As I think I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been a skeptic about catastrophic global warming (“climate change”). It seems clear that CO2 has a warming effect, but there has long been enough doubt in my mind about the quality of the models and long-term projections of the net effects to make me cautious about committing to trillions of dollars of mitigation policies just yet.

And, if there were questions about the science before, there are certainly questions about it now. The revelations from the “Climategate” leaked documents should lead any honest person to be less certain of the proclaimed results.

It’s difficult to deal with issues that are uncertain, but have potentially huge ramifications. I’m sure that some people try to make the most prudent judgments they can based on the best information available, but most of us are likely to lean towards our preferred results. I’m wary of extremely costly and intrusive political programs ostensibly aimed at reducing CO2
emissions, so I’m likely to receive the skeptical theories favorably. Others buy into the ideology of the environmental morality tale of people getting too arrogant and far from nature, and they’d like to see policies that rein in economic progress.

So, what’s interesting to me about this incident is watching the reactions of those on both sides of the debate. Some people (Will Wilkinson, Ronald
), seem to be reacting reasonably, while others on both sides are drawing extreme and unwarranted conclusions (like climate change has been debunked, or that there’s absolutely nothing to see here).

One particularly interesting article I came across today comes from Shikha Dalmia:

“Science and scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my administration on a wide range of issues, including … mitigation of
climate change,” President Barack Obama declared in a not-so-subtle dig at his predecessor soon after assuming office. “The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process. Public officials should not suppress or alter scientific technological findings.”

Last week’s Climategate scandal is putting Obama’s promise to the test. If he wants to pass, there are two things he should do, pronto: (1) Start singing hosannas to whoever broke the scandal instead of acting like nothing has happened; and (2) Ask eco-warriors at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit next week to declare an immediate cease-fire in their war against global warming pending a complete review of the science.

A complete airing of the science of global warming, which is looking less and less avoidable by the day, might eventually vindicate the claims of climate warriors. Or it might not. The only thing Obama can control in this matter is which side he will support: The truth, or–what he accused his predecessor of–ideology.

I think this is right. Many people have supported policies to avert catastrophe because they honestly believed that that was the most prudent reaction to settled science. Others are ideologues who are largely impervious to criticism (i.e., irrational). It seems to me that all but extreme ideologues would find this “science” quite unsettling.

For insightful commentary on this incident and the climate change debate in general by a smart layman, check out Warren Meyer’s Climate Skeptic site (and this, recent, video).

What To Be Thankful For

While there are certainly real problems and challenges these days, those of us who live in first-world countries have much to be thankful for. We’re living in a time of amazing abundance and we have more opportunities for productive work and leisure than at any time in human history.

But, it would be foolish to just treat this abundance as either inevitable or as an accident (or as a divine gift). It has real causes; and we could easily undermine them and regress if we don’t understand these causes.

In this light, I like to remember an article from Benjamin Powell from last year, with lessons from the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving. Here’s the gist:

Bad weather or lack of farming knowledge did not cause the pilgrims’ shortages. Bad economic incentives did.

In 1620 Plymouth Plantation was founded with a system of communal property rights. Food and supplies were held in common and then distributed based on equality and need as determined by Plantation officials. People received the same rations whether or not they contributed to producing the food, and residents were forbidden from producing their own food. Governor William Bradford, in his 1647 history, Of Plymouth Plantation, wrote that this system was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. The problem was that young men, that were most able and fit for labour, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced.

Faced with potential starvation in the spring of 1623, the colony decided to implement a new economic system. Every family was assigned a private parcel of land. They could then keep all they grew for themselves, but now they alone were responsible for feeding themselves. While not a complete private property system, the move away from communal ownership had dramatic results.

This change, Bradford wrote, had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. Giving people economic incentives changed their behavior. Once the new system of property rights was in place, the women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability.

Once the Pilgrims in the Plymouth Plantation abandoned their communal economic system and adopted one with greater individual property rights, they never again faced the starvation and food shortages of the first three years. It was only after allowing greater property rights that they could feast without worrying that famine was just around the corner.

We are direct beneficiaries of the economics lesson the pilgrims learned in 1623. Today we have a much better developed and well-defined set of property rights. Our economic system offers incentives for us—in the form of prices and profits—to coordinate our individual behavior for the mutual benefit of all; even those we may not personally know.

I’m thankful for economic (and personal) liberty. It’s made life better for billions of people and, if we don’t mess it up, will continue to do so.

Free Trade Helps The Environment (and people)

I just signed this petition. It expresses opposition to “green protectionism.”

One of the terrible ideas likely to be considered at the UN convention on climate change next month is to use trade sanctions to enforce environmental compliance. I can understand that most eco-alarmists are, like voters, rationally ignorant of the quality of their expressed preferences because the status they gain by their signaling outweighs the likely consequences of their marginal contribution to the debate.

But, sometimes, the policies are so stupid and dangerous that I find it hard to sympathize with their advocates. Inhibiting trade is such an instance.

Trade increases wealth. Not just for the already wealthy, but (more importantly) for the terribly impoverished as well. It saves lives, promotes peace, and it helps the environment. If you want people to care about the environment enough to trade-off some of their wealth, then you should want to hasten the growth of their economies. The historical evidence on this is very clear.

Here are some quotes from the petition signers:

“Economists don’t agree reliably. When they do, listen up: In international trade, freer is fairer and smarter.

Free trade has the authority of Adam Smith, classical economics, neoclassical economics, Keynesian economics, and basically all economics. The International Policy Network is doing a great service in advancing the wisdom and humanity of free trade.”

Daniel Klein, Professor of Economics, George Mason University

“The proof of the enormous economic benefits of free trade is all around us, not least in the impoverished third world that has already benefited mightily from so-called globalization. It is immoral and irresponsible, or just plain stupid, that politicians, and the special interests they protect, would sacrifice this humanitarian improvement in welfare for their own short-lived personal gain. The Freedom to Trade Campaign has the potential to do far more good for the world than all the foreign aid ever devised.”

Henry Manne, Dean Emeritus George Mason University School of Law.

“We have it in our paper [sic] to turn the present recession into a depression. One good way to do that is to succumb to the crude politics and base impulses of nationalism and racism that underlie the demand for protectionism. A better alternative is to support and extend economic interchange across borders, motivated both by the liberal values of tolerance, choice and openness and by a wealth of empirical evidence demonstrating the relationship between trade and economic growth.”

Jeffrey Smith, Department of Economics, University of Michigan

“International free trade is about more than ensuring that consumers can get the most value for their spending dollar, as important as that is during a recession when incomes are strained. Trade builds trust and understanding among people regardless of their physical location. Greater interdependence makes war less likely. These are values we always should cherish, but especially when economic uncertainty provides fertile soil for those who would drive us against each other. Now more than ever, free trade is best.”

Dr. Eric Crampton, Senior Lecturer, Department of Economics, University of Canterbury

Sign the thing.

Still Alive

I haven’t posted anything yet this month, so I figure I should at least get something up here. So, here’s a quick catch-up post.

At the beginning of the month I spent a three-day weekend visiting Los Angeles to meet my new nephew (Nicholas Michael Milbauer) and his great parents, as well as some old friends around my 30-year high school reunion. Everything went great. Here’s newborn Nick in his “Thinker” pose:

A Reasonable Baby

He’s perfect.

As for politics, not much has changed. Most participants act like members of a tribe who are willing to mischaracterize their goals and those of their opponents in order to “win” the battle. We’re likely to get some kind of health care bill, but it will probably do much more harm than good. Wonderful.

Pants On Fire

Rep. Joe Wilson got in trouble for shouting “You Lie” during President Obama’s recent Health Care address to congress.

I agree that it was a rude thing to do, but it did generate more analysis than would otherwise have occurred about how truthful Obama’s remarks were (here’s a good example).

But, is President Obama a liar?


I don’t think this is shocking, and it shouldn’t be very controversial to intelligent people that all presidents are liars; really good liars. There’s no way to make it through party primaries victoriously without intentionally leaving many people with the wrong impression about your political preferences. In other words…lying.

I think you’d have to be pretty naïve and self-delusional to think that Obama believed that everything he said in his speech would leave people with an accurate impression of the likely effects of the health care reforms on offer. He would have to be an idiot to think so.

He’s not an idiot. He’s a liar.

And, if you choose to believe everything he (or any successful politician) says…you’re an idiot.

No One Should Confuse Emotions With Good Ideas

There was a Facebook meme going around a few days ago in which many supporters of current health care bills set their statuses to read:

No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, join us in posting this as your status for the rest of the day.

This got me thinking about exactly what is meant by statements of the form: “No one should X.” Three very different things came immediately to mind.

  1. X makes me sad, and I would like there to be much less of it.
  2. There is a current proposed policy aimed at reducing X, and I have carefully analyzed it and have concluded that its benefits clearly outweigh its costs, and therefore anybody who agrees with (1) should also support this policy.
  3. Absolutely eliminating X is a moral imperative. As long as X occurs, nobody’s life, liberty, or property are safe from being exploited in the drive to reduce X. Considerations of costs and consequences must not stop us from continuing our actions to eliminate X.

I think there are many things (like people dying for lack of funds) for which (1) is true for most of us. But (1) does not imply (2), and it certainly doesn’t imply (3). (3) is awful.

And, interestingly, unless you agree with (3), I think you really believe that “No one should X” is literally false. You really believe that, if we cannot reduce X without causing more harm than the good we’re doing, “Some people should X” because any actions that reduce X are actions that we shouldn’t take. Any achievable world where X is further reduced or eliminated is a world we should not pursue.

I think spreading the messages like “No one should X” are really attempts to confuse (1) with (2), and perhaps imply in a fuzzy way (3) might be true enough to rally support for the policy in (2).

But, if a policy aimed at reducing X violates important rights and imposes more costs than benefits, then we should oppose such a policy. At some point, after X has been reduced a lot, we will find that the only X-reducing policies on offer are those that will do more harm than good, and what we should do is oppose those policies and accept that we should live with some X for the time being.

X happens.

Conceited Planners

It was clear to anybody with a brain that the “Cash for Clunkers” program was going to have consequences that would hurt people. One is that charities, that benefit from tax-deductible used car donations, would be hurt because people stood to gain much more by trading the cars in for new ones. Another is that poor people would find it more expensive to buy low-end used cars, because many of them have been taken off the market by the program. The whole point of the program was to change people’s behavior! Of course some people will be made worse off by upsetting what had been mutually beneficial arrangements.

What’s amazing to me is this sort of denial of the possibility of significant unintended consequences:

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki says the program, which got a $2 billion boost Friday, will have a “negligible” effect on charities. Psaki says the Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS) was created to provide a “timely, temporary and targeted” economic stimulus and was not intended to divert vehicles from charities.

That’s priceless.

They didn’t intend it, so it will be negligible.

I think it’s a great representation of a major problem with these central planners, and those who support them. They consistently ignore the negative effects of their disruptions. They only look at the good effects that they intend, and choose to ignore the possibility that they might be doing significant harm. This magical, free lunch, thinking can be heard in almost every Obama

speech (e.g., millions of jobs created or saved, green economy, health care cost savings…). People are starting to realize that these things have real costs.

Not a moment too soon.

It was cheap to signal support for Candidate Obama. It’s costly to live under the policies of President Obama.

I’m glad the honeymoon is over.

My Representation

About a month ago, my congressman, Jay Inslee, sent out a mass self-promoting email bragging about his involvement in the health care bill that had just cleared the House Energy and Commerce committee with an all-important government plan option. His message claimed that he was interested in hearing my concerns, blah, blah, blah.

I did respond, for my own amusement, explaining why I thought his favored policies were bad.

Today, I got a response, probably picked from the “worried about too much spending” boilerplate. And, here’s part of my reply:

Congressman Inslee,

This was written by you or on your behalf:

“Our Nation spent over $2 billion dollars on health care in 2007, or more than $7,000 per person.”

It’s very depressing to learn that you don’t know the difference between a billion dollars and a trillion dollars.

But, it explains a lot.

I’m Not Joking

The other day, I discovered that Microsoft Research has created something called Project Tuva. The site is here.

They have made the 1964 Messenger Lectures series given by Richard Feynman available for free online, showcasing their new enhanced video player.

If you have any interest in physics, or smart people, or educational technology, or the world, I think you should check it out.

The video player seems well-designed to accomodate different learning styles. In addition to just watching the lecture, you can read the transcript, make time-stamped notes about what you’re watching, search for words in the lecture, read expert commentary synchronized with the video, and peruse “Extras” that allow further exploration of related artifacts (text, video, etc.) that open in a new window. All of this is available without looking too “busy” and distracting from the presentation. I can imagine this kind of thing making lots of great lectures and presentations accessible to the world and stimulating a great deal of learning.

Check it out. It’s pretty cool.

End The Fed?

I’m not an economist.

I don’t have enough knowledge to understand all of the issues involved in radically changing monetary policy away from fiat currency managed by the Federal Reserve System, towards a gold standard (or some bundle of commodities), or competing private currencies.

My gut inclination is that the power over money is likely to be abused, or mismanaged, by any central authority, and it’s best to just establish a good institutional framework that allows for the evolution of private systems of exchange media, or, if that’s not feasible, to constrain monetary policy by simple reasonable rules that may be something like a gold standard. But, I’m temperamentally conservative enough to be a little cautious of making a radical and potentially disruptive change that could have a lot of negative consequences on people who were led to believe in the continuation of the current system. So, I’ve been ok with mostly agreeing that the focus of some right-libertarians like Ron Paul who want to End the Fed, may be a bit foolish and extreme. Megan McArdle seems pretty sure that it’s a bad idea.

But, after listening to this recent Econtalk podcast, in which John Taylor argues that the recent financial crisis is largely the result of bad Fed policy, and seeing some recent responses (by Robert Higgs and Lawrence H. White) to a petition by some economists “To reaffirm their support for and defend the independence of the Federal Reserve System as a foundation of U.S. economic stability”, and thinking back to Lawrence H. White’s fairly recent defense of the gold standard, I’m starting to think that a move in this direction may not be as crazy or dangerous as I’d thought.

It doesn’t really matter practically, since I don’t think that such a thing will be feasible for quite a while, but I’m getting more open to the idea that a move away from the current monetary system is a good idea.