Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My issue with Republicans right now

I am aware that it's not quite so easy to categorize people into "Republicans" and "Democrats"... personally, if labels must exist, I prefer them along 3 binary dimensions:
Socially liberal or conservative? (Think gay marriage, abortion, school prayer, gun control, etc)
Fiscally liberal or conservative? (Large taxation and government spending vs little)
Foreign policy hawk or dove? (assertiveness vs collaboration)
The foreign policy position is far more nuanced than I give it credit for (all three are, but especially that one).
Generally, however, I think it's fair to say that at least stereotypically, Democrats are Fiscally and Socially liberal, and republicans are fiscally and socially conservative. I have so much trouble with the parties because I am socially liberal and fiscally conservative (not an uncommon problem for economics people, and, more generally, people who have been to college). I also have problems with the parties because the whole system has major problems (they're too intellectually and manpower starved to separate themselves from lobbyists, for example, and they cater to short-term elections over long-term benefit of the country).
Which brings me to climate change.
Our understanding of climate change is probably akin to where our understanding of bacteria was in the 1700s, post Leeuwenhoek but pre-John Snow and Alexander Fleming and Salk/Sabin and all the sanitation/antibiotic/vaccine pioneers... we'd discovered it, a lot of people had other theories as to what they were and what they did, many based on religious dogma and a few actually based in scientific inquiry as to how significant the discovery was (as opposed to denying it existed, which was more religious). At that point, we were perhaps just beginning to gain a degree of real understanding, but it was highly imperfect. Science has accelerated since then, so the timeframe is compressed, but the stages probably remain the same.
By this point, bacteria and viruses have been observed, documented, and we have significantly affected the outcome of society by dealing them in many diverse ways already - you may not see the strep throat, but you know you feel better when you take antibiotics. To deny bacteria is, at this point, to deny electronics or kinetics or (dare I say it) evolution - it's just stupid. Even where questions still exist, they are very small and often lack immediately apparent application in our practical interpretation. This is certainly not the case with climate change - there's very, very strong evidence it exists but nobody knows exactly what it's going to do or how bad it is going to be.
Of course, this isn't to argue that we shouldn't do anything about climate change - if you bet against it, and you're right, you don't gain much, and if you're wrong, you lose a ton... if you bet on it, and you're right, you gain a lot relative to where you'd be otherwise, and if you're wrong, you've still accomplished a great deal in terms of national security, humanitarianism, economic growth from lower energy costs and other environmental benefits. The question SHOULD be, "what is the best course of action to deal with it given that we have decent evidence this happens, not much idea of how badly it's going to affect everything but a strong idea that the worst-case scenario could be a disaster. Thus, how do we approach the high degree of uncertainty and risk", not "does it exist cuz we only have to do anything about it if it exists".
Sadly, the "does it exist" argument seems to be breaking down along social liberal-conservative lines, but any implemented solutions would have to break down along fiscal liberal-conservative lines. Additionally, most Republicans are social and fiscal conservatives, and there aren't many fiscal conservatives on the Democratic side. There are very few people in Congress who are both socially liberal and fiscally conservative. With the departure of Bayh and Dorgin, you're pretty much looking at  Lieberman, Wyden, Brown, Snowe, Collins... maybe a few more, especially of the Blue Dogs, I'm not as well versed in congressional districting as some people who read this, but generally, it's a small number.
Thus, because the people associated with social liberalism and fiscal conservatism don't really have a voice in the debate, everyone who rationally believes that climate change is happening is hearing a very one-sided, fiscal liberal(ish) version of that debate with cap-and-trade, which could be great in theory or in the hands of a very insightful government but will probably be a disaster with our current system of political parties and legislature. Viable alternatives exist, probably which should be melded with a refined and less centralized version of cap-and-trade, but nobody even considers them.
This is similar to my exact problem with the healthcare debate - Republicans seem to be intent on arguing "it's not a problem!" and Democrats seem to be intent on arguing "the government must directly intervene in every single detail and can do so without screwing anything up", and the fact that the Republicans are wrong about the state of healthcare and the Democrats are wrong about the capability and effects of bureaucracy doesn't seem to faze anybody in considering the debate.
I oppose the current healthcare bill - I think it's a colossally awful conglomeration of bureaucratic overreach, incentive distortion and ineffective addressing of the actual problems. But I don't deny that healthcare needs fixing. Similarly, I think I oppose the cap-and-trade bill put together by Waxman and Markey, because the way the permits are allocated assumes a) Congressional fairness in allocation, which they can't handle with appropriations currently, and b) a Coaseian neutrality that is wonderful in efficient markets with homogeneous actors, but in situations with information asymmetry, financial asymmetry and differing elasticities of carbon use, cannot possibly happen without seriously skewing (and damaging) the US economy, which would set back the very research that would be needed to actually make us a carbon-responsible society. But that doesn't mean that carbon emissions don't need to drop.... and nobody is willing to propose any fact-based alternatives.

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