American Patriotism = Choosing Liberty

I’ve always thought of long-time Cato ally Tim Sandefur as one of the most thoughtful libertarians in the blogosphere. This holiday weekend he did not disappoint, offering a stinging rebuke to Matt Yglesias’s blather about how America is “awesome” but would have been “even awesomer had English and American political leaders … been farsighted enough to find compromises that would have held the empire together.”

Sandefur correctly points out that the British, while now our closest friends (along with Canada, the part of British North America that did not join in revolt), in the 1770s left the colonists with no choice:

Abject submission is what you get when you try to “compromise” with those who would destroy your liberty and reduce you under absolute despotism.

He then goes on to excoriate Yglesias for elsewhere saying of the difference between liberal and conservative patriotism that “liberals do a better job of recognizing that much as we may love America there’s something arbitrary about it – we’re just so happen to be Americans whereas other people are Canadians or Mexicans or French or Russian or what have you.” Sandefur points out that these other nationalities “are based on ethnicity and chance, while American nationality is based on choice and the assent to certain basic principles that make up our nation.”

That’s exactly right: America is anything but ethnic (or other) happenstance, but instead stands for government by the principled consent of the governed, and the Founding generation’s choice of liberty over continued subjugation. Consequently, America’s patriotism (qua nationalism) is civic rather than ethnic:

What July 4th is about is to remind us that all those who stand up for freedom and refuse to “compromise” their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are brothers and sisters and at heart Americans; that all who today try to move their countries toward a fuller recognition and implementation of these principles are working hand in hand with our founders; that American nationhood is the first ever founded on anything but an arbitrary ethnic or historical basis, but on the basis of certain shared principles, principles that can be grasped by “a candid world,” and that give hope to all men for all future time.

As they say, read the whole thing.

You could argue, of course, that other new world (or immigrant) countries like Canada and Australia (or Argentina) are also not based on ethnicity, but there, quite obviously, there is no “national idea” – focusing on liberty or otherwise. Canada is constantly having national conversations on “what it means to be Canadian,” which typically fails to produce any answers beyond “well, we’re not Americans” (at least for those outside of Quebec, which has never been fully assimilated into the Canadian “nation”). And of course, many other countries that are or were based on an idea (Communism, etc.) lack the consent of the governed. Having been born in then-Soviet Russia and raised in Canada, I have all too much experience with countries lacking either a civic basis or popular legitimacy.

For what I think of the American Idea, scroll/click through this.

“Vascular Restraint”

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is looking into an officer’s chokehold.  The choke was not used against a violent individual.  It was used against a young man who was already in handcuffs.  Suspicion of marijuana possession.  The young man quickly faints.

Video clip here.  For more on the drug war, go here.  For more about doublespeak, go here.

Voucher Valedictorian

NRO has an editorial today by that title, sharing the story of Tiffany Dunston: class valedictorian at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. and first person in her family to attend college (she’s headed for Syracuse to study biochemistry and French). As it happens, she was attending Carroll thanks to financial assistance from DC’s voucher program, and her mother couldn’t otherwise have afforded the tuition. “I started praying every day because I didn’t want to go to a neighborhood school,” Tiffany told a reporter. “I was so nervous — there was no way to know if I was going to get the scholarship.”

Actually, though, there is a way she could have known that she would get the financial assistance she needed: if Congress and the City council replaced DC’s $24,600 per pupil monopoly with a universal system of school choice.

Instead, it seems likely that the next Congress will kill the fledgling school choice program that made Tiffany’s dreams come true. Over the coming year, congressional opponents of school choice must ask themselves: is it right to steal children’s dreams to curry favor with public school employee unions?

Liberalism in China

The New Yorker reviews Beijing Coma, a novel by Ma Jian, a Chinese exile who was at the Tiananmen protests in 1989. Reviewer Pankaj Mishra says that, like Milan Kundera, Ma knows that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” He wants to make sure that the Chinese don’t forget the Tiananmen protesters and what they were protesting. Even before 1989, Ma Jian had been denounced as an example of ”bourgeois liberalism” and “spiritual pollution.”

I was particularly struck by a couple of lines in the review:

Reciting Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” to a fellow-writer, he mocked Ginsberg’s angry rejection of America. “He implies his country is not fit for humans to live in. Well, he should live in China for a month, then see what he thinks. Everyone here dreams of the day we can sing out of our windows in despair.”

In his memoir, Red Dust, published in 2002, Ma described his travels through China in the mid-1980s, in the midst of Deng Xiao-ping’s economic liberalization and before the Tiananmen crisis:

Ma Jian not only seems to have relished his own improvised life; he also appears to have embraced some of his country’s entrepreneurial exuberance. In one of the book’s many bracingly unexpected scenes, he finds himself exhorting the residents of an isolated village, “This country is changing, opening up. You can’t just stay here like vegetables. You should travel, broaden your minds. Haven’t you heard about Shenzhen Economic Zone?”

Ma Jian says his next book will be about China’s inhuman family-planning policy. It’s no wonder that his books are banned in China; if only American writers understood the liberating potential of economic freedom and the comforts of life in capitalist society as well as writers who lived under the alternative.

Nordhaus’s Less-than-optimal Climate Strategy

In “Pointless to rush a carbon emissions plan,” the Toronto Globe and Mail’s Neal Reynolds compares Yale Professor William Nordhaus’s “optimal” approach to controlling greenhouse gases and finds it superior to approaches that would impose deeper controls more rapidly, such as those favored by Stern, various EU leaders, and many in the US.

Under the Nordhaus approach, which is also discussed by Keith Johnson at the Wall Street Journal, costs of control would start at 0.3 per cent of global GDP in 2010 (currently around $60,000 billion), increase to 0.5 per cent in 2015, 0.6 per cent in 2020 and peak at 0.9 per cent in 2065. He estimates the net present value (NPV) of climate change damages absent any controls at $22 trillion. Under this so-called “optimal” approach, the NPV costs of controls would be $2 trillion and climate change damages would be reduced by $5 trillion (i.e., the “optimal” policy would provide net benefits of $3 trillion, but residual damages would be $17 trillion). As he explains, “More of the climate damages are not eliminated because the additional abatement would cost more than the additional reduction in damages.”

He also estimates that proposals that emphasize “excessively early reductions [make] the policies much more expensive… For example, the Gore and Stern proposals have net costs of $17 trillion to $22 trillion relative to no controls; they are more costly than doing nothing today.” By his calculations, his proposal is clearly superior to these other reduction proposals.

However, while Nordhaus’s prescription may indeed be the most “optimal economic approach” to slow global warming, it isn’t the optimal approach to addressing global warming. This is because it ignores adaptation. Some adaptations may reduce climate change damages more efficiently than mitigation. Perhaps all or part of the $2 trillion that Nordhaus would spend on mitigation should, instead, be invested in adaptation. That might reduce damages by more than the $5 trillion. In any case, with adaptation in the mix, $5 trillion may well be the lower bound for the optimal reduction in climate change damages. And, of course, emission reductions that seem to be optimal under 0.9 percent of GDP in 2065 in the absence of adaptation may, once adaptation is thrown into the mix, no longer be optimal.

In fact, a recent Cato Policy Analysis indicates that in the short-to-medium term, adaptation — specifically, reducing vulnerability to climate-sensitive problems that might be exacerbated by climate change — would provide greater benefits than mitigation, and at a much lower cost. Most of those benefits come from the fact that one approach to adaptation is to advance adaptive capacity. Significantly, that can help society cope not only with climate change but, more importantly, to other problems that are more important than climate change now and in the foreseeable future. Thus the ancillary benefits of increasing adaptive capacity are very high, higher than climate change damages in the absence of any controls according to the Cato Policy Analysis.

Notably, Nordhaus acknowledges to having “relatively little confidence in our projections beyond 2050.” To his credit, this skepticism informs his recommended approach, but it would probably have been best to avoid stretching the analysis to 2200.

Sometimes such long-range analyses are justified on the grounds that that’s the best that can be done. But even if that’s so, it misses the real issue, namely, whether even the best available analysis is good enough for making trillion-dollar decisions which, moreover, extend out centuries hence. At these temporal distances, Nostradamus may be just as credible as Nordhaus, or Nicholas Stern, for that matter.

Humility isn’t an offense, and it ought to be acceptable for economists and policy analysts—even those whose stock in trade is climate change—to admit that they haven’t a clue what the world will look like beyond 2050 (if then).

Nordhaus’s numbers indicate that estimates of pre-control damages and post-control residual damages frequently are substantially larger than either the costs or benefits of emission controls. But the treatment of damages (i.e., impacts) of climate change in the Nordhaus analysis is somewhat sketchy. As far as I can determine, none of the damage studies properly account for adaptive capacity, particularly considering that that capacity ought to increase if societies accumulate wealth, human capital and technology at rates implied by all the socioeconomic scenarios used to derive future emissions (and climate change). (See, for example, here.) Thus, both pre-control climate change damages and post- control residual damages could be substantially overestimated.

[Some argue that they disbelieve that economic growth will be as high as assumed, but in that case they should also disbelieve estimates of future climate change and impacts predicated on that growth.]

To summarize, the Nordhaus analysis probably overestimates climate change damages. In any case, the Nordhaus approach could be made more optimal by adding to it an adaptation component that would enhance societies’ adaptive capacities (by reducing present day vulnerabilities to climate-sensitive problems and boosting economic development and human capital in developing countries). In fact, optimal carbon taxes (or cap-and-trade approaches) can only be determined after completion of more comprehensive analyses that include full and equal consideration of adaptation and any ancillary (net) benefits.

Of course that still leaves the problem of relying on analyses over time frames that demand, in Coleridge’s words, “willing suspension of disbelief.” Instead of suspending disbelief and succumbing to gullibility, I would recommend a somewhat different approach (see here, p. 37).