Since Andrew Sullivan came around to opposing the Iraq war and supported Obama, and I can't in any good faith refer to him as a rhetorical opponent in current ideological divisions, Jim Manzi has become my favorite conservative to read and wrestle my disagreements with. I even had an oblique chance at dialog last year when Sully published a few of my e-mails on climate change, and Manzi responded. He has consistently been one of those at a considerable ideological distance from me who I enjoy reading thoroughly.
I've appreciated Manzi's rigorous analysis on climate change, and was looking forward to a long form, updated perspective on climate change and carbon regulation as he was guest blogging this week. Which is why I'm extremely disappointed in today's note on the social cost of carbon as he guest blogs at Sully's place. This essay, to put it frankly, is an unholy mess.
Manzi is assuredly more versed in Hayek than I am, but my understanding of the basic warning is that more government planning of the economy leads to a decrease in individual liberty, which has a concomitant deleterious impact on productive economies due to the inflexibilities of a rigid state program. If this is a fair summary, then I find Manzi's argument that carbon regulation is somehow akin to this in any but the most broadly ideological forms extremely underdetermined.
The meat of the post, I would say, offers what I would call a roundly convincing argument that meaningful quantitative analysis of the economic impacts of carbon regulation approaches impossibility, or as Manzi puts it, 'There is no analytical basis on which we can really “put a price on carbon”.' I might add that he has equally demonstrated that there is no analytical basis on which we can really put a price on the costs of carbon emissions.
I don't think this is a malicious or intentionally misleading error. My understanding of Manzi's analytical personality is that his primary impulse is to try to tackle complex issues with highly sophisticated quantitative analytical methods, and shake out strong and useful conclusions. From what I have read of him, he is remarkably good at it. However, as the saying goes, when one spends all day using a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail, and in this case, I think Manzi is using his quantitative skills to pound a screw.
For one thing, Manzi brushes the entirity of "social cost of carbon" into the potential decline in world economic product (a loss of approximately 3%). This not only excludes costs which I would deem "social" such as habitat and species loss, land degradation, and changes in local climate, but also aggregates the risk into a global pool, which is assuredly too crude a measure to make a meaningful judgment. To take the extreme case, what if the 3% loss were entirely distributed in 6% of the world's population losing half their economic productivity? The 3% measure looks small on paper, but in this instance 180 million people (over half the population of the US) just had their livelihoods utterly destroyed, to the point that they are now refugees. While this extreme concentration of risk is certainly fiction, it is patently clear to both the casual reader and the sophisticated analyst that the costs of climate change will not be equally distributed. The risks to the majority of the 160 million in Bangladesh should be enough to invalidate such crude aggregation of costs.
For another, in his association of all British driving taxes with "anthropogenic global warming (AGW)," he elides the myriad other costs of driving, including public health, land use, public land preservation, safety and enforcement, etc. Yes, once again these costs are difficult to quantify. This, however, does not mean they do not exist.
After dozens of paragraphs of analytical spinning, Manzi reaches the third to last, and engages in a breathtaking series of theoretical leaps. Costs are impossible to quantify, therefore "It becomes pure power politics," and therefore is a state imposition of economic costs without quantitative justification, and is therefore akin to total state planning of the economy. Excuse me, but WHAT?!?
To put this as simply as I can, there is a vast universe between "inability to sufficiently quantify" and "a different theoretical justification [for socialism]." What Manzi is experiencing is not the unearthing of socialist motives, but the limits of the quantitative revolution of the 20th century. There was a time, as strict Enlightenment rationalism and to a lesser extent, positivism reached their zenith, that we supposed that all complex issues could be solved with sufficient quantitative analysis. Difficult questions such as the costs of action or inaction on climate change demonstrate this as well as anything, but the lesson to take here is not that we have no analytical tools at all and retreat to pristine ideological tropes. (In this, I think Manzi is unintentionally making what I might call the Bachmann move -- it's impossible to quantify, and it involves government action, therefore it is the first step towards tyranny.) Rather, it should be a clarion call to dust off analytical methods tossed aside during much of the quantitative revolution, such as informal logic, deep description, dialectics, rigorous observation, ethics, and comparative studies. (One can even retain critical rationalism, just without getting lost in numbers.)
There are others attempting to do their best to apply broader principles to understanding the impacts of climate change. Manzi's argument over the past 18 months has been to repeatedly emphasize that the correct response to this question is to quantify the costs and the benefits. He now illustrates that those costs and benefits are impossible to quantify, and therefore takes it as Q.E.D. that we must retreat to extremely abstract arguments (as in, this kind of smells vaguely like Hayek). This might be forgivable if Manzi put any effort whatsoever into a rigorous consideration of the situation, along the lines of what Hayek actually did in his critique of government planners. Instead, he makes this jump in a few brief sentences which rely entirely on vague notions. Unfortunately, I have to say I found this neither convincing nor even challenging. Instead, it seems to mark for me the end of Manzi's meaningful contribution to the debate, which is really too bad.