Voting Your Dollars

May 28 JDN 2460093

It’s no secret that Americans don’t like to pay taxes. It’s almost a founding principle of our country, really, going all the way back to the Boston Tea Party. This is likely part of why the US has one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the First World; our taxes are barely half what they pay in Scandinavia. And this in turn surely contributes to our ongoing budget issues and our stingy social welfare spending. (Speaking of budget issues: As of this writing, the debt ceiling debacle is still unresolved.)

Why don’t Americans like to pay taxes? Why does no one really like to pay taxes (though some seem more willing than others)?

It surely has something to do with the fact that taxes are so coercive: You have to pay them, you get no choice. And you also have very little choice as to how that money is used; yes, you can vote for politicians who will in theory at some point enact budgets that might possibly reflect the priorities they expressed in their campaigns—but the actual budget invariably ends up quite far removed from the campaign promises you could vote based on.

What if we could give you more choice? We can’t let people choose how much to pay—then most people would choose to pay less and we’d be in even more trouble. (If you want to pay more than you’re required to, the IRS will actually let you right now. You can just refuse your refund.) But perhaps we could let people choose where the money goes?

I call this program Vote Your Dollars. I would initially limit it to a small fraction of the budget, tied to a tax increase: Say, raise taxes enough to increase revenue by 5% and use that 5% for the program.

Under Vote Your Dollars, on your tax return, you are given a survey, asking you how you want to divide up your additional money toward various categories. I think they should be fairly broad categories, such as ‘healthcare’, ‘social security’, ‘anti-poverty programs’, ‘defense’, ‘foreign aid’. If we make them too specific, it would be more work for the voters and also more likely to lead to foolish allocations. We want them to basically reflect a voter’s priorities, rather than ask them to make detailed economic management decisions. Most voters are not qualified to properly allocate a budget; the goal here is to get people to weight how much they care about different programs.

As only a small portion of the budget, Vote Your Dollars would initially have very little real fiscal impact. Money is fungible, so any funds that were expected to go somewhere else than where voters put them could easily be reallocated as needed. But I suspect that most voters would fail to appreciate this effect, and thus actually feel like they have more control than they really do. (If voters understood fungibility and inframarginal transfers, they’d never have supported food stamps over just giving poor people cash.)

Moreover, it would still provide useful information, namely: What happens when voters are given this power? Do they make decisions that seem to make sense and reflect their interests and beliefs? Does the resulting budget actually seem like one that could be viable? Could it even be better than what we currently have in some ways?

I suspect that the result would be better than most economists and political scientists imagine. There seems to be a general sense that voters are too foolish or apathetic to usefully participate in politics, which of course would raise the very big question: Why does democracy work?

I don’t think that most voters would choose a perfect budget; indeed, I already said I wouldn’t trust them with the fine details of how to allocate the funds. But I do think most people have at least some reasonable idea of how important they think healthcare is relative to defense, and it would be good to at least gather that information in a more direct way.

If it goes well and Vote Your Dollars seems to result in reasonable budgets even for that extra 5%, we could start expanding it to a larger portion of the overall budget. Try 10% for the next election, then 15% for the next. There should always be some part that remains outside direct voter control, because voters would almost certainly underspend on certain categories (such as administration and national debt payments) and likely overspend on others.

This would allow us to increase taxes—which we clearly must do, because we need to improve government services, but we don’t want to go further into debt—while giving voters more choice, and thus making taxes feel less coercive. Being forced to pay a certain amount each year might not sting as much if you get to say where a significant portion of that money goes.

To give voters even more control over their money, I think I would also include a provision whereby you can deduct the full amount of your charitable contributions to certain high-impact charities (we would need to come up with a good list, but clear examples include UNICEF, Oxfam, and GiveWell) from your tax payment. Currently, you deduct charitable contributions from your income, which means you don’t pay taxes on those donations; but you still end up with less money after donating than you did before. If we let you deduct the full amount, then you would have the same amount after donating, and effectively the government would pay the full cost of your donation. Presumably this would lead to people donating a great deal; this might hurt tax revenues, but its overall positive impact on the world would be so large that it is obviously worth it. By the time we have given enough to UNICEF to meaningfully impact the US federal budget, we have ended world hunger.

Of course, it’s very unlikely that anything like Vote Your Dollars would ever be implemented. There are already ways we could make paying taxes less painful that we haven’t done—such as sending you a bill, as they do in Denmark, rather than making you file a tax form. And we could already increase revenue with very little real cost by simply expanding the IRS and auditing rich people more. These simple, obvious reforms have been repeatedly obstructed by powerful lobbies, who personally benefit from the current system even though it’s obviously a bad system. I guess I can’t think of anyone in particular who would want to lobby against Vote Your Dollars, but I feel like Republicans might just because they want taxes to hurt as much as possible so that they have an excuse to cut spending.

But still, I thought I’d put the idea out there.

Why does democracy work?

May 14 JDN 2460079

A review of Democracy for Realists

I don’t think it can be seriously doubted that democracy does, in fact, work. Not perfectly, by any means; but the evidence is absolutely overwhelming that more democratic societies are better than more authoritarian societies by just about any measure you could care to use.

When I first started reading Democracy for Realists and saw their scathing, at times frothing criticism of mainstream ideas of democracy, I thought they were going to try to disagree with that; but in the end they don’t. Achen and Bartels do agree that democracy works; they simply think that why and how it works is radically different from what most people think.

For it is a very long-winded book, and in dire need of better editing. Most of the middle section of the book is taken up by a deluge of empirical analysis, most of which amounts to over-interpreting the highly ambiguous results of underpowered linear regressions on extremely noisy data. The sheer quantity of them seems intended to overwhelm any realization that no particular one is especially compelling. But a hundred weak arguments don’t add up to a single strong one.

To their credit, the authors often include the actual scatter plots; but when you look at those scatter plots, you find yourself wondering how anyone could be so convinced these effects are real and important. Many of them seem more prone to new constellations.

Their econometric techniques are a bit dubious, as well; at one point they said they “removed outliers” but then the examples they gave as “outliers” were the observations most distant from their regression line rather than the rest of the data. Removing the things furthest from your regression line will always—always—make your regression seem stronger. But that’s not what outliers are. Other times, they add weird controls or exclude parts of the sample for dubious reasons, and I get the impression that these are the cherry-picked results of a much larger exploration. (Why in the world would you exclude Catholics from a study of abortion attitudes? And this study on shark attacks seems awfully specific….) And of course if you try 20 regressions at random, you can expect that at least 1 of them will probably show up with p < 0.05. I think they are mainly just following the norms of their discipline—but those norms are quite questionable.

They don’t ever get into much detail as to what sort of practical institutional changes they would recommend, so it’s hard to know whether I would agree with those. Some of their suggestions, such as more stringent rules on campaign spending, I largely agree with. Others, such as their opposition to popular referenda and recommendation for longer term limits, I have more mixed feelings about. But none seem totally ridiculous or even particularly radical, and they really don’t offer much detail about any of them. I thought they were going to tell me that appointment of judges is better than election (which many experts widely agree), or that the Electoral College is a good system (which far fewer experts would assent to, at least since George W. Bush and Donald Trump). In fact they didn’t do that; they remain eerily silent on substantive questions like this.

Honestly, what little they have to say about institutional policy feels a bit tacked on at the end, as if they suddenly realized that they ought to say something useful rather than just spend the whole time tearing down another theory.

In fact, I came to wonder if they really were tearing down anyone’s actual theory, or if this whole book was really just battering a strawman. Does anyone really think that voters are completely rational? At one point they speak of an image of the ‘sovereign omnicompetent voter’; is that something anyone really believes in?

It does seem like many people believe in making government more responsive to the people, whereas Achen and Bartels seem to have the rather distinct goal of making government make better decisions. They were able to find at least a few examples—though I know not how far and wide they had to search—where it seemed like more popular control resulted in worse outcomes, such as water fluoridation and funding for fire departments. So maybe the real substantive disagreement here is over whether more or less direct democracy is a good idea. And that is indeed a reasonable question. But one need not believe that voters are superhuman geniuses to think that referenda are better than legislation. Simply showing that voters are limited in their capacity and bound to group identity is not enough to answer that question.

In fact, I think that Achen and Bartels seriously overestimate the irrationality of voters, because they don’t seem to appreciate that group identity is often a good proxy for policy—in fact, they don’t even really seem to see social policy as policy at all. Consider this section (p. 238):

“In this pre-Hitlerian age it must have seemed to most Jews that there were no crucial issues dividing the major parties” (Fuchs 1956, 63). Yet by 1923, a very substantial majority of Jews had abandoned their Republican loyalties and begun voting for the Democrats. What had changed was not foreign policy, but rather the social status of Jews within one of America’s major political parties. In a very visible way, the Democrats had become fully accepting and incorporating of religious minorities, both Catholics and Jews. The result was a durable Jewish partisan realignment grounded in “ethnic solidarity”, in Gamm’s characterization.

Gee, I wonder why Jews would suddenly care a great deal which party was more respectful toward people like them? Okay, the Holocaust hadn’t happened yet, but anti-Semitism is very old indeed, and it was visibly creeping upward during that era. And just in general, if one party is clearly more anti-Semitic than the other, why wouldn’t Jews prefer the one that is less hateful toward them? How utterly blinded by privilege do you need to be to not see that this is an important policy difference?

Perhaps because they are both upper-middle-class straight White cisgender men (I would also venture a guess nominally but not devoutly Protestant), Achens and Bartel seem to have no concept that social policy directly affects people of minority identity, that knowing that one party accepts people like you and the other doesn’t is a damn good reason to prefer one over the other. This is not a game where we are rooting for our home team. This directly affects our lives.

I know quite a few transgender people, and not a single one is a Republican. It’s not because all trans people hate low taxes. It’s because the Republican Party has declared war on trans people.

This may also lead to trans people being more left-wing generally, as once you’re in a group you tend to absorb some views from others in that group (and, I’ll admit, Marxists and anarcho-communists seem overrepresented among LGBT people). But I absolutely know some LGBT people who would like to vote conservative for economic policy reasons, but realize they can’t, because it means voting for bigots who hate them and want to actively discriminate against them. There is nothing irrational or even particularly surprising about this choice. It would take a very powerful overriding reason for anyone to want to vote for someone who publicly announces hatred toward them.

Indeed, for me the really baffling thing is that there are political parties that publicly announce hatred toward particular groups. It seems like a really weird strategy for winning elections. That is the thing that needs to be explained here; why isn’t inclusiveness—at least a smarmy lip-service toward inclusiveness, like ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’ offices at universities—the default behavior of all successful politicians? Why don’t they all hug a Latina trans woman after kissing a baby and taking a selfie with the giant butter cow? Why is not being an obvious bigot considered a left-wing position?

Since it obviously is the case that many voters don’t want this hatred (at the very least, its targets!), in order for it not to damage electoral changes, it must be that some other voters do want this hatred. Perhaps they themselves define their own identity in opposition to other people’s identities. They certainly talk that way a lot: We hear White people fearing ‘replacement‘ by shifting racial demographics, when no sane forecaster thinks that European haplotypes are in any danger of disappearing any time soon. The central argument against gay marriage was always that it would somehow destroy straight marriage, by some mechanism never explained.

Indeed, perhaps it is this very blindness toward social policy that makes Achen and Bartels unable to see the benefits of more direct democracy. When you are laser-focused on economic policy, as they are, then it seems to you as though policy questions are mainly technical matters of fact, and thus what we need are qualified experts. (Though even then, it is not purely a matter of fact whether we should care more about inequality than growth, or more about unemployment than inflation.)

But once you include social policy, you see that politics often involves very real, direct struggles between conflicting interests and differing moral views, and that by the time you’ve decided which view is the correct one, you already have your answer for what must be done. There is no technical question of gay marriage; there is only a moral one. We don’t need expertise on such questions; we need representation. (Then again, it’s worth noting that courts have sometimes advanced rights more effectively than direct democratic votes; so having your interests represented isn’t as simple as getting an equal vote.)

Achen and Bartels even include a model in the appendix where politicians are modeled as either varying in competence or controlled by incentives; never once does it consider that they might differ in whose interests they represent. Yet I don’t vote for a particular politician just because I think they are more intelligent, or as part of some kind of deterrence mechanism to keep them from misbehaving (I certainly hope the courts do a better job of that!); I vote for them because I think they represent the goals and interests I care about. We aren’t asking who is smarter, we are asking who is on our side.

The central question that I think the book raises is one that the authors don’t seem to have much to offer on: If voters are so irrational, why does democracy work? I do think there is strong evidence that voters are irrational, though maybe not as irrational as Achen and Bartels seem to think. Honestly, I don’t see how anyone can watch Donald Trump get elected President of the United States and not think that voters are irrational. (The book was written before that; apparently there’s a new edition with a preface about Trump, but my copy doesn’t have that.) But it isn’t at all obvious to me what to do with that information, because even if so-called elites are in fact more competent than average citizens—which may or may not be true—the fact remains that their interests are never completely aligned. Thus far, representative democracy of one stripe or another seems to be the best mechanism we have for finding people who have sufficient competence while also keeping them on a short enough leash.

And perhaps that’s why democracy works as well as it does; it gives our leaders enough autonomy to let them generally advance their goals, but also places limits on how badly misaligned our leaders’ goals can be from our own.

The idiocy of the debt ceiling

Apr 23 JDN 2460058

I thought we had put this behind us. I guess I didn’t think the Republicans would stop using the tactic once they saw it worked, but I had hoped that the Democrats would come up with a better permanent solution so that it couldn’t be used again. But they did not, and here we are again: Republicans are refusing to raise the debt ceiling, we have now hit that ceiling, and we are running out of time before we have to start shutting down services or defaulting on debt. There are talks ongoing that may yet get the ceiling raised in time, but we’re now cutting it very close. Already the risk that we might default or do something crazy is causing turmoil in financial markets.

Because US Treasury bonds are widely regarded as one of the world’s most secure assets, and the US dollar is the most important global reserve currency, the entire world’s financial markets get disrupted every time there is an issue with the US national debt, and the debt ceiling creates such disruptions on the regular for no good reason.

I will try to offer some of my own suggestions for what to do here, but first, I want to make something very clear: The debt ceiling should not exist. I don’t think most people understand just how truly idiotic the entire concept of a debt ceiling is. It seems practically designed to make our government dysfunctional.

This is not like a credit card limit, where your bank imposes a limit on how much you can borrow based on how much they think you are likely to be able to repay. A lot of people have been making that analogy, and I can see why it’s tempting; but as usual, it’s important to remember that government debt is not like personal debt.

As I said some years ago, US government debt is about as close as the world is ever likely to come to a perfect credit market: with no effort at all, borrow as much as you want at low, steady interest rates, and everyone will always be sure that you will pay it back on time. The debt ceiling is a limit imposed by the government itself—it is not imposed by our creditors, who would be more than happy to lend us more.

Also, I’d like to remind you that some of the US national debt is owned by the US government itself (is that really even “debt”?) and most of what’s left is owned by US individuals or corporations—only about a third is owed to foreign powers. Here is a detailed breakdown of who owns US national debt.

There is no reason to put an arbitrary cap on the amount the US government can borrow. The only reason anyone is at all worried about a default on the US national debt is because of this stupid arbitrary cap. If it didn’t exist, they would simply roll over more Treasury bonds to make the payments and everything would run smoothly. And this is normally what happens, when the Republicans aren’t playing ridiculous brinkmanship games.

As it is, they could simply print money to pay it—and at this point, maybe that’s what needs to happen. Mint the Coin already: Mint a $1 trillion platinum coin and deposit it in the Federal Reserve, and there you go, you’ve paid off a chunk of the debt. Sometimes stupid problems require stupid solutions.

Aren’t there reasons to be worried about the government borrowing too much? Yes, a little. The amount of concern most people have about this is wildly disproportionate to the actual problem, but yes, there are legitimate concerns about high national debt resulting in high interest rates and eventually forcing us to raise taxes or cut services. This is a slow-burn, long-term problem that by its very nature would never require a sudden, immediate solution; but it is a genuine concern we should be aware of.

But here’s the thing: That’s a conversation we should be having when we vote on the budget. Whenever we pass a government budget, it already includes detailed projections of tax revenue and spending that yield precise, accurate forecasts of the deficit and the debt. If Republicans are genuinely concerned that we are overspending on certain programs, they should propose budget cuts to those programs and get those cuts passed as part of the budget.

Once a budget is already passed, we have committed to spend that money. It has literally been signed into law that $X will be spend on program Y. At that point, you can’t simply cut the spending. If you think we’re spending too much, you needed to say that before we signed it into law. It’s too late now.

I’m always dubious of analogies between household spending and government spending, but if you really want one, think of it this way: Say your credit card company is offering to raise your credit limit, and you just signed a contract for some home improvements that would force you to run up your credit card past your current limit. Do you call the credit card company and accept the higher limit, or not? If you don’t, why don’t you? And what’s your plan for paying those home contractors? Even if you later decide that the home improvements were a bad idea, you already signed the contract! You can’t just back out!

This is why the debt ceiling is so absurd: It is a self-imposed limit on what you’re allowed to spend after you have already committed to spending it. The only sensible thing to do is to raise the debt ceiling high enough to account for the spending you’ve already committed to—or better yet, eliminate the ceiling entirely.

I think that when they last had a majority in both houses, the Democrats should have voted to make the debt ceiling ludicrously high—say $100 trillion. Then, at least for the foreseeable future, we wouldn’t have to worry about raising it, and could just pass budgets normally like a sane government. But they didn’t do that; they only raised it as much as was strictly necessary, thus giving the Republicans an opening now to refuse to raise it again.

And that is what the debt ceiling actually seems to accomplish: It gives whichever political party is least concerned about the public welfare a lever they can pull to disrupt the entire system whenever they don’t get things the way they want. If you absolutely do not care about the public good—and it’s quite clear at this point that most of the Republican leadership does not—then whenever you don’t get your way, you can throw a tantrum that threatens to destabilize the entire global financial system.

We need to stop playing their game. Do what you have to do to keep things running for now—but then get rid of the damn debt ceiling before they can use it to do even more damage.

The role of police in society

Feb12 JDN 2459988

What do the police do? Not in theory, in practice. Not what are they supposed to do—what do they actually do?

Ask someone right-wing and they’ll say something like “uphold the law”. Ask someone left-wing and they’ll say something like “protect the interests of the rich”. Both of these are clearly inaccurate. They don’t fit the pattern of how the police actually behave.

What is that pattern? Well, let’s consider some examples.

If you rob a bank, the police will definitely arrest you. That would be consistent with either upholding the law or protecting the interests of the rich, so it’s not a very useful example.

If you run a business with unsafe, illegal working conditions, and someone tells the police about it, the police will basically ignore it and do nothing. At best they might forward it to some regulatory agency who might at some point get around to issuing a fine.

If you strike against your unsafe working conditions and someone calls the police to break up your picket line, they’ll immediately come in force and break up your picket line.

So that definitively refutes the “uphold the law” theory; by ignoring OSHA violations and breaking up legal strikes, the police are actively making it harder to enforce the law. It seems to fit the “protect the interests of the rich” theory. Let’s try some other examples.

If you run a fraudulent business that cons people out of millions of dollars, the police might arrest you, eventually, if they ever actually bother to get around to investigating the fraud. That certainly doesn’t look like upholding the law—but you can get very rich and they’ll still arrest you, as Bernie Madoff discovered. So being rich doesn’t grant absolute immunity from the police.

If your negligence in managing the safety systems of your factory or oil rig kills a dozen people, the police will do absolutely nothing. Some regulatory agency may eventually get around to issuing you a fine. That also looks like protecting the interests of the rich. So far the left-wing theory is holding up.

If you are homeless and camping out on city property, the police will often come to remove you. Sometimes there’s a law against such camping, but there isn’t always; and even when there is, the level of force used often seems wildly disproportionate to the infraction. This also seems to support the left-wing account.

But now suppose you go out and murder several homeless people. That is, if anything, advancing the interests of the rich; it’s certainly not harming them. Yet the police would in fact investigate. It might be low on their priorities, especially if they have a lot of other homicides; but they would, in fact, investigate it and ultimately arrest you. That doesn’t look like advancing the interests of the rich. It looks a lot more like upholding the law, in fact.

Or suppose you are the CEO of a fraudulent company that is about to be revealed and thus collapse, and instead of accepting the outcome or absconding to the Carribbean (as any sane rich psychopath would), you decide to take some SEC officials hostage and demand that they certify your business as legitimate. Are the police going to take that lying down? No. They’re going to consider you a terrorist, and go in guns blazing. So they don’t just protect the interests of the rich after all; that also looks a lot like they’re upholding the law.

I didn’t even express this as the left-wing view earlier, because I’m trying to use the woodman argument; but there are also those on the left who would say that the primary function of the police is to uphold White supremacy. I’d be a fool to deny that there are a lot of White supremacist cops; but notice that in the above scenarios I didn’t even specify the race of the people involved, and didn’t have to. The cops are no more likely to arrest a fraudulent banker because he’s Black, and no more likely to let a hostage-taker go free because he’s White. (They might be less likely to shoot the White hostage-taker—maybe, the data on that actually isn’t as clear-cut as people think—but they’d definitely still arrest him.) While racism is a widespread problem in the police, it doesn’t dictate their behavior all the time—and it certainly isn’t their core function.

What does categorically explain how the police react in all these scenarios?

The police uphold order.

Not law. Order. They don’t actually much seem to care whether what you’re doing is illegal or harmful or even deadly. They care whether it violates civil order.

This is how we can explain the fact that police would investigate murders, but ignore oil rig disasters—even if the latter causes more deaths. The former is a violation of civil order, the latter is not.

It also explains why they would be so willing to tear apart homeless camps and break up protests and strikes. Those are actually often legal, or at worst involve minor infractions; but they’re also disruptive and disorderly.

The police seem to see their core mission as keeping the peace. It could be an unequal, unjust peace full of illegal policies that cause grievous harm and death—but what matters to them is that it’s peace. They will stomp out any violence they see with even greater violence of their own. They have a monopoly on the use of force, and they intend to defend it.

I think that realizing this can help us take a nuanced view of the police. They aren’t monsters or tools of oppression. But they also aren’t brave heroes who uphold the law and keep us safe. They are instruments of civil order.

We do need civil order; there are a lot of very important things in society that simply can’t function if civil order collapses. In places where civil order does fall apart, life becomes entirely about survival; the security that civil order provides is necessary not only for economic activity, but also for much of what gives our lives value.

But nor is civil order all that matters. And sometimes injustice truly does become so grave that it’s worth sacrificing some order in order to redress it. Strikes and protests genuinely are disruptive; society couldn’t function if they were happening everywhere all the time. But sometimes we need to disrupt the way things are going in order to get people to clearly see the injustice around them and do something about it.

I hope that this more realistic, nuanced assessment of the role police play in society may help to pull people away from both harmful political extremes.We can’t simply abolish the police; we need some system for maintaining civil order, and whatever system we have is probably going to end up looking a lot like police. (#ScandinaviaIsBetter, truly, but there are still cops in Norway.) But we also can’t afford to lionize the police or ignore their failures and excesses. When they fight to maintain civil order at the expense of social justice, they become part of the problem.

Is the cure for inflation worse than the disease?

Nov 13 JDN 2459897

A lot of people seem really upset about inflation. I’ve previously discussed why this is a bit weird; inflation really just isn’t that bad. In fact, I am increasingly concerned that the usual methods for fixing inflation are considerably worse than inflation itself.

To be clear, I’m not talking about hyperinflationif you are getting triple-digit inflation or more, you are clearly printing too much money and you need to stop. And there are places in the world where this happens.

But what about just regular, ordinary inflation, even when it’s fairly high? Prices rising at 8% or 9% or even 11% per year? What catastrophe befalls our society when this happens?

Okay, sure, if we could snap our fingers and make prices all stable without cost, that would be worth doing. But we can’t. All of our mechanisms for reducing inflation come with costs—and often very high costs.

The chief mechanism by which inflation is currently controlled is open-market operations by central banks such as the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, and the European Central Bank. These central banks try to reduce inflation by selling bonds, which lowers the price of bonds and reduces capital available to banks, and thereby increases interest rates. This also effectively removes money from the economy, as banks are using that money to buy bonds instead of lending it out. (It is chiefly in this odd indirect sense that the central bank manages the “money supply”.)

But how does this actually reduce inflation? It’s remarkably indirect. It’s actually the higher interest rates which prevent people from buying houses and prevent companies from hiring workers which result in reduced economic growth—or even economic recession—which then is supposed to bring down prices. There’s actually a lot we still don’t know about how this works or how long it should be expected to take. What we do know is that the pain hits quickly and the benefits arise only months or even years later.

As Krugman has rightfully pointed out, the worst pain of the 1970s was not the double-digit inflation; it was the recessions that Paul Volcker’s economic policy triggered in response to that inflation. The inflation wasn’t exactly a good thing; but for most people, the cure was much worse than the disease.

Most laypeople seem to think that prices somehow go up without wages going up, but that simply isn’t how it works. Prices and wages rise at close to the same rate in most countries most of the time. In fact, inflation is often driven chiefly by rising wages rather than the other way around. There are often lags between when the inflation hits and when people see their wages rise; but these lags can actually be in either direction—inflation first or wages first—and for moderate amounts of inflation they are clearly less harmful than the high rates of unemployment that we would get if we fought inflation more aggressively with monetary policy.

Economists are also notoriously vague about exactly how they expect the central bank to reduce inflation. They use complex jargon or broad euphemisms. But when they do actually come out and say they want to reduce wages, it tends to outrage people. Well, that’s one of three main ways that interest rates actually reduce inflation: They reduce wages, they cause unemployment, or they stop people from buying houses. That’s pretty much all that central banks can do.

There may be other ways to reduce inflation, like windfall profits taxes, antitrust action, or even price controls. The first two are basically no-brainers; we should always be taxing windfall profits (if they really are due to a windfall outside a corporation’s control, there’s no incentive to distort), and we should absolutely be increasing antitrust action (why did we reduce it in the first place?). Price controls are riskier—they really do create shortages—but then again, is that really worse than lower wages or unemployment? Because the usual strategy involves lower wages and unemployment.

It’s a little ironic: The people who are usually all about laissez-faire are the ones who panic about inflation and want the government to take drastic action; meanwhile, I’m usually in favor of government intervention, but when it comes to moderate inflation, I think maybe we should just let it be.

The United Kingdom in transition

Oct 30 JDN 2459883

When I first decided to move to Edinburgh, I certainly did not expect it to be such a historic time. The pandemic was already in full swing, but I thought that would be all. But this year I was living in the UK when its leadership changed in two historic ways:

First, there was the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the coronation of King Charles III.

Second, there was the resignation of Boris Johnson, the appointment of Elizabeth Truss, and then, so rapidly I feel like I have whiplash, the resignation of Elizabeth Truss.

In other words, I have seen the end of the longest-reigning monarch and the rise and fall of the shortest-reigning prime minister in the history of the United Kingdom. The three hundred-year history of the United Kingdom.

The prior probability of such a 300-year-historic event happening during my own 3-year term in the UK is approximately 1%. Yet, here we are. A new king, one of a handful of genuine First World monarchs to be coronated in the 21st century. The others are the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Monaco, Andorra, and Luxembourg; none of these have even a third the population of the UK, and if we include every Commonwealth Realm (believe it or not, “realm” is in fact still the official term), Charles III is now king of a supranational union with a population of over 150 million people—half the size of the United States. (Yes, he’s your king too, Canada!) Note that Charles III is not king of the entire Commonwealth of Nations, which includes now-independent nations such as India, Pakistan, and South Africa; that successor to the British Empire contains 54 nations and has a population of over 2 billion.

I still can’t quite wrap my mind around this idea of having a king. It feels even more ancient and anachronistic than the 400-year-old university I work at. Of course I knew that we had a queen before, and that she was old and would presumably die at some point and probably be replaced; but that wasn’t really salient information to me until she actually did die and then there was a ten-mile-long queue to see her body and now next spring they will be swearing in this new guy as the monarch of the fourteen realms. It now feels like I’m living in one of those gritty satirical fractured fairy tales. Maybe it’s an urban fantasy setting; it feels a lot like Shrek, to be honest.

Yet other than feeling surreal, none of this has affected my life all that much. I haven’t even really felt the effects of inflation: Groceries and restaurant meals seem a bit more expensive than they were when we arrived, but it’s well within what our budget can absorb; we don’t have a car here, so we don’t care about petrol prices; and we haven’t even been paying more than usual in natural gas because of the subsidy programs. Actually it’s probably been good for our household finances that the pound is so weak and the dollar is so strong. I have been much more directly affected by the university union strikes: being temporary contract junior faculty (read: expendable), I am ineligible to strike and hence had to cross a picket line at one point.

Perhaps this is what history has always felt like for most people: The kings and queens come and go, but life doesn’t really change. But I honestly felt more directly affected by Trump living in the US than I did by Truss living in the UK.

This may be in part because Elizabeth Truss was a very unusual politician; she combined crazy far-right economic policy with generally fairly progressive liberal social policy. A right-wing libertarian, one might say. (As Krugman notes, such people are astonishingly rare in the electorate.) Her socially-liberal stance meant that she wasn’t trying to implement horrific hateful policies against racial minorities or LGBT people the way that Trump was, and for once her horrible economic policies were recognized immediately as such and quickly rescinded. Unlike Trump, Truss did not get the chance to appoint any supreme court justices who could go on to repeal abortion rights.

Then again, Truss couldn’t have appointed any judges if she’d wanted to. The UK Supreme Court is really complicated, and I honestly don’t understand how it works; but from what I do understand, the Prime Minister appoints the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chancellor forms a commission to appoint the President of the Supreme Court, and the President of the Supreme Court forms a commission to appoint new Supreme Court judges. But I think the monarch is considered the ultimate authority and can veto any appointment along the way. (Or something. Sometimes I get the impression that no one truly understands the UK system, and they just sort of go with doing things as they’ve always been done.) This convoluted arrangement seems to grant the court considerably more political independence than its American counterpart; also, unlike the US Supreme Court, the UK Supreme Court is not allowed to explicitly overturn primary legislation. (Fun fact: The Lord Chancellor is also the Keeper of the Great Seal of the Realm, because Great Britain hasn’t quite figured out that the 13th century ended yet.)

It’s sad and ironic that it was precisely by not being bigoted and racist that Truss ensured she would not have sufficient public support for her absurd economic policies. There’s a large segment of the population of both the US and UK—aptly, if ill-advisedly, referred to by Clinton as “deplorables”—who will accept any terrible policy as long as it hurts the right people. But Truss failed to appeal to that crucial demographic, and so could find no one to support her. Hence, her approval rating fell to a dismal 10%, and she was outlasted by a head of lettuce.

At the time of writing, the new prime minister has not yet been announced, but the smart money is on Rishi Sunak. (I mean that quite literally; he’s leading in prediction markets.) He’s also socially liberal but fiscally conservative, but unlike Truss he seems to have at least some vague understanding of how economics works. Sunak is also popular in a way Truss never was (though that popularity has been declining recently). So I think we can expect to get new policies which are in the same general direction as what Truss wanted—lower taxes on the rich, more privatization, less spent on social services—but at least Sunak is likely to do so in a way that makes the math(s?) actually add up.

All of this is unfortunate, but largely par for the course for the last few decades. It compares quite favorably to the situation in the US, where somehow a large chunk of Americans either don’t believe that an insurrection attempt occurred, are fine with it, or blame the other side, and as the guardrails of democracy continue breaking, somehow gasoline prices appear to be one of the most important issues in the midterm election.

You know what? Living through history sucks. I don’t want to live in “interesting times” anymore.

Updating your moral software

Oct 23 JDN 2459876

I’ve noticed an odd tendency among politically active people, particular social media slacktivists (a term I do not use pejoratively: slacktivism is highly cost-effective). They adopt new ideas very rapidly, trying to stay on the cutting edge of moral and political discourse—and then they denigrate and disparage anyone who fails to do the same as an irredeemable monster.

This can take many forms, such as “if you don’t buy into my specific take on Critical Race Theory, you are a racist”, “if you have any uncertainty about the widespread use of puberty blockers you are a transphobic bigot”, “if you give any credence to the medical consensus on risks of obesity you are fatphobic“, “if you think disabilities should be cured you’re an ableist”, and “if you don’t support legalizing abortion in all circumstances you are a misogynist”.

My intention here is not to evaluate any particular moral belief, though I’ll say the following: I am skeptical of Critical Race Theory, especially the 1619 project which seems to be to include substantial distortions of history. I am cautiously supportive of puberty blockers, because the medical data on their risks are ambiguous—while the sociological data on how much happier trans kids are when accepted are totally unambiguous. I am well aware of the medical data saying that the risks of obesity are overblown (but also not negligible, particular for those who are very obese). Speaking as someone with a disability that causes me frequent, agonizing pain, yes, I want disabilities to be cured, thank you very much; accommodations are nice in the meantime, but the best long-term solution is to not need accommodations. (I’ll admit to some grey areas regarding certain neurodivergences such as autism and ADHD, and I would never want to force cures on people who don’t want them; but paralysis, deafness, blindness, diabetes, depression, and migraine are all absolutely worth finding cures for—the QALY at stake here are massive—and it’s silly to say otherwise.) I think abortion should generally be legal and readily available in the first trimester (which is when most abortions happen anyway), but much more strictly regulated thereafter—but denying it to children and rape victims is a human rights violation.

What I really want to talk about today is not the details of the moral belief, but the attitude toward those who don’t share it. There are genuine racists, transphobes, fatphobes, ableists, and misogynists in the world. There are also structural institutions that can lead to discrimination despite most of the people involved having no particular intention to discriminate. It’s worthwhile to talk about these things, and to try to find ways to fix them. But does calling anyone who disagrees with you a monster accomplish that goal?

This seems particularly bad precisely when your own beliefs are so cutting-edge. If you have a really basic, well-established sort of progressive belief like “hiring based on race should be illegal”, “women should be allowed to work outside the home” or “sodomy should be legal”, then people who disagree with you pretty much are bigots. But when you’re talking about new, controversial ideas, there is bound to be some lag; people who adopted the last generation’s—or even the last year’s—progressive beliefs may not yet be ready to accept the new beliefs, and that doesn’t make them bigots.

Consider this: Were you born believing in your current moral and political beliefs?

I contend that you were not. You may have been born intelligent, open-minded, and empathetic. You may have been born into a progressive, politically-savvy family. But the fact remains that any particular belief you hold about race, or gender, or ethics was something you had to learn. And if you learned it, that means that at some point you didn’t already know it. How would you have felt back then, if, instead of calmly explaining it to you, people called you names for not believing in it?

Now, perhaps it is true that as soon as you heard your current ideas, you immediately adopted them. But that may not be the case—it may have taken you some time to learn or change your mind—and even if it was, it’s still not fair to denigrate anyone who takes a bit longer to come around. There are many reasons why someone might not be willing to change their beliefs immediately, and most of them are not indicative of bigotry or deep moral failings.

It may be helpful to think about this in terms of updating your moral software. You were born with a very minimal moral operating system (emotions such as love and guilt, the capacity for empathy), and over time you have gradually installed more and more sophisticated software on top of that OS. If someone literally wasn’t born with the right OS—we call these people psychopaths—then, yes, you have every right to hate, fear, and denigrate them. But most of the people we’re talking about do have that underlying operating system, they just haven’t updated all their software to the same version as yours. It’s both unfair and counterproductive to treat them as irredeemably defective simply because they haven’t updated to the newest version yet. They have the hardware, they have the operating system; maybe their download is just a little slower than yours.

In fact, if you are very fast to adopt new, trendy moral beliefs, you may in fact be adopting them too quickly—they haven’t been properly vetted by human experience just yet. You can think of this as like a beta version: The newest update has some great new features, but it’s also buggy and unstable. It may need to be fixed before it is really ready for widespread release. If that’s the case, then people aren’t even wrong not to adopt them yet! It isn’t necessarily bad that you have adopted the new beliefs; we need beta testers. But you should be aware of your status as a beta tester and be prepared both to revise your own beliefs if needed, and also to cut other people slack if they disagree with you.

I understand that it can be immensely frustrating to be thoroughly convinced that something is true and important and yet see so many people disagreeing with it. (I am an atheist activist after all, so I absolutely know what that feels like.) I understand that it can be immensely painful to watch innocent people suffer because they have to live in a world where other people have harmful beliefs. But you aren’t changing anyone’s mind or saving anyone from harm by calling people names. Patience, tact, and persuasion will win the long game, and the long game is really all we have.

And if it makes you feel any better, the long game may not be as long as it seems. The arc of history may have tighter curvature than we imagine. We certainly managed a complete flip of the First World consensus on gay marriage in just a single generation. We may be able to achieve similarly fast social changes in other areas too. But we haven’t accomplished the progress we have so far by being uncharitable or aggressive toward those who disagree.

I am emphatically not saying you should stop arguing for your beliefs. We need you to argue for your beliefs. We need you to argue forcefully and passionately. But when doing so, try not to attack the people who don’t yet agree with you—for they are precisely the people we need to listen to you.

On (gay) marriage

Oct 9 JDN 2459862

This post goes live on my first wedding anniversary. Thus, as you read this, I will have been married for one full year.

Honestly, being married hasn’t felt that different to me. This is likely because we’d been dating since 2012 and lived together for several years before actually getting married. It has made some official paperwork more convenient, and I’ve reached the point where I feel naked without my wedding band; but for the most part our lives have not really changed.

And perhaps this is as it should be. Perhaps the best way to really know that you should get married is to already feel as though you are married, and just finally get around to making it official. Perhaps people for whom getting married is a momentous change in their lives (as opposed to simply a formal announcement followed by a celebration) are people who really shouldn’t be getting married just yet.

A lot of things in my life—my health, my career—have not gone very well in this past year. But my marriage has been only a source of stability and happiness. I wouldn’t say we never have conflict, but quite honestly I was expecting a lot more challenges and conflicts from the way I’d heard other people talk about marriage in the past. All of my friends who have kids seem to be going through a lot of struggles as a result of that (which is one of several reasons we keep procrastinating on looking into adoption), but marriage itself does not appear to be any more difficult than friendship—in fact, maybe easier.

I have found myself oddly struck by how un-important it has been that my marriage is to a same-sex partner. I keep expecting people to care—to seem uncomfortable, to be resistant, or simply to be surprised—and it so rarely happens.

I think this is probably generational: We Millennials grew up at the precise point in history when the First World suddenly decided, all at once, that gay marriage was okay.

Seriously, look at this graph. I’ve made it combining this article using data from the General Social Survey, and this article from Pew:

Until around 1990—when I was 2 years old—support for same-sex marriage was stable and extremely low: About 10% of Americans supported it (presumably most of them LGBT!), and over 70% opposed it. Then, quite suddenly, attitudes began changing, and by 2019, over 60% of Americans supported it and only 31% opposed it.

That is, within a generation, we went from a country where almost no one supported gay marriage to a country where same-sex marriage is so popular that any major candidate who opposed it would almost certainly lose a general election. (They might be able to survive a Republican primary, as Republican support for same-sex marriage is only about 44%—about where it was among Democrats in the early 2000s.)

This is a staggering rate of social change. If development economics is the study of what happened in South Korea from 1950-2000, I think political science should be the study of what happened to attitudes on same-sex marriage in the US from 1990-2020.

And of course it isn’t just the US. Similar patterns can be found across Western Europe, with astonishingly rapid shifts from near-universal opposition to near-universal support within a generation.

I don’t think I have been able to fully emotionally internalize this shift. I grew up in a world where homophobia was mainstream, where only the most radical left-wing candidates were serious about supporting equal rights and representation for LGBT people. And suddenly I find myself in a world where we are actually accepted and respected as equals, and I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Aren’t you the same people who told me as a teenager that I was a sexual deviant who deserved to burn in Hell? But now you’re attending my wedding? And offering me joint life insurance policies? My own extended family members treat me differently now than they did when I was a teenager, and I don’t quite know how to trust that the new way is the true way and not some kind of facade that could rapidly disappear.

I think this sort of generational trauma may never fully heal, in which case it will be the generation after us—the Zoomers, I believe we’re calling them now—who will actually live in this new world we created, while the rest of us forever struggle to accept that things are not as we remember them. Once bitten, we remain forever twice shy, lest attitudes regress as suddenly as they advanced.

Then again, it seems that Zoomers may be turning against the institution of marriage in general. As the meme says: “Boomers: No gay marriage. Millennials: Yes gay marriage. Gen Z: Yes gay, no marriage.” Maybe that’s for the best; maybe the future of humanity is for personal relationships to be considered no business of the government at all. But for now at least, equal marriage is clearly much better than unequal marriage, and the First World seems to have figured that out blazing fast.

And of course the rest of the world still hasn’t caught up. While trends are generally in a positive direction, there are large swaths of the world where even very basic rights for LGBT people are opposed by most of the population. As usual, #ScandinaviaIsBetter, with over 90% support for LGBT rights; and, as usual, Sub-Saharan Africa is awful, with support in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria not even hitting 20%.

Working from home is the new normal—sort of

Aug 28 JDN 2459820

Among people with jobs that can be done remotely, a large majority did in fact switch to doing their jobs remotely: By the end of 2020, over 70% of Americans with jobs that could be done remotely were working from home—and most of them said they didn’t want to go back.

This is actually what a lot of employers expected to happen—just not quite like this. In 2014, a third of employers predicted that the majority of their workforce would be working remotely by 2020; given the timeframe there, it required a major shock to make that happen so fast, and yet a major shock was what we had.

Working from home has carried its own challenges, but overall productivity seems to be higher working remotely (that meeting really could have been an email!). This may actually explain why output per work hour actually rose rapidly in 2020 and fell in 2022.

The COVID pandemic now isn’t so much over as becoming permanent; COVID is now being treated as an endemic infection like influenza that we don’t expect to be able to eradicate in the foreseeable future.

And likewise, remote work seems to be here to stay—sort of.

First of all, we don’t seem to be giving up office work entirely. As of the first quarter 2022, almost as many firms have partially remote work as have fully remote work, and this seems to be trending upward. A lot of firms seem to be transitioning into a “hybrid” model where employees show up to work two or three days a week. This seems to be preferred by large majorities of both workers and firms.

There is a significant downside of this: It means that the hope that remote working might finally ease the upward pressure on housing prices in major cities is largely a false one. If we were transitioning to a fully remote system, then people could live wherever they want (or can afford) and there would be no reason to move to overpriced city centers. But if you have to show up to work even one day a week, that means you need to live close enough to the office to manage that commute.

Likewise, if workers never came to the office, you could sell the office building and convert it into more housing. But if they show up even once in awhile, you need a physical place for them to go. Some firms may shrink their office space (indeed, many have—and unlike this New York Times journalist, I have a really hard time feeling bad for landlords of office buildings); but they aren’t giving it up entirely. It’s possible that firms could start trading off—you get the building on Mondays, we get it on Tuesdays—but so far this seems to be rare, and it does raise a lot of legitimate logistical and security concerns. So our global problem of office buildings that are empty, wasted space most of the time is going to get worse, not better. Manhattan will still empty out every night; it just won’t fill up as much during the day. This is honestly a major drain on our entire civilization—building and maintaining all those structures that are only used at most 1/3 of 5/7 of the time, and soon, less—and we really should stop ignoring it. No wonder our real estate is so expensive, when half of it is only used 20% of the time!

Moreover, not everyone gets to work remotely. Your job must be something that can be done remotely—something that involves dealing with information, not physical objects. That includes a wide and ever-growing range of jobs, from artists and authors to engineers and software developers—but it doesn’t include everyone. It basically means what we call “white-collar” work.

Indeed, it is largely limited to the upper-middle class. The rich never really worked anyway, though sometimes they pretend to, convincing themselves that managing a stock portfolio (that would actually grow faster if they let it sit) constitutes “work”. And the working class? By and large, they didn’t get the chance to work remotely. While 73% of workers with salaries above $200,000 worked remotely in 2020, only 12% of workers with salaries under $25,000 did, and there is a smooth trend where, across the board, the more money you make, the more likely you have been able to work remotely.

This will only intensify the divide between white-collar and blue-collar workers. They already think we don’t do “real work”; now we don’t even go to work. And while blue-collar workers are constantly complaining about contempt from white-collar elites, I think the shoe is really on the other foot. I have met very few white-collar workers who express contempt for blue-collar workers—and I have met very few blue-collar workers who don’t express anger and resentment toward white-collar workers. I keep hearing blue-collar people say that we think that they are worthless and incompetent, when they are literally the only ones ever saying that. I can’t stop saying things that I never said.

The rich and powerful may look down on them, but they look down on everyone. (Maybe they look down on blue-collar workers more? I’m not even sure about that.) I think politicians sometimes express contempt for blue-collar workers, but I don’t think this reflects what most white-collar workers feel.

And the highly-educated may express some vague sense of pity or disappointment in people who didn’t get college degrees, and sometimes even anger (especially when they do things like vote for Donald Trump), but the really vitriolic hatred is clearly in the opposite direction (indeed, I have no better explanation for how otherwise-sane people could vote for Donald Trump). And I certainly wouldn’t say that everyone needs a college degree (though I became tempted to, when so many people without college degrees voted for Donald Trump).

This really isn’t us treating them with contempt: This is them having a really severe inferiority complex. And as information technology (that white-collar work created) gives us—but not them—the privilege of staying home, that is only going to get worse.

It’s not their fault: Our culture of meritocracy puts a little bit of inferiority complex in all of us. It tells us that success and failure are our own doing, and so billionaires deserve to have everything and the poor deserve to have nothing. And blue-collar workers have absolutely internalized these attitudes: Most of them believe that poor people choose to stay on welfare forever rather than get jobs (when welfare has time limits and work requirements, so this is simply not an option—and you would know this from the Wikipedia page on TANF).

I think that what they experience as “contempt by white-collar elites” is really the pain of living in an illusory meritocracy. They were told—and they came to believe—that working hard would bring success, and they have worked very hard, and watched other people be much more successful. They assume that the rich and powerful are white-collar workers, when really they are non-workers; they are people the world was handed to on a silver platter. (What, you think George W. Bush earned his admission to Yale?)

And thus, we can shout until we are blue in the face that plumbers, bricklayers and welders are the backbone of civilization—and they are, and I absolutely mean that; our civilization would, in an almost literal sense, collapse without them—but it won’t make any difference. They’ll still feel the pain of living in a society that gave them very little and tells them that people get what they deserve.

I don’t know what to say to such people, though. When your political attitudes are based on beliefs that are objectively false, that you could know are objectively false if you simply bothered to look them up… what exactly am I supposed to say to you? How can we have a useful political conversation when half the country doesn’t even believe in fact-checking?

Honestly I wish someone had explained to them that even the most ideal meritocratic capitalism wouldn’t reward hard work. Work is a cost, not a benefit, and the whole point of technological advancement is to allow us to accomplish more with less work. The ideal capitalism would reward talent—you would succeed by accomplishing things, regardless of how much effort you put into them. People would be rich mainly because they are brilliant, not because they are hard-working. The closest thing we have to ideal capitalism right now is probably professional sports. And no amount of effort could ever possibly make me into Steph Curry.

If that isn’t the world we want to live in, so be it; let’s do something else. I did nothing to earn either my high IQ or my chronic migraines, so it really does feel unfair that the former increases my income while the latter decreases it. But the labor theory of value has always been wrong; taking more sweat or more hours to do the same thing is worse, not better. The dignity of labor consists in its accomplishment, not its effort. Sisyphus is not happy, because his work is pointless.

Honestly at this point I think our best bet is just to replace all blue-collar work with automation, thus rendering it all moot. And then maybe we can all work remotely, just pushing code patches to the robots that do everything. (And no doubt this will prove my “contempt”: I want to replace you! No, I want to replace the grueling work that you have been forced to do to make a living. I want you—the human being—to be able to do something more fun with your life, even if that’s just watching television and hanging out with friends.)

Good news on the climate, for a change

Aug 7 JDN 2459799

In what is surely the biggest political surprise of the decade—if not the century—Joe Manchin suddenly changed his mind and signed onto a budget reconciliation bill that will radically shift US climate policy. He was the last vote needed for the bill to make it through the Senate via reconciliation (as he often is, because he’s pretty much a DINO).

Because the Senate is ridiculous, there are still several layers of procedure the bill must go through before it can actually pass. But since the parliamentarian was appointed by a Democrat and the House had already passed an even stronger climate bill, it looks like at least most of it will make it through. The reconciliation process means we only need a bare majority, so even if all the Republicans vote against it—which they very likely will—it can still get through, with Vice President Harris’s tiebreaking vote. (Because our Senate is 50-50, Harris is on track to cast the most tie-breaking votes of any US Vice President by the end of her term.) Reconciliation also can’t be filibustered.

While it includes a lot of expenditures, particularly tax credits for clean energy and electric cars, the bill includes tax increases and closed loopholes so that it will actually decrease the deficit and likely reduce inflation—which Manchin said was a major reason he was willing to support it. But more importantly, it promises to reduce US carbon emissions by a staggering 40% by 2030.

The US currently produces about 15 tons of CO2 equivalent per person per year, so reducing that by 40% would drop it to only 9 tons per person per year. This would move us from nearly as bad as Saudi Arabia to nearly as good as Norway. It still won’t mean we are doing as well as France or the UK—but at least we’ll no longer be dragging down the rest of the First World.

And this isn’t a pie-in-the-sky promise: Independent forecasts suggest that these policies may really be able to reduce our emissions that much that fast. It’s honestly a little hard for me to believe; but that’s what the experts are saying.

Manchin wants to call it the Inflation Reduction Act, but it probably won’t actually reduce inflation very much. But some economists—even quite center-right ones—think it may actually reduce inflation quite a bit, and we basically all agree that it at least won’t increase inflation very much. Since the effects on inflation are likely to be small, we really don’t have to worry about them: whatever it does to inflation, the important thing is that this bill reduces carbon emissions.

Honestly, it’ll be kind of disgusting if this actually does work—because it’s so easy. This bill will have almost no downside. Its macroeconomic effects will be minor, maybe even positive. There was no reason it needed to be this hard-fought. Even if it didn’t have tax increases to offset it—which it absolutely does—the total cost of this bill over the next ten years would be less than six months of military spending, so cutting military spending by 5% would cover it. We have cured our unbearable headaches by finally realizing we could stop hitting ourselves in the head. (And the Republicans want us to keep hitting ourselves and will do whatever they can to make that happen.)

So, yes, it’s very sad that it took us this long. And even 60% of our current emissions is still too much emissions for a stable climate. But let’s take a moment to celebrate, because this is a genuine victory—and we haven’t had a lot of those in awhile.