Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A fast, cheap way to cool the planet?

Another interesting article on what to do about global warming, if indeed something needs to be done, appears in today's Wall Street Journal. The authors are Robert Watson and Mohamed El-Ashry. Read it here.

The Lomborg piece, also from the WSJ, which I recently posted, argued that we should allow warming to occur and concentrate on mitigating its effects. Today's article argues that we should be attacking atmopheric methane rather than carbon dioxide. Although there is much less methane than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, each molecule of methane produces many times more greenhouse effect than a carbon dioxide molecule does. And the authors claim that methane only lasts about a decade compared to the much longer lived carbon dioxide, so by cutting down emissions atmospheric methane levels could be reduced very quickly.

The authors maintain that reducing atmospheric methane would be much less expensive than the proposed attacks on carbon dioxide. They thus share Lomborg's interest in minimizing the costs of solving the problem (if it is a problem), but differ in the details.

My wife and I recently toured the Coffin Butte Resource Project, near Corvallis, Oregon, where methane from a landfill is being captured and used to generate 5.66 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply an estimated 4,000 homes. This prevents the methane from escaping into the atmosphere and also somewhat reduces the need to burn coal or natural gas to produce electricity.

Cattle farms are another major source of methane, so a reduction in the amount of beef consumed per capita might also help reduce methane emissions. (The methane produced by cows could be captured and used to generate power, but unfortunately this would increase the incentive to keep the cows cruelly packed into indoor feedlots, since capturing the methane produced outdoors in pastures would be much more expensive.)

In any event it seems to me that in solving any problem we cannot afford to ignore the costs of the solutions. Accordingly, the analyses of Lomborg and of Watson and El-Ashry should be given serious consideration.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Declaration of Independence Was A Mistake

Note: I recently ran across a copy of this article, which I wrote in 2003 and was published by several newspapers on or about July 4. I am posting it here for the benefit of readers who might have missed it back then.

The Chinese Communist leader, Mao Tse-Tung, once observed that "There is nothing as practical as a good theory." Unfortunately for China, he didn't have one. Even more unfortunately, Americans don't have one, either. (Just because we correctly disagreed with Mao's perverse principles doesn't mean that ours are correct. It is possible for both sides of a disagreement to be wrong.)

The fundamental error in U.S. political doctrine is our assumption, never adequately examined, that nations and "peoples" ought to have a right to independence and "self-determination." Although this principle was best articulated by President Woodrow Wilson during World War I, its roots go clear back to the Declaration of Independence and the subsequent war by which we tore ourselves loose from British rule.

The problem with a claimed right of self-determination is that government isn't like that.

Political philosophers have long understood that the essence of government is its power to impose sanctions on people, the power in the inspired language of the Constitution to deprive people of life, liberty or property. Since nobody will consent to a transaction in which they are to be executed, imprisoned or fined, our basic relationship with government is an involuntary association, not a voluntary one.

St. Thomas Aquinas was pointing out this unpleasant fact about government when he noted that "Taking away justice, then, what is government but a great robber band?" Everybody understands that the relationship between a robber and his victim is an involuntary association. Even Mao Tse-tung, being merely human, could not always manage to be wrong; he got something right when he observed that "All political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."

It is perverse to claim a right to voluntarily select the people with whom we are going to be involuntarily associated. Any foreign policy based on such a belief cannot help but confuse and disorient us and our leaders. And it throws us seriously off balance when we are dealing with terrorists.

It is often said that organizations like the PLO, the ETA (Basque separatists in Spain), the IRA (Catholic separatists in Northern Ireland), the Chechen separatists in Russia, etc., are pursuing legitimate goals with illegitimate means. This is incorrect. These organizations are pursuing illegitimate goals, national independence, with illegitimate means: terrorism.

The people for whom these organizations claim to speak may indeed have legitimate grievances. But if they are being singled out for unjust treatment by the governments they are currently under, the proper remedy is to demand that they be treated equally under the law along with everyone else in their country, not that they be allowed to go their own way.

Americans have seen how well this reformist approach works. Black people in America historically suffered from intolerable injustices, but mainstream black leaders correctly resisted the bad precedent set by the Declaration of Independence and demanded equality before the law rather than separation.

It may take Americans some time to recognize that my argument is a correct one. Understanding this will not be easy for people whose principal political holiday is Independence Day!

Of course it is too late now to repudiate the Declaration of Independence and submit once again to British rule. But the vigor with which the United States stomped on the attempt by its southern states to secede implicitly admitted that we recognize no right to self-determination when it is directed against our own government.

It is high time that we explicitly admit that our revolution was a mistake, and stop condoning efforts to secede from other countries, too.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Oregon Measure 66 will ultimately raise most people's taxes

My college textbook [Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective, New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1981] notes that “Public discourse on taxes is uniformly unsophisticated and demagogic.” Current discussions of Measure 66 suggest that things have not improved since 1981.

Measure 66 supporters claim it will only raise the Oregon income tax for about 2% of the population. Since the essence of law is that it is a general rule of action, it is somewhat unprincipled to make its lack of generality an argument in favor of proposed legislation. However a more fundamental weakness in claiming Measure 66 will increase taxes only on the rich is that it is untrue.

More precisely, the claim is true if we look only at Measure 66’s consequences in the short run but false if we consider its longer run results.

After several years of higher surcharges, Measure 66 provides for a permanent tax increase to 9.9% for incomes above $125,000 (250,000 for couples). Incomes below $125,000 will remain at their current 9% rate. Thus, in the short run, most Oregonians will pay no more income tax.

In the long run, however, many more of us will be paying the 9.9% rate as inflation lifts our income (but not our purchasing power!) into the bracket above $125,000

Just since 2000 average salaries and prices have risen 25%, since 1994 they have risen 44%, and since 1989 they have risen 72%. So Oregonians should try multiplying their current income by 1.72 and this will give a hint of where their incomes will be twenty years from now, if they keep up with inflation. For a lot of us, it will be more than $125,000.

Inflation would not affect our taxes if the proposed changes were indexed, but Measure 66 specifically prohibits adjustment of the $125,000 point at which the higher rates kick in. “Bracket creep” will therefore push more and more of us into the higher rates, just as it has done with the notorious federal Alternative Minimum Tax, which originally was supposed to affect only the “rich.”

Bracket creep is nature’s revenge on those who think they can raise other people’s taxes without raising their own. Ironically, therefore, Measure 66 may be more general in its consequences than its supporters are acknowledging, and thus be less unprincipled than I suggested at the beginning of this analysis.

The fact that Measure 66 will ultimately raise nearly everyone’s taxes does not tell us how we should vote. I haven’t made up my own mind yet. A permanent 10% increase in the tax rates most of us pay might be a good idea. We should avoid cutting critical state programs. But we should not create a privileged class of state employees who are exempt from the restraints on and setbacks to income suffered by private employees and retirees.

Different people will come to different conclusions, and the voters will decide. I hope they will decide better if they understand the actual consequences of their decisions.

This op-ed has run in the (Portland) Oregonian.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Conspiracy theory

David Aaronovitch (A Conspiracy-Theory Theory, WSJ, Dec. 19-20), reminds me of a lecture I used to give every April 1 to my Soviet Government class at Adrian College.

The lecture was entitled "The Czar is alive and ruling in the Kremlin." It argued that Nicholas II could not have been as stupid as he pretended to be, and that actually he was a political genius. In order to avoid being constitutionalized out of real power or thrown out, Nicholas faked his own overthrow with the aid of his loyal henchmen, Lenin and Stalin. With his new low profile, he continued to rule from behind the scenes until his death in the late 1940s, when he was succeded by his son, Alexei, then by his grandson, whose name I did not know.

The evidence I presented was overwhelming. For example, the so-called "doctors plot" in the early 1950s, supposedly about a plan by Kremlin doctors to assassinate Stalin, was actually a coverup for a big dispute inside the Soviet medical profession about the proper treatment of haemophilia, from which Alexei suffered. And our inability to explain how the Politburo made its decisions was due to the fact that it wasn't making any decisions, but just rubberstamping the orders of the Czar from his backroom.

One year a student came up after the lecture and said, in all seriousness, that the lecture made more sense than anything I had said all year! And of course, this was true. Conspiracy theory can be simple and consistent, once you work out the bugs, whereas reality is often messy.

This was published on December 26, 2009 by the Wall Street Journal as a letter-to-the-editor.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Does Vallejo, California lead the way forward?

An interesting article about providing health care to "illegal aliens" and probably saving money to boot, in Vallejo, California. Read it here.

Together with the abortion issue, possible coverage for "illegals" has been an obstacle to the health care reform legislation that has been slithering its way through Congress. Apparently for many people, the possibility that diverting these people from emergency rooms might actually save taxpayer and premium-payer money is outweighed by their "principles."

I always pay attention to news from Vallejo, having graduated from high school there in 1957. I was saddened by the news some months ago that it had become (I think) the first city in the U.S. to declare bankruptcy as a result of the current meltdown. I hope that not many other cities will follow Vallejo in this path.

However it would be nice if other places emulated the Vallejo experiment in providing medical care for our "undocumented" brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A cost accounting approach to global warming

Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, has a major article in today's Wall Streeet Journal, which can be seen here.

Lomborg argues that it would be much more cost-effective to let global warming happen and then combat its bad effects than it would be to reduce warming by forcing drastic reductions in hydrocarbon energy sources. If his numbers are anywhere near correct, it is an argument that needs to be considered.

The recent leak of e-mails purporting to show that prominent climate scientists have cooked the books, concealed data which might undermine their arguments, and tried to prevent scientists who do not agree with them from publishing their arguments in peer-reviewed journals are a major concern, of course. But even if a totally benign interpretation is placed on these emails, there may be a more major problem with today's climate science "concensus."

As Thomas Kuhn demonstrated in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, "normal science" operates within a prevailing paradigm, or way of understanding and interpreting observations and placing them within a meaningful frame of reference. In smaller words, scientists tend to follow the beaten intellectual path, and those who come to radically different conclusions about thingsd are shunned, ridiculed, and labeled "unscientific."

The fact that so much research today is paid for by grants from the government may act to intensify this herd effect. When the scientific estabhlishment decides that global warming is caused in large part by human activities, the scientists to whom grant proposals are sent for peer review are very unlikely to commend proposals from people regarded as skeptics.

I don't know what can be done about this, except to always take claims of scientific concensus with many grains of salt. After all, Ptolemaic, earth-centered, astronomy was the establishment position of astronomers for a thousand years.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Outstanding discussion of a key obstacle to medical reform

Ezra Klein, who writes for the Washington Post, has done a very fine analysis of a key obstacle to medical reforms (as I pointed out on this blog some time ago): namely, many people do not understand how much health insurance is already costing them. And he proposes a remedy that makes sense. Read his column here.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Medical reform: the continuing saga

Although I would not have expected this, it seems to me that the reform bill now discussed in the Senate is being greatly improved as it goes through the mill. I still have doubts whether passing it would be a good idea, but two of the recent changes are undermining these doubts:

First, the proposal to allow people to buy into Medicare starting at age 55.

Second, allowing people to buy insurance the same way as government employees (including members of Congress), with the same government agency negotiating some standard contracts that would be available from insurance companies throughout the country.

The beauty of these changes lies first of all in their radical reduction in complexity from the previous provisions for a "public" option, an option which never did make much sense to me. Second, they do not require creation of a new government administration system. Third, these steps might indeed be only the first in a series which would ultimately end up with universal coverage in a system that approximates the single-payer provisions in numerous foreign countries.

Supporters of the legislation before these two changes thought that, bad as the bill was, it would be a camel's nose in the tent that would make further reforms easier. I was afraid that the bill might have the opposite effect, helping to freeze the current dysfunctional system in concrete. With these two changes, the camel may be beginning to enter the tent.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Criminalizing a drink of water

The pursuit of “illegal aliens” has become a high government priority. Congress has made it illegal to hire an “undocumented” alien who has managed to get into the U.S. Although discrimination in other contexts is illegal, for the undocumented it is mandatory.

Impeccable logic underlies this requirement. A major reason people want to move here is our employment opportunities and higher wages. If you cannot be hired, sneaking in is much less attractive.

Mandatory employment discrimination cannot do the whole job, especially since enforcement has been sporadic and half-hearted. So auxiliary measures are needed, and a recent court decision in Arizona illustrates what some of these measures might look like.

In June, a federal jury convicted Walt Staton of littering. His “littering” consisted of leaving jugs of fresh drinkable water in an area near the Mexican border for entering aliens who might otherwise have died from dehydration (as a great many indeed have).

The 27 year old graduate student was sentenced to 300 hours of community service, a year’s probation, and banned from the National Wildlife Refuge in which he had done his evil deeds. Now he has refused to do the community service and the judge is threatening to send him to prison.

The logic behind making it a criminal act to give someone a drink of water is also impeccable. If more “illegals” die from thirst, this will make crossing into the U.S. less attractive and reduce the burden of policing the border.

It is clear what the next step needs to be: we must make it a criminal act to give or sell food to anybody who cannot document that they are a citizen or here with official government approval.

After that, I am not certain. Allowing or requiring everybody to shoot down undocumented people on the spot might, by more soft-hearted Americans, be regarded as going a little too far. But this too would be a logical response to a problem that so many people are concerned about.

I guess the real question is: once we assume that such a category of people as “illegal aliens” is a legal and moral possibility, where do we draw the line in doing something about it?

An alternative which would not require us to draw any such line would be to abandon the whole concept of an illegal alien and regard every human being on the planet as a member of the human race and a citizen of the world. Inside the United States no matter what state we were born in, we automatically acquire state citizenship merely by moving there. Thus I was a citizen of Michigan for 36 years despite having been born in Oregon, and my wife is a citizen of Oregon despite her birth in Connecticut. There is no reason why this system could not work at the world level, and I am sure that at some future time we will have such a system.

In the meantime we have to live with a different system, but we need to recognize just how crazy this system is and the impossible choices with which it confronts us.

Christians, for example, including fundamentalists (perhaps especially fundamentalists!), need to think about the implications of their faith here:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me ….” (Matthew 25:35)

Does anybody really want to live in a world where it is illegal to give a fellow human being a drink of water?


This piece has run in the Adrian (Michigan) Daily Telegram and in the Corvallis, Oregon Gazette-Times. On January 7, 2010 it ran on CommonDreams, a major on-line magazine.

Friday, December 4, 2009

An interesting quote from Howard Dean

Howard Dean, former chairman of the Democratic Committee and former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, is himself a physician. At a town hall meeting in Virginia last summer (according to the Associated Press quoted in the December 4, 2009 Oregonian) he said the following:

"Here's why tort reform is not in the bill [being considered by Congress to reform the medical system]. When you go to pass a really enormous bill like that, the more stuff you put in it the more enemies you make, " Dean said. "The reason tort reform is not in the bill is because the people who wrote it did not want to take on the trial lawyers in addition to everyone else they were taking on, and that is the plain and simple truth."

Some thoughts on Ayn Rand

The Wall Streeet Journal has just published an interesting discussion of Ayn Rand, "Does Ayn Rand Hurt the Market?" Read it here.

For a number of years I taught a one hour class at Adrian College in which we read and discussed Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged. The students who took the class were always an intelligent and highly diverse group, and not just those who were predisposed to agree with her. One notable student, one of my favorites despite his political orientation at the time which was pretty much left wing, told me he took the class because his advisor told him "it would test his values." And I think it did.

Although I found Atlas Shrugged to be an excellent book to provoke student thought and discussions, my own feelings about Rand's outlook were and are very mixed. I first heard of her and read Atlas Shrugged when I was a first year graduate student in political science at The Johns Hopkins University. She was coming in to give a talk there and I always like to read something before going to hear the author talk.

The book profoundly depressed me at the time, which didn't take much doing as my first year at Hopkins was not a very happy one. Uprooted from all my friends from undergraduate days at Willamette University in Oregon and from my parents, who were living in Honolulu, I was lonely and felt socially uncomfortable at Hopkins. I was living in a rented room in a not very hospitable private home near the University. With no cooking facilities available to me, when all the University dining halls shut down for Christmas vacation I ended up eating Christmas dinner all by myself in a Chinese restaurant----the only place I could find open! (And I still like Chinese food today, in spite of this!)

This was not an ideal posture in which to plunge into Rand's book, but of course I had no idea what I was getting into. I think now that my very negative reaction to the book was due to its combination of a very sour and indeed horrible philosophy of life with a very useful and sharp distinction between voluntary associations and involuntary associations. Government is, of course, fundamentally an involuntary association, as I have discussed in my four books available on-line for free reading, linking, and even reprinting. (Click here  to access them.)

Rand's big mistake, I think, was in her failure to see how important government is in setting the context within which voluntary associations on any scale are possible by protecting property rights, enforcing contracts (which are one way of creating voluntary associations), and enforcing basic rules of the road to prevent voluntary associations from interacting with one another in ways which are destructive to the general welfare (such as the recent economic meltdown in the U.S. and elsewhere).

Nonetheless I am very grateful to her for helping me grope my way, during the next ten years, to the general classification of human associations which is summarized in the "periodic table of associations" in my first two books mentioned above.

I remain of two minds about Rand. On the one hand, I still find her general philosophy quite perverse, and Atlas Shrugged can hardly be considered great literature. On the other hand it contained great insights into the nature of human associations, and on top of that, Rand made money from her books. Lots of money! As an author myself, this is one quality of hers that I would dearly have loved to emulate.