The Public be Damned


“Face Mask” by shibuya246 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The logic behind medical face masks was never obscure.  When you sneeze or cough, droplets with virus are largely contained rather than spread.  That logic is clear and confirmed by statistics.

Who knows what Trump thinks, but the Republican Party certainly includes people capable of understanding that sentence.  Such people had a choice.  They knew they could save the country from a serious and completely unnecessary health risk, but they chose the political opportunities of divisiveness instead.

They made that choice.  Face masks had nothing to do with how quickly we were reopening the economy.   Many thousands will die for it.

This is hardly the first case of “public be damned” behavior.  But it is a very pure one.

The Green New Deal is Our Moment


“Earth” by kristian fagerström is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The name “Green New Deal” has become more apt than ever.  It was always a good idea to emphasize that fighting climate change can bring important benefits elsewhere in society.  However, post Covid-19 the name means more.

We’re in a deep hole, and both “New Deal” and “Green” are now policy imperatives.  That means we have to think more broadly about what the Green New Deal needs to be.  A new New Deal with a climate focus is the way out.

This isn’t a matter of changing the legislation but of realizing its aspirations.  There is much that was left deliberately unspecified in the initial draft.  Here are some suggestions for what there needs to be.

  1. We need a national plan.

The two recent stimulus measures (whatever their value) are examples of what we cannot afford to keep doing—quickly hacked-together combinations of incomplete and conflicting policies with problems in implementation.

Green New Deal is huge undertaking.  The climate side alone is a combination of many rapidly-changing technologies with major architectural choices and all sorts of issues with competing interests and local versus national administration.  In the new scope we have even more to do in making sure that our choices deliver economic and social benefits.  Business isn’t going to do it.  State and local interests aren’t going to do it.

The Green New Deal proposal already talks about modernizing the electrical grid.  That’s important but not the whole story.  We need a comprehensive plan including priorities at each stage of development. That effort needs to be funded, competent, and free of corruption.  It will take an organization charged with planning (starting even now) and a feedback process to work with all constituencies.

  1. Don’t limit the scope of jobs.

It’s true that fighting climate change will create many jobs.  But that was never the end of the story.  The country needs infrastructure of all kinds—and not just roads and bridges.  Education and healthcare are infrastructure too.  We don’t need make-work or “universal basic income” to stimulate the recovery; we just need the work that needs to be done.

The American Society of Civil Engineers keeps a website with a breakdown of national infrastructure requirements.  We currently rate a D+, and the inventory of problems is long.  We also need to restore our much-diminished upward mobility, through education and healthcare as mentioned but also with more mundane needs such as public transportation.  As a practical matter we also need daycare.

We also need to worry about the negative side—job loss.  The changes in fighting climate change will be significant; you only have to think how many people will be affected by the move to electric cars.  We have to guarantee that people will be made whole and plan how we’re going to do it.

  1. This really can be a locomotive for social justice.

The original New Deal was also conscious of this kind of goal, for example in bringing all regions of the country into the 20th century.  However its impact was more limited in matters of race or national origin.  For those we needed an even bigger national project—the mobilization of the population in World War II—to achieve some success (though blacks were explicitly excluded).  For many groups US history divides neatly into before and after World War II.

World War II was enough of a success to say it can be done.  The Green New Deal has to provide equal opportunity for everyone—again without corruption.  Fighting both climate change and a depression will require all of our resources in another nationwide battle against an existential threat.  Everyone has a part.

  1. This isn’t the 1930’s (any more than it was the 1950’s).

MAGA was a failed attempt to return the US to the 1950’s.  The failure was explicit: manufacturing was in recession before the virus hit, and essentially no jobs were ever brought home.  We have to be careful not to make a similar mistake about the 1930’s. This is a different economy.  As we’ve noted before, the transition of the US economy from manufacturing to services is a long-term trend with strong reasons to continue.

More and more companies are functionally software companies—with no skilled manufacturing career paths.  Amazon’s warehouse workers are not on track to the corporate offices in Seattle.  We can raise the minimum wage, but no combination of tariffs or other government policies is going to change the need to educate everyone for the good jobs that will exist.  We need a safety net and stronger unions, but above all we need to give people the tools to succeed.

We also need to think about government revenue in a different way.  Software companies are different—there is a strong tendency to monopoly, and cost of production is much less of an issue than product differentiation. Successful companies will tend to be highly international and with monopoly power.   The high profit margins and barriers to competition mean they should be taxable, but–as amply demonstrated by Apple—it’s seriously hard to do it.  That’s an international problem that needs to be solved.

  1. Don’t shortchange the international side.

Discussions of climate change tend to be parochial—solar panels on the house, then state issues, then national issues, and usually not beyond.  It’ll be tough to get carbon neutral, but then our job will be done; it’s up to everyone else to do the same.

In fact international issues are at least as important.  We control at most 15% of what happens to our atmosphere.  Our per capita energy consumption is twice anyone else’s, and we are by most measures the richest country in the world; it’s simply not going to happen that the rest of the world will just take care of itself.  We will need to be involved internationally, both for the underlying technologies and for their deployment.

The only international framework that exists for climate is the Paris Agreement.  That is entirely based on voluntary compliance in service of a common need.  There is no other mechanism.  We can’t bomb or tariff our way out of it.  We have to make it work.  Solving climate is a cooperative venture.

At worst this is a mess.  At best it is a model for international cooperation in other areas as well (trade, labor standards, taxation, environment standards).  The unanimity of the Paris Agreement was a major achievement of the Obama people.  The collapse of discussions since we opted out shows the risk.

  1. Need to create ongoing institutions.

For any activity with a fixed target—such as keeping carbon dioxide under the scientists’ limit—there is a tendency to think of reaching a new era where problems will finally be behind us. That’s a dangerous mindset.  For one thing it can produce a kind of eco-paralysis—with so many problems to be solved at once that you can’t make progress on anything.  (The recent Michael Moore movie is a symptom.)

More generally we have to recognize that even though we’re solving an existential problem for mankind, that will still leave plenty to do.  Having enough clean energy will help in many areas, but even for the environment we won’t finish all the problems we know.  And there will always be new issues beyond that.  So part of the job is making sure we will have the right institutions to go forward.

On the domestic side that means strengthening the regulatory agencies we have, and determining what is missing.  It’s possible that we will need more direct federal supervision or even operation of the power grid, for example.  We certainly need decades worth of large-scale spending on energy research.

On the international side there is also much to be done.  It should be recognized that the Covid-19 crisis was less an act of God than a failure of international governance.  China’s quarantine of Wuhan should have been matched by coordinated actions of other countries throughout the world.  That such an obvious consequence didn’t happen shows the vacuum created by the US abdication of power.  It also shows how we cause ourselves to suffer.

Most international institutions were our creation.  We had learned that the best way to exercise power was with rules we were willing to obey for ourselves.  We’ve now rejected that approach.  However, as a country, we have actual historical experience with such a situation.  The Articles of Confederation after the Revolutionary War almost destroyed the US before it could get started.  The solution was not more chaos, but an appropriate structure for success.

There’s another historical parallel worth mentioning.  After the second World War the US experienced unprecedented prosperity brought on in part by our rebuilding of Europe, including Germany.  The Marshall Plan paid real dividends.  The world has a similar opportunity in the developing middle classes of China, India, Korea, and elsewhere.  Instead we’re fighting a non-productive economic war with China that neither country will win, but virtually everyone will lose.  That’s not to say we have no issues with China, but in our eagerness for war we’ve shot ourselves in the foot.


The Green New Deal has become the defining task for our national moment.  For many issues—economic, political, racial, environmental, international—it represents a coherent way forward.  It is not the same task as the original New Deal, but certainly as challenging in its scope.  We have to recognize that we have it in our power to create a bright future for ourselves and for humanity.  The founding fathers of this country rose to their occasion.  Will we?


The Coronavirus Message for Climate

Since the coronavirus is at the top of everyone’s consciousness, there has been a lot written about what the coronavirus experience has to say on a great many issues.  After a while you start to get numb.  However for climate change the parallels are so explicit and telling that they need to be understood.  The argument in this piece is not new, but it’s worth spelling out in detail.

The coronavirus shows just how hard it is for us as a country—or as a world—to act ahead of a disaster even when the evidence is clear.  We were unprepared when the crisis came, because we just didn’t want to believe it could happen.  Our reluctance not to believe was of course encouraged by players (foreign and domestic) who felt there was something to be gained by delay.

The result is measured both by the numbers of dead and by the economic consequences of the drastic measures taken to stop the exponential growth of cases and deaths.  In the US that means on the order of 100,000 deaths and the worst job loss since the great Depression.  The weeks of delay made this situation exponentially worse.  You can argue about the details, but there is no question that failure to act early cost us dearly on both counts.  We’ll muddle through, but badly wounded.

The parallels to climate change are explicit—but for climate the muddling through is no sure thing.  There are two primary points:

  1. CO2 in the atmosphere just adds up—which means that whatever problems finally force us to act will keep getting worse until we can manage to stop fossil fuels completely.  In other words from whatever time we recognize a crisis, we will be locked-in for many further years of worsening crisis.
  2. That’s even worse than it sounds because—as with epidemics—there is an exponential growth aspect here too.  To see this we’ll start with the example of hurricanes.  For hurricanes, the damages in the wind-speed categories are such that each step makes the previous look trivial.  In other words, as wind speed grows in a regular, linear way, damage goes up exponentially.

We can go farther.  Added carbon dioxide leads to regular increases in water temperature and corresponding regular increases in wind speed—which leads in turn to exponential increases in damage. So as the amount of carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere, the impact of each further ton becomes spectacularly worse.

This isn’t just a matter of hurricanes; it’s typical for damage.  For floods you go from marginal areas affected to major cities.  In any category you can think of, damage goes up exponentially.  The bottom line is that for all those years of lock-in, every additional ton of carbon dioxide we add to the atmosphere will pack a wallop.  This is the stuff of nightmares.

In other words, as with the coronavirus, delay makes the problem exponentially worse.  The latest climate report gives us the timescale.  To avoid catastrophic consequences CO2 production needs to drop 45%  by 2030 and reach 0 by 2050.

We couldn’t get ourselves to believe the coronavirus would really happen, and climate disaster is even further from our past experience.  So the tendency to disbelieve is even stronger.  And there are plenty of well-connected, interested players out to convince us to wait.  The oil companies and their allies are doing quite a good job of it.  Pence and Pompeo, for example, are Koch organization soldiers in a Trump organization out to sabotage all efforts to control climate change.  Another indication of oil company power is Harvard University’s recent announcement of a commitment to fight climate change—by making their investment portfolio carbon-neutral starting in 2050, the year when the scientists say we need to be done!

That’s where we are.  Climate change is the coronavirus on a bigger scale.  It’s much more dangerous and with even more powerful forces out to convince us to wait, and wait, until it’s too late to matter anymore.  We’ve been warned.



Back to Normal from Covid-19

There has been much discussion of how to manage Covid-19 virus infections during the return to normal life.  There are many issues, but one in particular stands out for comment.

That issue comes from the much-noted age dependence of the virus death rate.  By now we’ve had plenty of experience of how this works.  For people under 50, the Covid-19 risk is similar to normal flu.  50-60 means more risk but still relatively small.  Over 60 it starts getting significantly worse, with the death rate more or less doubling for each ten years of age.  Pre-existing conditions make matters worse, but the age effect is still huge.  (There may be other categories of people worthy of attention, but that’s beyond the scope here.)

Overall reducing the death rate is primarily a matter of reducing the death rate for older people.  However, as a practical matter, focusing on the elderly is quite a big job.   If we’re going to protect the elderly from the virus at the very least we need to:  find them all, deliver food and other goods for them, assure fully-competent staff and daily testing at nursing homes.   No one is currently doing that.  On the contrary, death rates at nursing homes are scandalous, and individuals are largely left to manage themselves.  In Massachusetts as of this writing 610 of 1245 deaths were from nursing homes. Our extra hour of food shopping reserved for people over 60 is hardly a solution.

For the first bout with Covid-19 there has been neither the time nor the testing capability for such a strategy.  The countries that originally opted for “herd immunity”—with whatever they could do to protect the elderly—had to back off because of deaths.  The only alternative to catastrophe was to limit the spread of the virus in the population as a whole.  (There is a whole subculture of right-wing columnists claiming there was never a reason for the shutdowns, because it’s just a “simple” problem of isolating the elderly—without any proposals at all for how to do it.  For people who don’t go for that, there’s a different subculture dedicated to the proposition that the Covid-19 virus was never a problem to begin with!)

The point of this note is to recognize that the situation is different for the return to normality.  A focus on the elderly is both an obligation and an opportunity.  The obligation is that we just have to start doing a better job of protecting them.  It may be a logistical nightmare (only 5% of people aged 65+ are in nursing homes), but it’s a well-defined problem to be addressed with time, money, and commitment.  Testing is getting better.  It might even take the National Guard.  But we can certainly make things better if we start now.  We can call the right-wing’s bluff and spend the money to do it.

The opportunity of course is that reducing the elderly death rate will help ride through the ups and downs in new Covid-19 cases as people come back into the workforce.  People will still be getting sick, but children can go to school and parents can go to restaurants without risking anyone’s lives.  Whatever money is spent will be earned back in transition time.

This has to happen, it has to be fully-funded, and it has to start now.  “Flattening the curve” was essential to surviving the first onslaught of the virus.  For the return to normality, it’s “protecting the elderly” that will keep a difficult process going.

Short and Long Term Issues for Climate Change

In addressing climate change, one problem is that short and long term issues are not always the same.  As we’ve noted before, conservation is a legitimate short-term issue but not a primary long-term goal.

You can go a step farther with that:  there is technology we don’t want at all long-term that is still the best we’ve got for now.  That’s not just a matter of saving a little extra carbon dioxide; more importantly it’s buying time.

What the scientists have given us is not so much a schedule as a carbon budget—how much CO2 we can produce without irretrievable harm.  Many of the technologies we need to get off of fossil fuels completely are not 100% up to snuff.  What that means is that we can’t jump immediately into what we see as the right solution—more money won’t help.  That means accepting non-optimal technologies that cut some CO2 now.

Cutting CO2 buys time.  We need that time.

Here’s are a few areas that need work.  It’s too easy to wish them away:

– Electric cars are still too expensive and slow-charging to replace current technology.  This is a little like self-driving cars—the expectations have gotten ahead of the reality.

– Solar and wind may be cheap, but they’re not everywhere and not all the time.  For electric power generation that’s a problem.  In-network power storage is not up to the task of twenty-four hour operation.  With the current US grid, solar power in Arizona is not going to drive the rest of the country.

As an example, California’s aggressive deployment of solar electricity has forced external contracting to handle power peaks.  Currently the peaks are supplied by CO2-intensive fossil fuel plants in nearby states.

Local power generation can displace some residential and commercial demand, but at best that’s only 10% of the picture:


– For heavy industry—steel and cement for example—CO2 production is not just a matter of power consumption, it’s intrinsic to the industrial processes.  There are no simple solutions to change that.  Flue-based carbon capture just has to get better.  (Direct air capture of CO2—despite much enthusiastic press—is even farther off.)

Prospects for fixing all of this are good, but we’ve got to buy time to get there.  That means taking steps with what we’ve got now.  Here are a few examples:

– We should think more about hybrid cars.  That’s increasingly cheaper technology, it saves considerable gas, and recent plug-in hybrids save more (perhaps leading even to upgradeable batteries).   The biggest problem with the technology is that, despite improving sales, we’re still not selling enough of it.  Initial carbon pricing should be aimed at universal hybrid penetration.  Tesla is great, but it’s not going to have a big enough impact now.

– Replacement of coal by gas saves 50% of CO2 production.  There aren’t always alternatives, for the reasons listed above.  Furthermore, lumping all fossil fuels together makes it easy to excuse coal.  When Germany and Japan closed nuclear plants, they didn’t go to gas, they went to coal.

While we’re currently seeing more growth of CO2 emissions with gas than with coal, it’s easy to draw the wrong conclusion.  Coal and oil still represent the vast part of CO2 production, and any replacement is a win.


– Carbon capture is unavoidable.  The first focus is on flue-based technologies, even if direct air capture is sexier.  This needs real money, because the industrial sector is huge worldwide.

To those items we should add one more difficult bit of reality:  the US needs a vastly improved national electric power network as a near-term prerequisite for much future work.  That means more high-voltage power interconnections.  That in turn means dealing with environmental issues and protection for the poorer neighborhoods that normally bear the brunt of such things.  One way or another this has to be made to happen, even though it involves competing concerns.

All of this underlines the need for a real plan—with both domestic and international aspects.  That needs to be a step-by-step prescription for what we should do about climate change.  That is what money needs to be spent on what technologies when and where.  For all their strengths, neither the Green New Deal nor the CCL’s carbon pricing is anything like a comprehensive plan.

Carbon pricing in particular remains a source of considerable confusion.  Since it is a critical component, we end with a few comments to avoid misunderstanding.

– Carbon pricing has to be a clear signal to industry of where the world is going.  It may start relatively low (as we’ve just discussed), but planned increases must send the message that the fossil fuel world is ending.  We need to get to at least $100 a ton in 5-10 years.  As such, proposals of $40 a ton with only nominal increases (coming from oil industry sources among others) are dead on arrival.  Carbon pricing is not good or bad in the abstract; it’s good or bad based on the numbers.

– Carbon pricing is not a tax, it’s killing a silent subsidy.  Carbon in the atmosphere costs all of us money in current and future climate change disasters.  Keeping it free represents an annual subsidy to the fossil fuel industry in the US of approximately $1T yearly (lower numbers are based on flawed cost models and just plain wrong).  That huge perversion of the economy has to end.  The money belongs to the public; it’s not there for the taking.  It needs to be given back in a way that mitigates the regressive effect of higher oil prices.  If we need more money for climate change or anything else, that needs to be done through the tax and budgeting system.  That’s where we make decisions about who pays.

– Carbon pricing will not solve all problems.  Government has many active roles to play, for example in putting together the new national electric power infrastructure that will be critical for progress.  Also government will need to address the enormous social consequences of remaking the economy.  We need to have carbon pricing to prevent perversion of the economy, but it’s only one element in a comprehensive plan.


The True Cost of CO2

It seems perfectly reasonable.  Each ton of CO2 added to the atmosphere causes damage.  We can estimate that damage by looking at what’s happening.

The Obama administration went through that exercise in some detail to justify environmental protection measures—and came up with $42 per ton.  The Trump administration people reduced that number to less than $7 and increased the future discounting factor from 3% to 7%.  That’s certainly a problem.

However the $42 figure is also wrong, and the whole notion of a dollar cost of CO2 undermines much of the discussion of the costs of climate change.

One way to see that is to look at the language we use to talk about hurricanes.  For starters I’m going to reference the usual storm class definitions:


As the wind speed increases, the damage rises by orders of magnitude.   At each stage the damage rises to such a degree that damage at the previous level becomes negligible.  There is no single number that tells you how much extra damage you’re going to get from a 5 mph increase in wind speed—it gets dramatically worse with each stage.  This is basically an exponential model; it is certainly not multiplication of windspeed by a number appropriate for category 1.

You can see how this argument plays with climate.  Starting with hurricanes, we have a basically linear relation of CO2 concentration and water surface temperature:


And essentially the same is true for water surface temperature and maximum windspeeds. To that gets added the exponential relation of windspeed with damage.  Put it all that together and you get an exponential relationship between added CO2 and hurricane damage.

The same kind of relationship holds for almost any kind of climate damage you can think of.  Sea level rise first affects marginal districts but then more and more of mainstream society.  Droughts first affect marginal areas and gradually more and more of the breadbasket.  Health threats first affect the most vulnerable but eventually everyone.   Accelerating costs are the rule, not the exception.

How does this affect how we think about costs of climate change?  In fact we’re missing most of the damage.  The cost of a ton of carbon today has two components:  the costs that we measure today and the extra damage incurred by raising the CO2 level for all subsequent tons of CO2.  That second part is what you won’t get with any fixed value for the cost of CO2.  It may be harder to calculate, but it’s ultimately the main thing—because it’s adding CO2 that gets us to catastrophe.  We’re missing the step-ups in the hurricane example.

There’s a weird dichotomy between the science and the cost models.  On one hand we have scientific studies about truly catastrophic consequences of going beyond a global temperature increase of 1.5 degree C—even to 2.0 degrees C—and on the other hand we have the fixed value of $42 per ton.  In the second case we’re not charged for contributing to glacial melting that can’t be stopped before inundating both Bangladesh and Manhattan.  It’s beyond ludicrous that we’re applying discounting factors to future costs but not charging for the long-term consequences of that ton of CO2 that remains in the atmosphere!

For now the only viable number for the cost of a ton of CO2 in the atmosphere is actually how much it will cost to take it back out.  That number is currently about $1000 a ton. There are many people trying to do better; the current (undoubtedly overoptimistic) estimate is about $150 per ton.  That’s the lower bound.

Believe the scientists.  A catastrophe is a catastrophe.  You can’t make it go away with cost models that sweep it all under the rug.

The Coronavirus and the Limits of Capitalism


“Lankenau Hospital” by Montgomery County Planning Commission licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s easy to look at the coronavirus as a one of a kind.  After all, who expected this cataclysm that came from nowhere?   How could anyone have predicted it?

In fact the world is full of low-probability events that you have to care about.   The coronavirus is on a par with airplane crashes and oil-rig explosions.  Capitalism is not good at dealing with any of them.

There’s a myth about that sort of thing.  Of course we don’t need airline or aircraft regulation, because the companies in question know what a disaster would mean and will take care that such things don’t happen.  That’s a nice story, but it’s false.   People don’t get promoted because of events that didn’t happen.  They do get promoted by saving money wasted on something that’s never going to occur.

If you’re going to stop that sort of thing from happening, you need a different mindset.  Government has to spend money on regulation and public health and safe, comprehensive infrastructure.   No one else is going to do it.  We now know unequivocally that we decided we didn’t have to care about the CDC.  It has come back to haunt us.  There’s more where that came from.

In fact there’s a whole bunch of other things we’ve decided we don’t have to care about.  After all, “I don’t have to care” has been the liberating elixir of our age.  Many of these we’ve talked about before, but it’s worth recalling some here:

Climate change

Avoiding a depression (clearly relevant now)

Nuclear proliferation

Losing our edge in science and technology

We’ve washed our hands of all of this, blithely punting to a private sector that is no more prepared than for the coronavirus.

The message from the coronavirus is that bad things really can happen, no matter how much we may want to avoid thinking about them.

The coronavirus is the canary in the mine.   We’ll get over it somehow, but we’ve had our warning.

The Next 5G


The scandal of the mobile 5G affair is not that the Europeans refused to give in to Trump administration pressure to cease all purchases from Huawei.  Who knows how bad the security issue is—the Trump people have no specific examples—but the main point is that we have no alternatives to propose.  We dropped the ball.  That’s the scandal.

The scandal is real.  Not only are there no 5G infrastructure products to recommend, but deployment of 5G equipment in our own networks is well-behind other countries.  (The TV ads for 5G are for limited and pre-standard implementations.)  That means we will be similarly late with the 5G applications that should be our bread and butter.  That’s an infrastructure problem.  Government is not doing its job.

This is happening all over the place.  Climate change is an obvious example.  The US has singularly low gasoline prices and no thought of carbon pricing.  For the auto industry we’re even rolling back fuel efficiency standards.  We’ve created an environment where US companies cannot use the US market to achieve world status.  Tesla—our shining light in this area—is the exception that proves the rule:  created with Obama seed capital and almost forced out of business.  The Chevy Bolt is a South Korean technology product.  China is already building a 21st century electrical backbone.  It’s all a great big 5G.

We ourselves have proved over and over again that government needs to lead—before there’s profit to be had.  Sure we’re now funding AI, but that’s late in the game.  By contrast the Energy Department research budget is nowhere near what’s needed:  next year—for the first time—we are funding work on in-network electrical power storage.  Research universities were specifically hit by Trump’s 2017 tax plan.

Dominant countries have a tendency to believe their position was given by God.  (My favorite example is the 17th century Brits who wasted fortunes looking for gold in South America, because they couldn’t believe God would have given it all to the Spanish!)  It’s all too easy to get complacent, and with the ever-more-powerful Evangelicals it’s even doctrine.  In the current technology environment, our ascendance could disappear in a heartbeat.  We’ve got to stop believing in our divine anointment (and also stop counting our aircraft carriers on defense).

Our business-minded leaders need a business metaphor.  As a country we’ve gotten ourselves stuck in a harvesting strategy—with all the benefits flowing (literally!) straight to the investors.   We’d better get back to reinvesting for growth.