Saturday, August 07, 2010

No positive social changes allowed

via Dave Roberts at Grist, there's a debate that I think encapsulates a lot of our current problems. Basically, a number of conservatives at The American Scene were arguing over carbon taxes. Jim Manzi, a conservative who basically gets way too much credit from polite liberals, responded with a number of arguments against a carbon tax.
1. Europe is a huge, advanced market that has had these taxes for decades while internal combustion has remained a very stable technology, and people have continued to make choices from among broadly pre-existing technologies such as mass transit, bicycles, walking and so forth.

2. Even if other conditions mean that we can now create qualitatively different technical innovation in the near future, Europe provides a big enough market to induce this, and there is no obvious reason why the incremental market that would be provided by the U.S. would make much difference.
Argument 1 is true, but irrelevant as for all but the last six years really, fuel taxes have been in the context of a market where oil was still, by a very very far margin, the cheapest source of energy around. (With the obvious exception of the oil shocks which preceded Europe's regime of fuel taxes.)

Argument 2 is kind of funny for a conservative, because it basically casts the US as a free rider on European innovation--or, to put it another way, America is an environmental welfare bum, and Manzi doesn't mind.

Now, people responded by saying that despite Manzi, Europe has responded to higher fuel taxes in a variety of ways, largely summed up by "doing things in less fuel-intense ways". (Smaller vehicles, more transit and bike use, etc.)

Manzi's response really has to be seen to be believed:
This strikes me as, at best, a word game. I understand that innovation is not identical to invention. But this is like saying that in response to an increase in the price of peanut butter, I “innovated” by making smaller sandwiches and eating ham-and-cheese more often (while noting that I designed these new sandwiches very well, and am probably healthier anyway with less peanut butter in my diet). If by “innovation” in response to higher gas prices, we mean switching to smaller cars and taking the bus and riding bicycles more often, then I agree entirely that higher gas prices in the U.S. will induce innovation.
First of all, I think Manzi's grasp of basic nutrition is about as bad as his grasp of climate change: he thinks switching to a meat-and-cheese diet from peanut butter would be better for him?

That aside, Manzi--who, sadly, is one of the few US conservatives who doesn't dismiss climate change outright--is basically saying here that the easiest, cheapest, most reliable way of reducing carbon pollution (doing the same or more with less carbon) doesn't count as far as he's concerned. These are forms of innovation, but for a US conservative, if it doesn't involve nuclear-powered fuel cell Hummers, it's just hippie socialism.

This isn't just a doctrinaire conservative viewpoint, either. I always think of this as the "Wired fallacy"--after their truly horrible article on nuclear power a few years back. It's basically the bog standard popular US view on science and technology: don't bother changing behaviours--technology will do it for us.

Of course, we change our behaviours all the time in response to new technologies, so why we shouldn't anticipate that has always boggled me.

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