Saturday, August 25, 2018

Political Categories (to a rough, first approximation)


A liberal is someone who believes in individual rights and choice, limited government under the rule of law, and the possibility of incremental individual and social progress, viewing social programs (as Mill and Popper did) as experiments in problem-solving to be evaluated empirically. The overall size of government matters less than the actual policies, though many "classical" liberals (especially libertarians) believe that a smaller government will tend to yield fewer "government failures."(Sources: Various)

[NB. Strict libertarians might merit their own heading because, unlike virtually all liberals, they are not welfare-consequentialists; the only function they seek to maximize is individual freedom. This is a position they hold in common with anarchists, who are more properly designated as radicals, mainly because of what they are willing to do to achieve their desired outcome.]

A liberal position on eggs and omelettes: It is sometimes worth breaking a few eggs to make a tasty omelette; but omelettes sometimes turn out badly. Try to make only good omelettes, and avoid making a particular bad omelette more than once.


A conservative is someone who believes in individual rights and choice but constrained by larger social structures that provide order via law, culture, religion, and traditions. The status quo is likely preferable to even incremental change, though changing circumstances do sometimes require slight adjustments to the social order. The main job of government is maintenance of the social order. (Sources: Scruton, Oakeshott and others)

A conservative position on eggs and omelettes: Better to keep the eggs we already have than waste them making an omelette that probably will turn out badly, especially if it is not a traditional part of our cuisine.


A radical is someone who believes the current social order is vastly inferior to some conceivable society, usually Utopian in conception. They believe in large-scale and rapid policy changes on the understanding that those changes inevitably will improve on the status quo. They believe in social welfare, but are convinced they, the vanguard party, are the only ones who know how to maximize it. (Source: Marx and others)

A radical position on eggs and omelettes: We should break as many eggs as necessary to make an omelette that, as an irrebuttable presumption, will be wonderful, even if no one has ever before made such an omelette. The distribution of the omelette will be according to need, as determined by "Central Board of Omelette Distribution."

A reactionary is someone who believes the current social order is far worse than some mythic preexisting social order to which we should return, regardless of cost. What is "better" is what was. And it has little or nothing to do with overall social welfare. The reactionary vanguard knows what is best, based on folk myths. (Sources: Various fascists, white supremacists, etc.)

A reactionary position on eggs and omelettes: Life was so much better before our folk started, under the influence of "others," breaking eggs to make omelettes. We must purge such foreign influences. Our pure and homogeneous forebears, who were the best folk, ate only raw eggs, so that's what we must do. And, by all means, make sure they are all white eggs.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

New Article: "Environmental Instrument Choice in a Nonlinear World"

This new article is authored mainly by Kathy Gjerde and Peter Z. Grossman. I'm a coauthor because basically it was my idea, although Peter had a lot to do with refining the idea over two decades of discussions we've been having about it. In any case, I hope and trust this is a valuable addition to the literature. Here is a screenshot of the abstract. If you click on it, it will take you to the full article. I'm not sure whether it's freely accessible or behind a pay-wall.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

How Not to Think About the Unthinkable - Amitav Ghosh's "The Great Derangement"

For a class I'm sitting in on this semester, I read Amitav Ghosh's book, "The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable" (Chicago 2016), so that you don't have to. The book is, for the most part, a surprisingly conventional neo-Marxist diatribe against capitalism and imperialism, blaming both for the world's climate change problem while, for no obvious reason, claiming (rightly or wrongly I do not know) that fundamental Western scientific advances came from the East, mainly India. This seems to be an author with an axe to grind, and swing.

In the first place, the attack on capitalism is under-inclusive because socialist economic systems from the 20th century to today (in China) release far more greenhouse gases per unit of production than capitalist economic systems, where competitive market pressures to improve dynamic efficiency in production are constant. Both are parts of the "carbon" economy that, contrary to Ghosh's implications, is not a innovation of the industrial era but extends back to the use of fire for land-clearing and cooking by ancient hunter-gatherers and mining activities in early human settlements.

Ghosh also conveniently ignores, especially in his call for "climate reparations," the fact that global markets have cut the rate of abject poverty in the world by 50% since the beginning of the 20th century, and have the potential to eradicate it this century. Less developed countries in Africa and Asia are seeing some of the world's highest levels of economic growth and improvements in living standards and conditions. While inequality is increasing within advanced industrialized countries, it is falling between those countries and less-developed ones.

Of course, all of that economic advance could be for nought if problems relating to climate change are not seriously managed. The one thing Ghosh gets entirely right is that the climate change problem is every bit as serious as he claims. But his tired and worn ideological bromides are not going to help solve it (if it is to be solved at all).

Monday, August 13, 2018

An Enlightening Book About the Absence of an Islamic Enligtenment

The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times (Liveright 2017) is an engrossing and well-written book, though I feel a more accurate title would be, Some Modern Islamic Thinkers Have Been Enlightened. The notion that Enlightenment ideas and ideals might have prevailed, if only history had played out a bit differently in Muslim countries, seems overly fanciful.

The book is mainly a biographical history of many political players, including "modernizers," conservatives, and reactionaries. Rather than discussing how the ideas of various Muslim modernizers fit in with Western Enlightenment thinking, the author Christopher de Bellaigue simply equates "modernization"- or secularization - with Enlightenment. Of course, it's more complicated than that.
Bellaigue argues that one reason the Enlightenment did not take hold in Muslim societies is that it was not a natural, organic outgrowth from pre-Enlightenment thought, as it clearly was in the West (in the works of Hobbes and Spinoza, for example). But that also is too simple. Bellaigue himself notes that enlightenment-style roots were deeply buried in the classical Islamic civilization and culture of the 8th-11th century, including the ecumenical and progressive works of the Mutazilites and the faylasufs (philosophers), including Avicenna. I wish Bellaigue had written more about those early thinkers, who planted the seeds of a potential, authentic Islamic enlightenment. Unfortunately, by the ninth century reactionary, fundamentalist approaches to interpreting the Koran were already coming to the fore, and before long the slender roots of a truly Islamic enlightenment had dried up, remaining without water for several centuries.

Today, especially following the failures of the so-called "Arab Spring," to speak of an Islamic enlightenment seems so much wishful thinking. There is, of course, a large Muslim diaspora spread around the world, where a more enlightened, more cosmopolitan brand of Islam is practiced. Bellaigue has little to say about that modern diaspora, including the fact that it exists mainly because of the absence of social, political, and religious freedom in Muslim countries.

Whatever its defects, I learned a great deal from reading The Islamic Enlightenment, including important thinkers who previously were unfamiliar to me, such as Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, who asserted that "main was not created to be led by a bridle."

 Image result for islamic enlightenment

Friday, August 10, 2018

Radio Interview

A little over a week ago, I appeared as a guest on an interesting public radio program, out of Humboldt County, California, called "Thinking Clearly." The topic of the day was the problem of assessing risk and how technological development might make it easier for lay-persons, with little or no expertise, to access information on risks, benefits, and risk-risk trade-offs. Here is a link to the podcast.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

New Proposed EPA-DOT Rule on Fuel-Economy and GHG Emission Standards

Trump's EPA and DOT have just proposed a new combined rule that would freeze fuel-economy standards for motor vehicles through the 2026 model year and revoke California's waiver to adopt its own (more stringent) standards for CO2 emissions (because they are tantamount to fuel-economy standards, which fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government. 
If the proposal did nothing more than freeze fuel-economy standards, it would be (relatively speaking) a minor set-back for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction in US states, which could be reversed as early as 2020 (depending on the winner of the next presidential election). But the challenge to the EPA waiver is both dangerous and problematic as a matter of what Ann Carlson (UCLA Law) refers to as "interative federalism." In the past, California auto emission standards have always served as the model for future federal emission standards. 

Now, the Trump Administration says the US needs a complete "50-state solution" to the climate change problem -- a problem it officially pretends does not exist. So, California cannot be allowed to have its own program. This argument just doesn't hold water, however, for two reasons: (1) it is not supported by any language in the CAA, which specifically provides for the California waiver; and (2) EPA cannot possibly shut down other parts of California's comprehensive policy for reducing GHG emissions. Even without the waiver for automobile emissions for CO2, California's regulations of GHG emissions from stationary standards would remain intact. So, one ostensible purpose of the newly proposed EPA-DOT regulation can possibly be attained. 

In seeking to revoke the California waiver (initially denied by the Bush EPA before being granted by the Obama EPA) for CO2 emissions EPA makes a couple of more discrete arguments. For one, the agency argues that emission standards for CO2 are equivalent to fuel-economy standards, which fall within exclusive federal jurisdiction (i.e., California cannot set its own fuel-economy standards). This argument is overbroad, however, because the same is true of emission standards for CO and HC (see, e.g., California has had federal waivers for those two pollutants, without controversy, for many decades. Nevertheless, EPA will argue that those waivers, unlike the waiver for CO2, were necessary for California's special air-pollution problems.

Sec. 209 of the CAA specifies that the EPA administrator shall grant a waiver for California emission standards unless it finds that California:
  • was arbitrary and capricious in its finding that its standards are in the aggregate at least as protective of public health and welfare as applicable federal standards;
  • does not need such standards to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions; or
  • has proposed standards not consistent with Section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act.
In the past, the courts have consistently ruled that these statutory conditions warrant only a "soft glance." Indeed, every one of California's more than 100 waiver requests since 1967 have been granted (with the temporary exception of the Bush EPA denial of the CO2 waiver). Despite numerous legal challenges based on the statutory requirement of "compelling and extraordinary conditions," those waivers have been upheld on judicial review in every case.

But, as Bob Dylan wrote, "the times, they are a'changin'." The political center-of-gravity of the US Supreme Court is in the process of shifting substantially rightward. Whether it turns out to be Judge Kavanaugh or another nominee, the next Trump appointee will create a Supreme Court that is more conservative than any since the inception of federal environmental law. This is especially bad news because, as Richard Lazarus has argued, the Supreme Court has never really understood environmental law. Certainly, it has not (with a few notable exceptions) been very friendly to pro-environmental plaintiffs.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I fully expect that Trump's EPA will prevail in this case, regardless of the merits or any precedents that might exist.  The most supporters of the California waiver for CO2 can hope for is election of a Democratic president in 2020. After all, as every president since Ronald Reagan has taught us: what one president does through the (de)regulatory process, another can undo.

You can read the full text of the proposed EPA-DOT regulation here:

The preliminary regulatory impact analysis for the new proposed rule is here: