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At the time of this writing (a week prior to publication) the total death toll from Sandy is 110. I have always found these figures hard to comprehend, because taken literally one would think that the deaths are caused by people being swept up in 110mph winds, but that is not typically what happens. We typically see people injured or killed from things like downed power lines electrifying puddles that people accidentally walk in, from trees smashing through homes, and the like.

And I don’t need to make light of this. We know someone who was tragically killed in the storm two weeks ago (a brother of a football teammate of mine). But I think that is even more of a reason to think clearly about the storm. I don’t feel like writing about gouging and shortages and things like that, but three other topics today.

(1) Deaths by storm: In NYC alone, about 150 people die every single day – this is for a population of about 8 million. My guess is that the storm affected a population closer to 100 million. So on any given day, about 2,000 people die every day from all sorts of things. This is not meant to minimize the loss of life from the storm. But the storm occurred (and its aftermath) over a large geographical area over a number of days is is thought to have added a total of 110 deaths. While shocking, this still represents a small addition to the number of deaths that are occurring all around us. There is a debate and policy question here of course. Could we have done anything to prevent that thousands of deaths that occur on every particular day? How easy would it be to do something about them as compared to the storm related deaths? And of course, we don’t see newspaper reports every day reporting that, “November 16th killed 2,000 people” which of course it “did.” Just a little perspective here is all.

(2) In terms of the economics of the storm, there is not good evidence that hurricane intensity or frequency has increased, though people argue that there is more ambient moisture in a storm to cause more damage and that sea levels are higher today leading to the chance that storms are more harmful (how much of that sea level is due to global warming vs. other factors is actually not part of the mythical “consensus” by the way). So the relevant question is not to attribute ALL of the deaths and ALL of the billions of damages to global warming but to ask the counterfactual of how many deaths and how much less damage we would have seen if the planet was 1 degree cooler. We may actually never know the answer to that question, but THAT, is the only way to sensibly think about the damages.

And remember that even if we think about the damages that way, that is just the starting point of the discussion. How hard would it be to make people safer by adapting to the storms and improving response systems and the electrical grid as compared to instituting a global carbon tax that is almost surely going to have a small or negligible impact on warming to begin with? Plus, to use the language of green energy optimists – isn’t it possible that these adaptation solutions have all kinds of positive spillovers anyway that climate policy does not have? Particularly when the corporatists get their hands on climate policy?

(3) Finally, people tell me that storms and the like are NOT a time to talk politics. But pardon me. If there is ANY time when politics should be discussed and invoked it is in times like this. We have huge collective action problems that result in the storm damage itself and also make recovery difficult. Are you meaning to tell me that we should only discuss and analyze politics when we are all on the beach sipping milky bananas? Give me a break. And the politics here, at least to this writer, is particularly appalling. We are told that we have an electrical and transportation infrastructure of a third world country. We are told that this is the result of bad politics and evil Republicans (or whatever your favorite demon is). And indeed in this crisis those chickens seem to be coming home to roost. But remember the ugly fact – isn’t it, so I am told, government’s most important job to keep people safe and to solve collective action problems like infrastructure and communications? And isn’t this a big giant failure? If you want to pay public employees lifetime retirements after 20 years of working and slacking on the job, you want to plunder the public coffers, you want to spend all of your political capital banning aluminum bats and transfats and big gulp sodas – then don’t be shocked when your sewer system dumps millions of tons of toxic sludge into your waterways, when your power goes out for weeks and roads and bridges are wrecked in a storm.

Don’t … be … SHOCKED!

But when I talk of tradeoffs when analyzing such policies I am told, “thank you for your opinion. There is more to the world than “economic-y” thinking.”  Thanks indeed! We’ll post shortly on the fallacy in that comment.  But storms help focus attention. While the alarmosphere is going to use this storm as evidence that we need more government, or as proof that global warming is going to ruin the world, I see it as precisely the opposite (of course). Actually, use the alarmists intuition here. They tell us that the storm makes it visible to see the dangers of global warming. They tell is it makes it visible to see the lack of action on carbon taxes.

OK, sure.

But the storm and the tragic consequences makes it plain as day that we’ve been looting the taxpayers and each other while shirking our responsibilities for securing infrastructure and keeping people safe. You can’t argue one and not the other, at least using that train of reasoning. This is precisely what economists are talking about when we invoke the language of tradeoffs and scarcity. Finally, I find it incredibly ironic that many folks ignore the lessons of economics leading up to these disasters, but again ignore them when it comes to clean-up and recovery. Many of the communities suffering from disaster, prior to the storm, embrace the economic stupidity of buying local and eschew the evils of big box corporations. How many Home Depots are in Manhattan? Walmarts? But now when it comes to storm prep and recovery, it is the very existence of not buying local and the global supply chains of the big boxes that are key to a quick and affordable recovery. Where are all of the localists running around telling Northeasterners to buy only local wood, food, and supplies during the cleanup effort as a way to “keep money in the community?”

Crickets.

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12 Responses to “In Which One Will Surely Find Themselves Removed from Polite Company”

  1. Trey says:

    You hit the nail on the head here: “If you want to pay public employees lifetime retirements after 20 years of working and slacking on the job, you want to plunder the public coffers, you want to spend all of your political capital banning aluminum bats and transfats and big gulp sodas – then don’t be shocked when your sewer system dumps millions of tons of toxic sludge into your waterways, when your power goes out for weeks and roads and bridges are wrecked in a storm.”

    Regarding tradeoffs and politics, let’s remember Sowell’s first rule of politics: “The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.”

    Another rule of politics is to blame someone else (or something else, say AGW) for your problems. Here’s Roger Pielke Jr on Bloomberg:

    http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2012/11/mayor-bloombergs-deft-climate-politics.html

    “What is he [Bloomberg] going to do about the fact that his city was less prepared than it should have been for a disaster that was expected and one of a sort will certainly recur, climate change or not? If the media devotes 10% of the energy to this topic that it is devoting to the climate change connection, New Yorkers will be well served. “

  2. Trey says:

    If anyone gives you a hard time about trends in disasters, just send them Pielke’s handy BS button:

    http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2012/03/handy-bullshit-button-on-disasters-and.html

    Keep in mind that Pielke (and his climate scientist father, Pielke Sr) have been fighting an uphill battle against the IPCC for years. The IPCC finally relented on this issue.

  3. Trey says:

    One last note, since you bring up sea level and Sandy:

    http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2012/10/how-much-sea-level-rise-would-be.html

    And here’s the graph of hurricane damages for the last 112 years:

    http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2012/11/normalized-us-hurricane-damage-1900.html

    No trend. I repeat, no trend. This is because the data has to agree with hurricane intensity data, which also shows no trend. The results also have to show long-term patterns such as ENSO (El Nino), which they do. If in the unlikely event anyone is still listening and wants to understand more, go here: http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2012/11/loss-normalization-methodologies.html?showComment=1352177583842#c7460700608329720315

  4. wintercow20 says:

    Keep it up Trey and soon, you too, will enjoy a life of no friends!

  5. aarmlovi says:

    It’s completely reasonable to ask about the tradeoff between mitigation and adaptation for climate change, And yes, attributing a single weather event to climate change is certainly a political tactic rather than a well-supported scientific conclusion.

    But why are we still questioning a carbon tax? One doesn’t need to believe in climate change to want it! Remember the large air quality co-benefits of taxing carbon cited in my post? Those benefits are *uncontroversially* higher than the serious price proposals out there, like this one below from Brookings. It would raise oil prices by < $9/barrel in the 1st year and <$13/barrel in the 10th year. As in, by the 10th year gas prices go up by <30 cents! Nigerian tribal unrest causes price spikes higher than that! Is there any question at all that modest carbon pricing is a no-brainer regardless of climate beliefs? <http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2012/11/13%20federalism/13%20carbon%20tax>

    • chuck martel says:

      Why shouldn’t we question a carbon tax, or any other kind of tax? Taking money from private citizens and giving it to the government is folly under any circumstances.

    • Trey says:

      aarmlovi, I’m glad you brought it up. Here are a few reasons for cynicism regarding a carbon tax.

      —————————————-

      Along similar lines of Chuck, are government funds used wisely?

      What’s so special about carbon? Will there be a pollution tax for everything bad? Should there be a tax on every toxic tailing used to mine neodymium (wind and electric car motors) * or cadmium (solar panels) or lithium (batteries)?

      Will “green companies” seek special exemptions? Constructing a wind farm uses 10x more concrete and steel than equally powered efficient natural gas plant **. Making concrete and steel is extremely energy intensive, so the manufacture of wind farms will use a disproportionate amount of carbon. A carbon tax would raise the price to build wind farms. I’m willing to bet a carbon tax would have loopholes that will exempt a whole mess of things (certainly wind, solar, and e-car manufacturing) from the carbon tax. ***

      —————————————-

      I was going to say: “Do we really want to (effectively) tax the MASTER Resource (energy)?”. But then again, we already tax the ultimate resource (humans via payroll and income taxes). The _ultimate_ irony is that we are carbon lifeforms. We are talking about taxing our very being.

      Trey

      References:

      * No energy source is squeaky clean. More on wind’s toxic tailings: http://rationaloptimist.com/blog/the-beginning-of-the-end-of-wind.aspx

      ** Robert Bryce, Power Hungry

      *** Maybe they would “cut the Energy Dept and EPA subsidy budgets” (your words, from your “revenue neutral” post) if a carbon tax were implemented, but I doubt it.

      • aarmlovi says:

        Trey, those concerns are orthogonal to the question of a carbon tax. If you can show a complete analysis recommending excise taxes on mine tailings, then by all means go with it! And while they should cut most of the Energy and EPA budgets, that’s just icing on an uncontroversial, already-fully-justified cake.
        A good carbon tax implementation is just a basic excise tax on fossil fuels according to the elemental carbon content of each substance. All the other questions about carbon intensity get settled out by the price system in the classic decentralized fashion (i.e. questions about carbon use for wind turbines). Also remember that CO2 is 3.67x the mass of one carbon atom, so all the CO2 prices you see would be divided by 3.67 and multiplied by the amount of carbon per unit of fossil fuel. That’s a big source of confusion about carbon proposals; sometimes people end up talking past each other referring to magnitudes ~3x larger or ~3x smaller than each other’s proposals.

        And further, my carbon taxes post proposed revenue neutrality in period 1, meaning it’s ultimately revenue-negative. That means I was saying “given the current amount of labor supply distortion, any air quality benefit greater than the cost of future government spending cuts (as revenues fall) is a free lunch.” So if you’re optimistic that the marginal dollar of federal spending is relatively valuable, you should be worried about replacing labor taxes. Otherwise, hop on the carbon train!

        This is a tricky equivalent of Goulder’s conclusion; his paper assumed multi-period revenue neutrality in order to meet a revenue target for valuable public goods! I doubt you share that assumption. (And even that is being charitable to his paper–he assumed separable utility, which is not consistent with the standard environmental econ model and was an assumption specifically chosen to fortify the negative labor supply effects of a carbon tax. http://www.springerlink.com/content/g45886102400j738/fulltext.pdf)

        Edit: Note that none of this includes the benefits of rolling back CAFE, weakening the Clean Air Act’s costly command-and-control regs on particulates and NOx, and preventing the EPA’s proposed CO2 command-and-control regs as would be justified by the carbon tax.

        • chuck martel says:

          Why limit taxation to carbon transmogrification, a process (the taxation) that would require a literal army of bureaucrats? Why not have a tax on other pollutants, unenlightened verbiage, for instance? Isn’t filling young minds with ideas about the efficiency of the free market taxable at a substantial rate? After all, isn’t it free market thinking and action that leads to the deadly externalities that cry out for taxation?

          Command economies have never succeeded in eliminating or even limiting externalities because they’ve never been able to obey their own regulations. Perhaps sucking wealth out of the private sector for redistribution according to political fads will make up for state failure in this regard. But why approach it at the macro level? If you’re sincere about your concerns with carbon you can do a number of things that testify to that sincerity and at the same time encourage those around you, and ultimately society as a whole, to follow your lead. First of all, sever the umbilical cord that ties you to the electrical grid. And don’t switch over to batteries, either, the production and disposal of which are eco-nightmares. Forget about the gas lamp, kerosene illumination or even candles, all of which produce externalities that produce migraines. Throwing that electric or gas range in the dumpster might seem like the right thing to do but grilling your soy burgers over charcoal or even wood scavenged from discarded pallets is an insult to Mommy Nature’s olfactory senses. You’ll want to eschew motorized transport for sure but even a bicycle has negative overtones, those factories in China that produce almost all bikes belch toxic substances into the lower atmosphere that could maybe raise sea levels and increase planter’s warts among the Trobriand Islanders. Better to just stick to the pedestrian scene, preferably barefoot, as manufacture and transport of oddly designed footwear is graffiti on the walls of the peaceable kingdom. No doubt you yourself can come up with many more effective lifestyle options that, if followed by everyone, would make the world a better place, but without more taxes, unless more taxes are your real interest.

          • aarmlovi says:

            Chuck, I apologize for offending you. Sharing the virtues of market institutions with young minds certainly isn’t taxable; if anything it’s an under-provided public good! :-D

            I assure you I’m no fan of command economies, and my support for carbon-labor tax swaps is very moderate–well within the ballpark of recommendations by reputable (and conservative!) economists like Greg Mankiw and Glenn Hubbard. I mean no further offense by this attempt at clarification: carbon taxes do not suggest that all carbon use is infinitely harmful and that our connections to the grid should be cut, our batteries abandoned, our grills left cold. It only says that the marginal ton of fossil fuels burned is undoubtedly underpriced in the absence of property rights institutions to deal with its emissions. No individual or small group can reduce total air pollution by going off-grid; at best it puts downward pressure on fossil fuel prices, raising demand elsewhere by the same amount. Large and highly efficient markets in fossil fuels imply that small-scale Coasian negotiations can’t solve that institutional gap…unless private individuals formed cooperation units the size of an entire country, in which case we’re back to analyzing the emergent institutional role of government.

            One last thing: no army of bureaucrats needed for a simple excise tax on inputs. We don’t collect gasoline taxes by putting a gas meter in every car, we calculate it at the point of sale. Same for well-designed fossil fuel taxes. We don’t want more taxes, we want less-harmful taxes.

    • Harry says:

      Alex, a carbon tax is not a no-brainer.

      On a separate vein, I would like to ask WC and this learned group how and where our electric grid might be prudently improved; by prudently, I mean that we do not impoverish us all and go back to the Stone Age, in which case there would be no need for an electric grid, not to mention refined gasoline.

      Do you put it underground, for example? Use thicker wire? Better insulators?

      My impression is that our electric transmission system is first-rate, not third-world.

      (BTW, an acquaintance just returned from a missionary trip to Africa, and he told me they used solar panels to fire up their computer for email. Does that mean the U of R solar picnic table is third-world?

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