John McCain invents dry water

… otherwise known as a non-mandatory cap-and-trade system.

Umm … Senator?

If there’s no actual cap on greenhouse-gas emissions &#8212 a binding cap, that companies actually have to comply with, rather than just a helpful hint &#8212 then there’s nothing for companies to trade. A voluntary cap-and-trade system is like dry water.

It’s hard to tell how much of McCain’s cranky-obtuse-and-forgetful-Grandpa personal is genuine, and how much of it is a shtick designed to allow him to be on both sides of all issues. Compared to clarity, it has huge tactical advantages for someone in McCain’s position: a solid conservative (in the debased current sense of that term) running for President of a country thoroughly tired of that brand of conservatism.

This way, the money-cons and market-idolaters and global-warming-deniers get the message that McCain doesn’t really plan to insist that we do what needs to be done to keep from cooking the planet. But people who like the idea of voting for a “moderate” in lieu of a Scary Black Man who will raise taxes on the rich still get to think (or to fool themselves into pretending that they thing) that McCain is a maverick who broke with party orthodoxy on climate change policy.

Update The McCain campaign is “clarifying”: apparently McCain means that there won’t be mandatory targets for renewable energy or caps for individual companies (that’s what the trading is about). Well, maybe that’s what he meant. But let’s look at the original Q & A:

QUESTION: The European Union has set mandatory targets on renewable energy. Is that something you would consider in a McCain administration? […]

MCCAIN: Sure. I believe in the cap-and-trade system, as you know. I would not at this time make those &#8212 impose a mandatory cap at this time. But I do believe that we have to establish targets for reductions of greenhouse gas emissions over time, and I think those can be met.

All right, maybe McCain meant mandatory targets for renewables, as specified in the question. But then why did he say “cap”? And what did he mean by “at this time”? The whole point of cap-and-trade is to get rid of detailed regulation, whether that means a quota for renewable energy or technical specifications or firm-level caps. It’s not as if you’d do cap-and-trade “at this time” and the other stuff later if it’s needed.

Hilzoy comments:

The best you can say for McCain, on this point, is that he is completely unfamiliar with what is supposed to be one of his signature issues. Not knowing what “mandatory cap” means, in this context, is like not knowing what a “strike” is in baseball. You might, if you wished, explain why you said you hoped your team got a lot of strikes by saying that you thought strikes were a good thing, like ‘striking gold’, or that you thought that ‘striking out’ indicated the beginning of a long journey around the bases, as in ‘striking out for the territories.’ That might even be what you meant. But if it were, that would show that you weren’t all that familiar with baseball.

Hilzoy also points out that McCain has done this before. An inability to recognize and correct mistakes is not an attractive quality in someone who wants to be President.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: