Second best tomorrow

It’s the right approach to both health care and climate change.

This bon mot is attributed to Sir Robert Watson-Watt, one of the parallel inventors of radar, and with his patron Sir Henry Tizard the scientific intelligence behind the creation of the RAF’s air defence system that allowed Fighter Command to win the 1940 Battle of Britain.  The Luftwaffe had equivalent, and better made, radars, but didn’t integrate them properly in their air defence system till around 1942.

It’s hard to overstate the value of Watson-Watt’s approach. By putting devices into production as soon as they worked, and upgrading when something better was developed, he could demonstrate continuous progress to his RAF and Air Ministry backers and keep them on board. Britain started building its chain of radar stations as early as 1937, giving time for development of the new command-and-control system it required.

The lesson applies most obviously to health care reform. The House Democrats can either adopt the second-best Senate bill en bloc, or commit political suicide. Can you see negotiating improvements with Lieberman and Nelson against the clock of Brown’s induction as a feasible alternative now?

It’s also true of climate change. On health care, only loss of nerve can stop the enactment. The Massachusetts election is a far worse blow to the world’s climate. It will prevent US action on cap-and-trade until the Senate Democrats summon up the courage to kill the filibuster and tell the Republicans to get out of the f*ing way of the popular will. (Yes, they should stop being so polite as well. Gentility is for gallant losers, Tim Henmans not Andy Murrays.) Obama and the Democrats in Congress have every reason now to go for a strong bill, force the Republicans to actually filibuster it, and campaign in November against their nihilism.

So I have no sympathy with the perfectionist rearguard action against cap-and-trade and for a carbon tax. Take my co-blogger Michael O’Hare:

The right cap is at the level where marginal cost of further reduction equals marginal benefit thereof, so we have to know where these lines cross and keep updating them (and adjusting the cap) as things change.

But that’s precisely the one number we do have! It’s the 2°C maximum acceptable increase in global mean temperature, agreed at Copenhagen. This corresponds to about 1 trillion tonnes of carbon. The estimate surely needs more work, but it’s a question of scientific fact not policy. So the cumulative carbon cap is 1 trn tons, give or take a few 100 billion, from now to eternity. You can either allocate the lot now or phase in a cap over time gradually by guesswork.

Now this is about as sensible as real policy can get. The 2°C and the 1 trn tonnes are probably both wrong and should, as Mike says. ideally be adjusted over time, though this would be very difficult and probably won’t happen. But it’s absurd to reject the one little political beachhead we have – the consensus to limit global warming to 2°C, from which we can work out the caps – because the cap number is iffy, and an ideal carbon tax could pose less cognitive demands on the Guardians. You go with what you have, using the imperfect approach that has the widest backing. BTW, I still think the Guardians are a possibility, made more likely by Sen. Centerfold.

In the immortal words of Brigadier-General Theodore Roosevelt (jr) on Utah Beach on D-Day, when the first wave of the of the US 4th Infantry Division had come ashore safely but a mile adrift of the right place according to the plan:

We’ll start the war from here.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

8 thoughts on “Second best tomorrow”

  1. "On health care, only loss of nerve can stop the enactment."

    Sometimes, of course, a loss of nerve is the most rational response you could have.

    "and tell the Republicans to get out of the f*ing way of the popular will."

    Given the state of the polls, I suppose you must be positing a popular will that's distinct from what the population wills.

  2. True indeed Brett. My thoughts exactly. Anyone who thinks Republicans are now standing in the way of the "popular will" is a person who lives on some planet far away and probably has the brains of a second grader. The popular will does not want some costly healthcare bill shoved down their throats by hypocrite politicians and far-out academic snobs. The popular will does not want cap and trade. Don't make a mockery of science or common sense. Face the facts. "Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts." So get over your sniffling, look to get behind some politicians that are in touch with the majority will of this country, and stop trying to sell bogus propoganda as science. And for my fellow conservatives out there, last night taught us that "yes we can". Great Scott!

  3. Well, here's the same response I made to Mike: One of the letters said ‘a cap-and-trade solution introduces a carbon ceiling and the price acts as no more than a useful barometer of how close we are to achieving that goal; prices will tend to zero as the requisite level of emission reductions is achieved.’ I think this misses the nature of carbon emissions: one day, one week, one year is not the problem. It is our actions over time. And once you have put in place a carbon tax and the bureaucracy to collect it, if the tax one year yields too much, or too little, emission – you need simply to raise or lower it the next year. Iteratively, you get it right.

    The other letter pishtushed the idea that cap-and-trade systems are more vulnerable to capture by the polluters. It’s hard to think how to respond better to this claim than to look at the roster of carve-outs (for agriculture, for making ethanol, for power generation) which have been thoughtfully inserted in the current bill. One could certainly make exemptions from tax to take care of Archer Daniels Midland, but they would be more conspicuous than the current cap/trade special provisions.

  4. In a democracy the popular will is expressed in elections, not opinion polls, which show a roughly even split on the plan and have for months. You can't interpret the MA election as a referendum on health care because Massachusetts already has roughly what the bill offers everybody else; and even if it were, there's no reason to let one state have a veto over national policy.

    I read the election as a natural protest against a Democratic administration and Congress that can't get stuff done, mainly because of a spineless acceptance of the Republican abuse of the Senate filibuster. The American electorate voted in, by large majorities, a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress with a clear commitment to health reform. They are supposed to actually do this, not go into a girly swoon at a reverse. The equivalent would have been General Roosevelt ordering his men back into their landing craft and trying again to reach the "right place". Bah.

  5. Dave Schutz: "And once you have put in place a carbon tax and the bureaucracy to collect it, if the tax one year yields too much, or too little, emission – you need simply to raise or lower it the next year. Iteratively, you get it right."

    Who is the "you" here? The executive committee of the Kyoto replacement treaty? The US Senate?

    We have one shot at getting this right. There will not be any iterations unless it fails completely.

  6. James Wimberly: and that's why the income tax is the same rate today as it was ten years ago? Social Security tax is the same 2% today that it was in 1937, right?

    We regularly raise and lower tax rates. "We" the US Congress. There are plausible reasons to prefer cap & trade, yours is not one of them.

  7. Wimberley said:

    "In a democracy the popular will is expressed in elections, not opinion polls, which show a roughly even split on the plan and have for months." The opinion poll to which you refer asked about an indefinite health care bill ("a health care bill") yet you interpret that as referring to the actual legislation sought by Democrats ("the plan"). Please explain your basis for equating "a bill" with "the plan." Please find a poll showing the electorate is indifferent to the payoffs (Nebraska, Louisiana and the Unions, just to namea few) and lack of transparency with which Obamacare was fashioned?

    Moreover, the analogy to radar is ill conceived. One can tell if radar works based on testing. Pray tell what criteria and tests have you conducted to determine that "the plan" or any of its variations "works."

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