Monthly Archives: July 2011

Climate change redux

It’s that time of year again.  As much of the country swelters, in what seems to be an annual event, conversation turns again to the topic of global climate change.  Is the heat a sign of global warming?  What about this past winter?   Were the huge snowfalls blanketing the east coast another sign that something is awry with our climate, or did the wintry weather help bring the whole global warming debate into question?

Where one stands on global climate change depends largely on where one sits politically.  About 86% of Democrats believe that global climate change is occurring, and, depending on how the question is phrased, roughly half of Republicans.  A much smaller percentage of Republicans, however, believe the climate is being affected by human activity.

I’ll never forget when, during my first year as a professor, my department received an e-mail from a local lawyer asking that we provide feedback to him about a letter he’d written asserting that global climate change had no basis in fact (he was, however, very concerned about the potential shift in the earth’s polarity).  I guess it hadn’t dawned on this particular lawyer that there were more proper authorities to consult on the issue of global warming than a department of historians and political scientists.  For him, the science didn’t matter.

Still, I have always wished I’d written back to the man. I’m not totally, after all, totally unqualified to comment on the matter (although admittedly not as qualified as a certain distant relative of mine).  As someone who is almost finished a book manuscript about research and scientific methodology, I have a pretty good feel for how the science works, even if I may not be aware of the specific statistical models and (often too closely guarded) datasets used in particular climatological studies.

First, the climate is almost certainly changing due to greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide foremost among them, being pumped into the environment.  Do I believe this because I’m a Democrat who “trusts elites” and because it’s a view that is diametrically opposed to the views of the dumbest member of the Senate?   Maybe that’s part of it, but the larger part is an understanding that the very basis of climatological inquiry involves the ability to statistically analyze the influence of greenhouse gases while controlling for other factors.

What other factors influence aggregate global temperatures?  Many.  El Ninos and Ninas, the North Atlantic Oscillation, increased solar activity, and numerous other factors influence global and regional climates and can even, for periods, subsume any consequences of man-made climate change. Often “climate skeptics” like to point to these other factors and have their “gotcha!” moment when they assert that it’s not greenhouse gases but “natural variation” that causes climate change.

Wow, if only scientists had only been as clever as these folk and thought of accounting for these other factors when calculating the net effect of carbon and other emissions.  But, of course, they have.

The best analogy for understanding how climatological studies work is to think about how epidemiologists came to the conclusion that cigarettes caused health problems.  Many things cause health problems, and the idea that something else could cause cigarette-related deaths was an idea repeatedly asserted by tobacco industry executives well into the nineties.  However, decades of studies that accounted for all these “other factors” repeatedly came to the same conclusion — all other things being equal, there was a clear trend between cigarette smoking and health problems.  As is the case with man-made climate change, the evidence collected through hundreds of study has continued to point in the same direction.

The evidence that has been collected about the effects of greenhouse gases on the climate up until this point, however, does only so much good in predicting the future effects of continued emissions.  One famous “skeptic” and author of some pretty cool novels, Michael Chrichton, justifiably criticized the faith some climatologists have put in simulation models of future climate change.  Since such models depend on difficult-to-know assumptions, future predictions of aggregate global temperature increases range from a modest degree or two, to a potentially catastrophic 10 degrees Fahrenheit or more.

The reason that it’s difficult to predict the future is due to the way that some of those “other factors” may mitigate or intensify global warming.  Increased cloud cover could help offset increased temperatures by reflecting light back into space.  On the other hand, the loss of snow and ice cover could have the opposite effect, as darker land and sea water absorbs increasing amounts of heat.  Even worse would be the release of large amounts of methane trapped in the world’s oceans. The biggest fear is a “runaway”-type affect as the effects of global warming creates a mutually reinforcing loop, with increased warming causing changes that warm the earth, which causes more changes, and so forth.

So what is to be done?  First, climate change “skeptics” need to ask themselves why they have such a hard time believing that greenhouse gases increase global temperatures.  It’s ironic that the same conspiratorial thinking about elites and clever-than-though attitude that lend themselves to a willingness to believe in strange things like a government coverup of 9-11 would also be associated with disbelief in a global phenomenon that might already have tragic consequences.

Second, we need to understand global climate change as a trend.  Blaming hot summers, cold winters, and particular hurricanes on greenhouse gases is silly.  Climate change trends take place over decades, not years, months, or seasons.  Just because some areas of the globe are cooling, doesn’t mean that aggregate temperatures aren’t rising.  At the same, data suggests that over time the trend tying emissions to temperature have become obvious, and the amount of carbon emissions will only increase in the coming years.

Finally, we need to deal honestly with the fact that some measures to reduce greenhouse emissions have real consequences.  Democrats often play their own denial game by playing up “green jobs” as a panacea for both economic growth and environmental preservation.  Agreements to restrict greenhouse gases at the national and international level increase energy prices and can lead to continued poverty for millions in underdeveloped countries.

A better mindset might be to think how a portion of the billions of dollars of economic growth that might be lost to draconian environmental regulation might instead be redirected toward the search for cleaner, more efficient technologies.  At the very least, a happy medium might be found between the need for economic and technological progress, and the recognition that global climate change will cause problems, potentially catastrophic problems, if we pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

The world is depending on the United States, the biggest greenhouse gas emitter by far, to get on board in the search for solutions.  For this to happen, those Americans who continue to deny that global climate change is a man-made phenomena need to get their heads out of the sand and stop thinking of science as an extension of politics.  Data doesn’t care what you want to believe.

Republican tactics are not terrorist

Last week on Hardball, Chris Matthews, frustrated with Republican threats on the debt ceiling, went and blurted out the “t-word.”  Surely, by refusing to support raising the debt limit as has been done routinely by the House since 1917 when it was vested with such authority, Republicans are not literally employing terrorist tactics.  Before leveling such an accusation, perhaps Mr. Matthews should have consulted the FBI’s working definition of terrorism:

“The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to coerce or intimidate a government, a civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

Let’s start from the end of the definition and work back.  Are Republican’s attempting to further political or social objectives?  Certainly, but that alone does not make them terrorists.  The right to sway political opposition to your point of view through reasoned argument or negotiation is the foundation of sound policymaking and legislation.

What about coercion and intimidation, are Republicans employing such tactics against segments of the government or civilian population? Absent the ability to get its agenda enacted through traditional political channels, an opposition party can turn to negotiation or coercion.  Have the Republicans engaged in negotiation?  Well, if you consider an element of compromise to be part of the negotiating process, then no.  As Republican commentator David Brooks pointed out, to the dismay of many of his colleagues, if Republicans were willing to even compromise a little, they would get a deal about which previous Republicans could only have dreamed.

Coercion involves the use of threats to achieve your goals. Since their sole bargaining position has been based on a single threat, rather than a willingness to compromise in any area, we can safely say Republicans are being coercive.  Threats, however, are part of hardball politicking, not terrorism, right?

Let’s look at the nature of the financial threat.  Certain obligations will be met.  As far as I can tell, the choice of which obligations falls entirely in the hands of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geitner, who will first pay off the interest of U.S. Treasury bonds so the country meets its apparent Constitutional obligation to service its debt.  After that, as an article on salon.com lucidly explains, there is not enough money to go around for social programs like Medicare and Medicaid, while also paying money owed to defense and other government contractors (or anything else, for that matter).

According to Moody’s, even if the U.S. pays off its public debt obligations, it will potentially reduce America’s credit rating out of concerns of future instability brought about by a failure to raise the debt ceiling.  The effect of more expensive lending would ripple through the economy and, coupled with the sudden contraction with government spending, cause a severe downturn in the economy.

Granted, in the past, terrorists have similarly threatened to crash the American economy.  Bin Laden bragged of his strategy to cause the U.S. “to bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy.”  Iran, Syria, and North Korean have long been suspected to counterfeiting large amounts of U.S. currency in an effort to weaken the U.S.  Cyberterrorism and “dirty bombs” are considered, above all, weapons of mass economic destruction.

However, just because Republicans are threatening American property in order to coerce and intimidate sections of the government in order to achieve their political objectives, it does not make them terrorists.  Why?

Because the American public chose to have a majority Republican House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections. The first condition of terrorism is the use of violence, and none is being used.  Even if it were, governments use the threat of violence to coerce their citizens in a variety of ways that are deemed legitimate within a democratic system.

For a democracy to function, supporters of the losing party have to accept that they are sometimes at the mercy of the majority party, no matter how bad their judgment might be.  Still, if it comes to it, I for one, will have less compassion for the person who fails to receive their salary or their benefit check come August, or suffers from the inevitable economic disaster that follows, if I know they voted Republican in November of 2010.  Material support of non-violent extremism that threatens the welfare of this country may be legal, but it still involves a certain amount of moral complicity.

Happy Birthday South Sudan – don’t grow up to be Eritrea

The disappointingly named South Sudan proclaimed independence from Sudan today and, on Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly will recognize the new country as the 193rd member of the United Nations.  Although there are many of other potentially violent ethnic divisions in both countries, the secession of the Christian and animist south from the Moslem north will largely eliminate the largest source of conflict in the region — a conflict that took more lives than anywhere else in the world, with the exception of violence in the Congo, since the Second World War.

It is exceedingly rare for a new state to “successfully” secede as South Sudan has done.  Over the last 50 years, the only countries that have peacefully seceded (excluding overseas colonies or new countries arising from dissolved states) with the consent of their parent country have been Namibia in 1990, Eritrea in 1993, Timor-Leste in 2002, and Montenegro in 2006.

Of these countries, the most similar comparison with the South Sudanese secession is the secession of neighboring Eritrea from Ethiopia. Like the southern Sudanese, Eritrea, whose President called South Sudan’s independence a “mistake,” only gained independence after a decades-long conflict.  The independence celebrations in Eritrea, however, only marked the beginning of more tragedy for its people.

After Eritrean independence from Ethiopia, the two countries continued to dispute control over small areas of their common border.  By the late nineties, these disputes had escalated to full-scale World War I-style trench warfare between the two countries.  The resulting two years of conflict cost tens of thousands of lives, including about 4% of Eritrea’s sparse population.

Similarly, the new border between Sudan and South Sudan is still not agreed upon by both parties, and the areas of contention are both oil-rich and more heavily populated then the tracts of land disputed by Ethiopia and Eritrea. The last six months have been characterized by violent conflicts along the new border in Abyei and within the Nuba mountains, which Sudan’s leader, indicted war criminal Omar Al-Bashir, vowed this week to “cleanse” of its rebellious elements.  For the sake of the South Sudanese people, however, the new leadership of South Sudan must tread carefully – no matter how just the cause of restive populations in these border areas, it is the international community, despite its poor track record in helping resolve past regional disputes, that must take the lead in attempting to diffuse these situations.

After its war with Ethiopia, Eritrea, already one of the poorest countries in the world, spent a decade recovering economically.  Politically, it has remained a one-party state without national elections.  Last year, Reporters without Borders ranked Eritrea’s “press freedom” as the lowest in the world (it says a lot when your country is ranked below North Korea).  U.S. relations with Eritrea remain strained given evidence that the country has also supported Al-Qaeda affiliated movements throughout the region, and the country is considered a diplomatic “pariah” by many.

Eritrea provides a precautionary tale for South Sudan.  While it’s unlikely that South Sudan will become another Stalinist-type African state, even aiming for the status of a “typical” central African state characterized by corruption, poverty, and conflict, is setting the bar pretty low.

Countries rarely have a second chance to make up for the mistakes of their founders.  Here’s hoping that, assisted by the large amounts of U.S. and other aid being provided, that the new leadership of South Sudan endeavors to build a country built on capable institutions, respect for the rule-of-law, and a prudent foreign policy.  In other words, the leadership should consider the path taken by Eritrea, and endeavor to do the opposite.

John Nash and Adam Smith (Why I’m a Democrat – Part I)

This will be part of a long running series, “Why I’m a Democrat,” that I intend to blog intermittently over the coming months.  It is pretty well established by social and natural scientists that philosophical differences are pretty low on the list of reasons why people choose the political affiliations they do.  Self-identity, culture, as well as values and related emotional contexts play a leading role for most people’s political preferences.  For complex reasons, parental political affiliation, educational level, race, gender, and even beer preferences, all represent predictors of political affiliation.

Occupation is another powerful correlate of political affiliation. The fact that I am part of the 80 plus percent of political scientists that affiliated with the Democrat party is almost certainly no coincidence — although the question of whether exposure to social science made me a Democrat or whether my predisposition towards progressive politics led me to social science is an open question. If we want to at least try to transcend our cultural and emotional predispositions in choosing our political affiliation, however, it is useful to take a closer look at some of the underlying assumptions of Republicans and Democrats.

One basic difference between the two parties boils down to the difference between the theories most associated with Adam Smith and John Nash.  Each had a distinctive idea of how the “collective good” could best be served.

Adam Smith is generally regarded as the father of modern, laissez-faire economics.  His The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, was the single most influential text in convincing British policy-makers to abandon mercantilist trading policies in the subsequent centuries.  Eventually the United States followed suit, and, after the Second World War, “Smithian” economics, stressing limited state intervention over international and domestic economic activities, has characterized the global economic order.

Adam Smith asserted that the collective good is often served by individual selfishness.  The “invisible hand” operates because, when an individual acts in a rationally self-interested way, “by promoting his own good he frequently promotes that of society.”  Government economic policies, therefore, interfere with this “invisible hand,” and inhibit the efficient production and allocation of goods and services.  The modern Republican party (and libertarians to an even greater extent) have latched onto the message that collective outcomes will be maximized if government would “just get out of the way.”

John Nash, however, turned much of this on its head as a Princeton University graduate student.   Submitted in 1950, Nash’s 27-page doctoral dissertation suggested that there existed “non-cooperative equilibria”  — situations in which rational, self-interested decisions would lead to sub-optimal outcomes for society.   The 2001 film, A Beautiful Mind, illustrates this brilliantly in a bar scene that involves several young men who desire the attentions of a lovely blond women.  As Russell Crowe, playing John Nash, points out, however, if every one of the men pursues his self-interest, then they will “block” each other and none of them will achieve their goal.  Some sort of cooperative arrangement is needed to maximize the collective outcome, even if no one achieves their individual goal.

Mancur Olson later expanded on some of Nash’s ideas and is associated with his work on the “collective action problem” and the problem of “free riders.”  The scope was a bit different, Olson focused on large-scale interactions and Nash on small-scale bargaining, but the lesson was the same — individuals pursuing private goods do not necessarily promote the general welfare.

The underlying philosophy of the Democratic party recognizes the collective action problem.  Oftentimes, outside coordination and incentives (or disincentives) are needed to optimize public good, economic outcomes, and to prevent people from harming others in their own pursuit of self-interest.

On one level, the collective action problem is self-evident.  It is why we have a legal system that punishes theft and fraud.  Such disincentives are important in altering the calculations of would-be criminals concerning what and what does not represent their self-interest.  Similarly, few would voluntarily contribute taxes absent government “incentives” to do so.

Democrats understand that the collective action problem extends to other areas.  Your factory might earn you a profit, but it pollutes our air, and therefore needs to be regulated or taxed such that the cost to the public is offset.  Private industry has little incentive to invest in “basic scientific research” whose benefits are diffuse, so the government should fund research that yields public benefits.  Health insurance companies have the incentive of minimizing costs, not maximizing public health and welfare, and therefore ought be regulated or the public provided with an alternate option.

In the sphere of international relations, countries have similar incentives to enact self-serving policies that hurt global welfare.  While Republicans are associated with unilateralism, Democrats tend to support organizations like the United Nations that oversee treaties incentivizing cooperation on areas like arms control, the environment, and human rights.

Finally, while the quasi-libertarians associated with the Tea Party like to loudly proclaim fidelity to the Constitution and its alleged focus on limited government, the Constitution was designed and enacted with the goal of overcoming collective action dilemmas that had developed under the ill-fated Articles of Confederation.  Under the Articles, states, pursuing their own self-interest, had taken to printing their own currencies, enacting trade barriers to one another, and, since the federal government had no power of taxation, refusing to “donate” their fair share to the national treasury.  In drafting a Constitution that would “promote the general welfare,” the founding fathers were, in effect, choosing a government that would help overcome the collective action problems that had caused America to stumble out of the gate of independence.

As we celebrate the Fourth of July this year, it is important to remember that America was built on institutions designed to restrain man’s self-serving impulses and channel them into productive outcomes.  The wisdom of the founding fathers rested on the understanding that the pursuit of individual happiness is best served when government is able to bridge the divide that sometimes exists between private self-interest and the common good.