When does “stick to the knitting” mean “put your head in the sand”?

Governments around the world have enacted a variety of requirements to reduce the global warming (GW) effect of its vehicle fuel mix. This is already complicated because some of the GW effect of the biofuels that looked like good plays a year ago results from land use changes hard to measure but probably very large . But there’s more: all these laws and regulations, to my knowledge, require that the administering agency take account of the sustainability of any biofuel entering the market, and considerable players are pushing to have sustainability mean a variety of qualities far removed from greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. The list in play is a catalog of the worthy and the good, including water consumption, local economic development, biodiversity, employment, and for all I know, in some circles acceleration of the days of awe.

The sustainability question puts government agencies implementing renewable fuel standard between two compelling views of their duties. On the one hand, (using California as an example), the Low Carbon Fuel Standard is, um, a low carbon fuel standard. Any program actually being implemented becomes a Christmas tree that advocates of this and that try to hang an ornament on, and the accessory goals and features may be far beyond the agency’s competence and resources and end up imposing a big hit on the original goal. A lot of things are really important for the welfare of the planet, including the development of the rural economy in very poor places, but is a fuel standard administered by engineers in Sacramento a practical way to advance them? On the other hand, these are (mostly) legitimate and compelling goals and interests, public policy is always a little messy and imperfectly targeted, and every government program has general duties in addition to its specific enumerated ones: there’s absolutely nothing in the LCFS requiring the Air Resources Board to keep its offices clean and safe, but they still have to.

This very practical issue currently before CARB had a surprising echo this week in connection with the immigration, working conditions, and underage employee investigation of Agriprocessors, Inc., the largest supply of kosher beef in the US. (The operators of this particular plant seem, on the evidence so far, to have been a bunch of heartless jerks, but that’s another issue.) Whether your steak is kosher depends, on one view, only on compliance with a strict and specific set of conditions limited to the actual health, killing and butchering of the animal (Mark has more on this here), whose rules trace back to well before there was an OSHA. On another view, kosher should mean something broader, approximately “food a menschlich Jew would eat in good conscience”.

Holders of the first view are not advocating workplace abuses, they’re trying to protect a specific piece of the Jewish moral and Godly living enterprise from being dissolved into the whole rest of it, and to preserve the capacity to implement the specific piece; holders of the second are trying to protect Jewish virtues from being shriveled into rote pietism.

The RBC is, fortunately, all over this knotty problem and early results from our analysis are available. The abstract can be summarized, in technical terms: “Oy, vey!”

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.