In the discussion of the attention-grabbing “global cooling” chapter of the new Freakonomics book,some critics have asked how it is that free-market advocates such as Levitt and Dubner can recommend climate engineering (a “controlled injection of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere”), which seems like the ultimate in big-government solutions? True, the Freakonomics recommendation comes from a private firm, but it’s hard to imagine it would just be implemented in somebody’s backyard–I think you’d have to assume that some major government involvement would be necessary.
So what gives?
Based on my reading of their blog over the past several years, my impression is that the Freakonomics authors (a) tend to be skeptical of government solutions, and (b) are interested in what the data have to say on any given issue. I’m certainly not suggesting that they automatically oppose all government programs or that they support all private enterprise. For example, their blog has recently support to gas taxes and opposition to private farmer’s markets. And they’ve also written about abortion and crime, which is not really a government-vs.-business issue at all. (They’ve also argued that driving a car is good for the environment, which is just silly–but we’re all allowed to be silly now and then, I guess.) I’ve earlier argued that they enjoy pissing off liberals, but I don’t think that’s their main motivation by any means; it seems much more likely to me that they come to their conclusions in an unbiased way, conditional on the data they happen to look at.
That said, I think it’s fair to describe Levitt and Dubner as pro-market rather than pro-government (in the present U.S. context) and I doubt that they would object to this characterization (with the condition, as noted above, that this general leaning would not determine their position on any particular issue). So, to get back to the original question above, whassup with their support for georengineering? How does this fit into their general position of skepticism about government, concerns about unintended consequences, and so forth? Sure, they learned about this particular geoengineering idea in a visit to a private firm, not a government lab, but any large-scale implementation would still be done publicly.
A quick answer is to say that Levitt and Dubner’s position is perfectly consistent, as they view geoengineering as, yes, a big government program, but a much smaller government program than alternatives such as carbon capture, wind farms, solar-cell arrays, and the like. I don’t quite buy this theory, though, as these other activities could be viewed pretty clearly as private enterprise (in the same way that running a coal mine and a coal-burning plant can be seen as private), bounded and facilitated by government rules (as with the coal mine etc.) but run by private organizations.
My theory (about how geoengineering fits into the skepticism-about-government perspective) is that the plan most favored by the Freakonomics authors is the ultimate private-enterprise solution: do nothing until pushed by circumstances (i.e., prices).
Don’t forget, Levitt has “said he does not believe there is a cooling trend,” Dubner on the blog has featured the view that future trends are “virtually assuring us of about 30 years of global cooling,” and the Freakonomics sequel states, “While the drumbeat of doom has grown louder over the past several years, the average global temperature during that time has in fact decreased.” So things don’t seem so urgent as all that!
From this perspective, the key point is not that geoengineering is a government program–with all the pluses and minuses that this entails–but rather that its existence enables the status quo (as we say in political science) to continue unmolested. This is sometimes presented as “an excuse to pollute” (see discussion here)–but, if you think that global warming isn’t actually happening (at least not for the next 30 years), when maybe an excuse to pollute isn’t such a big deal.
Unlike Levitt and Dubner, I’m under no obligation, implicit or otherwise, to state my own views on climate change. (Like Levitt and Dubner, I’m no expert in the topic, and so I will defer to others on this one.) Once you realize it’s the potential of the geoengineering program that is being supported, not the actual program itself, it all makes sense. My guess is that if Levitt and Dubner believed that climate change was a big problem already, they would not be so supportive of a big-government program such as geoengineering, but since they’re not so worried about the problem (at least for the next couple of decades), the calculations go differently.
P.S. In writing this, I’m not making any claim on behalf (or in opposition) to logical consistency in one’s political positions. It’s just that, as someone who writes about statistical analysis and politics, I like to have a sense of where people are coming from ideologically, and this one confused me for awhile until I came up with the above explanation.
P.P.S. And, yes, this discussion doesn’t just apply to Levitt and Dubner. One could similarly look, for example, at Paul Krugman’s advocacy of big stimulus spending and ask how this fits with 1990s-era disparagement of government-managed industrial policy. (I’m sure Krugman would have a good answer for this one, just as I think the Freakonomics authors have a good reason for their apparent inconsistency. This sort of thing is not a game of “gotcha!” but rather an attempt to untangle some of the motivations and assumptions underlying a politicized debate.