Fools and scoundrels

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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31 Responses

  1. Michael Drew says:

    Climate change is a free market?Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Michael Drew says:

      I’m not sure what you mean. Climate change is caused, purportedly, by carbon emissions. Carbon emissions are largely from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels will become more and more scarce, driving up prices and driving down use. Carbon emissions will fall as use of fossil fuels falls. Thus the market for fossil fuels has direct effects on climate change.Report

      • Kyle in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        I’m not sure if Michael was getting at the point I was going to make but it sounds like it. I think – to some degree – you’re conflating two theories that don’t have the relationship you’re purporting them to have.

        Theory 1 – climate change, Theory 2 – markets and fuel.

        You’re right that economic principles will, at some point, force an increase in the price of certain fossil fuels as they become scarcer (a combination of supply and demand changes) and higher energy prices will result in behavioral changes for consumers and changes to the type and number of producers in energy markets. If we assume climate change to be exacerbated by man-made activity, it’s still entirely unclear that by the time fuel scarcity prompts a mitigating change in human caused carbon emissions, there will still be time and resources enough to either reverse the shift or dampen its effects on the biosphere.

        Shorter, mother nature knows no free market, only her own rules and timetables. e.g. The Dust BowlReport

        • E.D. Kain in reply to Kyle says:

          The Dust Bowl is certainly a good cautionary tale of improper agricultural techniques. I’m not sure it lines up exactly with climate change, however. Just as it’s entirely uncertain that fuel scarcity will prompt a mitigating change in human caused carbon emissions, it’s also entirely uncertain that it won’t, and even more uncertain that cap and trade will do anything whatsoever to curb emissions or slow climate change especially so long as China and India remain out of play.Report

          • Kyle in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            Agreed on cap and trade/china/india/raising costs without building alternatives.

            I only disagree with the assertion that the free market will deal with climate change. The free market/economics deals with the efficient allocation of resources. It says/does very little about the long term effects of either resource extraction or present economic activity.

            Which, incidentally, is why I think taxes meant to price-in externalities are good.Report

      • Francis in reply to E.D. Kain says:


        nor does your ignorance prove Kleiman wrong. The best evidence is that planet has more than enough proven supplies of coal to drive CO2 levels past the 8 deg. C. increase. See, eg, Kleiman’s thread or the IPCC. What’s your evidence to the contrary?

        So long as CO2 emissions remain an externality, there will be no “market” to curb them.Report

        • E.D. Kain in reply to Francis says:


          I’m all for taking positive steps – let’s build some nuclear power plants, for instance. Let’s build mass transit. But I think making energy costs for people across the board go through the roof without first laying the groundwork for alternatives is simply bad policy. How is it good policy?Report

          • Francis in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            Nuclear power is uneconomic compared to coal, unless coal is taxed for its CO2 release. Mass transit is expensive, so gas taxes will need to rise to pay for it.

            You title your post “fools and scoundrels”. Please give me one reason to believe that you did the research necessary to establish that the post title should not apply to you.Report

            • E.D. Kain in reply to Francis says:


              I’m accustomed to your barbs at this point. Certainly taxes will be necessary, they always are. Can you explain how a cap and trade bill entirely captured by special interests will further the climate change cause?Report

              • Francis in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                1. In the earlier post, I accused you of ignorance because you wrote about an environmental movement that bears no relationship to my extensive personal experience. That accusation went unanswered.

                2. In this post I again accuse you of ignorance because you demonstrate it with regard to nuclear power and the funding of public transit. That accusation has also gone unanswered.

                3. In a massive shift of goalposts, you now ask me to defend the proposed climate change bill. Here it is, in one simple sentence:

                The bill is the first step in capturing an externality that, if left uncaptured, creates a substantial likelihood of significant adverse consequences to people around the world and our own society.

                Now, if you knew much of anything about the history of environmental laws in this country (if you do, you have successfully hidden that knowledge from me, but I apologize for the false accusation), then you would know that many environmental laws have operated iteratively. That is to say, once the first version of the law has operated for a while, Congress (and/or EPA) passes statutory/regulatory amendments which apply lessons learned and increases the capture of the externality. You would also know that the regulated community has always grossly overestimated the cost of capture. It has always been the case that once government forces industry to take account of the pollutant, the profit motive has driven innovation.

                It has also been the case that attempts to develop voluntary compliance with environmental standards have been utter failures. The marketplace demands that industry externalize costs to the maximum extent possible. Only government can force industry to internalize environmental standards.

                Regulatory driven innovation /= market.Report

              • North in reply to Francis says:

                That last sentence encapsulates the nuclear issue too amusingly. The regulations regarding that power source were developed over a decade or so by regulators eager to regulate the entire field out of viability. If AGW is a serious concern we probably owe it to ourselves to roll a lot of that malicious anti-viability regulation back.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        Your phrasing, “just like with any free market, climate change will respond to market pressures coupled with government incentives,” suggests climate change itself to be a market. But I doubt that’s what you meant. As far as the notion that “the free market” will solve climate change, that’s only true insofar as we define the unfettered market’s perceptions of and responses to problems to be inherently correct, whatever the aggregate outcome; so long as all were free to act as they would, those in themselves are the desired results. It matters not that a tipping point was reached, and quality of life in large sectors of the developing world is falling off a cliff — they were unable to ascertain their interests and exert the necessary pressure on the market in time to change the outcome — they were free to do so they had found the wherewithal for it, and that is what matters. As Kyle says, the fact the at some point scarcity will dictate higher prices in fossil fuels is not in any way related to the environmental problem given by their use. They are wholly unconnected, and hence operate on vastly different timescales.

        Now, as also Kyle says, the power of market forces can be harnessed to stem carbon emissions (though I am skeptical of their ability to reverse or even slow the changes underway as a result of the explosion of greenhouse gases emitted starting as the Industrial Revolution and increasing ever since), if governments decide that such limits need to be achieved and either set limits on emissions which companies that emit large amounts of carbon can trade for the right to exceed, or else simply put a monetary price on carbon via taxation of emissions, which firms could then factor into their production cost calculation, either of which response utilize market forces/analysis. But those market solutions are most assuredly not “free market” solutions. The free market solution to climate change, as it is to all other problems given by industry is to, I guess, roll back to the extent possible regulation and taxation and let the chips fall where they may. And in the case of global warming, that might very well be no less effective than any of the other solutions on offer.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

          I guess everything you suggest is consistent with the idea of government intervention in the market that relies of market responses to achieve a public policy goal. But that’s just the goal of any run-of the-mill big-government regulator. So I was really just reacting to you invocation of the phrase “free market,” of which you do state that climate change is an example in the quote I took. But again, that’s just too weird an idea — it can’t be what you meant. But i don’t know what you did mean.Report

          • E.D. Kain in reply to Michael Drew says:


            The economic crisis did more to reduce emissions than anything previously. Economic changes will have an effect on climate change. We can choose to spur this along with punitive measures, or we can anticipate it with positive measures. We can tax carbon and force people to pay more for their energy/transportation/goods or we can realize that that day will come on its own and start to prepare for it with investment in transit, green technology, etc.

            That’s what I’m saying. Market forces will work to stem the tide on climate change and we have choices about how to influence or divert those forces.Report

            • Michael Drew in reply to E.D. Kain says:

              Market forces work always and everywhere in the presence or absence of any amount of government interference — they just work around whatever enforced limits are present. But it’s false to say that utilizing the expected response of markets to government action to address a public policy problem is a “free-market” solution; free market ideology is defined by a constant preference for less government intervention rather than more, always and everywhere. Otherwise it can have no meaning that sets it apart from the worldview of those who seek to regulate markets — advocates of market regulation are not under the impression that their regulations put an end to market behavior in the domain of their regulation. Rather, achieving the expected and desired market response is exactly the aim of regulation to begin with.

              The market behavior of firms may very well reduce or slow the growth of emissions we believe cause climate change, but that is not guaranteed, and the likelihood of such an outcome is increased if the government intervenes to stimulate firms to make such market decisions, and decreased if it does not. We seem to agree about this; my point, then, is simply to make explicit what is obvious about our shared view: that it is an anti-free-market position.Report

      • JohnW in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        Coal is not going to be scarce any time soon.Report

  2. Bob Cheeks says:

    E.D. this blog is excellent, reasoned, and politically unbiased, which is something of an accomplishment these days.
    What do you mean by this: “What we need are more scientists and engineers working on technological solutions to climate problems, …” What are the climate problems? I ask because I’m unable to differentiate the “political science” from science. The question seems to be corrupted by ideological distortions and political ambitions.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

      Bob, assuming that the way we live now is causing more global warming than we’d be experiencing otherwise, and assuming this is largely due to our dependence on fossil fuels, than it makes sense to have smart people working to develop other means of transportation, new fuel sources, etc. This makes more sense to me than penalizing normal people for driving to work in their car or for heating their house in the winter since people usually have no choice but to drive to work in their car and heat their house in the winter. That’s why I draw the distinction between positive and punitive means to fixing the problem. Even if global warming isn’t that big of a problem, at some point we’ll need new technology regardless.Report

  3. Ian M. says:

    Won’t the market determine if we need more scientists and engineers working on technological solutions to climate change?Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Ian M. says:

      Sure. That doesn’t mean that everyone will be able to afford the education on their own, though. I think actually the market has already determined we need more science and engineering people and we’ve actually run into a shortage of workers in those fields.Report

      • Ian M. in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        E.D. – I’m coming from just a personal observation as a worker in research science, but the US overproduces PhDs (specifically in health sciences and physics). What fields are we short in? Your response flies in the face of received wisdom from inside the ivory tower.Report

        • E.D. Kain in reply to Ian M. says:


          I’m not sure we need more PhD’s. I do know that businesses complain that they don’t have a ready enough supply of high-tech workers and that if economic trends hold true this will be even more the case in the future, though maybe this economic downturn will effect that as well. I’m sure you’re right that the academic field is saturated though.Report

          • Ian M. in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            The only way to get a decent salary in the sciences today is to get a PhD. Coupled with graduate students being a cheap and highly skilled workforce, there aren’t a lot of incentives to lower graduate school enrollment in the sciences.

            One way to get scientists into industry would be to (wait for it) …talk to science students. Professors mentoring graduate students do a lousy job of connecting students uninterested in academia with suitable industry positions. Where the problem is difficult for graduate students, it’s hopeless for undergrads. There are tons of disaffected scientists who would love a better paying job (ahem), if companies want workers it seems they should be pretty easy to drum up. Then again, it would probably be more profitable to maintain that we need more scientists to keep the labor market saturated and wages relatively low. If that fails, China produces an awfully large number of damn fine scientists every year. This is sounding pretty cynical, but it’s coming from experience.Report

  4. North says:

    Nice thoughtful post E.D.
    It seems to me like the problem we’re having is one of transition. The climate scientists have for the most part successfully demonstrated that global warming exists to some sort of degree and furthermore that it’s being caused by human activity. The problem I see is with them handing off the ball because many of the questions that this raises are mostly ones that climate scientists can’t answer (or rather can’t answer well, they’re happy to opine on the subject of course). What will be the effects of AGW on the planet? Those are questions they can credibly answer. The problem is that there are more questions than that; what will the costs of the changes AGW causes be to us in the future; what would it cost us to halt or reverse AGW now? Which one of these costs is greater? Those aren’t questions that the climate scientists can answer. It’s a question for economists.

    Who is responsible for AGW? Who should pay to prevent it? How do we opportune the costs? Those are questions for maybe moral leaders or politicians or all of us.

    The problem of course is that no one wants to admit the limits of their own knowledge. So we are treated to the spectacle of economists waxing on about climate science; climate scientists raving about politics and politicians acting like they know anything about economics (and every combination in between).Report

  5. North says:

    Oh and also, the staggering ignorance of the commenters on Kleiman’s piece on the subject of nuclear power is so thick it makes my head hurt. Just to feed my hobby horse.Report

  6. Kyle says:

    Separate from my earlier criticism, I should point out that I complete agree with your points about China and India. Significantly altering our own behavior without commitments from them amounts to do-nothing handicap.

    Moreover a lot of environmental critics misunderstand both their motivation and our relationships with those countries when they insist, respectively, that they are callous polluters with no regard for the environment, and that North Atlantic leadership on this issue will pressure or encourage the Asian giants.

    However, one thing that I think we’re likely to see is Chinese leadership in the development (and particularly investment) of alternative fuel production. Unlike the US, Europe, and India, China’s capitalist autocracy will be much quicker in adopting, retrofitting, and implementing changes than we are. Rather than selling green tech to China, we may find China selling it to us.Report

  7. alkali says:

    This is just silly. You’ve mixed up two issues. Whether burning fossil fuels contributes to global warming has no significant effect on whether the market prices of fossil fuels will go up or down.Report