Monday, October 19, 2009


Krugman: Superfreakingmeta
Brad DeLong does the heavy lifting. Legalistic quibbling about who said what in an email isn’t going to help Dubner and Levitt here: in this crucial chapter, there’s an average of one statement per page that’s either flatly untrue or deeply misleading.
One good aspect of the controversy, though, has been some broader analysis of what it all means. I liked three recent comments in particular.
Joshua Gans identifies in Dubner and Levitt an odd inconsistency that I’ve identified more broadly: those who go on and on about how people respond to incentives when they’re making a pro-free-market argument suddenly seem to lose all faith in the power of incentives when the goal is to induce more environmentally friendly behavior:
But come on. Isn’t the whole point of the Freakonomics project that prices work and behaviour changes in response to incentives? Everywhere else, a few pennies will cause massive consumption changes while when it comes to a carbon price, it is all too hard.
Ryan Avent makes a general point about people who dismiss cap-and-trade as too hard, then promote something else that only seems easier because you haven’t thought it through. I agree with him about the carbon tax issue; and while I hadn’t thought about applying the same principle to geoengineering, he’s completely right. Having somebody — who? The United States? The United Nations? The Coalition of the Willing? — pump sulfur into the atmosphere through an 18-mile tube, or cut off sunlight with a giant orbital mirror, would either (a) require many years of hard negotiations or (b) quite possibly set off World War III. If it’s (a), why is that so much easier than a global agreement on emissions? (Which, as Brad points out, really would only have to involve four big players.)
Finally, Andrew Gelman poses a question:
The interesting question to me is why is it that “pissing off liberals” is delightfully transgressive and oh-so-fun, whereas “pissing off conservatives” is boring and earnest?
I have a theory here, although it may not be the whole story: it’s about careerism. Annoying conservatives is dangerous: they take names, hold grudges, and all too often find ways to take people who annoy them down. As a result, the Kewl Kids, as Digby calls them, tread very carefully when people on the right are concerned — and they snub anyone who breaks the unwritten rule and mocks those who must not be offended.
Annoying liberals, on the other hand, feels transgressive but has historically been safe. The rules may be changing (as Dubner and Levitt are in the process of finding out), but it’s been that way for a long time.
The “tell”, I’d suggest, is that once you get beyond those for whom the decision about whom to laugh at is a career move, people don’t, in fact, seem to find mocking liberals funnier than mocking conservatives. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are barreling along, while right-wing attempts to produce counterpart shows have bombed.
Anyway, say this for Dubner and Levitt — they’ve provoked an interesting discussion, although probably not the one they hoped for.
Brad DeLong: *Sigh* Last Post on Superfreakonomics, I Promise 
So I finally got a copy of chapter 5 of Superfreakonomics.
In the abstract I really like the idea of cheap geoengineering solutions to global warming. My personal favorite is a giant parasol 18,000 miles in diameter at L1 to absorb and then reradiate a chunk of sunlight in other bands. But I have never been able to find anyone here at Berkeley who (a) knows what they are talking about, and (b) agrees with Levitt and Dubner that we know that Al Gore efficiency-and-conservation solutions are much less cost-effective than Mt. Pinatubo geoengineering solutions in dealing with global warming. That NASA and Energy and OSTP should be working on and funding research into the possibilities of geoengineering is something everybody I talk to agrees with. But nobody I talk to agrees with Levitt and Dubner that efficiency-and-conservation efforts are futile, and that we should shut them down to bet all our chips on geoengineering.
It really does look to me like Levitt and Dubner:
  • went to Myhrvold's Intellectual Ventures.
  • got wowed.
  • excitedly wrote up what they heard.
  • and then failed to do their intellectual due diligence about what they were told there.
Thus I have a little unsolicited advice for Levitt and Dubner. If I were them, I would abjectly apologize. And I would then start editing the chapter thus:
pp. 165-6: Change to no longer put "global cooling" in the 1970s and "global warming" today in parallel: The scientists in the 1970s who were worried about global cooling had neither the quantative evidence, the climate models, the understanding of forcing processes, or the peer-reviewed consensus that analysis of global warming has today. Placing the two in parallel is simply wrong.
p. 167: Change to make explicit the claim that switching to an all-vegetarian diet reduces your carbon footprint by about the same order of magnitude as does switching to a hybrid car. But do not say that cars and trucks do not "contribute an ungodly share of greenhouse gases." They do--it's just that human meat-intensive agriculture contributes and ungodly share as well.
p. 168: Change to make the point that the fact that our estimates of climate effects are imprecise is not an argument for doing less or waiting to offset global warming--it is an argument for doing more and doing more now. Uncertainty is not our friend at all
p. 169: Change. Currently massively confused about Marty Weitzman's work. Marty focuses on the chance and valuation of catastrophe. He concludes that a version of the precautionary principle is appropriate: when distributions have fatter tails than log normal--which Marty thinks they do--the right policies are those that minimize the possibiliity of catastrophe. Which means starting to act now.
p. 170: Change to no longer imply that James Lovelock has some special role or authority in climate analysis or climate policy.
p. 170: Change to debunk rather than approve of British conservative Boris Johnson's claim. Johnson's statement is simply wrong. It is not the case that "the fear of climate change is like a religion in this vital sense, that it is veiled in mystery, and you can never tell whether your acts of propitiation or atonement have been in any way successful." We can measure greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, solar radiative forcings, and temperatures. We can tell whether acts of propitiation and atonement are working.
p. 171: Change the highly misleading: "When Al Gore urges the citizenry to sacrifice... the agnostics grumble that human activity accounts for just 2 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions, with the remainder generated by natural processes like plant decay...” What is relevant is not that human activity accounts for 2% of the flow but rather for one-third (and growing) of the stock of greenhouse gases.
p. 173: Change to no longer dismiss out-of-hand global agreement on climate policy. Dubner and Levitt currently write: "when it comes to actually solving climate change externalities through taxes, all we can say is good luck.... [G]reenhouse gases do not adhere to national boundaries.... Nor does one nation have the right to tell another what to do." But if the big four--U.S., EU, China, and India--of 2050 do agree, they then have the cultural, economic, diplomatic, and ultimately military power to coerce the rest of the world. Reaching global agreement is a very reasonable prospect.
pp. 177-181: Change to tone down the puff piece on Myhrvold and Intellectual Ventures--the subsequent pages contain a lot of clues that Myhrvold and company really don't know very much about what they are talking about.
p. 182: Change to debunk rather than approve of quote from Wood: "Everybody turns their knobs... so they aren't the outlier, because the outlying model is going to have difficulty getting funded..." Alternatively, back this claim up with some real evidence that it is so. (The climate modelers who I talk to say that it is not.)
p. 182: Change to debunk rather than approve of quote from Wood: "current climate models 'do not know how to handle water vapor and various types of clouds'..." Current climate models may not handle water vapor and clouds especially well, but they do handle them. Also, change to reinforce point that uncertainty in climate models is not an argument for doing less now but rather an argument to do more.
p 183: Change to debunk rather than approve of quote from Myhrvold: "most of the global warming over the past few decades... might actually be due to good environmental stewardship." I am told orldwide heavy particulate pollution is still growing rather than shrinking and so still cooling the earth more with each passing year--it's only in the clean North Atlantic that heavy particulates been shrinking.
p. 183: Change to rephrase: "Nor does atmospheric carbon dioxide necessarily warm the earth"--other things equal, it certainly does.
p. 184: Change to remove false claim: "Yet [Ken Caldeira's] research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight."
p. 186: Change to debunk rather than approve of quote from Wood: "most authoritative literature on the subject suggests a [sea level] rise of about one and a half feet by 2100."
p. 186: Remove false claim: "a most surprising environmental scourge: trees." Distinguish between (a) tropical trees, (b) temperate trees, and (c) boreal trees in regions where there is a great deal of snow cover.
p. 186: Remove false claim that the earth has been cooling "over the past several years."
p. 187: Claim that "coal is so cheap that trying to generate electricity without it would be economic suicide" needs much, much more backing-up: I can't see how it could possibly be true.
p. 187: Remove false claim: "A lot of things that people say would be a good thing probably aren't.... As an example he points to solar cells..."
p. 187: Claim that "The energy consumed by building the thousands of new solar plants necessary to replace coal-buring and other power plants would create a huge long-term 'warming debt'"--I cannot see how this could possibly be true. The overwhelming majority of power plants that are going to be in operation have not been built yet, and buildind closed-carbon-cycle or non-carbon plants is not much more expensive than building open-carbon-cycle ones.
p. 188: Remove false claim that "Myhrvold... has probably thought about such [ecological disaster] scenarios in greater scientific detail than any climate doomsayer."
That is as far as I have gotten...
The fall has not been especially kind to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It's lost some high-profile corporate members; its membership ranks have been exposed as exaggerated; and its leadership has been embarrassed on national television. Eliot Spitzer called the Chamber "wrong on virtually every major public policy issue of the past decade," and quite a few relevant players found the observation reasonable.
Matters may get worse still for the Chamber of Commerce. The White House, which has waited for the Chamber to begin playing a more constructive role, has decided to pursue a different approach going forward.
The White House and congressional Democrats are working to marginalize the Chamber of Commerce -- the powerful business lobby opposed to many of President Barack Obama's first-year priorities -- by going around the group and dealing directly with the CEOs of major U.S. corporations.
Since June, senior White House officials have met directly with executives from more than 55 companies, including Chamber members Pfizer, Eastman Kodak and IBM.
"We prefer the approach -- particularly in this climate -- where the actual people who are on the front lines, running businesses, trying to create jobs, come and advise us on policy," senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett told POLITICO in a not-so-subtle effort to portray the Chamber as out of touch with business reality.
Chamber officials say the White House is scapegoating the Chamber and other trade associations as a way of dividing the business community, a move that could help the administration made headway on health care reform, climate change legislation and regulatory reform.
To a certain extent, there's something to this -- the administration does have an interest in driving a wedge within the Chamber's membership. With many in the business community sympathetic to the White House's agenda, and many more finding new opportunities for profit in the changing policy landscape, it only makes sense for the administration to prevent a monolithic "Big Business" from derailing its agenda. We're already seeing this start to play out on energy policy, where producers have begun "battling one another."
Historically, the Chamber of Commerce as served as something of a gatekeeper: if powerful policymakers wanted to make headway with business leaders, they had to go through the Chamber to get them. The White House prefers to simply go around the gatekeeper and engage the community directly.
Since this summer, senior administration officials have held at least 11 meetings with CEOs and executives from more than 55 companies, according to data provided by the White House. The sessions usually involve half-a-dozen attendees representing companies in all different fields, from finance to pharmaceutical, soft drinks and real estate. Job creation, tax policy, climate change and health care reform are discussed.
"The intent there is simply to make sure we are getting accurate, timely feedback from the wide cross-section of the private sector and that we aren't going to therefore rely solely on the Chamber or any other group," explained Jarrett. "[These CEOs] are like ambassadors to other businesses."
Instead of letting the Chamber serve as the gateway to business leaders, the administration is building gateways of its own. It is a potentially huge structural shift for the nexus of politics and business.
For its part, the Chamber has crafted a $100 million "free enterprise" campaign, which is principally about defeating regulatory reform.
Valerie Jarrett talked a bit about a conversation she had with Chamber president Tom Donohue about the campaign.
"He came in and we chatted and he said, 'I think that, for example, your financial regulatory reform might have a chilling effect on business growth.' So I said well you supported the Recovery Act, yes. You support the federal taxpayer subsidy going to the banks, yes. You supported the subsidy going to the auto industry, yes. So now suddenly you want the free market system? I couldn't reconcile those two positions."
"He said, 'Well, I don't think we need those checks and balances.' And I said yes you do, we have concrete evidence that you do because without them the taxpayers ended up carrying the burden."
Good for the White House.

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