Green New Deal Part 2: How do we get to net-zero carbon emissions?

Apr 14 JDN 2458588

I said in my post last week that the Green New Deal has “easy parts”, “hard parts”, and “very hard parts”, and discussed one of the “easy parts”: increased investment in infrastructure. Next week I’ll talk about another “easy part”, guaranteeing education and healthcare.

Today is the most important “hard part”: Reducing our net carbon emissions to zero—or even less.

“Meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.”

“Overhauling transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in – (i) zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing; (ii) clean, affordable, and accessible public transportation; and (iii) high-speed rail.”

“Spurring massive growth in clean manufacturing in the United States and removing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing and industry as much as is technologically feasible.”

“Working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.”

There have been huge expansions in solar and wind power generation, which are now cheaper than coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric, on a par with natural gas, and only outcompeted by geothermal. As a result of this dramatic increase in renewable energy production, electric power is no longer the largest source of carbon emissions in the United States; it is now second to transportation.
Policy clearly matters here: While total US carbon emissions were trending downward during the Obama administration, they began trending back upward once Trump took office. Even under Obama, they were not trending down fast enough to realistically meet the Paris Agreement targets. Only 14 states are on track to meet those targets, and they are all hard-Blue states except for Virginia and North Carolina. Unsurprisingly, the most carbon-efficient states are New York and California; yet even our emissions (about 9 tonnes per person per year, about twice the world average) are still far too high.
Of course the US is not alone in failing to meet the targets; in the EU, only three countries (Sweden, France, and Germany) are on track to hit the Paris targets. How did they do it? Germany has managed to do it mainly by expanding wind power, but for most countries, the fastest route to zero-carbon electricity is clearly nuclear power.
Germany has been foolishly phasing out their nuclear capacity, but it’s still 11% of their generation; Sweden’s grid is 40% nuclear; and France has a whopping 72% of their grid on nuclear (no other country comes close). The US grid is about 20% nuclear, which isn’t bad; but if California for instance had not phased out half of our nuclear generation since 2001, we could have taken out 15,000 GWh/yr of natural gas generation instead. At least we did basically eliminate coal and oil power in California, so that’s good.
How much would it cost to convert the entire US electricity grid to renewables and nuclear by 2050? Estimates vary widely, but a good ballpark figure is about $20 trillion.
Let’s not kid ourselves: That is a lot. It’s almost an entire year of the whole US economy. It would be enough to establish a permanent fund to end world hunger almost ten times over. Inflation-adjusted, it’s five times the total amount spent by the US in the Second World War.
Completely re-doing our entire electricity generation system is a project on a scale we’ve really never attempted before. It would be very difficult and very expensive.
But is it feasible? Yes, it’s entirely feasible. Assuming our real GDP grows at a paltry 2% per year between now and 2050, the total economic output of the United States during that period will be almost $1 quadrillion. $20 trillion is only 2% of that. Since the top 1% get about 20% of the income, this means that we could raise enough revenue for this project by simply raising the tax rate on the top 1% by 10 percentage points—which would still make the top income tax rate substantially lower than what we had as recently as the 1970s.
Unfortunately, converting the electricity grid is only part of the story. We also need to make radical changes in our transportation system—switching from airplanes to high-speed rail, and converting cars either to electric cars or public transit systems. Trains are really the best bet, but rail systems have a high up-front cost to build.
Even state-of-the-art high-speed rail systems just can’t be a jet airliner for speed. The best high-speed rail systems can cruise at about 250 kph, while a cruising Boeing 737 can easily exceed 800 kph. We’re just going to have to get used to our long-distance trips taking longer. Even 250 kph is a lot better than the 100 kph you’d probably average driving (not counting stops), which is also about the speed that most current US trains get—far worse than what they have in Europe or even China.
Then we have to deal with the other sources of carbon emissions, like manufacturing and agriculture. It’s simply not realistic to expect that we will actually produce zero carbon emissions; instead our goal needs to be net zero, which means we’ll need some way of pulling carbon out of the air.
To some extent, this is easier than it sounds: Reforestation is a very easy, efficient way of pulling carbon out of the air. Unfortunately it is also very slow, and can only be done in appropriate climates. To really pull enough carbon out of the air fast enough, we’re going to need industrial carbon sequestration or some form of geoengineering—right now iron seeding looks like the most promising candidate, but it could only compensate for about 1/6 of current carbon emissions. Solar geoengineering could do more—but at a very high cost, since we’re talking about pumping poisonous chemicals into the air in order to block out sunlight.
The reason we need to do this is essentially that we have waited too long: Had we started the process of converting the whole grid to renewables in the 1970s like we should have, we wouldn’t need such desperate measures now. But we didn’t, so here we are.
Estimates of how much it will cost to do all this vary even more widely, to the point where I’m hesitant to even put a number on it. But it seems likely that in addition to the $20 trillion for the electric grid, it will probably be something like another $30 trillion to do everything else that is necessary. But the global damage from climate change is estimated to be as much as $3.3 trillion per yearso a total of over $100 trillion over 30 years. Spending $50 trillion to save $100 trillion doesn’t sound like such a bad deal, does it?

Green New Deal Part 1: Why aren’t we building more infrastructure?

Apr 7 JDN 2458581

For the next few weeks, I’ll be doing a linked series of posts on the Green New Deal. Some parts of it are obvious and we should have been doing them for decades already; let’s call these “easy parts”. Some parts of it will be difficult, but are definitely worth doing; let’s call these “hard parts”. And some parts of it are quite radical and may ultimately not be feasible—but may still be worth trying; let’s call these “very hard parts”.

Today I’m going to talk about some of the easy parts.

“Repairing and upgrading the infrastructure in the United States, including [. . .] by eliminating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as much as technologically feasible.”

“Building or upgrading to energy-efficient, distributed, and ‘smart’ power grids, and working to ensure affordable access to electricity.”

“Upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximal energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification.”

Every one of these proposals is basically a no-brainer. We should have been spending something like $100 billion dollars a year for the last 30 years doing this, and if we had, we’d have infrastructure that would be the envy of the world.
Instead, the ASCE gives our infrastructure a D+: passing, but just barely. We are still in the top 10 in the World Bank’s infrastructure ratings, but we have been slowly slipping downward in the rankings.
Where did I get my $100 billion a year figure from? Well, we have about a $15 billion annual shortfall in highway maintenance, $13 billion in waterway maintenance, and $25 billion in dam repairs. That’s $53 billion. But that’s just to keep what we already have. In order to build more infrastructure, or upgrade it to be better, we’re going to need to spend considerably more. Double it and make it a nice round number, and you get $100 billion.
Of course, $100 billion a year is not a small amount of money.
How would we pay for such a thing?
That’s the thing: We wouldn’t need to.
Infrastructure investment doesn’t have to be “paid for” in the usual sense. We don’t need to raise taxes. We don’t need to cut spending. We can just add infrastructure spending onto other spending, raising the deficit directly. We can borrow money to fund the projects, and then by the time those bonds mature we will have made enough additional tax revenue from the increased productivity (and the Keynes multiplier) that we will have no problem paying back the debt.
Funding investment is what debt is supposed to be for. Particularly when interest rates are this low (currently about 3% nominal, which means about 1% adjusted for inflation), there is very little downside to taking out more debt if you’re going to plow that money into productive investments.
Of course debt can be used for anything money can, and using debt for all your spending is often not a good idea (but it can be, if your income is inconsistent or you have good reasons to think it will increase in the future). But I’m not suggesting the government should use debt to fund Medicare and Social Security payments; I’m merely suggesting that they should use debt to fund infrastructure investment. Medicare and Social Security are, at their core, social insurance programs; they spread wealth around, which has a lot of important benefits; but they don’t meaningfully create new wealth, so you need to be careful about how you pay for them. Infrastructure investment creates new wealth. The extra value is basically pulled from thin air; you’d be a fool not to take it.
This is also why I just can’t get all that upset about student loans (even though I personally would personally stand to gain a small house if student debt were to suddenly evaporate). Education is the most productive investment we have, and most of the benefits of education do actually accrue to the individual who is being educated. It therefore stands to reason that students should pay for their own education, and since most of us couldn’t afford to pay in cash, it stands to reason that we should be offered loans.
There are some minor changes I would make to the student loan system, such as lower interest rates, higher limits to subsidized loans, stricter regulations on private student loans, and a simpler forgiveness process that doesn’t result in ridiculous tax liability. But I really don’t see the need to go to a fully taxpayer-funded higher education system. On the other hand, it wouldn’t necessarily be bad to go to a fully taxpayer-funded system; it seems to work quite well in Germany, France, and most of Scandinavia. I just don’t see this as a top priority.
It feels awful having $100,000 in debt, but it’s really not that bad when you realize that a college education will increase your lifetime earnings by an average of $1 million (and more like $2 million in my case because I’m going for a PhD, PhDs are more valuable than bachelor’s degrees, and even among PhDs, economists are particularly well-paid). You are being offered the chance to apy $100,000 now to get $1 million later. You should definitely take that deal.
And yet, we still aren’t increasing our infrastructure investment. Trump said he would, and it seemed like one of his few actual good ideas (remember the Stopped Clock Principle: reversed stupidity is not intelligence); but so far, no serious infrastructure plan has materialized.
Despite extremely strong bipartisan support for increased infrastructure investment, we don’t seem to be able to actually get the job done.
I think I know why.
The first reason is that “infrastructure” is a vague concept, almost a feel-good Applause Light like “freedom” or “justice”. Nobody is ever going to say they are against freedom or justice. Instead they’ll disagree about what constitutes freedom or justice.
And likewise, while almost everyone will agree that infrastructure as a concept is a good thing, there can be large substantive disagreements over just what kind of infrastructure to build. We want better transportation: Does that mean more roads, or train lines instead? We want cheaper electricity: When we build new power plants, should they use natural gas, solar, or nuclear power? We want to revitalize inner cities: Does that mean public housing, community projects, or subsidies for developers? Nobody wants an inefficient electricity grid, but just how much are we willing to invest in making it more efficient, and how? Once the infrastructure is built, should it be publicly owned and tax-funded, or privatized and run for profit?
This reason is not going to go away. We simply have to face up to it, and find a way to argue substantively for the specific kinds of infrastructure we want. It should be trains, not roads. It should be solar, wind, and nuclear, not natural gas, and certainly not coal or oil. It should be public housing and community projects, not subsidies for developers. Most of the infrastructure should be publicly owned, and what isn’t should be strictly regulated.
Yet there is another reason, which I think we might be able to eliminate. Most people seem to think that we need to pay for infrastructure the way we would need to pay for expanded social programs or military spending. They keep asking “How will this be paid for?” (And despite a lot of conservatives frothing about it—I will not give them ad revenue by linking—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was not wrong when she said “The same way we pay for everything else.” We tax and spend; that’s what governments do. It’s always a question of what taxes and what spending.)
But we really don’t need to pay for infrastructure at all. Infrastructure will pay for itself; we simply need to finance it up front. And when we’re paying real interest rates of 1%, that’s not a difficult thing to do. If interest rates start to rise, we may want to pull back on that; but that’s not something that will happen overnight. We would see it coming, and have a variety of fiscal and monetary tools available to deal with it. The fear of possibly paying a bit more interest 30 years from now is a really stupid reason not to fix bridges that are crumbling today.
So when we talk about the Green New Deal (or at least the “easy parts”), let’s throw away this nonsense about “paying for it”. Almost all of these programs are long-term investments; they will pay for themselves. There are still substantive choices to be made about what exactly to build and where and how; but the US is an extraordinarily rich country with virtually unlimited borrowing power.
We can afford to do this.
Indeed, I think the question we should really be asking is:
How can we afford not to do this?

The double standard between violence and sex in US media

Mar 24 JDN 2458567

The video game Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion infamously had its ESRB rating upgraded from “Teen” to “Mature”, raising the minimum age to purchase it from 13 to 17. Why? Well, they gave two major reasons: One was that there was more blood and detailed depictions of death than in the original version submitted for review. The other was that a modder had made it possible to view the female characters with naked breasts.

These were considered comparable arguments—if anything, the latter seemed to carry more weight.

Yet first of all this was a mod: You can make a mod do just about anything. (Indeed, there has long since been a mod for Oblivion that shows full-frontal nudity; had this existed when the rating was upgraded, they might have gone all the way to “Adults Only”, ostensibly only raising the minimum age to 18, but in practice making stores unwilling to carry the game because they think of it as porn.)

But suppose in fact that the game had included female characters with naked breasts. Uh… so what? Why is that considered so inappropriate for teenagers? Men are allowed to walk around topless all the time, and male and female nipples really don’t look all that different!

Now, I actually think “Mature” is the right rating for Oblivion. But that’s because Oblivion is about a genocidal war against demons and involves mass slaughter and gruesome death at every turn—not because you can enable a mod to see boobs.

The game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas went through a similar rating upgrade, from “Mature” to “Adults Only”—resulting it being the only mass-market “Adults Only” game in the US. This was, again, because of a mod—though in this case it was more like re-enabling content that the original game had included but disabled. But let me remind you that this is a game where you play as a gangster whose job is to steal cars, and who routinely guns down police officers and massacres civilians—and the thing that really upset people was that you could enable a scene where your character has sex with his girlfriend.

Meanwhile, games like Manhunt, where the object of the game is to brutally execute people, and the Call of Duty series graphically depicting the horrors of war (and in the Black Ops subseries, espionage, terrorism, and torture), all get to keep their “Mature” ratings.

And consider that a game like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, rated “Everyone 10+”, contains quite a lot of violence, and several scenes where, logically, it really seems like there should be nudity—bathing, emerging from a cryonic stasis chamber, a doctor examining your body for wounds—but there isn’t. Meanwhile, a key part of the game is killing goblin-like monsters to collect their organs and use them for making potions. It’s all tastefully depicted violence, with little blood and gore; okay, sure. But you can tastefully depict nudity as well. Why are we so uncomfortable with the possibility of seeing these young adult characters naked… while bathing? In this case, even a third-party mod that allowed nudity was itself censored, on the grounds that it would depict “underage characters”; but really, no indication is given that these characters are underage. Based on their role in society, I always read them as about 19 or 20. I guess they could conceivably be as young as 16… and as we all know, 16-year-olds do not have genitals, are never naked, and certainly never have sex.

We’re so accustomed to this that it may even feel uncomfortable to you when I suggest otherwise: “Why would you want to see Link’s penis as he emerges from the cryonic chamber?” Well, I guess, because… men have penises. (Well, cis men anyway; actually it would be really bold and interesting if they decided to make Link trans.) We should see that as normal, and not be so uncomfortable showing it. The emotional power of the scene comes in part from the innocence and vulnerability of nudity, which is undercut by you mysteriously coming with non-removable indestructible underwear. Part of what makes Breath of the Wild so, er, breathtaking is that you can often screenshot it and feel like you are looking at a painting—and I probably don’t need to mention that nudity has been a part of fine art since time immemorial. Letting you take off the protagonist’s underwear wouldn’t show anything you can’t see by looking at Michelangelo’s David.

And would it really be so traumatizing to the audience to see that? By the time you’re 10 years old, I hope you have seen at least one picture of a penis. If not, we’ve been doing sex ed very, very wrong. In fact, I’m quite confident that most of the children playing would not be disturbed at all; amused, perhaps, but what’s wrong with that? If looking at the protagonist’s cel-shaded genitals makes some of the players giggle, does that cause any harm? Some people play through Breath of the Wild without ever equipping clothing, both as a challenge (you get no armor protection that way), and simply for fun (some of the characters do actually react to you being “naked”, or as naked as the game will allow—and most of their reactions would make way more sense if you weren’t wearing magical underwear).

Of course, it’s not just video games. The United States has a bizarre double standard between sex and violence in all sorts of media.

On television, you can watch The Walking Dead on mainstream cable and see, as Andrew Boschert put it, a man’s skull being smashed with a hammer, people’s throats slit into a trough, a meat locker with people’s torsos and limbs hung by hooks and a man’s face being eaten off while he is still alive”; but show a single erect penis, and you have to go to premium channels.

Even children’s television is full of astonishing levels of violence. Watch Tom and Jerry sometime, and you’ll realize that the only difference between it and the Simpsons parody Itchy & Scratchy is that the Simpsons version is a bit more realistic in depicting how such violence would affect the body. In mainstream cartoons, characters can get shot, blown up, crushed by heavy objects, run over by trains, hit with baseball bats and frying pans—but God forbid you ever show a boob.

In film, the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated shows convincingly that not only are our standards for sexual content versus violent content wildly disproportionate, furthermore any depiction of queer sexual content is immediately considered pornographic while the equivalent heterosexual content is not. It’s really quite striking to watch: They show scenes with the exact same sex act, even from more or less the same camera angles, and when it’s a man and a woman, it gets R, but if it’s two men or two women, it gets NC-17.

The movie Thirteen is rated R for its depiction of drugs and sex, despite being based on a true story about actual thirteen-year-olds. Evan Rachel Wood was 15 at the time of filming and 16 at the time of release, meaning that she was two years older than the character she played, and yet a year later still not old enough to watch her own movie without parental permission. Granted, Thirteen is not a wholesome film; there’s a lot of disturbing stuff in it, including things done by (and to) teenagers that really shouldn’t be.

But it’s not as if violence, even against teenagers, is viewed as so dangerous for young minds. Look at the Hunger Games, for example; that is an absolutely horrific level of violence against teenagers—people get beheaded, blown up, burned, and mutilated—and it only received a PG-13 rating. The Dark Knight received only a PG-13 rating, despite being about a terrorist who murders hundreds and implants a bomb in one of his henchmen (and also implements the most literal and unethical Prisoner’s Dilemma experiment ever devised).

Novels are better about this sort of thing: You actually can have sex scenes in mainstream novels without everyone freaking out. Yet there’s still a subtler double standard: You can’t show too much detail in a sex scene, or you’ll be branded “erotica”. But there’s no special genre ghetto you get sent to for too graphically depicting torture or war. (I love the Culture novels, but honestly I think Use of Weapons should come with trigger warnings—it’s brutal.) And as I have personally struggled with, it’s very hard to write fiction honestly depicting queer characters without your whole book being labeled “queer fiction”.

Is it like this in other countries? Well, like most things, it depends on the country. In China and much of the Middle East, the government has control over almost every sort of content. Most countries have some things they censor and some things they don’t. The US is unusual: We censor very little. Content involvingviolence and political content are essentially unrestricted in the US. But sex is one of the few things that we do consistently censor.

Media in Europe especially is much more willing to depict sex, and a bit less willing to depict violence. This is particularly true in the Netherlands, where there are films rated R for sex in the US but 6 (that’s “minimum age of viewing, 6 years”) in the Netherlands, because we consider naked female breasts to be a deal-breaker and they consider them utterly harmless. Quite frankly, I’m much more inclined toward the latter assessment.

Japan has had a long tradition of sexuality in art and media, and only when the West came in did they start introducing censorship. But Japan is not known for its half-measures; in 1907 they instituted a ban on explicit depiction of genitals that applies to essentially all media—even media explicitly marketed as porn still fuzzes over keys parts of the images. Yet some are still resisting this censorship: A ban on sexual content in manga drew outrage from artists as recently as 2010.

Hinduism has always been more open to sexuality than Christianity, and it shows in Indian culture in various ways. The Kama Sutra is depicted in the West as a lurid sex manual, when it’s really more of a text on living a full life, finding love, and achieving spiritual transcendence (of which sex is often a major part). But like Japan, India began to censor sex as it began to adopt Western cultural influences, and now implements a very broad pornography ban.

What does this double standard do to our society?

Well, it’s very hard to separate causation from correlation. So I can’t really say that it is because of this double standard in media that we have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and homicide in the First World. But it seems like it might be related, at least; perhaps they come from a common source, the same sexual repression and valorization of masculinity expressed through violence.

I do know some things that are direct negative consequences of the censorship of sex in US media. The most urgent example of this is the so-called “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” (it does more or less the exact opposite, much like the “PATRIOT ACT” and George W. Bush’s “Clean Air Act”). That will have to wait until next week’s post.

What’s going on in Venezuela?

Feb 3 JDN 2458518

As you may know, Venezuela is currently in a state of political crisis. Juan Guaido has declared himself President and been recognized by the United States as such, while Nicolas Maduro claims that he remains President as he has been for the last six years—during most of which time has has “ruled by decree”, which is to say that he has been effectively a dictator.

Maduro claims that this is a US-backed coup. I’ve seen a lot of people on the left buy into this claim.

I’m not saying this is impossible: The US has backed coups several times before, and has a particular track record of doing so against socialist regimes in Latin America.

But there are some reasons to be skeptical of it.

Unrest in Venezuela is nothing new, and looks to be quite grassroots. There have been widespread protests against Maduro—and severe crackdowns against those protests—for several years now. Guaido himself got his start in politics by organizing protests against Chavez and then Maduro, starting when he was a college student.

While Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor, remains extremely popular, most of the support for Maduro in Venezuela seems to come from the military and other elites. This is looking a lot like the Lenin/Stalin pattern: A charismatic and popular authoritarian socialist revolutionary opens the door for a murderous psychopathic authoritarian socialist who rules with an iron fist and causes millions of deaths. (In China, Mao managed to play both roles by himself.)

Guaido himself rejects all claims that he’s working for the US (but I suppose he would in either case).

And so far, no US troops have been deployed to Venezuela, and at the moment, Trump is currently only threatening for more sanctions or an embargo, not a military intervention. (He’s Trump, so who knows? And he did talk about invading them a year or two ago.)

The best evidence I’ve seen that it could be a US-orchestrated coup is a leaked report about a meeting discussing the possibility of such a coup a few months ago. But at least by the most reliable accounts we have, the US decided not to support that coup. I guess that could be part of the cover-up? (It feels weird when the crazy-sounding conspiracy theorists actually have a point. There totally have been US coups against Latin American governments that were covered up for decades.)

Even if it is actually a coup, I’m not entirely convinced that’s a bad thing.

The American and French Revolutions were coups, after all. When you are faced with a strong authoritarian government, a coup may be your only option for achieving freedom.
Here’s a bit of evidence that this is indeed what’s happening: the countries that support Guaido are a lot more democratic than the countries that support Maduro.

Guaido has already been recognized by most of Europe and Latin America, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru. Among those supporting Maduro are China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey—not exactly bastions of liberal democracy. Within Latin America, only Bolivia, Cuba, Mexico, and Uruguay support Maduro. Of those, only Mexico and Uruguay are recognizably democratic.

The average Democracy Index of countries that support Guaido is 7.5, which would be a “flawed democracy”. The average Democracy Index of countries that support Maduro is only 4.4, a “hybrid regime”.

Here is a plot of the Democracy Index by country supporting Guaido:democracy_index_guaido

Here is a plot of the Democracy Index by country supporting Maduro:

democracy_index_maduro

Since the entire EU recognizes Guaido, I could have shown each European country separately and biased the numbers even further, but I decided to specifically stick to major European powers with explicitly stated positions on Venezuela.

And we know that Maduro was a ruthless and autocratic dictator. So this is looking an awful lot like a democratic uprising against authoritarianism. It’s hard for me to be upset about that.

Second, Venezuela was in terrible shape, and largely due to Maduro’s administration.

After Maduro was elected (we’re still not sure how legitimate that election really was), Maduro underwent a total economic meltdown. Depression, hyperinflation, famine, a resurgence of malaria, and a huge exodus of refugees all followed. Millions of people are now starving in a country that was once quite rich. Nearly 90% of the population now lives in poverty. The story of Venezuela’s economy is one of total self-destruction.

Due to the bizarre system of subsidies and price controls in place, oil is now 100 times cheaper in Venezuela than water. Venezuela’s oil production has plummeted under Maduroto its lowest levels in decades, which might be good for climate change but is very bad for a country so dependent upon oil export revenue. It’s pretty much a classic cautionary tale for the Resource Curse.

Maduro, like any good socialist dictator, has blamed US sanctions for all his country’s economic failings. But there have not been strict US sanctions against Venezuela, and we remain their chief purchaser of oil by a wide margin. If you’ve ever bought gasoline at a Citgo station, you have paid for Venezuelan oil. Moreover, if your socialist country is that heavily dependent on exporting to capitalist countries… that really doesn’t say much in favor of socialism as an economic system, does it?

I don’t know what will happen. Maybe Maduro will successfully regain power. Maybe Guaido will retain control but turn out to be just as bad (there’s a long track record of coups against awful dictators resulting in equally awful dictators—Idi Amin is a classic example). Maybe Trump will do something stupid or crazy and we’ll end up in yet another decades-long military quagmire.

But there’s also a chance of something much better: Maybe Guaido can actually maintain power and build a genuinely democratic regime in Venezuela, and turn their economy back from the brink of devastation toward more sustainable growth. When the devil you know is this bad, sometimes you really do want to bet on the devil you don’t.

Government shutdowns are pure waste

Jan 6 JDN 2458490
At the time of writing, the US federal government is still shut down.

The US government has been shut down in this way 22 times—all of them since 1976. Most countries don’t do this. The US didn’t do it for most of our history. Please keep that in mind: This was an entirely avoidable outcome that most countries never go through.

The consequences of a government shutdown are pure waste on an enormous scale. Most government employees get furloughed without pay, which means they miss their credit card and mortgage payments while they wait for their back pay after the shutdown ends. (And this one happened during Christmas!) Contractors have it even worse: They get their contracts terminated and may never see the money they were promised. This has effects on our whole economy; the 2013 shutdown removed a full $24 billion from the US economy, and the current shutdown is expected to drain $6 billion per week. The government itself is taking losses of about $1 billion per week, mostly in the form of unpaid and unaudited taxes.

I personally don’t know what’s going to happen to an NSF grant proposal I’ve been writing for several weeks: Almost the entire NSF has been furloughed as “non-essential” (most of the military remains operative; almost all basic science gets completely shut down—insert comment about the military-industrial complex here), and in 2013 some of the dissertation grants were outright canceled because of the shutdown.

Why do these shutdowns happen?

A government shutdown occurs when the omnibus appropriations bill fails to pass. This bill is essentially the entire US federal budget in a single bill; like any other bill, it has to be passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President.

For some reason, our government decided that if this process doesn’t happen on schedule, the correct answer is to shut down all non-essential government services. This is a frankly idiotic answer. The obviously correct solution is that if Congress and the President can’t agree on a new budget, the old budget gets renewed in its entirety with a standard COLA inflation adjustment. This really seems incredibly basic: If the government can’t agree on how to change something, the status quo should remain in effect until they do. And the status quo is an inflation-adjusted version of the existing budget.

This particular shutdown occurred because of Donald Trump’s brinksmanship on the border wall: He demanded at least $5 billion, and the House wouldn’t give it to him.

It won’t be much longer before we’ve already lost more money on the shutdown than that $5 billion; this may tempt you to say that the House should give in. But the wall won’t actually do anything to make our nation safer or better, and building it would displace thousands of people by eminent domain and send an unquestionable signal of xenophobia to the rest of the world. Frankly it sickens me that there were not enough principled Republicans to stand their ground against Trump’s madness; but at least there are now Democrats standing theirs.

Make no mistake: This is Trump’s shutdown, and he said so himself. The House even offered to do what should be done by default, which is renew the old budget while negotiations on the border wall continue—Trump refused this offer. And Trump keeps changing his story with every new tweet.

But the real problem is that this is even something the President is allowed to do. Vetoing the old budget should restore the old budget, not furlough hundreds of thousands of workers and undermine government services. This is a ludicrous way to organize a government, and seems practically designed to make our government as inefficient, wasteful, and hated as possible. This was an absolutely unforced error and we should be enacting policy rules that would prevent it from ever happening again.

The best thing we can do to help them is let them in


 

Dec 23 JDN 2458476

This is a Christmas post, but not like most of my other Christmas posts. It’s not going to be an upbeat post about the effects of holidays on the economy, or the psychology of gift-giving, or the game theory that underlies the whole concept of a “holiday”.

No, today is about an urgent moral crisis. This post isn’t about Christmas as a weird but delightful syncretic solstice celebration. This post is about the so-called “spirit of Christmas”, a spirit of compassion and generosity that our country is clearly not living up to.

At the time of writing, the story had just come out: Jakelin Maquin, a 7-year-old girl from Guatemala died in the custody of US border agents.

Even if it’s true that the Border Patrol did everything they could to help her once they found out she was dying (and the reports coming out suggest that this is in fact the case), this death was still entirely preventable.

The first question we should ask is very basic: Why are there little girls in custody of border agents?
The next question is even more fundamental than that: Why are there border agents?

There are now 15,000 children being held by US Border Patrol. There should not be even one. The very concept of imprisoning children for crossing the border, under any circumstances, is a human rights violation. And yes, this is new, and it is specific to Donald Trump: Bush and Obama never separated children from their families this way. And while two-thirds of Americans oppose this policy, a majority of Republicans support it—this child’s blood is on their hands too.

Yet despite the gulf between the two major parties, the majority of Americans do support the idea of restricting immigration in general. And what I want to know is: Why? What gives us that right?

Let’s be absolutely clear about what “restricting immigration” means. It means that when someone decides they want to come to our country, either to escape oppression, work toward a better life, or simply to live with their family who came here before, men with guns come and lock them up.

We don’t politely ask them to leave. We don’t even fine them or tax them for entering. We lock them in detention camps, or force them to return to the country they came from which may be ruled by a dictator or a drug cartel.

Honestly, even the level of border security US citizens are subjected to is appalling: We’ve somehow come to think of it as normal that whenever you get on an airplane, you are first run through a body scanner, while all your belongings are inspected and scanned, and if you are found carrying any contraband—or if you even say the wrong thing—you can be summarily detained. This is literally Orwellian. “Papers, please” is the refrain of a tyrannical regime, not a liberal democracy.

If we truly believe in the spirit of compassion and generosity, we must let these people in. We don’t even have to do anything; we just need to stop violently resisting them. Stop pointing guns at them, stop locking them away. How is “Stop pointing guns at children” controversial?

I could write an entire post about the benefits for Americans of more open immigration. But honestly, we shouldn’t even care. It doesn’t matter whether immigration creates jobs, or destroys jobs, or decreases crime, or increases crime. We should not be locking up children in camps.

If we really believe in the spirit of compassion and generosity, the only thing we should care about is whether immigration is good for the immigrants. And it obviously is, or they wouldn’t be willing to go to such lengths to accomplish it. But I don’t think most people realize just how large the benefits of immigration are.

I’m going to focus on Guatemala, because that’s where Jakelin Maqin was from.

Guatemala’s life expectancy at birth is 73 years. The life expectancy for recent Hispanic immigrants to the US is 82 years. Crossing that border can give you nine years of life.

And what about income? GDP per capita PPP in the US is almost $60,000 per year. In Guatemala? Just over $8,000. Of course, that’s not accounting for the fact that Guatemalans are less educated; but even the exact same worker emigrating from there to here can greatly increase their income. The minimum wage in Guatemala is 90 GTQ per day, which is about $11.64. For a typical 8-hour workday, the US minimum wage of $7.25 per hour comes to $58 per day. That same exact worker can quintuple their income just by getting a job on the other side of the border.

Almost 60 percent of Guatemalans live in poverty. Over 20% live below the UN extreme poverty line. A full 11% of Guatemala’s GDP is remittances: Money that immigrants pay to help their families back home. A further 7% is exports to the US. This means that almost a fifth of Guatemala’s economy is dependent on the United States.

For comparison, less than 0.5% of Americans live in extreme poverty. (The UN recently claimed almost 6%; the Trump administration has claimed only 0.1% which is even more dubious. Both methodologies are deeply flawed; in particular, the UN report looks at income, not consumption—and consumption is what matters.) The overall poverty rate in the US is about 12%.

These figures are still appallingly high for a country as rich as the US; our extreme poverty rate should be strictly zero, a policy decision which could be implemented immediately and permanently in the form of a basic income of $700 per person per year, at a total expenditure of only $224 billion per year—about a third of the military budget. The net cost would in fact be far smaller than that, because we’d immediately turn around and spend that money. In fact, had this been done at the trough of the Great Recession, it would almost certainly have saved the government money.

Making our overall poverty rate strictly zero would be more challenging, but not obviously infeasible; since the poverty line is about $12,000 per person per year, it would take a basic income of that much to eliminate poverty, which would cost about $3.8 trillion per year. This is a huge expenditure, comparable as a proportion of GDP to the First World War (though still less than the Second). On the other hand, it would end poverty in America immediately and forever.

But even as things currently stand, the contrast between Guatemala and the US could hardly be starker: Immigrants are moving from a country with 60% poverty and 20% extreme poverty to one with 12% poverty and 0.5% extreme poverty.

Guatemala is a particularly extreme example; things are not as bad in Mexico or Cuba, for example. But the general pattern is a very consistent one: Immigrants come to the United States because things are very bad where they come from and their chances of living a better life here are much higher.

The best way to help these people, at Christmas and all year round, literally couldn’t be easier:

Let them in.

Fighting the zero-sum paradigm

Dec 2 JDN 2458455

It should be obvious at this point that there are deep, perhaps even fundamental, divides between the attitudes and beliefs of different political factions. It can be very difficult to even understand, much less sympathize, with the concerns of people who are racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, and authoritarian.
But at the end of the day we still have to live in the same country as these people, so we’d better try to understand how they think. And maybe, just maybe, that understanding will help us to change them.

There is one fundamental belief system that I believe underlies almost all forms of extremism. Right now right-wing extremism is the major threat to global democracy, but left-wing extremism subscribes to the same core paradigm (consistent with Horseshoe Theory).

I think the best term for this is the zero-sum paradigm. The idea is quite simple: There is a certain amount of valuable “stuff” (money, goods, land, status, happiness) in the world, and the only political question is who gets how much.

Thus, any improvement in anyone’s life must, necessarily, come at someone else’s expense. If I become richer, you become poorer. If I become stronger, you become weaker. Any improvement in my standard of living is a threat to your status.

If this belief were true, it would justify, or at least rationalize, all sorts of destructive behavior: Any harm I can inflict upon someone else will yield a benefit for me, by some fundamental conservation law of the universe.

Viewed in this light, beliefs like patriarchy and White supremacy suddenly become much more comprehensible: Why would you want to spend so much effort hurting women and Black people? Because, by the fundamental law of zero-sum, any harm to women is a benefit to men, and any harm to Black people is a benefit to White people. The world is made of “teams”, and you are fighting for your own against all the others.

And I can even see why such an attitude is seductive: It’s simple and easy to understand. And there are many circumstances where it can be approximately true.
When you are bargaining with your boss over a wage, one dollar more for you is one dollar less for your boss.
When your factory outsources production to China, one more job for China is one less job for you.

When we vote for President, one more vote for the Democrats is one less vote for the Republicans.

But of course the world is not actually zero-sum. Both you and your boss would be worse off if your job were to disappear; they need your work and you need their money. For every job that is outsourced to China, another job is created in the United States. And democracy itself is such a profound public good that it basically overwhelms all others.

In fact, it is precisely when a system is running well that the zero-sum paradigm becomes closest to true. In the space of all possible allocations, it is the efficient ones that behave in something like a zero-sum way, because when the system is efficient, we are already producing as much as we can.

This may be part of why populist extremism always seems to assert itself during periods of global prosperity, as in the 1920s and today: It is precisely when the world is running at its full capacity that it feels most like someone else’s gain must come at your loss.

Yet if we live according to the zero-sum paradigm, we will rapidly destroy the prosperity that made that paradigm seem plausible. A trade war between the US and China would put millions out of work in both countries. A real war with conventional weapons would kill millions. A nuclear war would kill billions.

This is what we must convey: We must show people just how good things are right now.

This is not an easy task; when people want to believe the world is falling apart, they can very easily find excuses to do so. You can point to the statistics showing a global decline in homicide, but one dramatic shooting on the TV news will wipe that all away. You can show the worldwide rise in real incomes across the board, but that won’t console someone who just lost their job and blames outsourcing or immigrants.

Indeed, many people will be offended by the attempt—the mere suggestion that the world is actually in very good shape and overall getting better will be perceived as an attempt to deny or dismiss the problems and injustices that still exist.

I encounter this especially from the left: Simply pointing out the objective fact that the wealth gap between White and Black households is slowly closing is often taken as a claim that racism no longer exists or doesn’t matter. Congratulating the meteoric rise in women’s empowerment around the world is often paradoxically viewed as dismissing feminism instead of lauding it.

I think the best case against progress can be made with regard to global climate change: Carbon emissions are not falling nearly fast enough, and the world is getting closer to the brink of truly catastrophic ecological damage. Yet even here the zero-sum paradigm is clearly holding us back; workers in fossil-fuel industries think that the only way to reduce carbon emissions is to make their families suffer, but that’s simply not true. We can make them better off too.

Talking about injustice feels righteous. Talking about progress doesn’t. Yet I think what the world needs most right now—the one thing that might actually pull us back from the brink of fascism or even war—is people talking about progress.

If people think that the world is full of failure and suffering and injustice, they will want to tear down the whole system and start over with something else. In a world that is largely democratic, that very likely means switching to authoritarianism. If people think that this is as bad as it gets, they will be willing to accept or even instigate violence in order to change to almost anything else.

But if people realize that in fact the world is full of success and prosperity and progress, that things are right now quite literally better in almost every way for almost every person in almost every country than they were a hundred—or even fifty—years ago, they will not be so eager to tear the system down and start anew. Centrism is often mocked (partly because it is confused with false equivalence), but in a world where life is improving this quickly for this many people, “stay the course” sounds awfully attractive to me.
That doesn’t mean we should ignore the real problems and injustices that still exist, of course. There is still a great deal of progress left to be made.  But I believe we are more likely to make progress if we acknowledge and seek to continue the progress we have already made, than if we allow ourselves to fall into despair as if that progress did not exist.