The Nobel Economists Petitiion on Carbon Tax And Dividend Plan
As many now know, a large group of prominent economists, led by a large group of Nobel Prize winners, has published a petition in the Wall Street Journal. This petition declares the idea of putting a tax on carbon and then returning the receipts from it to the population on an even per capita basis to be the best and most efficient plan for dealing with global warming. This group continues to encourage more professional economists to sign this petition. I had previously received an invitation from Janet Yellen to do so, and today one came from Larry Summers. I kind of doubt that either specifically directed that I receive the invitation or, less likely, actually sent the message, although I could be wrong as I do know both of them. This petition shows how powerful this revenue neutral carbon tax fad has become.
As it is, I have not signed it, and my use of the word “fad” indicates my attitude. I really do not get why so many proiment and clearly highly intelligent economists have signed onto this proposal as being the one and only way to deal with this problem. Why are these people not mentioning cap and trade as an alternative (formerly known as “tradeable emissions permits”). There are multiple reasons to believe that cap and trade is at least as good if not better than this tax dividend proposal, both in terms of effectiveness and also in terms of the politics of getting something done.
The most famous cap and trade plan was that enacted in the US in 1990 for SO2 emissions. This plan eventually got superceded, but until that point it was universally viewed as a successful program, substantially reducing such emissions in a manner that did not trigger noticeable economic pain. There are now a substnatial number of carbon cap and trade systems in place, with the first one out the door being that of the EU, put in place to obey the Kyoto Protocol, which actually favored such systems. That system has faced criticism and had a major decline in its price in 2006, but has since stabilized, a fact not widely reported. Very recently the system has been put in place by the world’s largest emitter, China. Other nations or major sub-national units adopting cap and trade for carbon include South Korea, California, and Ontario, The closest we came ot having a national program to deal wiith carbone emissions in the US was early in Obama’s first term when he got a cap and trade plan passed by the House of Representatives, only to have it blocked by Republicans in the Senate.
Economic Growth and Climate Change: Mistaking an Output Variable for an Instrument
When I first startedarguing against the degrowthers, I thought they were a small, uninfluential fringe, important only because they had a sway over a portion of the left—what we might call the Naomi Klein left. That was then. Today degrowth is entering the mainstream, as can be seen by the latest David Roberts piece in Vox. Roberts reviews a discussion between several economists on the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) website. (INET is a Soros-affiliated outfit whose mission is to push economics in a more progressive direction.) The key article is by Enno Schröder and Servaas Storm; using historical data, they test for the potential of decoupling economic growth and carbon emissions, finding the scale of decarbonization we need is incompatible with economic growth—hence the need to reject economic growth as a social objective. A similar perspective is provided by Gregor Semieniuk, Lance Taylor, and Armon Rezai, while a rebuttal comes from Michael Grubb. All three papers are authored or coauthored by important figures in the academic left or center-left, and their point of dispute reflects the expanding influence of the degrowth perspective.
If I had more time I’d write up a response in the form of a paper. (Actually I am writing a response, but it will be a book.) For now a blog post will have to do. Here’s what I think these estimable economists are missing:
1. Economic growth is not, not, not a policy variable. There is no magic button available to society that delivers a given rate of economic growth, or degrowth for that matter. It’s an outcome of a host of factors, some of which are controllable, others not. Indeed, as we wait for quarterly GDP numbers to be revised several quarters later, we still don’t know what economic growth or contraction we’ve experienced. It is true that politicians often speak of the need to adopt some policy or other for sake of economic growth, but at best they are proposing to push on one of the many factors that influences it. There is no growth dial, and even if there were, twisting it a few notches would have almost no impact on carbon emissions, which need to fall by nearly 100% within two generations.
Cars: The electric car is becoming prominent China. China registered as many as 352,000 new electric vehicles (EV) in 2016 compared to 159,000 cars registered in the US during the same time period and mostly in California.
Automotive analysts suggest China’s numbers could be inflated due to subsidy cheating: but, even the lower estimates remain higher than the US. Navigant Consulting puts China’s 2016 figure at an approximate 250,000, but, it expects new registrations will nearly double this year in 2018.
China wants 11% of all vehicle sales to be EV by 2020 and would add up to 3 million sales annually. It is thought most of the next generation will never own a gasoline powered vehicle.
Electric two-wheelers have transformed the way people move in most Chinese cities. In just ten years, the growth in the electric two-wheelers category (that includes vehicles ranging from electric bicycles to electric motorcycles) has increased the total number of vehicles in China. Electric bike sales began modestly in the 1990s and started to take off in 2004, when 40,000 were sold. Since then, over 100 million have been sold and now more than 20 million are sold each year. Electric two wheelers, in short, represent the first mass produced and adopted alternative fuel vehicles in the history of motorization.
Cobalt is a key ingredient used in lithium-ion batteries to power everything from Apple products to Tesla cars. As it happens, the great cobalt boom of 2017 follows a bumper year for lithium, which rose by around 80% in price in 2016. More than 60% of the world’s Cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of Congo making it one of the hardest things to get a supply of today. The Republic of Congo uses children labor as young as 5 years old to mine the mineral. Many companies have signed agreements not to use minerals mined in the DRC.
The shortage of Cobalt has promulgated a rise in pricing and an investor can make a serious amount of money in a short amount of time by buying cobalt. The price per ton of the metal has soared by almost 70% this year, driven by demand for rechargeable batteries in EVs.
In the mean time, US automakers continue to invest in more efficient gasoline driven larger vehicles such as SUVs and trucks. Many of them are eliminating automobiles as demand has decreased. We have been down this path before when foreign automakers started shipping more smaller vehicles to the US to fill the gap. I suspect we will see the same happen in the near future.
On the Front Lines of Climate Change: Old White Homeowners, Many of them Upper Class
The other night I was sitting at home, locked in a conversation about climate change and race. How is this a racial issue, I asked? I realize that the society I live in has pervasive racism, and one should always keep this in mind, but how specifically is climate change worse for nonwhites?
Well, it’s all about first and worst impacts, I was told. People of color are on the front lines. They are the one experiencing the most severe consequences, and therefore failure to act against climate change is environmental racism. The key example is Hurricane Katrina. That was an early impact of global warming, and what was it if it wasn’t a racist horror show? Whose houses were flooded? Who was forced to flee the city? Who were gunned down by police and blocked by white vigilantes along the way? Whaddyamean climate change isn’t about racism?
OK, I replied. I understand the racial geography of New Orleans, and the aftermath of Katrina was every bit the nightmare you say it was. But what about the recent Camp Fire in California? That was an early impact of climate change too, and lots of people were killed. Even more lost everything they had. But from what I could see in the coverage of it, most of the folks out there were white working people or retirees who were priced out of the Bay Area. I guess that makes the vanguard of the movement against climate change a bunch of older white dudes.
The Arctic has experienced the “most unprecedented transition in history” in terms of warming temperatures and melting ice, and those changes may be the cause of extreme weather around the globe, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2018 Arctic Report Card.
The annual report released Tuesday says rapid warming over the past three decades has led to a 95 percent decline of the Arctic’s oldest and thickest ice. This research comes as world leaders convene at the U.N. climate summit in Poland this week where they are debating whether to embrace the findings of an October report by the International Panel on Climate Change.
The melting of sea ice is one of the most conspicuous examples of climate change in the Arctic, and scientists say it may be the catalyst for extreme environmental events across the world.
According to NOAA, the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, which is melting some of the region’s oldest ice.
At the CEPR blog, Beat the Press, Dean Baker and Jason Hickel are debating degrowth. Dean makes the excellent point that “claims about growth” from oil companies and politicians who oppose policies to restrict greenhouse gas emissions, “are just window dressing.” I also agree, however, with the first comment in response to Dean’s post that his point about window dressing could be taken much further.
I would add that economic growth is window dressing for what used to be referred to much more aggressively as “man’s triumph over nature” or the “control of nature.” Climate change deniers are more forthright about this connection between aggression and so-called growth: “Is “Strive on — the control of nature is won, not given” a controversial statement? What does it mean for science if it is?” asks Linnea Lueken at the Heartland Institute website.
Scattered throughout his writings, Donald Winnicott made fleeting but intense criticisms of “sentimentality.” “Sentimentality is useless for parents,” he remarked in a 1949 article on the analysis of psychotic patients, “as it contains a denial of hate, and sentimentality in a mother is no good at all from the infant’s point of view.” The inference he drew from this observation was that “a psychotic patient in analysis cannot be expected to tolerate his hate of the analyst unless the analyst can hate him.”
In a 1946 article on the treatment of juvenile delinquents, he warned against “one of the biggest threats” to the use of psychological methods in the management of young offenders was “the adoption of a sentimental attitude towards crime:
If advances seem to come but are based on sentimentality, they are valueless; reaction must surely set in, and the advances had better never have been made. In sentimentality there is repressed or unconscious hate, and this repression is unhealthy. Sooner or later the hate turns up.
The most thorough discussion by Winnicott of his aversion to sentimentality is probably his 1939 article, “Aggression and its roots.” As it is only three paragraphs, I quote it in its entirety:
Finally, all aggression that is not denied, and for which personal responsibility can be accepted, is available to give strength to the work of reparation and restitution. At the back of all play, work, and art, is unconscious remorse about harm done in unconscious fantasy, and an unconscious desire to start putting things right.
Sentimentality contains an unconscious denial of the destructiveness underlying construction. It is withering to the developing child, and eventually it can make him need to show in direct form destructiveness which, in a less sentimental milieu, he could have conveyed indirectly by showing a desire to construct.
It is partly false to state that we ‘should provide opportunity for creative expression if we are to counter children’s destructive urges’. What is needed is an unsentimental attitude towards all productions, which means the appreciation not so much of talent as of the struggle behind all achievement, however small. For, apart from sensual love, no human manifestation of love is felt to be valuable that does not imply aggression acknowledged and harnessed.
He might well have added, “And I’m not so sure about sensual love.”
This all may sound somewhat arbitrary and speculative but actually it is a very compressed and jargon-free application of Melanie Klein’s developmental theory of the self. What Klein referred to as the depressive position involves an infant’s feeling of “guilt” — or in Winnicott’s less extravagant terminology, “concern” — about its aggressive fantasies toward its mother. In Klein’s rather lurid account of the infant’s aggressive fantasy:
The phantasied attacks on the mother follow two main lines: one is the predominantly oral impulse to suck dry, bite up, scoop out, and rob the mother’s body of its good contents.… The other line of attack derives from the anal and urethral impulses and implies expelling dangerous substances (excrements) out of the self and into the mother.… These excrements and bad parts of the self are meant not only to injure the object but also to control it and take possession of it.
Whether or not the infant has such unconscious aggressive fantasies about the mother’s body, Rex Tillerson, when he was CEO of Exxon, expressed similar, fully-conscious ones, “My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do…” Robert White-Stevens, the corporate-designated nemesis of Rachel Carson following the publication of Silent Spring, exemplified the “control of nature” faction of science:
Miss Carson maintains that the balance of nature is a major force in the survival of man, whereas the modern chemist, the modern biologist and scientist, believes that man is steadily controlling nature.
White-Stevens’s vision of a “feeble creature” penetrating “every corner of the planet,” and “contest[ing] the very laws and powers of Nature, herself,” could have been written as a Kleinian parody of the of the infantile arrogance of scientistic triumphalism:
Within the past 100 years, man has emerged from a feeble creature, virtually at the mercy of Nature and his environment, to become the only being which can penetrate every corner of the planet, communicate instantly to anywhere on earth, produce all the food, fiber, and shelter he needs, wherever he may need it, change the topography of his lands, the sea and the universe and prepare his voyage through the very arch of heaven into space itself.
This is the stuff that science is made of, and man has learned to use it. He cannot now go back; he has crossed his Rubicon and must advance into the future armed with the reason and the tools of his sciences, and in so doing will doubtless have to contest the very laws and powers of Nature herself. He has done this already by expanding his numbers far beyond her tolerance and by interrupting her laws of inheritance and survival. Now, he must go all the way, for he cannot but partially contest Nature. He has chosen to lead the way; he must take the responsibility upon himself.
But I digress. What does all this have to do with economic growth? Again, as Winnicott explained, “aggression that is not denied, and for which personal responsibility can be accepted, is available to give strength to the work of reparation and restitution.” However, “[i]n sentimentality there is repressed or unconscious hate, and this repression is unhealthy. Sooner or later the hate turns up.” Indeed, the hate does turn up at the Heartland Institute, where the “Green New Deal” is exposed as the “Old Socialist Despotism.”If it fails to acknowledge the primitive aggression of “man’s triumph over nature” that lies beneath the reparation of adopting environmentally-friendly policies, the debate between degrowth and green growth risks descending into sentimental bickering about the window dressing in the hotel on the edge of the abyss.
In the absence of significant global mitigation action and regional adaptation efforts, rising temperatures, sea level rise, and changes in extreme events are expected to increasingly disrupt and damage critical infrastructure and property, labor productivity, and the vitality of our communities. Regional economies and industries that depend on natural resources and favorable climate conditions, such as agriculture, tourism, and fisheries, are vulnerable to the growing impacts of climate change. Rising temperatures are projected to reduce the efficiency of power generation while increasing energy demands, resulting in higher electricity costs. The impacts of climate change beyond our borders are expected to increasingly affect our trade and economy, including import and export prices and U.S. businesses with overseas operations and supply chains. Some aspects of our economy may see slight near-term improvements in a modestly warmer world. However, the continued warming that is projected to occur without substantial and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions is expected to cause substantial net damage to the U.S. economy throughout this century, especially in the absence of increased adaptation efforts. With continued growth in emissions at historic rates, annual losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century—more than the current gross domestic product (GDP) of many U.S. states.
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.
Three weeks ago, in response to the IPCC report warning that CO2 emissions had to be reduced to 45% of their 2010 levels by 2030 to avoid the possibility of global temperature rising above 1.5°C, I posted “The IPCC 1.5° C Report and the Ten-Hour Week,” (also posted at Angry Bear) which offered the sketch of a plan for how to do that. I have no illusions that the IPCC or any other prestigious organization will latch on to this idea and seek to flesh it out with concrete policy proposals. In some respects, I offered the Ten-Hour Week more as a thought experiment, a way of thinking about the scope and scale of effort required.
I also posted it to the sustainable consumption discussion list, SCORAI, where it got some very perceptive questions from participants. With permission, I am posting the questions and answers below. Thanks for questions, comments and permission to Thomas Love, Professor of Anthropology, Linfield College, Oregon; John de Graaf, film maker and co-author of Affluenza, Seattle, Washington; Anna Berka, Research Fellow, Energy Centre, University of Auckland Business School, New Zealand; and William Rees, Professor Emeritus Faculty of Applied Science School of Community of Regional Planning, UBC, Vancouver, BC.
Thanks Tom Walker for a compelling thought experiment. Interestingly compatible with the analysis David Graeber takes in his recent Bullshit Jobs, wondering about the nature of work in late capitalism and why we work so hard, even when over a third of people in the UK and the Netherlands report that their work (for which they are sometimes well remunerated) makes no difference in the world. The work week could be drastically shrunk with little apparent effect on overall economic performance.
But I’m missing a step in your thinking here. The kinds of bullshit jobs Graeber documents are almost all white collar bureaucratic positions, whether private or public. So even taking all your simplifying assumptions into account, why would emissions reduce by a rate corresponding to hours worked? Presumably agricultural and industrial labor would proceed pretty much as is, in current quantities, no?
John de Graff:
I hope Tom [Walker] won’t mind my jumping in here. The bureaucratic jobs you mention pay better than many of the production jobs and the people who have them then spend on all sorts of consumer products, travel etc. It’s the total compensation/spending (eg. per capita GDP) that has the strongest connection to carbon footprint since there is no absolute de-coupling at all, and with relative decoupling, ecological and carbon footprints continue to rise (albeit more slowly) as GDP increases. The spending of the white collar workers drives the increases in production of the agricultural and industrial laborers. It may not be a 1:1 effect, but Tom is absolutely right here. A cut in these bullshit jobs will render much overproduction untenable, forcing shorter working hours in the ag and industrial sectors to prevent massive unemployment. Am I getting this right, Tom?
Following up on my Running on Empty post, I wanted to give a more finely-grained analysis of climate costs relative to GDP growth, so I returned to my sources to see who their sources were and how they did their calculations. Watson et al., compiled their estimate from National Centers for Environmental Information, “U.S. Billion Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters” and Paulina Jaramillo and Nicholas Muller, “Air pollution emissions and damages from energy production in the U.S. 2002-2011.”
Jacobson, Delucchi et al. presented their estimates in two tables, broken down by country. I had taken what I thought was 15% of their global climate cost estimate but it turns out that my number was roughly double theirs. I may have taken their high estimate instead of the mean. Anyway their actual estimate was around $4 trillion in 2013 dollars. But that is not the mistake I am concerned with here.
The mistake came to light after I had all the carefully checked numbers, recalculated in 2012 dollars and I compared annual GDP growth to annual health and climate costs. Climate costs exceeded growth in 13 of the 28 years from 1990 to 2017. Over the entire period those costs offset 95% of reported real GDP growth. Or so the numbers claimed.
Then I tried a different tack. I subtracted estimated annual climate costs from GDP and then calculated annual growth. To my surprise the resulting annual growth was only somewhat lower. O.K., I thought, I’m starting from a much lower total in the base year and the year-to-year number reflects only the the annual increase in climate costs and not the annual cost.
So which calculation, then, is the “right” one? Year-to-year growth minus annual cost or Year-to-year growth of (GDP minus climate cost)? Neither! Both calculations rely on double counting of the sort that Irving Fisher warned about 112 years ago.
The problem is also illustrated by the relationship between GDP and Net Domestic Product. Annual growth of Net Domestic Product and Gross Domestic Product track each other pretty closely:
Meanwhile, look at what has happened to depreciation. It has nearly doubled as a percentage of GDP, from around 9% in the late 1940s to almost 17% in recent years.
Something that doesn’t show up too well in the graph above is that most of the growth in depreciation relative to GDP has occurred in the last 48 years. So, doubling every half century we could have an economy in 125 years that runs entirely on depreciation! But that would be O.K. because GDP would be so much BIGGER then. Isn’t that right, Professor Nordhaus? Professor Solow? Professor Krugman?
I don’t have the solution to this computational problem, other than to point out that it is the inevitable consequence of a poorly-conceived metaphor for the “measurement” of heterogeneous good and services. The monetary yardstick is made of a highly elastic material and correction for changes in the cost of a basket of consumer goods (CPI) does not begin to address the real issue. GDP and GDP growth has become the increasingly opaque lens through which we view society and “the economy.” It is a cracked, scratched, smudged, distorting lens that may not even enable us to tell whether what we view through it is upside up or upside down.