What Me, Worry?

What Me, Worry?
Hello? Anybody home?

Matt Yglesias stirred up a good old-fashioned bloggy firestorm with a post snidely hectoring the left about crisis-mongering: "I think there are a lot of writers around these days propagating a fundamentally false and unsubstantiated notion that we are living through some acute 'global social, political, and economic crises,'" says he. "I would say that we are living through some problems that are both serious and difficult, but not necessarily any more serious or more difficult than the problems of the past, and certainly not serious in a way that should cause one to doubt the basic tenets of liberalism."

The most striking thing about Yglesias's article is that it ignores almost all relevant evidence. In the section arguing "I think that the United States is not under siege from a neo-fascist movement personified by Donald Trump," he does not mention that Trump whipped up a mob that sacked the Capitol in an attempt to keep himself in office, or any of his hundreds of other crimes. In the section about how regarding climate change, he argues there may be a "serious problem here, but that there is no historically unique crisis," but does not mention any history of the global climate whatsoever. There's a whole IPCC report that was just published, it has some relevant information on this question!

Osita Nwanevu and Eric Levitz have some good responses along these lines.

But I'd like to drill down into one particular aspect of this climate argument. Yglesias cites the "social cost of carbon," where you try to add up the economic damage done by carbon dioxide emissions. This calculation depends heavily on the "discount rate," which refers to how much one weights damages done in future versus those done now. As I explain in detail here, the way neoliberals (which seems to be what Yglesias means by "liberals" here, he is characteristically real fuzzy about definitions) do climate policy is to impose a tax exactly equal to the social cost of carbon. But it turns out people don't like that very much:

And what we see in the public response to the idea of paying more for the privilege of burning fossil fuels is that in practice, people discount the future very sharply. As long as we’re stuck doing policy constrained by that reality, we are bound to underdeliver on decarbonization relative to what we ought to be doing.

So the liberal solution to climate change is "hideously unpopular," writes Yglesias, but nevertheless "the conceptual and technical resources to address it are all clearly present within liberalism." Do tell.

But set that aside. Yglesias later boasts about the moderate success developed countries (even the United States) have had in cutting their emissions without investigating how this happened. Not a single one relied on carbon taxes much at all – in almost every case it was some kind of blunt state policy. In France it was a flatly socialist build-out of nuclear power. In Denmark it was a combination of subsidies, taxes, and regulations to drive wind power construction. The same is true in the U.S. with respect to renewable subsidies and regulations on coal emissions.

As David Roberts has explained in detail, "Carbon taxes are good policy, an important part of the portfolio, but unlikely ever to be sufficient on their own." To drive quick behavior change a carbon tax would have to be eyewateringly high, and still would probably not work fast enough enough. Direct state planning and investment is needed.

One reason for this is that markets do not work nearly as predictably and reliably as liberals say they do, but another is that 250 years of liberal capitalist hegemony has taught people that paying more = bad. And aside from the broadly-shared belief that it's good to pay as little as possible for whatever you happen to want, taxes in particular are viewed as presumptively illegitimate thanks to liberalism. Governments tend to choose policies that do not directly impact people's pocketbooks in part because of centuries of liberal propaganda arguing "that wealth is privately produced and then appropriated by a quasi-illegitimate state, through taxation[.]" Or to quote Chris Rock, "you don't even pay tax, they take tax. You get the check, money gone. That ain't a payment, that's a jack."

In addition to all his other staggering analytical errors and omissions, Yglesias is begging the question. He says liberalism is not to blame for the failure to address climate change, and as evidence for this points to an attitude that is inculcated by liberalism in the first place.


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First, the withdrawal from Afghanistan simply had to be done:

The attacks on Biden reveal a deep imperial chauvinism, and either a childlike naivete about the character of American empire or outright dishonesty. These folks insist that America could have done the withdrawal better, imagining a capacity for competent governance that could not possibly be less in evidence. Of course the U.S. screwed up the situation — it has done literally nothing else for two decades straight.

Second, the war in Afghanistan was lost when Don Rumsfeld rejected a Taliban surrender offer in December 2001:

Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rejected them out of hand. "I do not think there will be a negotiated end to the situation, that's unacceptable to the United States," he said. It takes truly world-historical arrogance to refuse a quick and easy end to a war in the most notoriously hard-to-occupy place on the planet, but that's what happened. (Negotiated settlements were attempted again in 2003 and 2010-11, but neither worked, arguably doomed by Rumsfeld's appalling decision.)

Third, it's time to stop indulging anti-vaccine maniacs:

In the process, these men have put the suppurating moral core of movement conservatism on display: the idea that conservatives should always get to do exactly what they want, and that everyone else should also have to do exactly what conservatives want. The need for responsible behavior starts with you and ends with me. In particular, they view the prospect of having to do anything whatsoever to protect others — even if they protect themselves in the process — as an intolerable imposition on their personal freedom.

Fourth, we might need another pandemic rescue package:

Summing up: on the one hand, there will likely be some job loss or at least a slowdown in the momentum of new job creation over the next few months — and the U.S. is still far short of full employment. On the other, the global supply system is going to hit a bumpy patch.

Fifth, will there be a climate revolution?

Now, I would be a fool to predict that a revolution is definitely going to happen, much less when. But it's also impossible to deny that Galbraith's scheme could be plausibly applied to America's total failure to pursue climate policy at anything like a reasonable scale. The Democratic Party is not pursing vigorous climate policy because America's archaic constitutional system was deliberately designed to make it nearly impossible to do anything, and because doing so would infuriate a lot of well-heeled interest groups the party is in bed with. Republicans, meanwhile, are doing their absolute utmost to increase greenhouse gas emissions and make everything worse.

Sixth, the bipartisan infrastructure bill shows how broken the U.S. political system is:

It is worth noting again that both in terms of policy and in terms of the political objectives of the Democratic Party, the bipartisan bill is completely pointless. As Alex Pareene writes at The New York Times, the sole objective is to assuage a neurotic desire from a handful of Senate moderates like Manchin and Sinema to demonstrate that the Senate still functions: "The Senate (with the White House's support) wasted months cajoling and rehabilitating a handful of key Republicans, only to pass a smaller version of something Democrats could theoretically have passed entirely on their own." The whole process proved beyond any doubt that the Senate is a worthless obstacle to human flourishing.

See you next week!