The Corner

Shut Up and Eat Your Spinach

As per my prior post on this subject, cap-and-trade advocates are beginning to promote the argument that it will cost nothing to force hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. to use less gas. Ezra Klein, citing a post by Grist contributor Dave Roberts, says this of cap-and-trade:

This, in the short-term, makes gasoline more expensive. That’s the point of it. There are a variety of ways to compensate people for making gasoline more expensive, but gasoline will still be more expensive. That’s going to make cap and trade a tough sell. But that doesn’t mean it will be bad for the economy, or bad for people in general. Money not spent on gasoline is money spent on other things. As carbon-intensive products become pricier, other products will become cheaper. Lots of good stuff will happen, and my sense is that a move away from oil will actually entail significant lifestyle benefits. That’s why I talk about transit and food policy a lot. Transit is awesome. Not sitting in traffic makes people happier. Riding on subways is fun. Biking is a joy. Meat consumption is another major carbon issue, but here again, a diet where red meat was relatively more expensive and vegetables and grains relatively less would be healthier for us. It would mean fewer cardiovascular surgeries and less time watching loved ones breathe through a tube. It would free up health care money to spend on other things.

It is unclear whether he means that the direct economic costs of rationing emissions (what cap-and-trade means) minus the costs that would otherwise be caused by global warming will be zero or lower, or simply that the direct economic costs of rationing emissions will be zero or lower, but I think the natural reading of the paragraph is the latter. Certainly the latter is the (approximate) position of the linked Dave Roberts post with which Ezra says he agrees. Dave Roberts says that “even the pessimistic economic models shaping debate in D.C. show a very small hit to the economy from a cap-and-trade system”. In order to support this, he links to a study by those cap-and-trade pessimists, the Environmental Defense Fund.

This whole argument is nonsense. In my prior post, I link to various studies by the actual experts (many of them compiled by the IPCC) that go through the math in some detail. But consider this at a common-sense level: you are forcing people, through rationing, to use something like 80% less of a substance that they choose to use because they believe that it creates net economic utility (prior to externalities) as compared to any available alternative. There is a respectable (though as I’ve argued in many articles, incorrect) argument that the negative externalities outweigh all those private benefits, but it’s crazy to assert that the private benefits are zero, which is what Klein and Roberts are saying. Call it economic denialism.

You are left arguing this idea of “raised consciousness”: if only these fat, lazy, Whopper-eating, SUV-driving proles could be forced to ride bikes to work, eat different foods and take trains on vacation, then they would realize that they are better off. They’re just too stupid to know it.

Jim Manzi is CEO of Applied Predictive Technologies (APT), an applied artificial intelligence software company.


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