A Suggestion for Fixing America

Two professors writing for Foreign Policy see a way to simultaneously repair our country’s politics and economics (I’ve left out some of their analysis). Whether or not it succeeded, it wouldn’t hurt:

According to the Brookings Institution, Biden won 509 counties to [the other guy’s] 2,547—that’s over five times as many won by [the Republican]. But here’s the kicker. Biden’s counties constitute 71 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, [the loser’s] less than 30 percent. Surely we must somehow factor this into how we think about why people vote the way they do? How does growth, or the lack thereof, determine elections?

What we see in U.S. politics today is the death and dissolution of a particular social coalition that dominated politics and economics and underwrote social peace for three generations; call it the carbon coalition.

The carbon coalition was an encompassing political coalition, built on a set of agreements negotiated between 1932 and 1950, that distributed the income generated by the industrial economy among groups within society. In the auto and steel industries, the most dynamic of that era, United Auto Workers and General Motors signed the 1950 Treaty of Detroit, which tied pay to productivity. This created a path to prosperity for two generations of workers in manufacturing.

Meanwhile, to bring rural areas into the coalition, the urban middle class paid higher prices for food and accepted permanent agricultural subsidies so that farmers could enjoy higher incomes. These agreements drew together labor, business, and farmers; the North and the South; the Great Plains and the Great Lakes into one settlement. This broadly inclusive distributive coalition in turn softened the sectional and partisan divisions that had roiled U.S. politics almost continuously since the 1890s.

. . . This political coalition was in fact entirely dependent on a particular growth model: an extremely fossil fuel-intensive agro-industrial economy.

It is only a slight exaggeration to suggest that the United States’ postwar economy was a massive machine that transformed oil, coal, and natural gas into income and food. Consider the following: In 1971, automobile production directly and indirectly provided 1 of every 6 jobs in the U.S. economy. Most of these jobs were unionized, or, if not, most workers enjoyed wages and benefits that spilled over from union agreements. Then add to these jobs others created by the interstate highway program, by the oil and gas industry, and by the retail sale of gasoline and the repair and maintenance of automobiles. And then throw in jobs in aviation, shipping, and agriculture, which became increasingly energy intensive due to the use of diesel-fueled equipment and through the use of natural gas to manufacture artificial fertilizer. Finally come jobs in plastics and petrochemicals.

The carbon coalition distributed the income generated by the carbon economy. Elections determined those distributions. That model is now dying and indeed, given climate change, must die. The politics it made possible are dying too.

The carbon economy has been in decline for decades, but the [political effects are only now becoming visible.

The center of economic dynamism and wealth generation in the United States now lies in knowledge-intensive (or at least high-value-added) industries, some of which, like pharmaceuticals, are research intensive and some of which, like various forms of media, are creative.

Although this knowledge economy is diverse, these activities share one overarching commonality: None require (much less depend on) fossil fuels. Indeed, their survival over the long haul depends on successfully switching out of carbon completely. Productivity in these activities doesn’t come from more energy and bigger machines applied to faster assembly lines but from improvements in our ability to manipulate, analyze, and monetize information.

The economy that drives U.S. GDP growth today is already post-carbon. And though many of its activities are energy intensive (server farms consume more than more than 2 percent of the world’s electricity use; financial services consume more electricity than any other industry in New York City), the energy they consume can come as readily from wind and solar as from coal and natural gas. This isn’t the case for the internal combustion engine, for the steel from which its constructed, and for the oil extraction, refining, and distribution systems that support it. Nor is it true for an ammonia plant or for cement or aviation. Farmers cannot substitute solar energy for artificial fertilizer.

The U.S. economy is thus now divided in two: a growing and potentially sustainable post-carbon economy that can adapt to the realities of climate change and a carbon economy in decline that is unsustainable. . . .

Americans no longer live in the same economy.  Rather, they live in two incompatible models of economic growth. Those who remain embedded in the carbon economy quite rationally want to defend and rejuvenate that model. In contrast, those who have found a spot in the post-carbon economy largely embrace the future. . . .

Today, the firms and sectors that make up each of the two growth models fund elections and determine the strategy of their parties.

The post-carbon coalition dominates the Democratic Party. This coalition brings together a West Coast variant composed of high-margin agriculture (think wine), Big Tech, entertainment, and digital and high-end services and an East Coast variant based largely on financial services. These post-carbonites embrace some variant of the Green New Deal, which identifies the climate crisis as the most critical issue the country faces and offers a coherent policy response.

The carbon economy coalition that dominates the Republican Party includes export agriculture, carbon extraction, refinement and production, steel and other declining traditional industrial sectors, as well as low-wage and low productivity services (think Walmart over Accenture). This fragment of the original carbon coalition remains committed to defending and rebooting the carbon economy; this is what “Make America Great Again” means. . . .

The United States’ two coalitions cannot be brought together. Indeed, they are existential threats to each other. And on a population scale, each electoral coalition has more or less the same number of potential voters. As a result, elections are decided by thin margins in a race to the death. . . .

For almost half of U.S. states, the Green New Deal, which is—sotto voce—at the center of Biden’s platform, spells the end of their existing strategies—think fracking, refining, plastics, mining, logging, and so on. And for the other half of the states that support the deal, scaling back its objectives to attract support from the carbon coalition threatens the post-carbon coastal communities. . . .

There is only one way to fix this mess. The post-carbon coalition has to bribe what’s left of [the carbon coalition] to make [a] transition. Non-coastal, largely Republican states must be the epicenter of the green transition and be the recipients of most of the investment. After all, they have the most assets to turn around and the most to lose if they are not compensated. If all they are offered is “you decarbonize/we keep the money,” then all they will give back is more [right-wing radicalism].

There are clear parallels in U.S. history, such as the massive bribe that the urban sector began paying to farmers in 1933 with the Agricultural Adjustment Act and two generations of generous farm bills . . . thereafter. Yet the bribe this time must involve more than a subsidy; it requires exiting the carbon economy. For it to work, green investment must extend well beyond energy capture (solar and wind farms) and downstream into industries that are powered by alternatives. Massive investments in electric vehicle production, for instance, to support a rapid turnover of the U.S. motor vehicle fleet with U.S.-built cars and trucks, are required. . . .

Elections in the United States are not being fought over rival principles and certainly not over median voters. They are contested over which parts of the country will grow and how and who will pay for it. Recognizing this is the first step to fixing the deeper problem of the carbon transition for the good of all Americans.

Science, Schmience

From Paul Krugman’s newsletter:


. . .  I’ve sometimes regretted having gone into economics, a field in which getting the story right all too often offends powerful players, who in turn intervene to prop up zombie ideas that should have died long ago.
But I also realized some time back that politics can and will intrude into any area of scholarly research where some people have strong motivations for getting the story wrong. This has obviously been the case for climate research, where an overwhelming scientific consensus has had to struggle against a whole industry of climate denial, which is almost entirely supported by fossil-fuel interests and has effectively taken over the Republican Party.
In fact, in some ways the climate scientists have had it worse than the economists; mainstream Keynesian economists (which is pretty much what I am) get a lot of abuse, but as far as I know none of us has had politicians trying to criminalize our work, the way Ken Cuccinelli, now a top official at the Department of Homeland Security, did to climatologist Michael E. Mann [ten years ago].
I used to think, however, that climate change was a subject uniquely vulnerable to anti-science propaganda and intimidation. After all, the effects of greenhouse gas emissions are invisible and gradual, taking decades to unfold; it’s always possible to mock the science because it happens to be snowing today, while accusing the scientists of taking jobs away from salt-of-the-earth coal miners.
Surely, I thought, it wouldn’t be that easy to politicize a science, to claim that all the experts were part of a vast conspiracy, in an area in which experts’ predictions could be validated and the conspiracy theorists revealed as phonies in a matter of weeks.
But I was wrong.
Epidemiology, like climatology — or for that matter economics — involves trying to model complex systems, so that no prediction ends up being exactly right. And the chains of cause and effect are long enough that the consequences of bad policy take some time to become completely apparent: Florida began reopening in early May, but Covid-19 deaths didn’t spike until July.
But we’re talking about weeks, not decades, and the story of the coronavirus is as clear as such things ever get.
Experts warned that a rush to resume business as usual, without social distancing and widespread use of face masks, would lead to a surge in new cases. The usual suspects on the right dismissed these concerns, insisting either that Covid-19 was a hoax or that its dangers were being greatly exaggerated by scientists who wanted to bring down Dxxxx Txxxx. Sunbelt states decided to believe the skeptics, not the scientists — and the result was a huge, deadly viral surge.
So that put an end to the politicization, right? Wrong. Not only are Txxxx officials still pressuring health experts to minimize the dangers, the top communications official at the Department of Health and Human Services accused his own agency’s scientists of “sedition.”
The moral here is that there’s no such thing as a safe subject when you’re dealing with people who have a totalitarian mind-set — and that is, in fact, what we’re dealing with. I suspect that in the early days of the Soviet Union plant geneticists imagined that they were working in a low-risk field; I mean, who would politicize that? In the end, however, thousands of them were sent to labor camps or executed for questioning the theories of Trofim Lysenko, a quack who somehow became one of Stalin’s favorites.
The fact of the matter is that we’re now struggling over where there’s even such a thing as objective truth. And staying out of politics is no longer an option for anyone.
I wouldn’t say we’re struggling over whether there’s objective truth. It’s real. What we’re struggling with are people who don’t respect it (like the chairman of the Republican Party who claimed that Biden’s record on the virus is worse than Txxxx’s). But Prof. Krugman is right about not staying out of politics. Voting — and supporting candidates in other ways — matters.
Which reminds me. Has anybody seen my Biden/Harris lawn sign? It still hasn’t been delivered. Maybe the crooked Postmaster General arranged for it to be confiscated?

Politics and Markets One More Time

Around 40 years ago, I bought a book called Politics and Markets: The World’s Political-Economic Systems. It was written by Yale professor Charles Lindblom. I read about half of it before putting it aside. I don’t know why I stopped reading, because I thought it was excellent and intended to finish it. Instead, I treated the book like a kind of talisman. For some time, I kept it on my desk at work. It was there so long that someone asked me if I was still reading “that book”. I suppose I didn’t have the mental energy to finish it, but having it around was nice. Maybe it reminded me of my aborted attempt at an academic career.


A few days ago, I thought I might go around the house and find books I’ve always thought about reading but never did. An obvious candidate was a biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson called Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Just like Politics and Markets, I read about half of it years ago and have often thought of finishing it. Unlike Politics and Markets, however, Emerson still had a decades-old bookmark showing where I stopped reading (it wasn’t even at the start of a chapter).

I’m now reading Politics and Markets again. I was immediately impressed.

This is how the 1977 edition above begins:

Relentlessly accumulating evidence suggests that human life on the planet is headed for a catastrophe. Indeed, several disasters are possible, and if we avert one, we will be caught by another. At present rates of population growth, another century will put 40 billion people on Earth, too many to feed. If industrial production grows at present rates during the next century, resource requirements will multiply by a thousand. And energy emission, some scientists say, will over a longer period of time raise Earths’ temperature to a level unsuitable for human habitation. All this assumes that a nuclear catastrophe does not spare us the long anguish of degeneration.

However fearful one may be that the fallible and dilatory intelligence of the human species will somehow either end human life or reduce it to unbearable squalor, the decline of the human condition is not inevitable. It is for us to decide whether we will continue to reproduce at disastrous rates, plunder the planet of resources, or burn ourselves from the face of the earth through either thermal pollution or a few quick blasts. The world is man’s doing, not something done to him.

Assuming that men and women wish to give some thought to their futures, what are the fundamental politico-economic mechanisms they can employ in order to maintain — indeed greatly enlarge — the humane qualities of life on Earth? That is the question of this book. Some will doubt that political and economic mechanisms matter. They will say that man’s future hinges on a moral regeneration. Or science and technology. Or inner awareness. Or a new form of family or other small-group association. Or organic foods — the list is open to nominations. This book is for those who believe that politics and economics will turn out to matter.

Well, some good news is that world population isn’t climbing as fast as people expected in 1977. It was 4.2 billion back then. Now it’s 7.8 billion, but the rate of increase is going down. It’s projected that there will be 10 billion of us by 2077, not 40 billion. And since the fertility rate is expected to keep dropping, world population may actually decline in the next century (even without the help of killer viruses, nuclear wars, giant meteors, etc.).

Along with population, resource requirements continue to grow, although some experts believe that we won’t run out of the things we need, since as resources become scare, they’ll become more expensive and we’ll find substitutes (I don’t know what the substitute for oxygen or water would be).

The bad news, of course, is that the “energy emission” that “some scientists” were worried about in 1977 is now out of control. If you want a scary update, see Bill McKibben’s article “130 Degrees” at the New York Review of Books site:

What [the 10 to 15% drop in emissions during the pandemic] seems to indicate is that most of the momentum destroying our Earth is hardwired into the systems that run it. Only by attacking those systems—ripping out the fossil-fueled guts and replacing them with renewable energy, even as we make them far more efficient—can we push emissions down to where we stand a chance.

As for “nuclear catastrophe”, it’s easy to think that the danger subsided with the end of the Cold War. That’s not the message from “The New Nuclear Threat”, an article by Jessica Matthews in the same issue of The New York Review of Books (I’ve subscribed for a long time — the subscription is almost worth the price):

In part because of effective deterrence, fear of their destructiveness, and a growing taboo against their use, and in part because of dumb luck, nearly a century has passed without nuclear weapons being used again in conflict. . . . But we are not safer today—quite the reverse. . . . A second nuclear arms race has begun—one that could be more dangerous than the first. . . .

The single step from which profound policy change could flow, domestically and internationally, would be formal endorsement by the five original nuclear powers—the US, Russia, the UK, France, and China—of the Reagan-Gorbachev principle, jointly articulated by the two leaders at their 1985 summit. It states simply, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” International adoption would simultaneously indicate the nuclear powers’ recognition of the rising dangers of nuclear conflict and the need to move toward nuclear forces around the world that are structured for deterrence, not war fighting. . . .  Eventually, these eleven words could underlie the next generation of arms control negotiations, strengthen the global nonproliferation regime, and help short-circuit a second nuclear arms race.

I don’t know if Prof. Lindblom’s old book might help with any of this. I’ll let you know if I finish it.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Our President

Putin is a thug who has his opponents and critics jailed and murdered. He annexed Crimea. He interferes in elections, contributes to war crimes and has stolen millions, probably billions, from the Russian people. This is him arriving at a ceremony in France attended by our president and foreign leaders.


Meanwhile, the global, man-made phenomenon that our president says is a hoax gets worse every year. Among the results: California has never had such terrible fires.