Why Criticize Economics

Suppose you believe the things that most people who understand the science believe:

  1. that the changes we are imposing on the world are huge and dangerous
  2. that the impacts follow the causes by some decades
  3. that we have a moral obligation not to trash the whole planet in the future

Then suppose you grant that, as an especially egregious op-ed by Holman Jenkins in the Wall Street Journal has it today:

Our political system has been looking at the problem of climate change for a generation, and lack of action is not due to the machinations of big oil – but to the inability of policy to bridge a giant chasm between proposed costs and benefits. Even if carbon’s guilt is assumed, the economics are far from certain that it wouldn’t be cheaper just to endure a changing climate.

You would conclude that the word “cheaper” in this case is not an example of frugality but of shallowness. You would try to find out how this sort of shallowness managed to position itself as the arbiter of long-range decision making. You would seek intellectually sound alternatives that didn’t yield results absurdly out of line with any remotely moral position that doesn’t have a direct line from God on the date certain of the Rapture.

Then there’s the concluding paragraph:

Voters and their representatives then could at least contemplate supporting a climate policy on cost-benefit grounds, rather than on the religious posturing that Al Gore and others adopt to push what they can’t sell rationally.

Yes, of course, Al Gore, Al Gore, Al Gore. Who’s the rational one here? (Of course, if it weren’t Al Gore it would be somebody else.) This isn’t about personality cults, it’s about physics and biology.

As for costs and benefits, I have been arguing all along that you need to attend to the worst plausible cases for cost-benefit analysis. I welcome the day when people at the WSJ and the like understand that the IPCC median outcome is very far short of the cost-weighted mean outcome.

That’s not my main point, though. Look very carefully at what they are doing. See how “cheaper” is declared “rational”, protecting the earth for our descendants is “religious posturing”. This position is unreasonable, even if you concede that it is in some sense “cheaper” to “endure”. Human beings did not sell the right to a moral compass when we invented money, insofar as I know.

Economics is not the totality of reason, no matter whether it declares itself so or not. There are, as even the WSJ may have heard, some things that money just can’t buy.

A viable planet, for instance. It’s an important case, you know. It’s the one thing that if you don’t have it, money can’t buy anything at all.

Update: Dano didn’t much care for this entry, but he came up with this amazing link, congressional testimony of Jonathan Rowe. That’s the best statement of the problem with the growth imperative that I have ever seen. Except for the (very interesting) history, there’s probably nothing here I or many of us haven’t said in one way or another, but it’s presented powerfully and (for me at least) very persuasively.


  1. Oh well, back to the article… I think it can be summarized thus:Paragraphs 1–6: High oil prices aren’t (really) a problem. Ponies! Ponies!Paragraphs 7–11: The greenies are stupid and insane and dangerous.Paragraph 12: Victory will be ours! Bwahahahahahaha!Apparently this crap makes “sense” to some people.– bi, International Journal of Inactivism

  2. mt, it’s absolutely how they write their op-ed pieces, what I said above. Check them out. Formulaic. What’s the first para.? Is there something for head nodding? Then the thesis.Best,D

  3. It was never about economics, and it was never about Greenpeace. It’s about hating people. It’s about having a focus. A totem. Not all of them want to hate, but all of them want a totem to focus their “thought” process. Algore, DDT, Mannian sports equipment, Tyrone Hayes, Chapela, save the whales, etc.Best,D

  4. Tobis:”irrational environmentalism has given environmentalism as a whole a bad name for a long time […] I’m always interested in what mid-century naturalist pioneers like Aldo Leopold said and did. I don’t think Greenpeace are in that tradition, though.”I don’t think it’s about “irrational environmentalism” or Greenpeace either. Consider that the anti-Carson “as long as we have the H-bomb everything will be O.K.” letter was written and published in 1962, way before Greenpeace (a.k.a. Don’t Make a Wave) started its first anti-nuke protests…So yes, there’s this “irrational environmentalism” thing, and of course irrationality is a bad thing… but for the inactivists it’s just another pretext to hide the fact that they simply hate all things environmentalist. It was never about economics, and it was never about Greenpeace. It’s about hating people.And in this, they’re egged on by ExxonMobil and friends, who find in these pundits a convenient way to prop up their short-sighted business models. ExxonMobil continues to sell oil, the pundits get a virtual megaphone to broadcast their agenda of hate, everyone wins.– bi, International Journal of Inactivism

  5. bi – irrational environmentalism has given environmentalism as a whole a bad name for a long time, so in that sense your somewhat strange reading may make some sense.It’s a nice article you link to but it doesn’t support your point particularly well. I’m always interested in what mid-century naturalist pioneers like Aldo Leopold said and did. I don’t think Greenpeace are in that tradition, though. As long as anthropogenic climate change is lumped in with the movement that calls itself “environmentalism” it is little wonder that it is treated with skepticism. The intellectual standards of the green activists of the past generation are not especially strong testimony for IPCC to say the least. So, thanks but no thanks. I prefer to get my opinions retail, thankyouverymuchgoodday.

  6. Michael, but “saving the planet” is too generic. You have to be more concrete. People don’t know the effects. Even I don’t.You have to provide a counter-argument with some content of it’s own.Economics provides the money argument, people can handle that, it ties to something they experience daily.

  7. Tobis:”You don’t think we need an alternative way of thinking about these things?”No doubt yes, but the key here is to figure out what was behind the screwed way of thinking in the first place.The thing’s this: it never was about economics, or cost-benefit analysis, or growth, or business, or whatever. These people are pundits who know zilch about the mechanics of actually starting a real successful business — John Mashey, Gristmill, and myself have argued this countless times. Milloy’s $12m “Free Enterprise Action Fund” won’t help to cure cancer, or look after your baby, or do any of the other things that Worstall talks about; all it’ll do is stir up a lot of crap during shareholder meetings in ExxonMobil and the USCAP companies.If it’s not about business, then what is it about? I think it’s simply about environmentalism-hating, plain and simple. It’s about slaying green dragons, rescuing capitalist damsels in distress, and waging war against Sauron the Dark Lord. The latest attack on the AGW theory is just an extension of a long-standing attack on environmentalism and all things environmentalist.– bi, International Journal of Inactivism

  8. Poor Steven tries, unsuccessfully, to do a Dano-like FUD score. Steven, you have to show how these phrases are akin to propaganda – false – to further an ideological agenda. You can’t even strike the match to hold a candle, as your fumbling fingers give you away.Best,D(Red Wings in connnnntrolllll)

  9. Steven, yes, those are the words I used. I see nothing wrong with any of them. I don’t think you played along. I asked you to start with the supposition that you believed the three numbered points.As for attending to the worst plausible cases, that’s what risk assessment does. Don’t you buy insurance?Sheesh.

  10. BTW, note my failure to mention economics. This topic is entirely separate, yet connected. Economics needs to be addressed this way. The way we approach economics (alluded to with my mention of Berry’s book What are People _For_?) is bass-ackwards and quibbling with committed macro people is the equivalent of blowing bubbles, in my view (says the EcolEcon adherant). That is: we aren’t asking the right questions. What are the right questions? Glad you asked. This is the full testimony that was excerpted in the June 08 Harper’s. Ask these questions. These questions are what we need. In the way you ask them.OK, back to the Red Wings game.Best,D

  11. Michael, I struggle with the aphorism:To oppose something is to maintain it — Ursula K. LeGuinwrt the Dano character’s focus and purpose. On the one hand, as you say, the truth bears repeating. OTOH, this whack-a-mole business doesn’t clear the smoke or break the mirrors. My current focus with Dano is to be clear about the FUD purveying (non-Dano is to clarify and delimit policy options, as there really is no debate about causation in the halls of power [a few Neandertals in the Senate don’t count for much]) and simply to focus on mischaracterization and malinformation. IOW: this op-ed will have little play with decision-makers, as they know already (or their staff do), and the battle that the FUD purveyors is waging is that there is a groundswell of voters importuning inaction. The job is not to disseminate/refute/rebut – rather, the job is to point out the misinformation, malcharacterization, FUD Purveyance. That is: you providing 6500 byes of data refuting this knob’s ideological message is yet another “my facts trump your facts”. Spending 440 bytes explaining the FUD job is vastly more efficient in my view. Hence the importance of framing, delivery, and intent. YMMV, but I don’t see decision-makers nodding their heads in agreement at op-eds like this weak cr*p. They look both ways to see how many voters are nodding their heads, though. The job is to count those heads.Best,D

  12. “we are imposing””huge””dangerous””some decades””trash the whole planet””shallowness””intellectually sound””absurdly out of line””you need to attend to the worst plausible cases”

  13. Ah, Dano, my first bad review from you as far as I have noticed. I disagree though. I’m rather pleased with my response. Admittedly, less directed toward the choir than usual.So you don’t think this nasty business states the Lomborgist position? You don’t think we need an alternative way of thinking about these things? You don’t think truth bears repeating as long as people repeat lies?

  14. We live in a society in which our right to hold and express baseless opinions is more sacred than than the pursuit of truth and knowledge, alas.And as for the pseudoscience of “economics”, it’s a one-word oxymoron. Economy doesn’t come into it anymore.

  15. Pffft. There are so many dog-whistle phrases in there that the ideological position of ‘Markety goodness!!!!’ is clear from the beginning. This column isn’t the basis for rational discussion or provoking thought, it is merely to reinforce the status quo editorial position – and presumably if something is repeated enough, it becomes true.Thank you for all the words, but not worth the energy expenditure to knock down, in my view.Best,D

Leave a Reply