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.

How much should we value statistical lives?

June 9 JDN 2458644

The very concept of putting a dollar value on a human life offends most people. I understand why: It suggests that human lives are fungible, and also seems to imply that killing people is just fine as long as it produces sufficient profit.

In next week’s post I’ll try to assuage some of those fears: Saying that a life is worth say $5 million doesn’t actually mean that it’s justifiable to kill someone as long as it pays you $5 million.

But for now let me say that we really have no choice but to do this. There are a huge number of interventions we could make in the world that all have the same basic form: They could save lives, but they cost money. We need to be able to say when we are justified in spending more money to save more lives, and when we are not.

No, it simply won’t do to say that “money is no object”. Because money isn’t just money—money is human happiness. A willingness to spend unlimited amounts to save even a single life, if it could be coherently implemented at all, would result in, if not complete chaos or deadlock, a joyless, empty world where we all live to be 100 by being contained in protective foam and fed by machines. It may be uncomfortable to ask a question like “How many people should we be willing to let die to let ourselves have Disneyland?”; but if that answer were zero, we should not have Disneyland. The same is true for almost everything in our lives: From automobiles to chocolate, almost any product you buy, any service you consume, has resulted in some person’s death at some point.

And there is an even more urgent reason, in fact: There are many things we are currently not doing that could save many lives for very little money. Targeted foreign aid or donations to top charities could save lives for as little as $1000 each. Foreign aid is so cost-effective that even if the only thing foreign aid had ever accomplished was curing smallpox, it would be twice as cost-effective as the UK National Health Service (which is one of the best healthcare systems in the world). Tighter environmental regulations save an additional life for about $200,000 in compliance cost, which is less than we would have spent in health care costs; the Clean Air Act added about $12 trillion to the US economy over the last 30 years.

Reduced military spending could literally pay us money to save people’s lives—based on the cost of the Afghanistan War, we are currently paying as much as $1 million per person to kill people that we really have very little reason to kill.

Most of the lives we could save are statistical lives: We can’t point to a particular individual who will or will not die because of the decision, but we can do the math and say approximately how many people will or will not die. We know that approximately 11,000 people will die each year if we loosen regulations on mercury pollution; we can’t say who they are, but they’re out there. Human beings have a lot of trouble thinking this way; it’s just not how our brains evolved to work. But when we’re talking about policy on a national or global scale, it’s quite simply the only way to do things. Anything else is talking nonsense.

Standard estimates of the value of a statistical life range from about $4 million to $9 million. These estimates are based on how much people are willing to pay for reductions in risk. So for instance if people would pay $100 to reduce their chances of dying by 0.01%, we divide the former by the latter to say that a life is worth about $1 million.

It’s a weird question: You clearly can’t just multiply like that. How much would you be willing to accept for a 100% chance of death? Presumably there isn’t really such an amount, because you would be dead. So your willingness-to-accept is undefined. And there’s no particular reason for it to be linear below that: Since marginal utility of wealth is decreasing, the amount you would demand for a 50% chance of death is a lot more than 50 times as much as what you would demand for a 1% chance of death.
Say for instance that utility of wealth is logarithmic. Say your currently lifetime wealth is $1 million, and your current utility is about 70 QALY. Then if we measure wealth in thousands of dollars, we have W = 1000 and U = 10 ln W.

How much would you be willing to accept for a 1% chance of death? Your utility when dead is presumably zero, so we are asking for an amount m such that 0.99 U(W+m) = U(W). 0.99 (10 ln (W+m)) = 10 ln (W) means (W+m)^0.99 = W, so m = W^(1/0.99) – W. We started with W = 1000, so m = 72. You would be willing to accept $72,000 for a 1% chance of death. So we would estimate the value of a statistical life at $7.2 million.

How much for a 0.0001% chance of death? W^(1/0.999999)-W = 0.0069. So you would demand $6.90 for such a risk, and we’d estimate your value of a statistical life at $6.9 million. Pretty close, though not the same.

But how much would you be willing to accept for a 50% chance of death? W^(1/0.5) – W = 999,000. That is, $999 million. So if we multiplied that out, we’d say that your value of a statistical life has now risen to a staggering (and ridiculous) $2 billion.

Mathematically, the estimates are more consistent if we use small probabilities—but all this assumes that people actually know their own utility of wealth and calculate it correctly, which is a very unreasonable assumption.

The much bigger problem with this method is that human beings are terrible at dealing with small probabilities. When asked how much they’d be willing to pay to reduce their chances of dying by 0.01%, most people probably have absolutely no idea and may literally just say a random number.

We need to rethink our entire approach for judging such numbers. Honestly we shouldn’t be trying to put a dollar value on a human life; we should be asking about the dollar cost of saving a human life. We should be asking what else we could do with that money. Indeed, for the time being, I think the best thing to do is actually to compare lives to lives: How many lives could we save for this amount of money?

Thus, if we’re considering starting a war that will cost $1 trillion, we need to ask ourselves: How many innocent people would die if we don’t do that? How many will die if we do? And what else could we do with a trillion dollars? If the war is against Nazi Germany, okay, sure; we’re talking about killing millions to save tens of millions. But if it’s against ISIS, or Iran, those numbers don’t come out so great.

If we have a choice between two policies, each of which will cost $10 billion, and one of them will save 1,000 lives while the other will save 100,000, the obvious answer is to pick the second one. Yet this is exactly the world we live in, and we’re not doing that. We are throwing money at military spending and tax cuts (things that many not save any lives at all) and denying it from climate change adaptation, foreign aid, and poverty relief.

Instead of asking whether a given intervention is cost-effective based upon some notion of a dollar value of a human life, we should be asking what the current cost of saving a human life is, and we should devote all available resources into whatever means saves the most lives for the least money. Most likely that means some sort of foreign aid, public health intervention, or poverty relief in Third World countries. It clearly does not mean cutting taxes on billionaires or starting another war in the Middle East.

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 extreme efficiency of environmental regulation—and the extreme inefficiency of war

Apr 8 JDN 2458217

Insofar as there has been any coherent policy strategy for the Trump administration, it has largely involved three things:

  1. Increase investment in military, incarceration, and immigration enforcement
  2. Redistribute wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich
  3. Remove regulations that affect business, particularly environmental regulations

The human cost of such a policy strategy is difficult to overstate. Literally millions of people will die around the world if such policies continue. This is almost the exact opposite of what our government should be doing.

This is because military is one of the most wasteful and destructive forms of government investment, while environmental regulation is one of the most efficient and beneficial. The magnitude of these differences is staggering.

First of all, it is not clear that the majority of US military spending provides any marginal benefit. It could quite literally be zero. The US spends more on military than the next ten countries combined.

I think it’s quite reasonable to say that the additional defense benefit becomes negligible once you exceed the sum of spending from all plausible enemies. China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia together add up to about $350 billion per year. Current US spending is $610 billion per year. (And this calculation, by the way, requires them all to band together, while simultaneously all our NATO allies completely abandon us.) That means we could probably cut $260 billion per year without losing anything.

What about the remaining $350 billion? I could be extremely generous here, and assume that nuclear weapons, alliances, economic ties, and diplomacy all have absolutely no effect, so that without our military spending we would be invaded and immediately lose, and that if we did lose a war with China or Russia it would be utterly catastrophic and result in the deaths of 10% of the US population. Since in this hypothetical scenario we are only preventing the war by the barest margin, each year of spending only adds 1 year to the lives of the war’s potential victims. That means we are paying some $350 billion per year to add 1 year to the lives of 32 million people. That is a cost of about $11,000 per QALY. If it really is saving us from being invaded, that doesn’t sound all that unreasonable. And indeed, I don’t favor eliminating all military spending.

Of course, the marginal benefit of additional spending is still negligible—and UN peacekeeping is about twice as cost-effective as US military action, even if we had to foot the entire bill ourselves.

Alternatively, I could consider only the actual, documented results of our recent military action, which has resulted in over 280,000 deaths in Iraq and 110,000 in Afghanistan, all for little or no apparent gain. Life expectancy in these countries is about 70 in Iraq and 60 in Afghanistan. Quality of life there is pretty awful, but people are also greatly harmed by war without actually dying in it, so I think a fair conversion factor is about 60 QALY per death. That’s a loss of 23.4 MQALY. The cost of the Iraq War was about $1.1 trillion, while the cost of the Afghanistan War was about a further $1.1 trillion. This means that we paid $94,000 per lost QALY. If this is right, we paid enormous amounts to destroy lives and accomplished nothing at all.

Somewhere in between, we could assume that cutting the military budget greatly would result in the US being harmed in a manner similar to World War 2, which killed about 500,000 Americans. Paying $350 billion per year to gain 500,000 QALY per year is a price of $700,000 per QALY. I think this is about right; we are getting some benefit, but we are spending an enormous amount to get it.

Now let’s compare that to the cost-effectiveness of environmental regulation.

Since 1990, the total cost of implementing the regulations in the Clean Air Act was about $65 billion. That’s over 28 years, so less than $2.5 billion per year. Compare that to the $610 billion per year we spend on the military.

Yet the Clean Air Act saves over 160,000 lives every single year. And these aren’t lives extended one more year as they were in the hypothetical scenario where we are just barely preventing a catastrophic war; most of these people are old, but go on to live another 20 years or more. That means we are gaining 3.2 MQALY for a price of $2.5 billion. This is a price of only $800 per QALY.

From 1970 to 1990, the Clean Air Act cost more to implement: about $520 billion (so, you know, less than one year of military spending). But its estimated benefit was to save over 180,000 lives per year, and its estimated economic benefit was $22 trillion.

Look at those figures again, please. Even under very pessimistic assumptions where we would be on the verge of war if not for our enormous spending, we’re spending at least $11,000 and probably more like $700,000 on the military for each QALY gained. But environmental regulation only costs us about $800 per QALY. That’s a factor of at least 14 and more likely 1000. Environmental regulation is probably about one thousand times as cost-effective as military spending.

And I haven’t even included the fact that there is a direct substitution here: Climate change is predicted to trigger thousands if not millions of deaths due to military conflict. Even if national security were literally the only thing we cared about, it would probably still be more cost-effective to invest in carbon emission reduction rather than building yet another aircraft carrier. And if, like me, you think that a child who dies from asthma is just as important as one who gets bombed by China, then the cost-benefit analysis is absolutely overwhelming; every $60,000 spent on war instead of environmental protection is a statistical murder.

This is not even particularly controversial among economists. There is disagreement about specific environmental regulations, but the general benefits of fighting climate change and keeping air and water clean are universally acknowledged. There is disagreement about exactly how much military spending is necessary, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an economist who doesn’t think we could cut our military substantially with little or no risk to security.

Forget the Doughnut. Meet the Wedge.

Mar 11 JDN 2458189

I just finished reading Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist; Raworth also has a whole website dedicated to the concept of the Doughnut as a way of rethinking economics.

The book is very easy to read, and manages to be open to a wide audience with only basic economics knowledge without feeling patronizing or condescending. Most of the core ideas are fundamentally sound, though Raworth has a way of making it sound like she is being revolutionary even when most mainstream economists already agree with the core ideas.

For example, she makes it sound like it is some sort of dogma among neoclassical economists that GDP growth must continue at the same pace forever. As I discussed in an earlier post, the idea that growth will slow down is not radical in economics—it is basically taken for granted in the standard neoclassical growth models.

Even the core concept of the Doughnut isn’t all that radical. It’s based on the recognition that economic development is necessary to end poverty, but resources are not unlimited. Then combine that with two key assumptions: GDP growth requires growth in energy consumption, and growth in energy consumption requires increased carbon emissions. Then, the goal should be to stay within a certain range: We want to be high enough to not have poverty, but low enough to not exceed our carbon budget.

Why a doughnut? That’s… actually a really good question. The concept Raworth presents is a fundamentally one-dimensional object; there’s no reason for it to be doughnut-shaped. She could just as well have drawn it on a single continuum, with poverty at one end, unsustainability at the other end, and a sweet spot in the middle. The doughnut shape adds some visual appeal, but no real information.

But the fundamental assumptions that GDP requires energy and energy requires carbon emissions are simply false—especially the second one. Always keep one thing in mind whenever you’re reading something by environmentalists telling you we need to reduce economic output to save the Earth: Nuclear power does not produce carbon emissions.

This is how the environmentalist movement has shot itself—and the world—in the foot for the last 50 years. They continually refuse to admit that nuclear power is the best hope we have for achieving both economic development and ecological sustainability. They have let their political biases cloud their judgment on what is actually best for humanity’s future.

I will give Raworth some credit for not buying into the pipe dream that we can somehow transition rapidly to an entirely solar and wind-based power grid—renewables only produce 6% of world energy (the most they ever have), while nuclear produces 10%. And nuclear power certainly has its downsides, particularly in its high cost of construction. It may in fact be the case that we need to reduce economic output somewhat, particularly in the very richest countries, and if so, we need to find a way to do that without causing social and political collapse.

The Dougnut is a one-dimensional object glorified by a two-dimensional diagram.

So let me present you with an actual two-dimensional object, which I call the Wedge.

On this graph, the orange dots plot actual GDP per capita (at purchasing power parity) on the X axis against actual CO2 emissions per capita on the Y-axis. The green horizonal line is a CO2 emission target of 3 tonnes per person per year based on reports from the International Panel on Climate Change.

Wedge_full

As you can see, most countries are above the green line. That’s bad. We need the whole world below that green line. The countries that are below the line are largely poor countries, with a handful of middle-income countries mixed in.

But it’s the blue diagonal line that really makes this graph significant, what makes it the Wedge. That line uses Switzerland’s level of efficiency to estimate a frontier of what’s possible. Switzerland’s ratio of GDP to CO2 is the best in the world, among countries where the data actually looks reliable. A handful of other countries do better in the data, but for some (Macau) it’s obviously due to poor counting of indirect emissions and for others (Rwanda, Chad, Burundi) we just don’t have good data at all. I think Switzerland’s efficiency level of $12,000 per ton of CO2 is about as good as can be reasonably expected for most countries over the long run.

Our goal should be to move as far right on the graph as we can (toward higher levels of economic development), but always staying inside this Wedge: Above the green line, our CO2 emissions are too high. Below the blue line may not be technologically feasible (though of course it’s worth a try). We want to aim for the point of the wedge, where GDP is as high as possible but emissions are still below safe targets.

Zooming in on the graph gives a better view of the Wedge.

Wedge_zoomed

The point of the Wedge is about $38,000 per person per year. This is not as rich as the US, but it’s definitely within the range of highly-developed countries. This is about the same standard of living as Italy, Spain, or South Korea. In fact, all three of these countries exceed their targets; the closest I was able to find to a country actually hitting the point of the wedge was Latvia, at $27,300 and 3.5 tonnes per person per year. Uruguay also does quite well at $22,400 and 2.2 tonnes per person per year.

Some countries are within the Wedge; a few, like Uruguay, quite close to the point, and many, like Colombia and Bangladesh, that are below and to the left. For these countries, a “stay the course” policy is the way to go: If they keep up what they are doing, they can continue to experience economic growth without exceeding their emission targets.

 

But the most important thing about the graph is not actually the Wedge itself: It’s all the countries outside the Wedge, and where they are outside the Wedge.

There are some countries, like Sweden, France, and Switzerland, that are close to the blue line but still outside the Wedge because they are too far to the right. These are countries for whom “degrowth” policies might actually make sense: They are being as efficient in their use of resources as may be technologically feasible, but are simply producing too much output. They need to find a way to scale back their economies without causing social and political collapse. My suggestion, for what it’s worth, is progressive taxation. In addition to carbon taxes (which are a no-brainer), make income taxes so high that they start actually reducing GDP, and do so without fear, since that’s part of the point; then redistribute all the income as evenly as possible so that lower total income comes with much lower inequality and the eradication of poverty. Most of the country will then be no worse off than they were, so social and political unrest seems unlikely. Call it “socialism” if you like, but I’m not suggesting collectivization of industry or the uprising of the proletariat; I just want everyone to adopt the income tax rates the US had in the 1950s.

But most countries are not even close to the blue line; they are well above it. In all these countries, the goal should not be to reduce economic output, but to increase the carbon efficiency of that output. Increased efficiency has no downside (other than the transition cost to implement it): It makes you better off ecologically without making you worse off economically. Bahrain has about the same GDP per capita as Sweden but produces over five times the per-capita carbon emissions. Simply by copying Sweden they could reduce their emissions by almost 19 tonnes per person per year, which is more than the per-capita output of the US (and we’re hardly models of efficiency)—at absolutely no cost in GDP.

Then there are countries like Mongolia, which produces only $12,500 in GDP but 14.5 tonnes of CO2 per person per year. Mongolia is far above and to the left of the point of the Wedge, meaning that they could both increase their GDP and decrease their emissions by adopting the model of more efficient countries. Telling these countries that “degrowth” is the answer is beyond perverse—cut Mongolia’s GDP by 2/3 and you would throw them into poverty without even bringing carbon emissions down to target.

We don’t need to overthrow capitalism or even give up on GDP growth in general. We need to focus on carbon, carbon, carbon: All economic policy from this point forward should be made with CO2 reduction in mind. If that means reducing GDP, we may have to accept that; but often it won’t. Switching to nuclear power and public transit would dramatically reduce emissions but need have no harmful effect on economic output—in fact, the large investment required could pull a country out of recession.

Don’t worry about the Doughnut. Aim for the point of the Wedge.

Our biggest oil subsidy is called the Interstate Highway System


August 13, JDN 2457979

In last week’s post I proposed an infrastructure project that probably sounded quite expensive. $410 billion for maglev lines? We’ve never spent anything like that on infrastructure, have we?

Actually, we have. The Interstate Highway System, in inflation-adjusted dollars, cost $526 billion. Of course, road is a lot cheaper than maglev rail, so that covers a lot more miles than the maglev system I’m proposing.

Of course, the maglev system would produce a lot less carbon emissions and be a great deal safer; while the Interstate Highway System has about 60% (91 log points) fewer traffic fatalities than the road system that came before it, the Shinkansen high-speed rail system in Japan has not had a single passenger fatality in over 50 years and 1 billion passengers. No system built by humans will ever be perfect, but the Shinkansen comes about as close as we’re ever going to get.

Assuming we could even get close to that level of safety, replacing the highway system with high-speed rail would save about 2,000 American lives every year. (Of course, we’d still lose over 30,000 Americans every year to non-interstate car accidents.)

But what I really want to talk about this week is how the Interstate Highway System is in fact an implicit oil subsidy. We currently spend over $140 billion per year in public funds to maintain highways (about one-fourth of which is specifically the Interstate Highway System). For those of you playing along at home, that’s about half what it would take to end world hunger.

The choice to spending this money maintaining highways instead of bike lanes, rail lines, or subway systems makes this spending an implicit subsidy for the car industry and the oil industry.

Of course, that’s only half the story; there’s also the gasoline tax, which is a pretty obvious tax on the oil industry. But the federal gasoline tax only raises about $35 billion per year, and state taxes add up to a comparable amount; so only about half what we spend on highways is actually covered by gasoline taxes. This means that even if you never drive a car, you are paying for the highway system.

Even including the gasoline tax, this means that this implicit oil subsidy may be the largest oil subsidy in the United States. Standard estimates of oil subsidies in the US range around $30 to $40 billion per year. Assuming that 3/4 of the benefit from the $140 billion in highway spending goes to the oil industry (the other 1/4 to the car industry), and then subtracting the roughly $70 billion paid in gasoline taxes leaves about $35 billion per year in net oil subsidy from the Interstate Highway System—which is to say about as much as all other oil subsidies combined.

Moreover, when you do drive on the highway, you usually don’t pay. You pay for gasoline, but that’s quite cheap, especially if your car is at all fuel-efficient; and most of us (in an entirely economically rational way) avoid toll roads when we have the time. Most of what you spend on driving is paying to buy, insure, and maintain your car—because cars are extremely complicated and expensive machines that take an awful lot of knowhow to build. The annual cost of driving a typical midsize sedan 15,000 miles per year is about $8,500. Of that, about $3,000 is depreciation (I’m assuming half the depreciation was inevitable, and the other half was due to mileage), registration fees, and finance charges that just come from owning the vehicle and would still happen even if you hardly ever drove it. This means that your marginal cost of driving is only about $0.36 per mile. (This makes the $0.54 per mile deduction the IRS will give small business owners actually quite generous.) You have a strong economic incentive not to drive at all, but in many places it’s hard to even get by without a car; and once you have one, a substantial portion of the cost is already sunk and you may as well drive it.

Compare this to how we fund public transit. Most of the spending on public transit is privatized, and federal funds for public transit are about 1/6 of federal funds for interstate highways. Then we charge every single passenger for every single trip. Except for the recent transition to transit cards instead of cash, this whole system almost seems designed to minimize the salience of the cost of driving and maximize the salience of the cost of public transit.

We also spend far more on our public transit projects than is really necessary, because corruption and excess bureaucracy in the subcontracting system dramatically raises the price. This is actually rather strange, as overall the US has less corruption than Spain or France, yet we pay substantially more for our infrastructure than they do. Indeed, capital costs per kilometer for US urban rail lines consistently rate above all but the most expensive European projects—notably, usually above that $100 million per mile threshold I estimated for maglev rail done right.

This combination of high prices and low funding means our public transit system provides far worse service. Combined with the fact that the rent is too damn high, this gives Americans some of the longest commute times in the world.
What we should actually be doing of course is taxing the oil industry, at the social cost of carbon—the monetary value of the marginal ecological damage done by extracting and burning oil. If we did this, it would raise the price of gasoline by about $0.20 per gallon; since the $70 billion in gasoline taxes is currently raised by a tax of about $0.50 per gallon, that means we would raise an additional $30 billion from gasoline alone (not quite, as people would reduce their gasoline consumption a little). This means that by not doing this, we are effectively subsidizing oil by an additional $30 billion—making our total oil subsidies over $100 billion per year.

Of course, there is a case to be made that this is not the largest US oil subsidy after all. There is one quite plausible candidate for US oil subsidies that might actually be larger, and that is US military spending. Obviously not all military spending is an oil subsidy; but when you include both the absurd amounts of fuel that tanks and fighter jets consume (the DoD accounts for 93% of all US government fuel consumption!) and the fact that several of our most recent wars were at least partly about securing oil reserves, it’s not hard to see how this might be benefiting the oil industry. Estimating this effect quantitatively is very difficult, but if even 5% of the US military budget amounts to an oil subsidy, that’s over $25 billion per year—just shy of the Interstate Highway System.

We need to be honest about free trade’s costs, and clearer about its benefits

August 6, JDN 2457607

I discussed in a post awhile ago the fact that economists overwhelmingly favor free trade but most people don’t. There are some deep psychological reasons for this, particularly the loss aversion which makes people experience losses about twice as much as they experience gains. Free trade requires change; it creates some jobs and destroys others. Those forced transitions can be baffling and painful.

The good news is that views on trade in the US are actually getting more positive in recent years—which makes Trump that much more baffling. I honestly can’t make much sense of the fact that candidates who are against free trade have been so big in this election (and let’s face it, even Bernie Sanders is largely against free trade!), in light of polls showing that free trade is actually increasingly popular.

Partly this can be explained by the fact that people are generally more positive about free trade in general than they are about particular trade agreements, and understandably so, as free trade agreements often include some really awful provisions that in no way advance free trade. But that doesn’t really explain the whole effect here. Maybe it’s a special interest effect: People who hate trade are much more passionate about hating trade than people who like trade are passionate about liking trade. If that’s the case, then this is what we need to change.

Today I’d like to focus on what we as economists and the economically literate more generally can do to help people understand what free trade is and why it is so important. This means two things:

First, of course, we must be clearer about the benefits of free trade. Many economists seem to think that it is simply so obvious that they don’t even bother to explain it, and end up seeming like slogan-chanting ideologues. “Free trade! Free trade! Free trade!”

Above all, we need to talk about how it was primarily through free trade that global extreme poverty is now at the lowest level it has ever been. This benefit needs to be repeated over and over, and anyone who argues for protectionism needs to be confronted with the millions of people they will throw back into poverty. Most people don’t even realize that global poverty is declining, so first of all, they need to be shown that it is.

American ideas are often credited with fighting global poverty, but that’s not so convincing, since most of the improvement in poverty has happened in China (not exactly a paragon of free markets, much less liberal democracy); what really seems to have made the difference is American dollars, spent in free trade. Imports to the US from China have risen from $3.8 billion in 1985 to $483 billion in 2015. Extreme poverty in China fell from 61% of the population in 1990 to 4% in 2015. Coincidence? I think not. Indeed, that $483 billion is just about $1 per day for every man, woman, and child in China—and the UN extreme poverty line is $1.25 per person per day.

We need to be talking about the jobs that are created by trade—if need be, making TV commercials interviewing workers at factories who make products for export. “Most of our customers are in Japan,” they might say. “Without free trade, I’d be out of a job.” Interview business owners saying things like, “Two years ago we opened up sales to China. Now I need to double my workforce just to keep up with demand.” Unlike a lot of other economic policies where the benefits are diffuse and hard to keep track of, free trade is one where you can actually point to specific people and see that they are now better off because they make more selling exports. From there, we just need to point out that imports and exports are two sides of the same transaction—so if you like exports, you’d better have imports.

We need to make it clear that the economic gains from trade are just as real as the losses from transition, even if they may not be as obvious. William Poole put it very well in this article on attitudes toward free trade:

Economists are sometimes charged with insensitivity over job losses, when in fact most of us are extremely sensitive to such losses. What good economics tells us is that saving jobs in one industry does not save jobs in the economy as a whole. We urge people to be as sensitive to the jobs indirectly lost as a consequence of trade restriction as to those lost as a consequence of changing trade patterns.

Second, just as importantly, we must be honest about the costs of free trade. We need to stop eliding the distinction between net aggregate benefits and benefits for everyone everywhere. There are winners and losers, and we need to face up to that.

For example, we need to stop saying thinks like “Free trade will not send jobs to Mexico and China.” No, it absolutely will, and has, and does—and that is part of what it’s for. Because people in Mexico and China are people, and they deserve to have better jobs just as much as we do. Sending jobs to China is not a bug; it’s a feature. China needs jobs particularly badly.

Then comes the next part: “But if our jobs get sent to China, what will we do?” Better jobs, created here by the economic benefits of free trade. No longer will American workers toil in factories assembling parts; instead they will work in brightly-lit offices designing those parts on CAD software.

Of course this raises another problem: What happens to people who were qualified to toil in factories, but aren’t qualified to design parts on CAD software? Well, they’ll need to learn. And we should be paying for that education (though in large part, we are; altogether US federal, state, and local governments spend over $1 trillion a year on education).

And what if they can’t learn, can’t find another job somewhere else? What if they’re just not cut out for the kind of work we need in a 21st century economy? Then here comes my most radical statement of all: Then they shouldn’t have to.

The whole point of expanding economic efficiency—which free trade most certainly does—is to create more stuff. But if you create more stuff, you then have the opportunity to redistribute that stuff, in such a way that no one is harmed by that transition. This is what we have been failing to do in the United States. We need to set up our unemployment and pension systems so that people who lose their jobs due to free trade are not harmed by it, but instead feel like it is an opportunity to change careers or retire. We should have a basic income so that even people who can’t work at all can still live with dignity. This redistribution will not happen automatically; it is a policy choice we must make.

 

In theory there is a way around it, which is often proposed as an alternative to a basic income; it is called a job guarantee. Simply giving everyone free money for some reason makes people uncomfortable (never could quite fathom why; Donald Trump inherits capital income from his father, that’s fine, but we all inherit shared capital income as a nation, that’s a handout?), so instead we give everyone a job, so they can earn their money!

Well, here’s the thing: They won’t actually be earning it—or else it’s not a job guarantee. If you just want an active labor-market program to retrain workers and match them with jobs, that sounds great; Denmark has had great success with such things, and after all #ScandinaviaIsBetter. But no matter how good your program is, some people are going to not have any employable skills, or have disabilities too severe to do any productive work, or simply be too lazy to actually work. And now you’ve got a choice to make: Do you give those people jobs, or not?

If you don’t, it’s not a job guarantee. If you do, they’re not earning it anymore. Either employment is tied to actual productivity, or it isn’t; if you are guaranteed a certain wage no matter what you do, then some people are going to get that wage for doing nothing. As The Economist put it:

However, there are two alternatives: give people money with no strings attached (through a guaranteed basic income, unemployment insurance, disability payments, and so forth), or just make unemployed people survive on whatever miserable scraps they can cobble together.

If it’s really a job guarantee, we would still need to give jobs to people who can’t work or simply won’t. How is this different from a basic income? Well, it isn’t, except you added all these extra layers of bureaucracy so that you could feel like you weren’t just giving a handout. You’ve added additional costs for monitoring and administration, as well as additional opportunities for people to slip through the cracks. Either you are going to leave some people in poverty, or you are going to give money to people who don’t work—so why not give money to people who don’t work?

Another cost we need to be honest about is ecological. In our rush to open free trade, we are often lax in ensuring that this trade will not accelerate environmental degradation and climate change. This is often justified in the name of helping the world’s poorest people; but they will be hurt far more when their homes are leveled by hurricanes than by waiting a few more years to get the trade agreement right. That’s one where Poole actually loses me:

Few Americans favor a world trading system in which U.S. policies on environmental and other conditions could be controlled by foreign governments through their willingness to accept goods exported by the United States.

Really? You think we should be able to force other countries to accept our goods, regardless of whether they consider them ecologically sustainable? You think most Americans think that? It’s easy to frame it as other people imposing on us, but trade restrictions on ecologically harmful goods are actually a very minimal—indeed, almost certainly insufficient—regulation against environmental harm. Oil can still kill a lot of people even if it never crosses borders (or never crosses in liquid form—part of the point is you can’t stop the gaseous form). We desperately need global standards on ecological sustainability, and while we must balance environmental regulations with economic efficiency, currently that balance is tipped way too far against the environment—and millions will die if it remains this way.

This is the kernel of truth in otherwise economically-ignorant environmentalist diatribes like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything; free trade in principle doesn’t say anything about being environmentally unsustainable, but free trade in practice has often meant cutting corners and burning coal. Where we currently have diesel-powered container ships built in coal-powered factories and Klein wants no container ships and perhaps even no factories, what we really need are nuclear-powered container ships and solar-powered factories. Klein points out cases where free trade agreements have shut down solar projects that tried to create local jobs—but neither side seems to realize that a good free trade agreement would expand that solar project to create global jobs. Instead of building solar panels in Canada to sell only in Canada, we’d build solar panels in Canada to sell in China and India—and build ten times as many. That is what free trade could be, if we did it right.