Archives: 07/2009

Response to Conor Clarke, Part I

Last week Conor Clarke at The Atlantic blog , apparently as part of a running argument with Jim Manzi, raised four substantive issues with my study, “What to Do About Climate Change,” that Cato published last year. Mr. Clarke deserves a response, and I apologize for not getting to this sooner. Today, I’ll address the first part of his first comment. I’ll address the rest of his comments over the next few days.

Conor Clarke: 

(1) Goklany’s analysis does not extend beyond the 21st century. This is a problem for two reasons. First, climate change has no plans to close shop in 2100. Even if you believe GDP will be higher in 2100 with unfettered global warming than without, it’s not obvious that GDP would be higher in the year 2200 or 2300 or 3758. (This depends crucially on the rate of technological progress, and as Goklany’s paper acknowledges, that’s difficult to model.) Second, the possibility of “catastrophic” climate change events – those with low probability but extremely high cost – becomes real after 2100.

Response:  First, I wouldn’t put too much stock in analyses purporting to extend out to the end of the 21st century, let alone beyond that, for numerous reasons, some of which are laid out on pp. 2-3 of the Cato study. As noted there, according to a paper commissioned for the Stern Review, “changes in socioeconomic systems cannot be projected semi-realistically for more than 5–10 years at a time.”

Second, regarding Mr. Clarke’s statement that, “Even if you believe GDP will be higher in 2100 with unfettered global warming than without, it’s not obvious that GDP would be higher in the year 2200 or 2300 or 3758,” I should note that the conclusion that net welfare for 2100 (measured by net GDP per capita) is not based on a belief.  It follows inexorably from Stern’s own analysis.

Third, despite my skepticism of long term estimates, I have, for the sake of argument, extended the calculation to 2200. See here. Once again, I used the Stern Review’s estimates, not because I think they are particularly credible (see below), but for the sake of argument. Specifically, I assumed that losses in welfare due to climate change under the IPCC’s warmest scenario would, per the Stern Review’s 95th percentile estimate, be equivalent to 35.2 percent of GDP in 2200. [Recall that Stern’s estimates account for losses due to market impacts, non-market (i.e., environmental and public health) impacts and the risk of catastrophe, so one can’t argue that only market impacts were considered.]

The results, summarized in the following figure, indicate that even if one uses the Stern Review’s inflated impact estimates under the warmest IPCC scenario, net GDP in 2200 ought to be higher in the warmest world than in cooler worlds for both developing and industrialized countries.


Source: Indur M. Goklany, “Discounting the Future,” Regulation 32: 36-40 (Spring 2009).

The costs of climate change used to develop the above figure are, most likely, overestimated because they do not properly account for increases in future adaptive capacity consistent with the level of net economic development resulting from Stern’s own estimates (as shown in the above figure).  This figure shows that even after accounting for losses in GDP per capita due to climate change – and inflating these losses – net GDP per capita in 2200 would be between 16 and 85 times higher in 2200 that it was in the baseline year (1990).  No less important, Stern’s estimate of the costs of climate change neglect secular technological change that ought to occur during the 210-year period extending from the base year (1990) to 2200. In fact, as shown here, empirical data show that for most environmental indicators that have a critical effect on human well-being, technology has, over decades-long time frames reduced impacts by one or more orders of magnitude.

As a gedanken experiment, compare technology (and civilization’s adaptive capacity) in 1799 versus 2009. How credible would a projection for 2009 have been if it didn’t account for technological change from 1799 to 2009?

I should note that some people tend to dismiss the above estimates of GDP on the grounds that it is unlikely that economic development, particularly in today’s developing countries, will be as high as indicated in the figure.  My response to this is that they are based on the very assumptions that drive the IPCC and the Stern Review’s emissions and climate change scenarios. So if one disbelieves the above GDP estimates, then one should also disbelieve the IPCC and the Stern Review’s projection for the future.

Fourth, even if analysis that appropriately accounted for increases in adaptive capacity had shown that in 2200 people would be worse off in the richest-but-warmest world than in cooler worlds, I wouldn’t get too excited just yet. Even assuming a 100-year lag time between the initiation of emission reductions and a reduction in global temperature because of a combination of the inertia of the climate system and the turnover time for the energy infrastructure, we don’t need to do anything drastic till after 2100 (=2200 minus 100 years), unless monitoring shows before then that matters are actually becoming worse (as opposing merely changing), in which case we should certainly mobilize our responses. [Note that change doesn’t necessarily equate to worsening. One has to show that a change would be for the worse.  Unfortunately, much of the climate change literature skips this crucial step.]

In fact, waiting-and-preparing-while-we-watch (AKA watch-and-wait) makes most sense, just as it does for many problems (e.g., some cancers) where the cost of action is currently high relative to its benefit, benefits are uncertain, and technological change could relatively rapidly improve the cost-benefit ratio of controls. Within the next few decades, we should have a much better understanding of climate change and its impacts, and the cost of controls ought to decline in the future, particularly if we invest in research and development for mitigation.  In the meantime we should spend our resources on solving today’s first order problems – and climate change simply doesn’t make that list, as shown by the only exercises that have ever bothered to compare the importance of climate change relative to other global problems.  See here and here.  As is shown in the Cato paper (and elsewhere), this also ought to reduce vulnerability and increase resiliency to climate change.

In the next installment, I’ll address the second point in Mr. Clarke’s first point, namely, the fear that “the possibility of ‘catastrophic’ climate change events – those with low probability but extremely high cost – becomes real after 2100.”

Continuing Erosion of the Iranian Regime’s Legitimacy

The gravest threat to the survival of the repressive regime in Tehran may be the continuing attacks on its perceived legitimacy.  Part of the factional infighting undoubtedly reflects a simple power struggle.  However, religious principles also appear to be at stake.  A number of Muslim clerics are denouncing the authorities for their misbehavior.

For instance, Iranian cleric and blogger Mohsen Kadivar recently applied several Islamic principles to the Iranian government:

The fourth question concerns attempts by some to cite the protection of the Islamic state to justify suppressing people’s efforts to defend their own rights.

The response is that an Islamic state cannot be protected through violence.

The fifth question is about what Shari’a law says are the signs of suppressive guardianship.

The response is that a leader who fails to respect Shari’a law, promotes violence, and rejects the public’s demands is a clear sign of oppressive guardianship and that leader is oppressive. The recognition of those signs is the responsibility, firstly, of Islamic jurists (experts in religious law) and, secondly, of ordinary people.

His words alone will not topple Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and those behind and around him.  But as the regime’s moral foundation further erodes, the long-term possibility of significant changes in Tehran grows.

Americans should cheer for the advance of liberty in Iran.  But the U.S. government, with precious little credibility for promoting democracy in Iran, needs to stay far away.  The last thing Iranian human rights advocates need is for their struggle to become a contest between the Iranian and American governments instead of the Iranian government and Iranian people.

Quadrennial Claptrap

Since the mid-1990s, the Defense Department has been legally required to review its strategy and force structure every four years, producing what’s called the Quadrennial Defense Review.

The result has been a series of vacuous documents that commingle vague, unsubstantiated claims about great historical shifts underway (think Tom Friedman but without the empirical rigor) with threat inflation. There is no evidence that these documents have produced much beyond wasted time and effort.

Naturally, the Department of Homeland Security decided to produce a quadrennial homeland security review, which is underway. Last week, ForeignPolicy.com reported that the State Department will get in on the act with a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.  Apparently grand strategy documents have great allure to policy-makers. So it’s worth reflecting on why the QDR has failed.

I say it’s because strategy is overrated. The idea is that government is a scientific enterprise where smart people get together, figure out the wisest course, and then marshal their bureaucracies to the new objectives. The trouble with this view is that government is political; it is about competing bureaucratic interests or ideologies trying to impose their preferences on each other.  Strategy documents have no inherent power over these forces.

In practice, because the military services participate in the QDR’s production, it is an output of the politics it is supposed to guide, a logroll that justifies existing realities. The services all employ manpower to defend their prerogatives. Consultants get hired. A great fuss occurs. Compromise language carries the day, and the thing winds up vapidly endorsing the existing force structure and programs.

A better way to go would for the Office of the Secretary of Defense to use strategy documents to give its views official heft; one more way to impose their preferences on the rest of the Pentagon. That argues for civilian authorship, not service inclusion. Of course, this method is only as good as OSD’s ideas.

The next QDR is due this year. The document will likely endorse the Secretary Gates’ desire to make the military better suited to counterinsurgency, which is OK, and overstate our ability to succeed in these wars, which is not.

The owner of the document is the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Michelle Flournoy, who previously founded the Center for New American Security, which has, in its brief life, exhibited great enthusiasm for counterinsurgency campaigns or US military-led nation-building.

Flournoy and a co-author just published a kind of preview of the QDR in Proceedings, the Naval Institute’s magazine. The article not encouraging. It cites the disastrous vehicle of Cold War threat inflation, NSC-68, as an example to emulate. Unsurprisingly it buys into the trendy idea that future US wars will be hybrid wars, mixing conventional and unconventional tactics as Hezbollah did in 2006 in Lebanon. It takes the conventional position that the United States has to police global commons (space, cyberspace, airspace and sea lanes), to protect the “international system.” This apparently means that free trade requires US military hegemony, a common claim with a hazy causal logic. The article makes the curious argument that because the commons are a public good, other nations have “powerful incentives” to help the United States police them. I am all for burden sharing, but this misunderstands the meaning of public goods, which are notoriously underprovided. Powerful incentives encourage free-riding, not mutual aide.

Worst of all, the article buys into the idea that the United States needs to fix failed states, which is a recipe for empire.

The good news is that there is time to fix all this. Maybe the Pentagon will embrace restraint. You never know.

Thinking Clearly about Economic Inequality

The public discussion of inequality in the United States, and no doubt elsewhere, is marked by a lack of clarity and care. Few commentators — even among those who are professional economists — speak clearly about what the various measures of economic inequality do and do not tell us. In a new study, Cato scholar Will Wilkinson challenges many common assumptions about equality and political morality that appear again and again in textbooks, media reports, and public discussions.

Thinking Clearly about Economic Inequality, Cato Policy Analysis No. 640

Sotomayor Waffles on Property Rights

The hearing began after lunch with Senator Grassley probing Sotomayor’s views on Kelo v. New London and the Fifth Amendment’s protection of property right—one of the questions I would ask her. The nominee apparently thought the senator (who’s not a lawyer) needed a lesson in what went on in Kelo and how the Court ruled. Grassley, having been briefed by counsel, didn’t seem to care for that, pushing Sotomayor on whether she thought Kelo was correctly decided and how she views constitutional property rights generally.

Sotomayor said Kelo was a judgment of the Court that she accepts, but that any future case she would have to judge on its own merits. Well, of course, but that wasn’t the question on the table. Exasperated, Grassley asked Sotomayor whether a taking with no compensation would be constitutional. The “wise Latina” couldn’t formulate a proper response, smiling and explaining that what constitutes a “taking” is subject to legal analysis. Well, yes, but that still doesn’t answer the question. Finally, Sotomayor concluded that if a taking violated the Constitution, she would have to strike it down.

In short, according to Sotomayor, if something is unconstitutional, a judge can’t allow it. The technical term we lawyers use for this kind of sophisticated reasoning is “circular”—with the judge here getting to decide based on no discernible criteria whether something is constitutional. For more on the outrageous takings Judge Sotomayor has allowed, see George Mason law professor Ilya Somin’s analysis of the Didden v. Port Chester case. (Somin, also a Cato adjunct scholar, will be testifying at the hearings later this week.)

Update: Sotomayor and “Secret Law”

Sotomayor didn’t have much to say in response to Senator Feingold’s inquiries regarding national security law and civil liberties post-9/11, but the Wisconsin lawmaker’s questions about “secret law”—on which he didn’t press the nominee’s non-answers—made me think of the following: Both Ricci (the infamous firefighters race discrimination case) and Didden were “unpublished” summary dispositions.

If Sotomayor had not been nominated to the Supreme Court, causing hundreds if not thousands of lawyers to comb through her judicial opinions, would anyone have uncovered these blatant attempts to sweep controversial legal issues under the rug?  Are Ricci and Didden Sotomayor’s secret law?

CP Townhall

Update on the Sotomayor Hearings

After yesterday’s bloviating—much reduced by Joe Biden’s departure from the committee—today we’ve gotten into some good stuff. Sotomayor is obviously well-prepared. She speaks in measured, dulcet tones, showing little emotion.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Leahy gave her the opportunity to explain herself on Ricci and on the “wise Latina” comment—which she has repeated in public speeches at least six times going back 15 years—and then built up the nominee’s background as a prosecutor and trial judge. Ranking Member Sessions and Senator Hatch (himself a former chairman of the committee) pounded Sotomayor on Ricci, asking her how she reconciles a race-based decision with clear Supreme Court precedent—and how her panel decided the case in two paragraphs despite the weighty statutory and constitutional questions.

Sessions in particular pointed out the inconsistency between her statement yesterday that she was guided by “fidelity to the law” and her history of calling the appellate courts as being the place where “policy is made” and profession of inability to find an objective approach of the law divorced from a judge’s ethnicity or gender. Sotomayor’s responses were not convincing; rather than agreeing with Justice O’Connor’s statement that a wise old man and a wise old woman would come out the same way on the law, the “wise Latina” comment plainly means the exact opposite.

And so the back-and-forth continues. One refreshing thing I will note is that only twice has the nominee said she can’t answer a question or elaborate on a response: on abortion, saying Griswold, Roe, and Casey are settled law; and on guns, declining to discuss whether the constitutional right to bear arms can be used to strike down state (as opposed to federal) laws. The former is a clear—but not unexpected—cop-out because, unlike a lower court judge, the Supreme Court justice revisits the nature and scope of rights all the time. The latter is actually the correct response in light of the three cert petitions pending before the Court in the latest round of Second Amendment litigation. Still, her discussion of the Second Amendment left much to be desired given her ruling in Maloney; as Jillian Bandes pointed out recently, you can’t discuss incorporation without a solid understanding of Presser.

CP Townhall

$12 Billion: Coming to a Community College Near You

The Obama administration insists that we have to “educate our way to a better economy,” and in a proposal expected today will call for a $12 billion effort to graduate 5 million more students from community colleges over the next decade. The administration justifies this by noting that many of the jobs projected to grow fastest in coming years will require some postsecondary education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, projects (scroll down to “Education and Training” in the link) that the jobs that will have the highest overall growth will mainly require on-the-job – not college – training. Of course, it’s quite possible that the main goal of Obama’s proposal is not really to improve the economy (a highly dubious proposition regardless of motive) but to get more dollars to community-college employees, an interest group that seems to be growing in clout.

All of which begs the question: When are we going to see the change in education that this president promised, instead of the same old, simplistic bromides about more degrees and more money that ultimately takes valuable resources away from taxpayers and gives it to ivory-tower types? When are we going to stop seeing the easy money and access policies that have fueled the out-of-control tuition skyrocket; severely watered down what a college degree means; and led the nation to produce many more college graduates than we have jobs for? And couldn’t employers provide the on-the-job training that will be crucial for most new jobs a lot more effectively if they didn’t have to send their money to Washington, where politicians will waste it in pursuit of worthless degrees?

Of course they could. But if that were to happen, it would be much harder for politicians to appear to care – to be “doing something” – and that is what really matters in Washington.