Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Bush's greenhouse gas proposal

A friend pointed me to this Wall Street Journal opinion that defends Bush's recent proposal to stop the growth in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2025. The gist of the article is that anything more is unrealistic, that all of the goals being touted by environmentalists are unachievable.

While the Journal is absolutely right, something about this opinion bothered me, and after thinking about it overnight, I've realized what it is.

There are 3 key questions, I think, about global warming:
a) Is it real? (The main scientific question, best answered by scientists from data, not politicians or pundits)
b) IF it’s real, is it bad? (Combination of scientific/policy question)
c) IF it’s real AND it’s bad, what can or should we do about it? (Strictly policy)

There’s all sorts of room for debate on all of these questions - more on c than b, more on b than a, but room indeed on all 3. But I think the debate on these questions is actually somewhat beside the point.

The fact that Bush is putting out any sort of greenhouse gas goal means that he must be saying “yes” to (a) and (b); otherwise the only explanation is that it’s completely cynical ploy on his part to try to appear to be doing something without actually doing anything. After all, if he says “no” to either (a) or (b) then there’s no point in making any proposal to limit GHGs at all.

So if we give him the benefit of the doubt on this, then his proposal must logically be his answer for (c). In which case he is rightfully assailed for not doing anything meaningful. I.e., it’s doing something that we know will be pointless rather than doing something that we know will be difficult.

He didn’t claim that more aggressive cuts are unnecessary or futile, or that other approaches (e.g., GHG sequestration) make more sense, either of which could potentially be valid scientifically justifiable arguments. He simply said it would be too hard (and the WSJ agrees). He is almost certainly correct on this, but to me it’s akin to Kennedy challenging the nation to have a design for an unmanned ship that could go into lunar orbit by 2020. Maybe we can’t hit something more aggressive, but we won’t know if we don’t try.

We have a president who for 7 years has steadfastly refused to do anything about global warming. For reasons that are inexplicable to me, he has decided with less than a year left in office to put forth a proposal that global warming activists hate, and that global warming deniers hate as well (because it's sheer existence is an acknowledgment that global warming is real).

My friend (a self-described conservative) who pointed me to the WSJ article, thinks that my "cynical ploy" explanation above is accurate. I don't know if it is or isn't, but I can't see what he hopes to gain with this proposal, but I think it would have actually been far more honest for him to simply say “whether or not it's real, there’s nothing we can do about it so why bother.”

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

One more reason to hate Digital Rights Management (DRM)

This news from Microsoft yesterday: they're shutting down their PlaysForSure servers. What does this mean? It means that if you bought music from the MSN Music store, then whatever machines are currently authorized to play those songs are the only machines that will ever be able to play those songs. Of course, computers become obsolete approximately 3 hours after you purchase them, so this means that in the near future when you've replaced your computers, you will no longer be able to play the songs you spent good money to purchase.

So let's see: you try to do the right thing by buying music, and the industry screws you over for it.

I'm an honest consumer. I try to do the right thing. I buy my music (all of it, these days, from Amazon, where it has no DRM). But enforcement of anti-piracy technology like DRM is an injustice to the very people that the industry should be wooing.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Further erosion of freedom in the name of "security"

A few years ago I flew a small airplane into Avey airport in Washington state, which has the interesting property of straddling the US-Canadian border. I flew in from the south, landing to the north, and thus crossed the border halfway through my landing roll. There is a street adjacent to the airfield, with a border station on it. I taxied back to the midpoint of the runway where there is an area to park, shut down the airplane and climbed out. A border patrol agent was crossing the street from the crossing, so I waved him down and asked him what formalities were needed.

Border Patrol Agent: Did you fly from the US?
Me: Yes
BPA: Are you landing anywhere outside of the US?
Me: Other than rolling down the runway, no.
BPA: When you take off, are you going back to the US?
Me: Yes
BPA: Then I can't even talk to you. [I presume he meant in an official capacity, rather than on a personal level]

And off I went. What a great experience, and it reminded me of one of the great freedoms we enjoy in the United States: the right to be left alone. Absent a warrant or reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, the government cannot stop you, question you, ask for papers, or otherwise make you justify anything you are doing. It's something we largely take for granted. In many other countries, one must endure random roadblocks, identity paper checks, and other arbitrary intrusions at the whim of the government, but not here.

Then this morning I saw a story in the newspaper about checks that the border patrol is now conducting spot checks on ferries in the San Juan Islands. The San Juans are up near the Canadian border, and conduct international runs from Canada to the US, so on those runs it is entirely appropriate for the border patrol to do more or less whatever border enforcement it deems necessary.

But what is insidious about the new spot checks is that they are being conducted on routes which are entirely domestic - in other words, where there is no border being crossed and where the Border Patrol has no jurisdiction. The CBP even acknowledges as much: they acknowledge that they cannot do anything when a person refuses to answer their questions, but I suppose that enough people are either not aware of their rights or too timid to stand up to people in uniform, and as a result the net effect is that they get cooperation. Nevertheless, these people are detained for a period of time, and license plate numbers are run, which amounts in my opinion to illegal domestic surveillance and illegal detention.

This is, of course, being done in the name of "national security" and "anti-terrorism." Ahh, the evils that can be justified by those words. We should never let our fears lead us into abdicating our rights, for if we do then we have proven that we don't deserve those rights. It is a slippery slope.

Adding insult to injury, this program is leading not to the arrest of terrorists, which would at least mitigate (although not excuse!) this encroachment on our freedom, but rather to the arrest of illegal aliens. I have no problem with arresting illegal aliens, they are breaking the law and do not deserve sanctuary for having done so. But to trample our civil rights in the name of security as a ruse for over aggressive enforcement of immigration rules should shock every American.

Friday, April 04, 2008


While I have no love for the Cuban regime, I have also long thought that the US policy towards the island has been, well, stupid. It was an absolutely reasonable strategy to try after the revolution, and perhaps for another 10 years, but after 20, 30, 40 years, it should have been clear that it simply wasn't working. It seems to me that we've dogmatically held on to our policy of isolating Cuba not because it achieves our objectives (it hasn't met any that I can tell), but because it gives the illusion of doing something useful. In other words, I think it's more about satisfying Miami voters and feeling good about not supporting the regime than it is about actually making life better for the Cuban people.

But an interesting thing is happening in Cuba right now: the government is opening up a bit, removing many of the arbitrary and cruel restrictions it has kept on its people with regard to consumer electronics.

So now that ordinary Cubans who happen to have enough money to buy a DVD player (which, I suppose, includes no "ordinary" Cubans), all is well with Cuba, right? Well, no, of course not, not even close. Cuba is still ruled by an oppressive abusive dictatorship, and there is still no political freedom and the economy is still a disaster.

But the opening up on consumer electronics - however minor - is highly significant for two reasons. The first reason is that I have never seen a government open up just a little; small freedoms inevitably are followed by bigger freedoms - trickles become floods. Two examples I offer here are China and East Germany.

The second reason I think it is significant is that after 50 years of an ineffectual policy towards Cuba, the ball is suddenly in our court - there is suddenly a change on the island. It's not due to our policies, but it's a change nevertheless. How will our policy towards Cuba change in response? Will it change, to encourage further liberalization? Or will we continue to cling to the blind dogmatic policies of the past?

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Paper or Plastic?

Seattle is proposing the first-in-the-nation attack on bags at grocery stores: a $0.20 fee for using paper OR plastic rather than bringing your own bag to the store.

I'm normally quite a skeptic of government trying to mandate well-intentioned outcomes, and question whether government (rather than the market) should be the arbiter of the best way to determine things like this. But I also believe that sometimes it is only the government can make a negative externality explicit, and I think that this sort of policy is the right way to achieve it. The fee is optional (you don't have to pay it if you just bring your own bag), and they're providing bags for the poor to avoid the unintended consequence of taxing the people who can least afford it.

Governments should not mandate free-choice behavior like this. But setting up incentives that make doing the "right" thing a natural choice? Bring it on!

Why $100+/Barrel Oil is Good

A lot of people are complaining about the high price of oil lately. Frankly, I don't have a ton of sympathy. Oil has been quite cheap - artificially so, in my opinion - for a long time; for once it feels like it is finally priced at something that captures it's true cost. It shouldn't surprise anybody that oil is expensive. After all, it is a finite resource in a world of increasing demand and all the "easy" sources have been drained so each incremental barrel is more difficult to find and extract. I can't say whether or not $102 (today's closing price) per barrel is the "right" price (although markets tend to be pretty good at finding the"right" price), but it's probably in the right ballpark and I don't see it going down anytime soon.

Our entire economy is dependent on oil, so how can expensive oil possibly be a good thing? As a country, we've been moaning for a long time about our "addiction to foreign oil" and talking about things like "energy independence." And usually when politicians say it, they are frustrated about their inability to do anything about it. Well, of course they're frustrated: economies respond to market forces, not government dictates. We haven't weaned ourself from foreign oil because it's been so cheap compared to other energy sources. The only way a government can alter our course is to alter that dynamic, typically through things like tax policy, which is often quite dangerous to political careers (even if it is the right thing to do). And besides, no rational government wants to harm it's domestic industries by raising its costs above that of its rivals.

But the great thing about $100 oil is that it is a market-imposed price, and it affects all players equally. This results in two very good things. First, America gets more efficient with its energy use. This is why energy per dollar of GDP has dropped rather dramatically in the late 70's/80's. (This obviously has benefits for greenhouse gas emissions as well). The second good thing is that it makes alternative sources of energy far more economically viable. Entrepreneurs are naturally reluctant to enter a market that is artificially sustained by government policies, since such policies are subject to change on short notice. But a market that is defined more organically - as the current one is - and which is not poised to change (as a finite resource with increasing demand, it is hard to see oil prices dropping dramatically for any sustained period of time) will attract entrepreneurs and innovators who see a more sustainable positive environment.

In other words, $100 oil could be the best thing that ever happened to our dependence on foreign oil: it could be the very thing that helps us to kick the habit.