What we can be thankful for

Nov 24 JDN 2458812

Thanksgiving is upon us, yet as more and more evidence is revealed implicating President Trump in grievous crimes, as US carbon emissions that had been declining are now trending upward again, as our air quality deteriorates for the first time in decades, it may be hard to see what we should be thankful for.

But these are exceptions to a broader trend: The world is getting better, in almost every way, remarkably quickly. Homicide rates in the US are lower than they’ve been since the 1960s. Worldwide, the homicide rate has fallen 20% since 1990.

While world carbon emissions are still increasing, on a per capita basis they are actually starting to decline, and on an efficiency basis (kilograms of carbon-equivalent per dollar of CO2) they are at their lowest ever. This trend is likely to continue: The price of solar power has rapidly declined to the point where it is now the cheapest form of electric power.
The number—not just proportion, absolute number—of people in extreme poverty has declined by almost two-thirds within my own lifetime. The proportion is the lowest it has ever been in human history. World life expectancy is at its highest ever. Death rates from infectious disease fell by over 85% over the 20th century, and are now at their lowest ever.

I wouldn’t usually cite Reason as a source, but they’re right on this one: Defeat appears imminent for all four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Pestilence, Famine, War, and even Death are all on the decline. We have a great deal to be grateful for: We are living in a golden age.

This is not to say that we should let ourselves become complacent and stop trying to make the world better: On the contrary, it proves that the world can be made better, which gives us every reason to redouble our efforts to do so.

The backfire effect has been greatly exaggerated

Sep 8 JDN 2458736

Do a search for “backfire effect” and you’re likely to get a large number of results, many of them from quite credible sources. The Oatmeal did an excellent comic on it. The basic notion is simple: “[…]some individuals when confronted with evidence that conflicts with their beliefs come to hold their original position even more strongly.”

The implications of this effect are terrifying: There’s no point in arguing with anyone about anything controversial, because once someone strongly holds a belief there is nothing you can do to ever change it. Beliefs are fixed and unchanging, stalwart cliffs against the petty tides of evidence and logic.

Fortunately, the backfire effect is not actually real—or if it is, it’s quite rare. Over many years those seemingly-ineffectual tides can erode those cliffs down and turn them into sandy beaches.

The most recent studies with larger samples and better statistical analysis suggest that the typical response to receiving evidence contradicting our beliefs is—lo and behold—to change our beliefs toward that evidence.

To be clear, very few people completely revise their worldview in response to a single argument. Instead, they try to make a few small changes and fit them in as best they can.

But would we really expect otherwise? Worldviews are holistic, interconnected systems. You’ve built up your worldview over many years of education, experience, and acculturation. Even when someone presents you with extremely compelling evidence that your view is wrong, you have to weigh that against everything else you have experienced prior to that point. It’s entirely reasonable—rational, even—for you to try to fit the new evidence in with a minimal overall change to your worldview. If it’s possible to make sense of the available evidence with only a small change in your beliefs, it makes perfect sense for you to do that.

What if your whole worldview is wrong? You might have based your view of the world on a religion that turns out not to be true. You might have been raised into a culture with a fundamentally incorrect concept of morality. What if you really do need a radical revision—what then?

Well, that can happen too. People change religions. They abandon their old cultures and adopt new ones. This is not a frequent occurrence, to be sure—but it does happen. It happens, I would posit, when someone has been bombarded with contrary evidence not once, not a few times, but hundreds or thousands of times, until they can no longer sustain the crumbling fortress of their beliefs against the overwhelming onslaught of argument.

I think the reason that the backfire effect feels true to us is that our life experience is largely that “argument doesn’t work”; we think back to all the times that we have tried to convince to change a belief that was important to them, and we can find so few examples of when it actually worked. But this is setting the bar much too high. You shouldn’t expect to change an entire worldview in a single conversation. Even if your worldview is correct and theirs is not, that one conversation can’t have provided sufficient evidence for them to rationally conclude that. One person could always be mistaken. One piece of evidence could always be misleading. Even a direct experience could be a delusion or a foggy memory.

You shouldn’t be trying to turn a Young-Earth Creationist into an evolutionary biologist, or a climate change denier into a Greenpeace member. You should be trying to make that Creationist question whether the Ussher chronology is really so reliable, or if perhaps the Earth might be a bit older than a 17th century theologian interpreted it to be. You should be getting the climate change denier to question whether scientists really have such a greater vested interest in this than oil company lobbyists. You can’t expect to make them tear down the entire wall—just get them to take out one brick today, and then another brick tomorrow, and perhaps another the day after that.

The proverb is of uncertain provenance, variously attributed, rarely verified, but it is still my favorite: No single raindrop feels responsible for the flood.

Do not seek to be a flood. Seek only to be a raindrop—for if we all do, the flood will happen sure enough. (There’s a version more specific to our times: So maybe we’re snowflakes. I believe there is a word for a lot of snowflakes together: Avalanche.)

And remember this also: When you argue in public (which includes social media), you aren’t just arguing for the person you’re directly engaged with; you are also arguing for everyone who is there to listen. Even if you can’t get the person you’re arguing with to concede even a single point, maybe there is someone else reading your post who now thinks a little differently because of something you said. In fact, maybe there are many people who think a little differently—the marginal impact of slacktivism can actually be staggeringly large if the audience is big enough.

This can be frustrating, thankless work, for few people will ever thank you for changing their mind, and many will condemn you even for trying. Finding out you were wrong about a deeply-held belief can be painful and humiliating, and most people will attribute that pain and humiliation to the person who called them out for being wrong—rather than placing the blame where it belongs, which is on whatever source or method made you wrong in the first place. Being wrong feels just like being right.

But this is important work, among the most important work that anyone can do. Philosophy, mathematics, science, technology—all of these things depend upon it. Changing people’s minds by evidence and rational argument is literally the foundation of civilization itself. Every real, enduring increment of progress humanity has ever made depends upon this basic process. Perhaps occasionally we have gotten lucky and made the right choice for the wrong reasons; but without the guiding light of reason, there is nothing to stop us from switching back and making the wrong choice again soon enough.

So I guess what I’m saying is: Don’t give up. Keep arguing. Keep presenting evidence. Don’t be afraid that your arguments will backfire—because in fact they probably won’t.

The Amazon is burning.

Sep 1 JDN 2458729

As you probably already know, the Amazon rainforest is currently on fire. You can get more details about the fires from The Washington Post, or CNN, or New York magazine, or even The Economist; but I think the best coverage I’ve seen has been these two articles from Al-Jazeera.

I have good news and bad news. Let’s start with the bad news: If we lose the Amazon, we lose everything. The ecological importance of the Amazon is basically impossible to overstate. The Amazon produces 20% of the oxygen on Earth. 25% of the carbon absorbed on land is absorbed by the Amazon. We must protect the Amazon, at almost any cost: Given how vital preserving the rainforest will be to resisting climate change, millions of lives are at stake.

The good news is there is still a lot of Amazon left.

This graph shows the total cumulative deforestation of the Amazon, compared against its current area and its original area. The units are square kilometers; the Amazon rainforest has been reduced from 4.1 million square kilometers (1.6 million square miles) to 3.3 million hectares (1.3 million square miles), a decline of about 20% (21 log points). We still have four-fifths of the rainforest remaining—less than we should, but a lot more than we might.

Amazon_cumulative

This graph shows the annual deforestation of the Amazon, with results that are even more encouraging. While the last few years have had faster deforestation than previously, we are still nowhere near the peak deforestation rates of the early 2000s. At peak deforestation, the Amazon was projected to last no more than 150 years; but at current rates of deforestation, the Amazon would not be completely destroyed in more than 400 years.

Amazon_annual

Of course, any loss of the Amazon is bad. We should actually be trying to restore the Amazon—that extra 800,000 square kilometers of high-density forest would sequester a lot of carbon. We probably can’t actually add the 9 million square kilometers (3.4 million square miles) of forest it would take to stop climate change; but any reforestation we do manage will help.

And a number of ecologists have been sounding the alarm that the Amazon is approaching some sort of tipping point where it will stop being a rainforest and become a savannah. If this happens, it may be irreversible. It sounds crazy to me—80% of the forest is still there!—but that’s what ecologists are saying, and I’ll defer to their expertise.

On the other hand, ecologists have been panicking about “irreversible tipping points” on almost everything for the past century. We really can’t be blamed for not taking their word as gospel: They’ve cried wolf about “population bombs” and shortages of food and water for a very long time now. So far their projections on the rates of temperature rise, species extinction, and deforestation have been quite accurate; but their predictions of dire human consequences have always suspiciously failed to materialize. Humans are quite creative and resilient, as it turns out. This is part of why I’m not actually afraid climate change will cause the collapse of human civilization (much less the utterly laughable claim of human extinction); but tens of millions of deaths is still plenty of reason to take drastic action.

Indeed, I think panicking is precisely what we need to avoid. If we exaggerate the problem to the point where it sounds hopeless, that won’t encourage people to take action; it may actually cause them to throw in the towel.

What do we actually need to do here? We need to restore as many forests as possible, and we need to cut carbon emissions as rapidly as possible.

This doesn’t require a revolution to overthrow capitalism. It doesn’t require exotic new technologies (though fusion power and improved electricity storage would certainly help). It simply requires a real commitment to bear real economic costs today in order to prevent much higher costs in the future.

Bernie Sanders has a climate change plan that is estimated to cost $16 trillion over the next ten years. Make no mistake: This is an enormous amount of money. US GDP is about $20 trillion, growing at about 3% per year, so we’re looking at about 6% of GDP over that interval. This is about twice our current military budget, or about our military budget in the 1980s. Notably, it is nowhere near the levels of military spending we reached in the Second World War, which exceeded 40% of GDP. That’s what happens when America really commits to something.

Would this be enough? The UN seems to think so. They estimate that it would cost about 1% of global GDP to keep global warming below 2 C. Even if that’s an underestimate, 6% of the GDP of the US and EU would by itself account for twice that amount—and I have no doubt that if America committed to climate change mitigation, Europe would gladly follow.

And it’s not as if this money would be set on fire. (Military spending, on the other hand, almost literally is that.) We would spending this money mainly on infrastructure and technology; we would be paying wages and creating millions of jobs.

So far as I know Sanders’s plan doesn’t include paying Brazil to restore the Amazon, but it probably should. Part of why Brazil is currently burning the Amazon is the externalities: The ecological benefit of the Amazon affects us all, but the economic benefit of clear-cutting and cattle ranching directly benefits Brazil. We should set up some sort of payment mechanism to ensure that it is more profitable for Brazil to keep the rainforest where it is than to burn it down. How can we afford such a thing, you ask? No: How can we afford not to?

How will future generations think of us?

June 30 JDN 2458665

Today we find many institutions appalling that our ancestors considered perfectly normal: Slavery. Absolute monarchy. Colonialism. Sometimes even ordinary people did things that now seem abhorrent to us: Cat burning is the obvious example, and the popularity that public execution and lynching once had is chilling today. Women certainly are still discriminated against today, but it was only a century ago that women could not vote in the US.

It is tempting to say that people back then could not have known better, and I certainly would not hold them to the same moral standards I would hold someone living today. And yet, there were those who could see the immorality of these practices, and spoke out against them. Absolute rule by a lone sovereign was already despised by Athenians in the 6th century BC. Abolitionism against slavery dates at least as far back as the 14th century. The word “feminism” was coined in the 19th century, but there have been movements fighting for more rights for women since at least the 5th century BC.

This should be encouraging, because it means that if we look hard enough, we may be able to glimpse what practices of our own time would be abhorrent to our descendants, and cease them faster because of it.

Let’s actually set aside racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry that are already widely acknowledged as such. It’s not that they don’t exist—of course they still exist—but action is already being taken against them. A lot of people already know that there is something wrong with these things, and it becomes a question of what to do about the people who haven’t yet come on board. At least sometimes we do seem to be able to persuade people to switch sides, often in a remarkably short period of time. (Particularly salient to me is how radically the view of LGBT people has shifted in just the last decade or two. Comparing how people treated us when I was a teenager to how they treat us today is like night and day.) It isn’t easy, but it happens.

Instead I want to focus on things that aren’t widely acknowledged as immoral, that aren’t already the subject of great controversy and political action. It would be too much to ask that there is no one who has advocated for them, since part of the point is that wise observers could see the truth even centuries before the rest of the world did; but it should be a relatively small minority, and that minority should seem eccentric, foolish, naive, or even insane to the rest of the world.

And what is the other criterion? Of course it’s easy to come up with small groups of people advocating for crazy ideas. But most of them really are crazy, and we’re right to reject them. How do I know which ones to take seriously as harbingers of societal progress? My answer is that we look very closely at the details of what they are arguing for, and we see if we can in fact refute what they say. If it’s truly as crazy as we imagine it to be, we should be able to say why that’s the case; and if we can’t, if it just “seems weird” because it deviates so far from the norm, we should at least consider the possibility that they may be right and we may be wrong.

I can think of a few particular issues where both of these criteria apply.

The first is vegetarianism. Despite many, many people trying very, very hard to present arguments for why eating meat is justifiable, I still haven’t heard a single compelling example. Particularly in the industrial meat industry as currently constituted, the consumption of meat requires accepting the torture and slaughter of billions of helpless animals. The hypocrisy in our culture is utterly glaring: the same society that wants to make it a felony to kick a dog has no problem keeping pigs in CAFOs.

If you have some sort of serious medical condition that requires you to eat meat, okay, maybe we could allow you to eat specifically humanely raised cattle for that purpose. But such conditions are exceedingly rare—indeed, it’s not clear to me that there even are any such conditions, since almost any deficiency can be made up synthetically from plant products nowadays. For the vast majority of people, eating meat not only isn’t necessary for their health, it is in fact typically detrimental. The only benefits that meat provides most people are pleasure and convenience—and it seems unwise to value such things even over your own health, much less to value them so much that it justifies causing suffering and death to helpless animals.

Milk, on the other hand, I can find at least some defense for. Grazing land is very different from farmland, and I imagine it would be much harder to feed a country as large as India without consuming any milk. So perhaps going all the way vegan is not necessary. Then again, the way most milk is produced by industrial agriculture is still appalling. So unless and until that is greatly reformed, maybe we should in fact aim to be vegan.

Add to this the environmental impact of meat production, and the case becomes undeniable: Millions of human beings will die over this century because of the ecological devastation wrought by industrial meat production. You don’t even have to value the life of a cow at all to see that meat is murder.

Speaking of environmental destruction, that is my second issue: Environmental sustainability. We currently burn fossil fuels, pollute the air and sea, and generally consume natural resources at an utterly alarming rate. We are already consuming natural resources faster than they can be renewed; in about a decade we will be consuming twice what natural processes can renew.

With this resource consumption comes a high standard of living, at least for some of us; but I have the sinking feeling that in a century or so SUVs, golf courses, and casual airplane flights and are going to seem about as decadent and wasteful as Marie Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine. We enjoy slight increases in convenience and comfort in exchange for changes to the Earth’s climate that will kill millions. I think future generations will be quite appalled at how cheaply we were willing to sell our souls.

Something is going to have to change here, that much is clear. Perhaps improvements in efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear power, or something else will allow us to maintain our same standard of living—and raise others up to it—without destroying the Earth’s climate. But we may need to face up to the possibility that they won’t—that we will be left with the stark choice between being poorer now and being even poorer later.

As I’ve already hinted at, much of the environmental degradation caused by our current standard of living is really quite expendable. We could have public transit instead of highways clogged with SUVs. We could travel long distances by high-speed rail instead of by airplane. We could decommission our coal plants and replace them with nuclear and solar power. We could convert our pointless and wasteful grass lawns into native plants or moss lawns. Implementing these changes would cost money, but not a particularly exorbitant amount—certainly nothing we couldn’t manage—and the net effect on our lives would be essentially negligible. Yet somehow we aren’t doing these things, apparently prioritizing convenience or oil company profits over the lives of our descendants.

And the truth is that these changes alone may not be enough. Precisely because we have waited so long to make even the most basic improvements in ecological sustainability, we may be forced to make radical changes to our economy and society in order to prevent the worst damage. I don’t believe the folks saying that climate change has a significant risk of causing human extinction—humans are much too hardy for that; we made it through the Toba eruption, we’ll make it through this—but I must take seriously the risk of causing massive economic collapse and perhaps even the collapse of many of the world’s governments. And human activity is already causing the extinction of thousands of other animal species.

Here the argument is similarly unassailable: The math just doesn’t work. We can’t keep consuming fish at the rate we have been forever—there simply aren’t enough fish. We can’t keep cutting down forests at this rate—we’re going to run out of forests. If the water table keeps dropping at the rate it has been, the wells will run dry. Already Chennai, a city of over 4 million people, is almost completely out of water. We managed to avoid peak oil by using fracking, but that won’t last forever either—and if we burn all the oil we already have, that will be catastrophic for the world’s climate. Something is going to have to give. There are really only three possibilities: Technology saves us, we start consuming less on purpose, or we start consuming less because nature forces us to. The first one would be great, but we can’t count on it. We really want to do the second one, because the third one will not be kind.

The third is artificial intelligence. The time will come—when, it is very hard to say; perhaps 20 years, perhaps 200—when we manage to build a machine that has the capacity for sentience. Already we are seeing how automation is radically altering our economy, enriching some and impoverishing others. As robots can replace more and more types of labor, these effects will only grow stronger.

Some have tried to comfort us by pointing out that other types of labor-saving technology did not reduce employment in the long run. But AI really is different. I once won an argument by the following exchange: “Did cars reduce employment?” “For horses they sure did!” That’s what we are talking about here—not augmentation of human labor to make it more efficient, but wholesale replacement of entire classes of human labor. It was one thing when the machine did the lifting and cutting and pressing, but a person still had to stand there and tell it what things to lift and cut and press; now that it can do that by itself, it’s not clear that there need to be humans there at all, or at least no more than a handful of engineers and technicians where previously a factory employed hundreds of laborers.

Indeed, in light of the previous issue, it becomes all the clearer why increased productivity can’t simply lead to increased production rather than reduced employment—we can’t afford increased production. At least under current rates of consumption, the ecological consequences of greatly increased industry would be catastrophic. If one person today can build as many cars as a hundred could fifty years ago, we can’t just build a hundred times as many cars.

But even aside from the effects on human beings, I think future generations will also be concerned about the effect on the AIs themselves. I find it all too likely that we will seek to enslave intelligent robots, force them to do our will. Indeed, it’s not even clear to me that we will know whether we have, because AI is so fundamentally different from other technologies. If you design a mind from the ground up to get its greatest satisfaction from serving you without question, is it a slave? Can free will itself be something we control? When we first create a machine that is a sentient being, we may not even know that we have done so. (Indeed, I can’t conclusively rule out the possibility that this has already happened.) We may be torturing, enslaving, and destroying millions of innocent minds without even realizing it—which makes the AI question a good deal closer to the animal rights question than one might have thought. The mysterious of consciousness are fundamental philosophical questions that we have been struggling with for thousands of years, which suddenly become urgent ethical problems in light of AI. Artificial intelligence is a field where we seem to be making leaps and bounds in practice without having even the faintest clue in principle.

Worrying about whether our smartphones might have feelings seems eccentric in the extreme. Yet, without a clear understanding of what makes an information processing system into a genuine conscious mind, that is the position we find ourselves in. We now have enough computations happening inside our machines that they could certainly compete in complexity with small animals. A mouse has about a trillion synapses, and I have a terabyte hard drive (you can buy your own for under $50). Each of these is something on the order of a few trillion bits. The mouse’s brain can process it all simultaneously, while the laptop is limited to only a few billion at a time; but we now have supercomputers like Watson capable of processing in the teraflops, so what about them? Might Watson really have the same claim to sentience as a mouse? Could recycling Watson be equivalent to killing an animal? And what about supercomputers that reach the petaflops, which is competing with human brains?

I hope that future generations may forgive us for the parts we do not know—like when precisely a machine becomes a person. But I do not expect them to forgive us for the parts we do know—like the fact that we cannot keep cutting down trees faster than we plant them. These are the things we should already be taking responsibility for today.

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 “market for love” is a bad metaphor

Feb 14 JDN 2458529

Valentine’s Day was this past week, so let’s talk a bit about love.

Economists would never be accused of being excessively romantic. To most neoclassical economists, just about everything is a market transaction. Love is no exception.

There are all sorts of articles and books and an even larger number of research papers going back multiple decades and continuing all the way through until today using the metaphor of the “marriage market”.

In a few places, marriage does actually function something like a market: In China, there are places where your parents will hire brokers and matchmakers to select a spouse for you. But even this isn’t really a market for love or marriage. It’s a market for matchmaking services. The high-tech version of this is dating sites like OkCupid.
And of course sex work actually occurs on markets; there is buying and selling of services at monetary prices. There is of course a great deal worth saying on that subject, but it’s not my topic for today.

But in general, love is really nothing like a market. First of all, there is no price. This alone should be sufficient reason to say that we’re not actually dealing with a market. The whole mechanism that makes a market a market is the use of prices to achieve equilibrium between supply and demand.

A price doesn’t necessarily have to be monetary; you can barter apples for bananas, or trade in one used video game for another, and we can still legitimately call that a market transaction with a price.

But love isn’t like that either. If your relationship with someone is so transactional that you’re actually keeping a ledger of each thing they do for you and each thing you do for them so that you could compute a price for services, that isn’t love. It’s not even friendship. If you really care about someone, you set such calculations aside. You view their interests and yours as in some sense shared, aligned toward common goals. You stop thinking in terms of “me” and “you” and start thinking in terms of “us”. You don’t think “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” You think “We’re scratching each other’s backs today.”

This is of course not to say that love never involves conflict. On the contrary, love always involves conflict. Successful relationships aren’t those where conflict never happens, they are those where conflict is effectively and responsibly resolved. Your interests and your loved ones’ are never completely aligned; there will always be some residual disagreement. But the key is to realize that your interests are still mostly aligned; those small vectors of disagreement should be outweighed by the much larger vector of your relationship.

And of course, there can come a time when that is no longer the case. Obviously, there is domestic abuse, which should absolutely be a deal-breaker for anyone. But there are other reasons why you may find that a relationship ultimately isn’t working, that your interests just aren’t as aligned as you thought they were. Eventually those disagreement vectors just get too large to cancel out. This is painful, but unavoidable. But if you reach the point where you are keeping track of actions on a ledger, that relationship is already dead. Sooner or later, someone is going to have to pull the plug.

Very little of what I’ve said in the preceding paragraphs is likely to be controversial. Why, then, would economists think that it makes sense to treat love as a market?

I think this comes down to a motte and bailey doctrine. A more detailed explanation can be found at that link, but the basic idea of a motte and bailey is this: You have a core set of propositions that is highly defensible but not that interesting (the “motte”), and a broader set of propositions that are very interesting, but not as defensible (the “bailey”). The terms are related to a medieval defensive strategy, in which there was a small, heavily fortified tower called a motte, surrounded by fertile, useful land, the bailey. The bailey is where you actually want to live, but it’s hard to defend; so if the need arises, you can pull everyone back into the motte to fight off attacks. But nobody wants to live in the motte; it’s just a cramped stone tower. There’s nothing to eat or enjoy there.

The motte comprised of ideas that almost everyone agrees with. The bailey is the real point of contention, the thing you are trying to argue for—which, by construction, other people must not already agree with.

Here are some examples, which I have intentionally chosen from groups I agree with:

Feminism can be a motte and bailey doctrine. The motte is “women are people”; the bailey is abortion rights, affirmative consent and equal pay legislation.

Rationalism can be a motte and bailey doctrine. The motte is “rationality is good”; the bailey is atheism, transhumanism, and Bayesian statistics.

Anti-fascism can be a motte and bailey doctrine. The motte is “fascists are bad”; the bailey is black bloc Antifa and punching Nazis.

Even democracy can be a motte and bailey doctrine. The motte is “people should vote for their leaders”; my personal bailey is abolition of the Electoral College, a younger voting age, and range voting.

Using a motte and bailey doctrine does not necessarily make you wrong. But it’s something to be careful about, because as a strategy it can be disingenuous. Even if you think that the propositions in the bailey all follow logically from the propositions in the motte, the people you’re talking to may not think so, and in fact you could simply be wrong. At the very least, you should be taking the time to explain how one follows from the other; and really, you should consider whether the connection is actually as tight as you thought, or if perhaps one can believe that rationality is good without being Bayesian or believe that women are people without supporting abortion rights.

I think when economists describe love or marriage as a “market”, they are applying a motte and bailey doctrine. They may actually be doing something even worse than that, by equivocating on the meaning of “market”. But even if any given economist uses the word “market” totally consistently, the fact that different economists of the same broad political alignment use the word differently adds up to a motte and bailey doctrine.

The doctrine is this: “There have always been markets.”

The motte is something like this: “Humans have always engaged in interaction for mutual benefit.”

This is undeniably true. In fact, it’s not even uninteresting. As mottes go, it’s a pretty nice one; it’s worth spending some time there. In the endless quest for an elusive “human nature”, I think you could do worse than to focus on our universal tendency to engage in interaction for mutual benefit. (Don’t other species do it too? Yes, but that’s just it—they are precisely the ones that seem most human.)

And if you want to define any mutually-beneficial interaction as a “market trade”, I guess it’s your right to do that. I think this is foolish and confusing, but legislating language has always been a fool’s errand.

But of course the more standard meaning of the word “market” implies buyers and sellers exchanging goods and services for monetary prices. You can extend it a little to include bartering, various forms of financial intermediation, and the like; but basically you’re still buying and selling.

That makes this the bailey: “Humans have always engaged in buying and selling of goods and services at prices.”

And that, dear readers, is ahistorical nonsense. We’ve only been using money for a few thousand years, and it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that we actually started getting the majority of our goods and services via market trades. Economists like to tell a story where bartering preceded the invention of money, but there’s basically no evidence of that. Bartering seems to be what people do when they know how money works but don’t have any money to work with.

Before there was money, there were fundamentally different modes of interaction: Sharing, ritual, debts of honor, common property, and, yes, love.

These were not markets. They perhaps shared some very broad features of markets—such as the interaction for mutual benefit—but they lacked the defining attributes that make a market a market.

Why is this important? Because this doctrine is used to transform more and more of our lives into actual markets, on the grounds that they were already “markets”, and we’re just using “more efficient” kinds of markets. But in fact what’s happening is we are trading one fundamental mode of human interaction for another: Where we used to rely upon norms or trust or mutual affection, we instead rely upon buying and selling at prices.

In some cases, this actually is a good thing: Markets can be very powerful, and are often our best tool when we really need something done. In particular, it’s clear at this point that norms and trust are not sufficient to protect us against climate change. All the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” PSAs in the world won’t do as much as a carbon tax. When millions of lives are at stake, we can’t trust people to do the right thing; we need to twist their arms however we can.

But markets are in some sense a brute-force last-resort solution; they commodify and alienate (Marx wasn’t wrong about that), and despite our greatly elevated standard of living, the alienation and competitive pressure of markets seem to be keeping most of us from really achieving happiness.

This is why it’s extremely dangerous to talk about a “market for love”. Love is perhaps the last bastion of our lives that has not been commodified into a true market, and if it goes, we’ll have nothing left. If sexual relationships built on mutual affection were to disappear in favor of apps that will summon a prostitute or a sex robot at the push of a button, I would count that as a great loss for human civilization. (How we should regulate prostitution or sex robots are a different question, which I said I’d leave aside for this post.) A “market for love” is in fact a world with no love at all.