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Why Free Public Higher Education Is Not a Sop to the Upper Middle Class

Why Free Public Higher Education Is Not a Sop to the Upper Middle Class

Lots of bad op-ed stuff gets published in the New York Times and other mass circulation outlets, so I usually give it a pass, but today’s attack on free higher education by David Leonhardt is about my day job, so I have to make an exception.  He repeats the utterly bs line that, since most college students are from the upper half of the income spectrum, using public funds to pay their way is regressive.

No, no no!

First, why is the college student population so skewed to the higher brackets?  There are many reasons, but the financial burden of attending—not only tuition, but also the opportunity cost of not working—is a big factor.  The problem with free higher ed is that, the way it’s usually framed, it doesn’t go far enough.  As in European countries and elsewhere that take this issue seriously, students should not only get free tuition but a stipend.  We can afford and should demand the same.

Second, what Leonhardt doesn’t mention is the student-worker phenomenon, the crushing workload on college students holding down part time and even full time jobs.  Evergreen State College, where I work, just released the results from its survey of incoming students, and more than half expected to work to support themselves while attending classes, most of them more than 20 hours per week.  I see this reality every day in the classroom, where students struggle with not enough time to keep up with assignments, sometimes even nodding out to recover from a late night shift, or the emails apologizing for being absent because of a work schedule change.

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The Death of Shame

The Death of Shame

In any society not in a state of civil war, shame is a powerful force, perhaps the most powerful.  Individuals or organizations caught cheating, lying or otherwise doing evil, when exposed and called out, are expected to be embarrassed.  They should repent their sins and promise to make amends.  Other than pure coercion, what else can disarm those who violate the norms of society?

Evolutionary biologists tell us shame is hardwired not only in humans but many other social animals.  (They may not experience shame the same way humans do, but the outward markers and consequences are the same.)  We seek group membership in good standing, and while there is an incentive to exploit others for personal gain, or just relax our commitment for a while, the punishment of group rejection is a more powerful force.  That’s what holds us together.

It is natural that shame is invoked as a political weapon.  Corrupt businessmen, politicians and public officials may be flying high, but if we can document the facts they are trying to hide, we can clean them out.  A video documenting otherwise hidden police abuse, an audio recording of the murder of civilians released by Wikileaks, the disclosure of evidence of law-breaking by justices or political leaders should accomplish this.  Also testimony from women abused by powerful men: if they come forward and tell the world what really happened, that should stop abuse in its tracks.

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A Washington State Carbon Tax Goes Down in Flames

A Washington State Carbon Tax Goes Down in Flames

Initiative 1631, which would have created a carbon tax in Washington State, lost by almost 12% of the vote this week.  Commentators on all sides have interpreted this as a decisive defeat for carbon pricing, making more indirect policies like subsidies to renewables the only politically feasible option.*

I don’t have time for a lengthy analysis, but in a few words I want to suggest that this conclusion is premature.  I live in Washington State and saw the battle unfold first hand in real time.  Voters were not asked by opponents of 1631 to reject carbon pricing; on the contrary.  And it was the failure to draft and promote a straight-ahead carbon pricing law that doomed it.

While supporters of 1631 point to money from fossil fuel interests as the “cause” of their defeat, the actual propaganda of the No side did not belittle the threat of climate change, nor did it even argue against the need for action to reduce emissions.  It hammered on these points:

1. 1631 was weak.  It excluded too much of the state’s emissions and wouldn’t have a meaningful impact on them.

2. Nevertheless it would raise energy bills for virtually all the state’s residents.

3. It proposed an undemocratic procedure for allocating carbon revenues.

The money behind this message may be “bad”, but the message itself was correct.  1631 was so poorly conceived that the arguments of the troglodytes were closer to the truth than those of the progressives.  Take them one by one:

1. 1631 was the second carbon tax initiative in two years.  Last year’s effort, I-732, had broader coverage and allowed for higher carbon prices over time.  It was opposed by progressives, who organized to defeat it and then drew up their own, weaker proposal.  There is a lot of detail to go into, but the short version is that 1631’s carbon price was essentially symbolic, a few cents on the carbon dollar.  It was not a meaningful action to deal with the threat of a climate catastrophe.

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Nobel Prizes in Economics, Awarded and Withheld

Nobel Prizes in Economics, Awarded and Withheld

Most of the commentary today on the decision to award Nobel prizes in economics to William Nordhaus and Paul Romer has focused on the recipients.  I want to talk about the nonrecipient whose nonprize is perhaps the most important statement by the Riksbank, the Swedish central bank that decides who should be recognized each year for their work in economics “in memory of Alfred Nobel”.

Nordhaus was widely expected to be a winner for his work on the economics of climate change.  For decades he has assembled and tweaked a model called DICE (Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy), that melds computable general equilibrium theory from economics and equations from the various strands of climate science.  His goal has been to estimate the “optimal” amount of climate change, where the marginal cost of abating it equals the marginal cost of undergoing it.  From this comes an optimal carbon price, the “social cost of carbon”, which should be implemented now and allowed to rise over time at the rate of interest.  In his first published work using DICE, from the early 1990s, he recommended a carbon tax of $5 a tonne of CO2, inching slowly upward until peaking at $20 in 2085.  His “optimal” policy was expected to result in an atmospheric concentration of CO2 of over 1400 ppm (parts per million) at the end of this planning horizon, yielding global warming in excess of 3º C.  (Nordhaus, 1992)

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A Few Thoughts on “Sorry to Bother You”

A Few Thoughts on “Sorry to Bother You”

I saw this film several weeks ago and have been meaning to say a few things about it.  Herewith:

1. This is an exceptionally intelligent movie by American standards.  It maintains a high level of wit and observation from beginning to end, and little zingers flash by in almost every frame without announcing themselves.  It speaks up to its audience, something I really appreciate.

2. STBY fits into a tradition of films in which the act of organizing a union and carrying out a job action is held up as a revolutionary political and personal challenge.  Other examples include “Norma Rae” and “Bread and Roses”, but actually I was reminded even more of “The Cradle Will Rock”, at least in spirit.

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Citizens United, Thoroughly Debunked

Citizens United, Thoroughly Debunked

I admit I haven’t paid too much attention to debates over Citizens United, since I regard the direction taken by regulation, control over who may contribute to political campaigns and how much they can put up, to be misguided.  I would like to see comprehensive control over how much money can be spent on behalf of candidates, period.  (I would also like to see a mandate that all such contributions be funneled through an intermediary, like a public political finance fund, that keeps the identities of donors hidden from recipients.)  While CU has been yet another blow to democracy, the demand that plutocrats use one vehicle to flood the system rather than another is second best.

That said, I was struck by this new critique of CU.  Its authors, Jonathan Macey and Leo Strine, base their analysis on a point I was familiar with in the context of economic debates over the Jensenian shareholder rights theory of the firm, but its application to CU is obvious once you think about it.  The article ranges over a number of topics, but here’s the core, taken from the abstract:

In this Article we show that Citizens United v. FEC, arguably the most important First Amendment case of the new millennium, is predicated on a fundamental misconception about the nature of the corporation. Specifically, Citizens United v. FEC, which prohibited the government from restricting independent expenditures for corporate communications, and held that corporations enjoy the same free speech rights to engage in political spending as human citizens, is grounded on the erroneous theory that corporations are “associations of citizens” rather than what they actually are: independent legal entities distinct from those who own their stock…..[C]orporations do not have owners, they have investors who have contract-based, financial interests in the firms and limited management rights.

The best ideas often seem obvious once they are put forward, but the trick is to see them in the first place.

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“as a”

“as a”

Kwame Anthony Appiah has an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times dissecting the “as a” locution, in which one first announces one’s gender, race, sexual orientation, or class position before making an argument during a public discussion.  He interprets it as a claim to represent the entire group defined in the preparatory clause, and explains why this claim is invalid; better you should begin with “speaking for myself”.  But I disagree with his interpretation of what “as a” means; I think it communicates speaking from rather than speaking for.

From my experience, “as a” is an acknowledgment that one’s view of the world is limited by one’s background and identity.  It’s a way to anticipate the criticism that what is being said is not universal or “true” in some objective but unattainable sense.  Of course, that limitation can be valorized in different ways.  If an oppressed identity is being invoked—or even better, an intersectionality of multiple oppressed identities—the partiality of perspective is even a strength, because it brings to the fore experiences and ideas that have historically been marginalized.  By the same token, if one is speaking “as a” member of a dominant identity, the limitations are pernicious because they reinforce what has been unfairly imposed over the same long duration.

From an epistemological perspective, the immediate problem is that the “as a” formulation conflates two different consequences of the speaker being positioned in the world rather than above or outside it.  One has to do with differences of experience, the other with proclivity to believe.

 

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Would Serious Climate Change Mitigation Policy Increase World Hunger?

Would Serious Climate Change Mitigation Policy Increase World Hunger?

That’s the finding of a recent study published in Nature Climate Change, “Risk of Increased Food Insecurity under Stringent Global Climate Change Mitigation Policy” by an international team of 22 researchers.  (Coauthorship like this is why god created et al.)  The abstract has made the rounds of the blogosphere, including Marginal Revolution, which is where I found it.

The article reports an integrated assessment model (IAM) exercise in which various scenarios are run, each consisting of a climate piece (how agriculture will be affected by climate change) and a climate policy piece (how steep a carbon tax is imposed and how it impacts production and consumption).  More tax, less climate change and vice versa.  The unsurprising result is that, if the tax is universal and large it will raise food prices, putting millions more people at risk of hunger.

But where does all this extra money collected in carbon taxes go?  That was not addressed: “In most models, carbon tax revenue stays outside of agricultural sectors both on the producer and consumer sides, and is not properly redistributed to affected people.”  That’s all they say about carbon revenues, but it’s enough to explain why climate policy is portrayed as a threat to the world’s poor.  In any sensible approach, carbon taxes or moneys collected from carbon permit auctions are returned to the people who pay them in a progressive manner, so those with the lowest incomes come out ahead.  (They get back more in rebates than they pay in higher prices.)  The simplest way to do this is with an equal per capita dividend.

I did a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation of the effect of a global carbon price rebated via an equal lump sum payment everywhere.  For every dollar of this price, $12.5 billion is effectively transferred from upper to lower income countries.  (Details will appear in my climate change book when it appears next year.)  Of course, there are large political and administrative problems to overcome in setting up such a system, but they are not insurmountable, especially since higher income countries can decide (or negotiate) how to divvy up carbon revenues between those destined for national versus international rebates.

So, yes, a global carbon tax as modeled by the Nature Climate Change team would make the poor poorer, but the one additional tweak of recycling the money on an equal per capita basis would lead to the opposite effect.

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Mush versus Mush on Climate Change

Mush versus Mush on Climate Change

The very long New York Times piece on climate change politics in the 1980s by Nathaniel Rich has attracted a lot of critical commentary—justifiably.  To say that the failure to achieve a political response was due to human nature, a genetic defect that prevents our species from planning ahead, is just lazy and wrong.  Were the scientists, environmentalists and other activists that did want to take action a bunch of mutants?  Haven’t humans acted with foresight (and also failed to act) since time immemorial?  “Human nature” explains everything and nothing; it’s what you invoke when you don’t want to do the digging a real explanation would require.

I wish the left had a solid response to this immobilizing mushiness, but instead it mostly offers its own version of counter-mush.  A case in point is Naomi Klein.  I’ve already written at length about her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism and the Climate, but I don’t want to let her latest piece at The Intercept pass without notice.

Klein rightly excoriates Rich, but then goes on to make this argument:

Capitalism, not human nature, is responsible for climate inaction.
Capitalism is an ideology that worships profit and “endless growth”.
Its purest form is neoliberalism.
The late 1980s was the high water mark of neoliberalism, so climate activism was suppressed.
We must reject capitalism by adopting the earth-centered philosophy of indigenous peoples.
Politically, this means embracing a caring economy of green jobs, meeting human needs and rejecting “extractivism”.

If this were just Klein’s own idiosyncratic viewpoint we could shrug and move on, but since it reflects what may be the main current in left thinking about the climate crisis, it matters that it turns what ought to be well focused and clear into a thick, gummy soup.

No, capitalism is not an ideology.  What makes Jeff Bezos a capitalist is not his belief system but his ownership and deployment of capital.  Capitalism is a system of institutions that give economic and political primacy to the possession and control of capital.  There is no single metric that captures the effect that a capitalist context has on an issue like climate change, but the starting point is surely anticipated capital gains or losses from a given policy.  (One way we can tell that existing policies are largely toothless is that their enactment had imperceptible effects on asset prices.)

Yes, the 1980s was the zenith of the modern neoliberal project, but there are currents within neoliberalism that support climate action.  One doesn’t have to be a fan of this school of thought to recognize that it’s not monolithic on environmental matters—or on racism, criminal justice, public health and other questions.

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The Value of Life and the Metaphor of Choice

The Value of Life and the Metaphor of Choice

Perhaps no topic generates such bewilderment between economists and the general public as the monetary valuation of human life, or the value of a statistical life (VSL) to use the term preferred by professional economists.  Economists insist that longevity is a commodity bought and sold on markets like anything else, which means it has a price and an underlying schedule of willingness to pay just as we would find for any other good or service.  Most noneconomists regard this as madness: surely the value of a human life can’t be expressed as the equivalent of a certain number of pizzas, even a very large number of pizzas.  But, respond the economists, you do trade off longer life against pizzas, or at least the money that could be used to buy them, since there is a limit to how much you’ll spend to reduce a physical risk.  And then there is a reply to the reply: yes, but that has nothing to do with the value of being alive, which can’t be reduced to a monetary price.  And it goes back and forth from there, with neither side able to understand the other.

Elsewhere I have made substantive arguments for why we are better off without putting monetary values on our lives, but I won’t get into that here.  My interest at the moment is the incomprehension on all sides of the VSL debate.

Here’s what I think it comes down to: the metaphor of choice.  This metaphor is so deeply ingrained in economic analysis most economists can’t think beyond it, but the moment it is invoked the very notion of what it means to be alive rather than dead is rendered irrelevant.

No need to reinvent the wheel.  I discussed the metaphor of choice in my introductory micro text:

 

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