Ross Douthat looks to the liberal blogosphere today and examines two perspectives on the source of overheated rhetoric. He compares Paul Krugman’s opinion (“the truth is that we are a deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time”) to the more pragmatic view of Matt Yglesias (“that we have a kind of furious partisan debate despite the fact that we don’t see large disagreements about the basic principles of welfare state capitalism.”) Douthat comes down on the side of Yglesias:
“All the sound and fury of partisan warfare is just a way to deceive ourselves into thinking there’s something more important at stake in each election than special interests jockeying for control of the fiscal commons. Our debates are so furious, in this reading, because our disagreements aren’t that significant: We rely on apocalyptic rhetoric about socialism and fascism, tyranny and freedom, to persuade ourselves that we’re actors in a world-historical drama, rather than just interest groups feuding over the spoils of governing a prosperous but somewhat decadent republic… most Americans don’t actually disagree strongly about whether we should have a stronger safety net or a more limited government. They think, in a vague and none-too-consistent fashion, that we should have both at once — low taxes and expensive entitlements, subsidies for me but not for thee, a go-go free market when G.D.P. is rising but a protective government ready to save us from our foolishness when the economy goes bad, and so on.”
Douthat goes on to say that the overheated rhetoric is merely an effort by the minorities of each party on the left and the right to convince moderates that much as at stake. By Douthat’s logic, the Republican Party opposes the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Wal Street Reform Act mainly because they don’t trust Democrats, but otherwise their policy of choice would be similar. Douthat is right that many Americans want expensive entitlements yet don’t want to pay for them with taxes, but the Republican Party is losing its few remaining moderates minute-by minute. The problem with his analysis is that the policy proposals of the Republican Party consistently call (since the time of Reagan) for the removal the Federal government’s power, in the words of Grover Norquist, “reduc[ing] it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” The Tea Party has taken over the Republican Party, and put in power people like Ron Paul who wants to End the Fed, and who now is in charge of oversight of the Fed. Health care did not come down to distinctions about abortion and euthanasia: opponents made it clear from day one that they viewed the act as socialist tyranny. The Republicans simply do not wish to govern from the center.
Which takes us back to the original point. Douthat claims that the overheated rhetoric is simply political football, practiced equally by each side. George Packer makes clear today that in fact one side makes violent rhetoric an art form, a calling card:
“In fact, there is no balance—none whatsoever. Only one side has made the rhetoric of armed revolt against an oppressive tyranny the guiding spirit of its grassroots movement and its midterm campaign. Only one side routinely invokes the Second Amendment as a form of swagger and intimidation, not-so-coyly conflating rights with threats. Only one side’s activists bring guns to democratic political gatherings. Only one side has a popular national TV host who uses his platform to indoctrinate viewers in the conviction that the President is an alien, totalitarian menace to the country. Only one side fills the AM waves with rage and incendiary falsehoods. Only one side has an iconic leader, with a devoted grassroots following, who can’t stop using violent imagery and dividing her countrymen into us and them, real and fake. Any sentient American knows which side that is; to argue otherwise is disingenuous.”
There are distinct differences between the right and the left; the big problems we will face, including Climate Change, long-term entitlement reform, and resource scarcity, will require elected officials on all sides who are willing to work together. Unfortunately, the political dynamite that George Packer describes will prevent much from being accomplished in the next two years. The Republican Party and its Tea Party majority are happy to wait for 2012 and continue their cries of socialist tyranny all the way to Election Day.
Ross Douthat, in his column today in the New York Times, makes it clear that the “rush to declare this tragedy a teachable moment” is a liberal, partisan position, one whose validity should be linked directly to the sanity and motive of the shooter. It should not require an assassination attempt to criticize the intense partisanship and violent rhetoric that dominates our political scene, especially on the Right, with recent calls for “Second Amendment remedies.” In light of the tragedy in Tuscon, Americans of all political stripes should strive to cool down the shrill, vitriolic rhetoric that populates talk radio, cable television, and political campaigns. The status quo is simply not acceptable, nor sustainable.
George Packer captures the problem astutely here:
“But even so, the tragedy wouldn’t change this basic fact: for the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale. Instead of “soft on defense,” one routinely hears the words “treason” and “traitor.” The President isn’t a big-government liberal—he’s a socialist who wants to impose tyranny. He’s also, according to a minority of Republicans, including elected officials, an impostor. Even the reading of the Constitution on the first day of the 112th Congress was conceived as an assault on the legitimacy of the Democratic Administration and Congress. This relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right. (On the left it appears in anonymous comment threads, not congressional speeches and national T.V. programs.) And it has gone almost entirely uncriticized by Republican leaders. Partisan media encourages it, while the mainstream media finds it titillating and airs it, often without comment, so that the gradual effect is to desensitize even people to whom the rhetoric is repellent. We’ve all grown so used to it over the past couple of years that it took the shock of an assassination attempt to show us the ugliness to which our politics has sunk. The massacre in Tucson is, in a sense, irrelevant to the important point. Whatever drove Jared Lee Loughner, America’s political frequencies are full of violent static.”
Today, in the New York Times, Paul Krugman and Conservative wunderkind Ross Douthat present competing theories on why climate change legislation is dead this year. Douthat, surprisingly, admits that Global Warming is a genuine problem:
“…Conservatives who treat global warming as just another scare story are almost certainly mistaken. Rising temperatures won’t “destroy” the planet, as fear mongers and celebrities like to say. But the evidence that carbon emissions are altering the planet’s ecology is too convincing to ignore. Conservatives who dismiss climate change as a hoax are making a spectacle of their ignorance.”
Douthat blames the demise of legislation on conservatives; in his words there is “seemingly an unbridgeable gulf between the conservative movement and the environmentalist cause.” Of course, that framing of Global Warming is purposeful. In Douthat’s mind, Global Warming is a problem for bird watchers to worry about. In fact, Douthat provides the argument for inaction by making a dangerous assumption:
“…The assumption that a warmer world will also be a richer world — and that economic development is likely to do more for the wretched of the earth than a growth-slowing regulatory regime. But it’s also grounded in skepticism that such a regime is possible. Any attempt to legislate our way to a cooler earth, the argument goes, will inevitably resemble the package of cap-and-trade emission restrictions that passed the House last year: a Rube Goldberg contraption whose buy-offs and giveaways swamped its original purpose… Not every danger has a regulatory solution, and sometimes it makes sense to wait, get richer, and then try to muddle through.”
Douthat does not discuss the concept of externalities, and this is key. An externality is the result of a transaction that is borne by neither the buyer nor seller directly, but rather by a third party. In the case of our fossil fuel supplies, the externalities are only growing. In addition to greenhouse gasses, you have pollution from coal plants that has measurable health impacts on communities surrounding them, and you have the ghastly side effects of hydraulic fracturing of shale for natural gas. Of course, don’t forget about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The scary thing? We subsidize these fossil fuels. Douthat, however, just wants to rely on unending growth to solve all of our problems. Unfortunately, the Earth will not support unending growth. Douthat would be wise to read Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth.
Paul Krugman, on the other hand, points the blame for the demise of climate legislation in a more
believable and useful direction. In Krugman’s mind, we need to just follow the money:
“The economy as a whole wouldn’t be significantly hurt if we put a price on carbon, but certain industries — above all, the coal and oil industries — would. And those industries have mounted a huge disinformation campaign to protect their bottom lines. Look at the scientists who question the consensus on climate change; look at the organizations pushing fake scandals; look at the think tanks claiming that any effort to limit emissions would cripple the economy. Again and again, you’ll find that they’re on the receiving end of a pipeline of funding that starts with big energy companies, like Exxon Mobil, which has spent tens of millions of dollars promoting climate-change denial, or Koch Industries, which has been sponsoring anti-environmental organizations for two decades. Or look at the politicians who have been most vociferously opposed to climate action. Where do they get much of their campaign money? You already know the answer.”
That is the key of course. Producers of fossil fuels do not want to have to account for externalities of their products. They would rather society at large bear those costs. We are slaves to growth and slaves to consumption, unable to see the forest for the trees. As Krugman points out, 2010 is the hottest year on record. Inevitably we will need to place a cap on carbon emissions; the longer we wait, the more difficult it will be.
How do we solve these problems? Herman Daly, an ecological economist, offers some viable prescriptions. I will highlight one of the most important ones, which you will not see any politician advocate: ecological tax reform. Right now labor and capital (the value added) is taxed; ecological tax reform would end value added taxes and instead tax that to which value is added: the throughput of resources extracted from nature (depletion) and returned to nature (pollution). Ecological tax reform would reward entrepreneurs who are able to add value and innovation efficiently. We want to encourage value added, and discourage depletion and pollution. It sounds simple, but it goes against the neo-classical devotion to unending growth. As such, Douthat and his fellow conservative denizens continue to believe in Business as Usual.