as Adrian. By contrast, the new ending -- Adrian blows up a bunch of cities and frames Dr. Manhattan -- does the job, I suppose, but combined with the vindictive attitude mentioned earlier, it almost comes off like an attempt to take Dr. Manhattan down a notch and prove himself the superior man. As with Ozymandias in general, what was utopian idealism taken to horrible extremes in the book becomes a run-of-the-mill plot for world domination in the movie.

Having said all that, I think Snyder deserves credit for hewing as close to the source material as he did; the choice, after all, wasn't between Snyder's version or a perfect transcription of the book to the screen; it was between Snyder's version and a piece of studio schlock likely made by a Joel Schumacher clone. Even apart from that, I really liked how Nite Owl, Rorschach, and the Comedian were portrayed, and the much-praised opening sequence does a very good job of ushering viewers into the alternate history of the story. Overall, though, I was disappointed with the movie; I expected to be disappointed, and after seeing it, my expectations were (unfortunately) met.

One other thing: If we're going to have a moratorium on Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," can we also have a moratorium on Mozart's Requiem? Snyder's extremely unsubtle taste in music killed a lot of scenes, including Dan and Laurie's tryst on the airship Archie; but having the camera pan away from Adrian at the end to the tune of "Requiem aeternam..." was simply ridiculous.