Nordhaus vs. Stern

When the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change was released a few weeks back, I got a bevy of calls from reporters asking what I thought of it.  Of course, it’s hard to say anything intelligent about a 700+ page report that was released only hours earlier, so all I could do was quickly peruse the executive summary, speed-glance through the most pertinent sounding chapters, and opine like the wind.  While I thought I did a reasonable enough job summarizing the main issues at hand given the circumstances, the experience demonstrates a fundamental problem with journalism that is unlikely to ever go away.  To wit, reporters demand an immediate reaction when some new study or paper comes out, and the news cycle doesn’t last long enough to allow for particularly informed and/or careful review of many of these said studies or papers.  By the time that informed and careful response is ready, reporters have moved on to something else.  The deck is stacked in favor of the authors, who seldom have to defend against anything but superficial or relatively poorly-informed criticism in the popular press.

One of the things I was most interested in at the time was what economists who specialized in the economics of climate change had to say about the Stern Review.  The leading academic on this subject is William Nordhaus, an economist at Yale (another is Prof. Robert Mendelsohn at the same university.  Prof. Mendelsohn’s response to the Stern Review will be published in the next issue of Cato’s Regulation magazine).  When I emailed Prof. Nordhaus about the Stern Review, I got a rather short and vague reply.  Nicholas Stern is a good economist, Prof. Nordhaus said, and the report looked like a serious undertaking; the right questions were asked and the answers provided looked interesting.  Beyond that, little else.  Reporters I talked to told me this is what he had sent them as well.  Apparently, Nordhaus was not ready to jump into the discussion yet.

Reporters moved on, but Nordhaus did not.  Over the next several weeks, he apparently went to work on the document and by last week he was ready to offer up some thoughts.  Despite the fact that this highly credentialed economist finds that ”it is impossible for mortals outside the group that did the modeling to understand the detailed results of the Review,” his analysis is illuminating.  While no reporter is likely to write about Nordhaus’ take on Stern now, it is worth your time if you wonder whether an economic disaster of epic proportions really awaits us lest we do something drastic to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The answer; probably not.

The gist of the matter is this:  Academic economists who specialize in climate change generally agree that warming - if the “consensus” of scientific opinion as reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is correct - will only reduce global GDP by 0-3% per year and that those costs won’t be evident until well into the future.  The Stern Review, however, reports that losses may total as much as 20% of global GDP if warming is left unaddressed.  Why the disagreement?

While there are a number of issues in play, the main thing explaining the differing calculations is the extent to which future warming is discounted into the present.  Most economist use discount rates ranging from 3-5% when trying to put a price tag on future damages.  Stern argues that this is ethically indefensible - losses tomorrow, or even 200 years from tomorrow, are just as worth worrying about as losses today.  If you apply a 0.1% discount rate (Stern’s figure) rather than, say, a 5% discount rate (my suggestion, which matches the return on Treasury bills - or, put another way, the figure people apply themselves when considering the value of money today versus the value of money tomorrow) or a 3% discount rate (Nordhaus’s figure, although he is happy to confess that other figures are perfectly defensible), then you’re going to get a huge price tag for global warming.  Apply higher discount rates, and the price tag deflates to such an extent that it’s impossible to justify spending anything near what Stern wants us to spend to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Is Stern right to argue that we are morally required to treat losses to future generations in exactly the same manner that we treat losses to present generations?  Not necessarily:

Quite another ethical stance would be to hold that each generation should leave at least as much total societal capital (tangible, natural, human, and technological) as it inherited.  This would admit a wide array of social discount rates.  A third alternative would be a Rawlsian perspective that societies should maximize the economic well-being of the poorest generation.  Under this policy, current consumption would increase sharply to reflect likely future improvements in productivity.  Yet a fourth perspective would be a precautionary (minimax) principle in which societies maximize the minimum consumption along the riskiest path; this might involve stockpiling vaccines, grain, oil, and water in contemplation of possible plagues and famines.  Without choosing among these positions, it should be clear that alternative perspectives are possible.

Note that if you are an admirer of political philosopher John Rawls - as most of the Left most definitely is - then you should probably embrace the use of a high discount rate. 

Anyway, what if we use Stern’s discount rate regardless?  Nordhaus thinks it leads to palpably ridiculous policy prescriptions:

Suppose that scientists discover that a wrinkle in the climatic system will cause damages equal to 0.01 percent of [global] output starting in 2200 and continuing at that rate thereafter.  How large a one-time investment would be justified today to remove the wrinkle starting after two centuries?  The answer is that a payment of 15 percent of [the] world’s consumption today (approximately $7 trillion) would pass the [Stern] Review’s cost-benefit test.  This seems completely absurd.

Still happy with a near-zero discount rate?  What if we applied that philosophy in other policy arenas where the same issue arises - like, say, foreign policy?  Nordhaus echoes an argument I made myself several years ago:

While this feature of low discounting might appear benign in climate-change policy, we could imagine other areas where the implications could themselves be dangerous.  Imagine the preventative war strategies that might be devised with low social discount rates.  Countries might start wars today because of the possibility of nuclear proliferation a century ahead; or because of a potential adverse shift in the balance of power two centuries ahead; or because of speculative futuristic technologies three centuries ahead.  It is not clear how long the globe could long survive the calculations and machinations of zero-discount rate military powers.

Nordhaus’s commentary on Stern is only 21 pages double-spaced, and there’s more intellectual goodies therein.  Read it.  Learn it.  Live it.   

New Mexico: Land of Dependence

Found on a New Mexico state web site…

My father-in-law runs the Santa Fe chapter of Habitat for Humanity, a voluntary charity that measures success in terms of how many people it helps to achieve financial independence.  Odd that the state government appears to take pride in doing the opposite. 

The Free Lunch Project may have found its new home.  Crescit eundo, indeed.

The Unbearable Meaninglessness of “School Choice”

The National Center for Education Statistics has just released a report titled “Trends in the Use of School Choice: 1993 to 2003.” One of the highlights in the news release is the statistic that only 17 percent of students “attended a school other than their parent’s first-choice school.”

Wow! Isn’t that great!?! 83 percent of American kids are attending the schools their parents most want them to attend! School choice is here! We can declare victory and go home! (I’m out of a job!)

Er. Not so fast. Let’s say you’re approached by a stranger who wants to offer you a holiday greeting, and the two greeting choices are: a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, and a kick in the shin. Almost everyone would presumably chose the kick, and if 83 percent of them got it, they’d have their first choice. Hurray! Not.

Obviously, most people would rather be greeted by, “happy holidays,” “season’s greetings,” or any of a variety of religious holiday wishes. But if those options are not available to them, they’ll make a choice from among the options that are.

The moral of the story is that it is senseless to speak of someone’s “first choice” of school in the context of a roughly 90 percent government monopoly. In the absence of that monopoly, the range of options would be vastly greater, and it is likely that many parents would find schools that appealed to them more, and served them better, than any of the existing options.

This is yet another reason why it is preferable, when possible, to speak of free education markets rather than “school choice” – the latter term being vague to the point of meaninglessness.

Atlanta Woman, 88, Shot Dead in Drug Raid

Today’s New York Times reports on another drug raid gone awry.  Kathryn Johnston thought criminals were breaking into her home–so she retrieved a handgun and shot at the people who were at her front door.  As it turns out, the men at the door were cops on a drug raid.  The officers were wounded, but they returned fire and killed Ms. Johnston.  According to the Times report, the cops involved may have lied to get the search warrant and may have lied about the shooting afterward.  These incidents are far more common than most people believe, as this Cato raidmap shows.

Global Warming Showdown

The media is increasingly embracing the idea that anyone in the scientific community who doesn’t wet their bed over the prospect of future warming is some sort of (a) flat-earth know-nothing, or or (b) a cynical money grubber who allows oil and coal companies to buy their expertise despite knowing full well that doom is on the horizon.

Well, today you can judge for yourself.  At a conference co-sponsored by the Western Business Roundtable and the Business Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC), Cato senior fellow Patrick J. Michaels (who, more relevantly, is a professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia and a member of the International Panel on Climate Change) will debate Klaus Lackner, a professor of geophysics at the Earth Sciences center at Columbia University.  The debate begins at 1:30 Mountain Standard Time and will be webcast live for all interested.  If you count yourself among them, you can go sign up here to listen.  

SCOTUS Rebuffs Maine School Voucher Case

This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case seeking to overturn the exclusion of religious schools from Maine’s school voucher (a.k.a., “tuitioning”) program.

Maine’s tuitioning program was created in 1873, and until 1980 it allowed families whose towns did not operate their own public high schools to choose any public or private school, using funds allocated for their education by the local taxing authority.

In 1980, then-Attoney General Joseph Brennan (D), ruled that the inclusion of religious schools violated the First Amendment of the federal Constitution, and religious schools were subsequently expelled from the program. That prohibition has persisted to this day, even in the wake of the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, that found vouchers for religious schools to be constitutional.

The case was filed by 8 families whose children are not eligible for tuition assistance solely because their children attend religious schools. They were represented by the Institute for Justice which would have argued that the exclusion of religious schools was itself an unconstitutional act of discrimination against religion by the state.

There is certainly something to be said for this argument. Under the federal constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, governments must strive to remain neutral with respect to religion, and clearly parents who chose religious schooling in this case are being denied an opportunity afforded to all other parents. That is not neutrality.

The proscription against religious schools is not only legally dubious, but socially divisive, as well. Parents who wish to send their children to religious schools are taxed to pay for services they cannot themselves use – a recipe for social tension. There is, however, a school choice system capable of ensuring that all families have an unfettered choice of schools for their children without anyone being forced to pay for schooling to which they object: the education tax credit.

By offering personal use tax credits (essentially targeted tax cuts) to parents who pay for their own children’s education, as well as tax credits for donations to private scholarship organizations (that in turn subsidize education for low income families) a system of private funding could be created that would ensure universal school choice without compelling anyone to fund schooling to which they objected.

Such a system would achieve the goals of public education far more ably than our current system of state-run schooling, while avoiding most of the legal problems that beset government-funded voucher programs.

Why would anyone oppose such a system, except perhaps because they wish to make it artificially difficult for families to obtain religious schooling, or because they wish to protect the lucrative monopoly for the public school employee unions?

What Is Health Insurance?

Over at the Health Affairs Blog, Mark Smith, president of the California HealthCare Foundation, offers the following assessment of that which we call “health insurance”:

When you ask people why they want health insurance, they will give you one of four answers… . (1) “What if I’m hit by a bus?”; (2) “I need to be covered for my preventive services”; (3) “I can’t afford to go to the doctor, or to get my medicine”; and (4) “I’ve got a chronic disease, for which I can’t afford to pay over time.” …

Please note: Only the first of those is insurance, in the sense in which anyone would understand that term — that is to say, protection of financial assets against the rare, unpredictable, catastrophic event …

Some component of what we call health insurance is that “what if I’m hit by a bus” concept. But the difficulty, we think, in trying to find a method of coverage which is acceptable to the various constituencies who are involved in health insurance … is that this thing we call health insurance is actually four different market items put together in one financial instrument which is increasingly unaffordable… .

To the extent that insurers and providers both see the problem of the uninsured as a revenue problem — which is to say, there are all these people out there who aren’t part of our system, and we need to find a way to buy them into our system at more or less our system’s price, at more or less our system’s configuration, and more or less maintain the incomes of everybody in our system — that is a very different question from how can we make the underlying asset more affordable… .

My point, therefore, is not [we] shouldn’t continue with the quest for expanded insurance coverage but that in so doing, we try to understand what it is we mean by insurance in the first place, and the extent to which combining these functions in one financial package creates a package which is simultaneously attractive for some people and unattractive for others. And in a voluntary market you create this mismatch, because for instance, how many people would pay money to protect their assets if they don’t have assets to protect? Most of the uninsured are low income; most low-income people don’t have huge amounts of assets to protect. They know that the hospital won’t come after them in quite the same way as the department store will, even for the same bill, and so asking them to pay money every week or every month, to protect assets that they don’t have, in case of an experience which will probably not occur to them, strikes us as not a very likely way to expand coverage among that population.