Fisking Paul Krugman

by Iain Murray on September 25, 2009

In today’s New York Times, Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman preens about intellectual dishonesty while presenting the most intellectually dishonest case about the cost of climate change policies I have seen this side of Joe Romm.  It moved me to do something I have not done for some time, and Fisk the entire article.  Krugman’s words are in italics.

So, have you enjoyed the debate over health care reform? Have you been impressed by the civility of the discussion and the intellectual honesty of reform opponents?

If so, you’ll love the next big debate: the fight over climate change.

And Mr Krugman is about to demonstrate his level of civility and intellectual honesty in what only can be described as a pre-emptive strike.  Is this the Krugman Doctrine?

The House has already passed a fairly strong cap-and-trade climate bill, the Waxman-Markey act, which if it becomes law would eventually lead to sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Sharp reductions? The Breakthrough Institute, which strongly champions action on global warming, says that the way the bill is structured “U.S. emissions in capped sectors could rise for much–if not all–of the next two decades.” Krugman protects himself against the accusation of outright lies by using the word “eventually,” but without disclosing the ineffectiveness of the bill over the next 20 years, Krugman is already being intellectually dishonest.

But on climate change, as on health care, the sticking point will be the Senate. And the usual suspects are doing their best to prevent action.

Some of them still claim that there’s no such thing as global warming, or at least that the evidence isn’t yet conclusive. But that argument is wearing thin – as thin as the Arctic pack ice, which has now diminished to the point that shipping companies are opening up new routes through the formerly impassable seas north of Siberia.

Krugman condenses a very complex argument over the nature of global warming into one statement and then dismisses it out of hand.  There are very few who deny the heat-trapping properties of greenhouse gases.  There are many who suggest that the influence of these gases on the climate as a whole has been significantly exaggerated.  For instance, I wonder what Mr. Krugman thinks of the recent research of Lindzen and Choi, published in August, which uses actual observations to find that climate sensitivity to greenhouse gases has been overestimated by a factor of six.

As for the Arctic, it has been melting since the end of the Little Ice Age two hundred years ago.  In fact, The Washington Post published a story on a government report that described “a radical change in climatic conditions,” “unheard-of temperatures in the Arctic zone,” and the melting of ice as long ago as November 2, 1922.  The fact that the North-East Passage, a holy grail for traders for hundreds of years, is now open might also warrant some balancing mention of its benefits.

Even corporations are losing patience with the deniers: earlier this week Pacific Gas and Electric canceled its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in protest over the chamber’s “disingenuous attempts to diminish or distort the reality” of climate change.

PG&E made an odd member of the Chamber of Commerce to begin with, as its profits come about not by commerce but by government regulation.  PG&E’s profits are “decoupled” from the amount of energy it sells.  There are suggestions, by the way, that companies are coming under pressure in the way of threats of activism directed against them if they continue to support the Chamber’s efforts to protect the interests of its members.

So the main argument against climate action probably won’t be the claim that global warming is a myth. It will, instead, be the argument that doing anything to limit global warming would destroy the economy. As the blog Climate Progress puts it, opponents of climate change legislation “keep raising their estimated cost of the clean energy and global warming pollution reduction programs like some out of control auctioneer.”

If the estimated costs rise, that is because people like the bloggers at Climate Progress keep persuading politicians to go for more ambitious programs, which of course cost more. Auctioneers only respond to bids, and it is the bidders who are out of control.

It’s important, then, to understand that claims of immense economic damage from climate legislation are as bogus, in their own way, as climate-change denial. Saving the planet won’t come free (although the early stages of conservation actually might). But it won’t cost all that much either.

Here we are getting to the nub.  Having succeeded in chilling the speech of those who are doubtful about the effect of greenhouse gases on the climate, Mr. Krugman now wants to make it unacceptable to say that policies designed to raise the cost of energy will have any detriment to the economy.

How do we know this? First, the evidence suggests that we’re wasting a lot of energy right now. That is, we’re burning large amounts of coal, oil and gas in ways that don’t actually enhance our standard of living – a phenomenon known in the research literature as the “energy-efficiency gap.” The existence of this gap suggests that policies promoting energy conservation could, up to a point, actually make consumers richer.

Well of course there is waste involved in generating energy.  If there wasn’t so much regulation of energy generation right now, which has the perverse effect of locking in old technology, then we’d actually be a lot more efficient than we are.  However, being more energy efficient does not mean we use less energy.  Mr. Krugman’s own newspaper just recently published an excellent story about the Jevons Paradox, first formulated in 1865, which states, “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”  This really is Energy 101.

Second, the best available economic analyses suggest that even deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions would impose only modest costs on the average family. Earlier this month, the Congressional Budget Office released an analysis of the effects of Waxman-Markey, concluding that in 2020 the bill would cost the average family only $160 a year, or 0.2 percent of income. That’s roughly the cost of a postage stamp a day.

Once again, Mr. Krugman is being economical with the truth.  The government studies most emphatically did not find that the bill will cost a postage stamp a day in 2020.  They can only arrive at that figure of $160 a year by discounting twice.  They took the nominal cost – the actual out-of-pocket cost – of the increases in energy prices and worked out what that would be in today’s dollars.  Then they discounted back to find the present value of that figure.  In other words, $160 a year is what you’d have to lock away in a bank account with a guaranteed interest rate today in order to pay your bills in 2020.  If you didn’t do that, the figure from the EPA’s study in today’s dollars (ie not accounting for inflation) is above $2700 a year for a family of four.  The CBO study, meanwhile, admits that it did not attempt a comprehensive study of lost income.

Mr. Krugman also ignores polling evidence that finds that only 10 percent of respondents would be willing to pay more than $100 a year to achieve the supposed benefits of the Waxman-Markey bill.  So even if the cost was just a postage stamp a day, people would still find that cost expensive.

By 2050, when the emissions limit would be much tighter, the burden would rise to 1.2 percent of income. But the budget office also predicts that real G.D.P. will be about two-and-a-half times larger in 2050 than it is today, so that G.D.P. per person will rise by about 80 percent. The cost of climate protection would barely make a dent in that growth. And all of this, of course, ignores the benefits of limiting global warming.

The same argument can be made about global warming itself.  Even with all the supposed dramatic effects of global warming, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds that people all over the world – even in the poorest countries – will be many times richer than they are today as a result of the economic activity sustained by fossil fuels. This demonstrates that a warmer-but-richer world is better off than a cooler-but-poorer world, and we will in fact be best off in the warmest world.  Krugman’s argument here in fact suggests that we shouldn’t do anything about emissions at all.

So where do the apocalyptic warnings about the cost of climate-change policy come from?

Are the opponents of cap-and-trade relying on different studies that reach fundamentally different conclusions? No, not really. It’s true that last spring the Heritage Foundation put out a report claiming that Waxman-Markey would lead to huge job losses, but the study seems to have been so obviously absurd that I’ve hardly seen anyone cite it.

The Heritage Foundation has updated its report and recently defended its methodology in a panel of other modelers, who did not raise significant objections to it (so much for its obvious absurdity).  If Mr Krugman hasn’t seen it cited it is the same way that Pauline Kael didn’t know anyone who voted for Nixon.  But the Heritage Report is not the only one.  The American Council on Capital Formation found job losses of 1.8 to 2.4 million in 2030.  The research of the left-leaning Brookings Institution has found that “Achieving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is a costly endeavor.”  Once one strips away the discounting tricks, even the government studies demonstrate the truth of this statement.

Instead, the campaign against saving the planet rests mainly on lies.

Thus, last week Glenn Beck – who seems to be challenging Rush Limbaugh for the role of de facto leader of the G.O.P. – informed his audience of a “buried” Obama administration study showing that Waxman-Markey would actually cost the average family $1,787 per year. Needless to say, no such study exists.

Once again, Mr. Krugman is being economical with the truth.  He is correct only in so far as the recently revealed documents simply summarize the real effects of the other studies that have been disguised using economic trickery.  Here is what the Treasury documents say will be the effect of the President’s policies:

Given the administration’s proposal to auction all emission allowances …a cap-and-trade program could generate federal receipts on the order of $100 to $200 billion annually. … Economic costs will likely be on the order of 1% of GDP, making them equal in scale to all existing environmental regulation. …One advantage of auctioning allowances is the potential for generating large revenues (perhaps $300 billion annually). … Domestic policies to address climate change and the related issues of energy security and affordability will involve significant costs and potential revenues, possibly up to several percentage points of annual GDP (i.e., equal in size to the corporate income tax).

These documents are available for viewing here.  The fact that the Treasury initially redacted the most embarrassing sentences suggests strongly that they wanted to hide this.  That sounds like burying the truth to me.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on Mr. Beck. Similar – and similarly false – claims about the cost of Waxman-Markey have been circulated by many supposed experts.

The claims are the claims of the US Treasury Department, available now for all to see.  We show, while Mr. Krugman tells.

A year ago I would have been shocked by this behavior. But as we’ve already seen in the health care debate, the polarization of our political discourse has forced self-proclaimed “centrists” to choose sides – and many of them have apparently decided that partisan opposition to President Obama trumps any concerns about intellectual honesty.

So here’s the bottom line: The claim that climate legislation will kill the economy deserves the same disdain as the claim that global warming is a hoax. The truth about the economics of climate change is that it’s relatively easy being green.

Mr. Krugman is hoist by his own petard.

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