Should Books be “Inspirational”?

My Climatopolis takes some punches in this review by an urban planner.   Apparently, I am not funny. My wife and son disagree.   My book offers a free markets perspective on how urbanites  and their cities will fare in the face of uncertain climate change.  That’s ambitious and it hasn’t been done.    Our ability to form expectations over future uncertain scenarios and to make investments to protect ourselves makes me optimist that we can adapt to many of the challenges that climate change will pose.    Migration and innovation and how we rebuild our cities will go a long way to determine how we cope with this serious threat.  Whether government will be a “friend” or “foe” of adaptation remains an open question.   In the book, I  offer some nuanced ideas about the intended and unintended consequences of government actions (such as price ceilings on water) in helping us to adapt to this real and evolving threat. As I give keynote addresses about climate change adaptation, I am amazed that people are afraid to talk about this subject and view it to be “dangerous” to even broach the subject matter.   Adam Smith would find my book to be “inspirational”.   I have hoped that there is a group of intellectual moderates willing to consider unorthodox ideas and to debate me.  My critics forget that chapter 1 is called “Too Much Gas”.  I want mitigation now but I don’t expect it will happen and I need to know what will happen next.  Microeconomics offers several clues!

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

8 thoughts on “Should Books be “Inspirational”?”

  1. ‘Adam Smith would find my book to be “inspirational”’

    That is a really strange thing to say.

  2. I don’t think that review was especially negative. The author apparantly wasn’t enthralled with your writing style but I don’t think he disagreed with most of your substantive points. I think his biggest issue with the book was what he perceived to be an air of futility – that said, if you asked the critic what would happen if we do nothing (or nothing successful) to combat climate change he’d probably offer up you book as an excellent primer.

    I’m not sure who you’re rebutting with this post – this critic doesn’t need to be reminded that you have a chapter title “Too Much Gas,” he references your preference for a gas tax in the review. Maybe there are environmentally-minded critics out there who unfairly attack your book as right-wing nonsense, but I don’t think this guy is one of them.

  3. I agree with guy – not sure what the moping is about. Unless something magical happens, if things play out like Matt outlines – societies stupidly bumbling on in a Business As Usual mode until widespread regime shifts force us to change course – we’re going to have a hard landing. That’s the underlying scenario.

    That’s sorta depressing and the reviewer is looking for something more, like Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth or maybe Gus Speth’s latest. These two are actually realistic in their outlines and details for action. Moving to semi-arid Calgary, for example, or away from port cities isn’t a real prescription for adaptation, unless the prescription includes establishing fiefdom-like enclaves.

  4. Republican bully-boy Tea Party Governors, when they are not breaking labor unions and reducing college enrollments, have been vetoing high-profile transit projects. The Governor of New Jersey stopped a new tunnel into Manhatten. Florida stopped a rail link across the peninsula. Ohio stopped a light-rail project in Cinncinnati as well as an intercity rail project. Wisconsin stopped an intercity rail project. These were all projects in a late stage of planning and funding; these States actually had to give back Federal money.

    It seems to me that this reflects a powerful impulse to try to preserve “life as we know it”, especially by ex-urban America. Rather than invest in the future, and adaptation, the initial reaction seems to be to try to preserve the unsustainable a bit longer, by disinvesting. We won’t invest in college education for the next generation. Let wages fall. So what? It keeps labor costs down. Cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes. Never mind if the infrastructure crumbles.

    And, I fear that it extends to the attitude of “drill baby, drill”. If a low price of gas is what keeps ex-urban America going, then keep the price low, even if that entails accelerating environmental devastation. In the face of peak oil, the only way to keep the price of fossil fuel energy low, is to ignore the environmental costs of marginally more difficult extraction and use. Deep-sea drilling and the Macondo blowout — so what if shellfish are mildly poisonous and the bluefin tuna go extinct? Frakking for natural gas is a boomtime for rural Pennsylvania and North Dakota; so what if the groundwater is contaminated?

    You think Calgary is dry now, wait till they divert all the water within 600 miles to processing the tar sands. Coal? Plenty of that.

    Rather than invest in adapting to the future, or in restraining the damage we’re doing, we are hell-bent on just the opposite. While the reality-based community has been debating the merits of carbon-taxes and cap-n-trade, policy has moved toward burn, baby, burn, and screw the future.

    Resentment rules.

    If there’s a cause for optimism, there, I’ve missed it.

  5. Bruce’s argument is strengthened by evidence that the TeaPurty goons of Walker are giving the strong-arm to William Cronon, a stinkin elite greenie virnmint-lover if there ever was one.

  6. Perhaps, but the really great thing about conservatives is they always go too far. Then they get rejected at the ballot box. Then Democrats clean up the mess. And then we all start over.

    Meanwhile, Democrats do thankless tasks like balance budgets and try to educate children and build things we need, then get our lunches eaten on “social issues.” And we’re not as disciplined. And we think too small. And of course any time you try to do something, there will be mistakes that get made.

    Between these two groups, how can we all manipulate ourselves into maybe actually achieving something?

  7. NCG says:
    March 25, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    “Perhaps, but the really great thing about conservatives is they always go too far. Then they get rejected at the ballot box. Then Democrats clean up the mess. And then we all start over. ”

    What’s discourage me is that one this cycle we barely scratched the surface of fixing the damage and the GOP is back in a position to screw things up far faster than we can fix it.

    Destruction and looting are soooooooooooooooooo easy, profitable and self-reinforcing.

  8. Your son’s opinion is of little value. All of us dads, our sons think we’re funny. If we’re damned lucky, it doesn’t get worse than that. I have a 14 year old, so I like the Mark Twain line, ‘when I was 18, my father was the stupidest man in the world, and by the time I was 25, he had learned a great deal’.

    Social contexts – like, for example, the comments section of RBC – tend to elicit solidary signals. You note “.. “dangerous” to even broach the subject matter”. Folks make sure they give lots of clues that they have virtuous opinions. They are against global warming, child pornographers are vile, the wealthy should pay higher taxes. All very well, but the amount of actual information transferred on top of the signals can be, not so much.

    If you think there won’t be big coordinated entails-sacrifice work against global warming (I kind of agree there won’t, that any easy-to-lift fuel the USA, or California, refrains from burning will be bought happily by China, or India, or Brazil and will go up in smoke) then it makes a lot of sense to think how best to live with it. Seems smart to me to think how to get our cities ready.

    If on the other hand one thinks it is possible that we really will make big internationally coordinated sacrificial efforts against global warming, then it can make sense to oppose readiness type activities, as a way to ratchet up the pressure to take actions.

    I your Vox piece, and I read the Stephens piece, and yes, Stephens’ review is sort of meh. I’m not clear what he wants – that you would have had, already, a McLuhan or Schumacher kind of reaction, with thought leaders anointing you in Time Magazine? I think it’s hard to do, when the message is, do a lot of gritty little things to deal with a failure of global decision making. I think it’s a good message. I have put your book in my queue of ‘books I would like to read someday’, though it’s a long queue. Mike O’Hare had a nice line in one of his posts some months ago, that there would be no silver bullets in solving energy, but that we needed a lot of silver birdshot.

    Left/prog people tend to give solidary signals in saying that all new taxation/government charges should have progressive incidence – I think this is blinding people to some changes which should be made. Where changes would improve incentives, they ought to be made, even if the changes would be costly to poorer people. I have some nostrums, in the silver birdshot line: one is that we should raise gasoline taxes some and (related) put in rather high mileage charges for driving. The incentives which now exist for people to drive alone are very strong, and they are a mix of direct financial and time saving. If you’ve paid for the roads with taxes, and the roads are congested, you don’t lose much by adding your single car to the traffic. If your car faces a mileage charge of $8 for driving into the city in the morning, and the same to drive home, it’s worth it to spend the twenty minutes assembling the car pool at each end – and when a lot of people do that, the congestion goes way down, everyone has more time. Another nostrum – mortgage tax deduction. I think it pumps up our national housing investment way beyond what’s reasonable, and is a big reason we have miles of empty houses marching across the desert in Vegas. It is somewhat helpful to an ironworker in Biloxi to buy a modest house, but it mostly helps already-successful professionals to buy more house than they would otherwise choose, consequent sprawl and difficulty in lowering energy consumption.

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