The Key to Solving Global Warming: China’s Involvement

 

As new summer temperature records are being set and drought and forest fires plague the western states, see here and here, climate alarmists are making lots of noise, see here and here.  I have recently argued that both the deniers and alarmists are wrong.

It has recently been reported that the European Union and China are planning sweeping limits on emissions. The EU plan is to increase renewable sources in Europe’s energy mix to 40% in 2030 from 20% today.

China’s plans, however, are designed only to help it attain its previously announced goal (in the 2015 Paris accords) of reaching peak emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2060.  The problem is that:

  • Worldwide carbon emissions are still growing even though they are shrinking in both the U.S. and Europe (see charts).

  • China is still increasing its coal use each year more than the rest of the world combined (see chart).

  • Given that the developing world intends to massively increase the use of energy to raise its living standards, it will be virtually impossible to de-fossilize the world economy. Much more feasible it is to de-carbonize by emphasizing carbon capture and storage technology as well as more nuclear energy.

Conclusion.  The U.S. can and should provide both technical and moral leadership in reducing global carbon emissions.  But we have to be practical about it.  It is essential to bring the developing world along with us, especially China, as we continue to reduce our own carbon emissions.  This is the only way to actually reduce carbon emissions worldwide and therefore make real progress on this serious problem.

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Polarization, Identity Politics, and the Future of America II. A More Optimistic View

Last week I discussed a new book, Facing Reality, by the controversial sociologist, Charles Murray.  He says that political polarization is caused by identity politics.  In particular:

  • Racism persists in America but it is in spite of the American system and its institutions, not because of them.
  • Identity politics is an existential threat to the American experiment. Treating our fellow human beings as individuals rather than as members of groups is unnatural.  Our brains evolved over thousands of years to think of people as members of groups and to be suspicious of people who are unlike us.  This shaped human government, mostly hierarchial, for 10,000 years.
  • America proved that a durable alternative to the natural form of government is possible. The introduction of identity politics into that carefully constructed constitutional system means a reversion to the primitive jungle of “us against them.”
  • The rhetoric about white supremacy and systemic racism coming from black opinion leaders, and their white supporters, is provoking a strong backlash from middle-class and working-class whites. This is the cause of our current polarization.

But this is not the whole story!  Another sociologist, Richard Alba, is more optimistic about race relations.  His argument is that:

  • Many non-whites are assimilating into the American mainstream, just as white ethnic groups did before them.
  • The mainstream can expand to accept a visible degree of racial diversity, as long as there are shared understandings between individuals with different ethno-racial backgrounds.
  • More than 10% of U.S.-born babies have one parent who is non-white or Hispanic and one who is white and not Hispanic. This is a sign of growing integration into the mainstream by members of minority groups.
  • By the 2050s, Mr. Alba estimates that one-third of babies with white ancestry will also have Hispanic or nonwhite ancestry. The idea of who belongs to a racial majority or minority will become scrambled.

Conclusion.  Mr. Murray and Mr. Alba are both correct.  Right now we have a severe identity politics problem which is a threat to our constitutional system.  But, going forward, more and more racial assimilation will take place.  This offers the hope that identity politics will become less predominant as racial identity becomes less pronounced.  The future wellbeing of America depends on this amalgamation of races!

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Polarization, Identity Politics, and the Future of America

The controversial sociologist, Charles Murray, has published a new book, Facing Reality.  He claims that the polarization in our current politics is caused by identity politics.  Here is an outline of his argument:

  • Racism persists in America but it persists in spite of the American system and its institutions, not because of them. Many of the problems are systemic but they will not be solved by going after racism.  They will be solved by going after systemic educational dysfunction, systemic law enforcement problems, and systemic employment problems.
  • Identity politics is an existential threat to the American experiment. If working-class and middle-class whites adopt identity politics, disaster could follow.
  • The American system is comparable to a garden hacked out of a tropical jungle. A garden surrounded by jungle is unnatural.  It must be tended with unremitting care lest the jungle return.
  • Treating our fellow human beings as individuals rather than as members of groups is unnatural. Our brains evolved over thousands of years to think of people as members of groups, to care for people who are like us, and be suspicious of people who are unlike us.  This shaped human government for 10,000 years.  The natural form of government was hierarchical, run by a dominant group that arranged affairs to its own benefit.
  • America proved that a durable alternative to the natural form of government is possible – a constitutional republic combined with a carefully circumscribed democracy. The introduction of identity politics into that carefully constructed constitutional system does not simply distract us from warding off the jungle.  It is the jungle, the primitive sense of “us against them” pressing in upon the garden.
  • In 1958 (according to Gallup), 73% of Americans trusted the federal government to do what is right either “always” or “most of the time”. Trust hit a high point in 1964 at 77% and then began to drop.  It was 27% in 1980, rebounded to the low 40s during the Reagan years, then fell to a new low of 19% in 1994.  It rose briefly to 54% after 9/11 and then hit a new low of 15% in 2011.  It has been in the 15-20% range ever since.  Conclusion: a government distrusted by more than 80% of its citizens has a bipartisan legitimacy problem.
  • The rhetoric about white privilege and systemic racism coming from black opinion leaders has always seemed self-defeating. Blacks, constituting 13% of the population, are telling whites, 60% of the population, that they are racists, bad people, and the cause of blacks’ problems.  White guilt is real amongst the affluent and millennials but there has also been a huge backlash from middle-class and working-class whites.  This is the cause of our current polarized politics.
  • Murray is certain of two things. First, the white backlash is occurring in the context of the long-term erosion in the federal government’s legitimacy (see above), which makes the white backlash all the stronger.  Second, Donald Trump’s election, and the lessons from his term in office, have changed the parameters of what is politically possible in America.
  • Murray sees the root problem as the aggressive affirmative action which is being practiced for government jobs at all levels. His proposed solution is to eliminate all forms of government-sponsored preferential treatment by race.  Antidiscrimination law and its enforcement should be limited to behaviors that would be unacceptable regardless of race, i.e. real behaviors, not statistical evidence of disparate impact.

Conclusion.  Mr. Murray pulls no punches in his analysis of identity politics.  The data he draws on is well established.  His argument should be taken very seriously by everyone concerned about the future of our country.  I believe that there is a counterargument to Mr. Murray’s pessimism which I will discuss next week.  It is based on one of my previous posts.  Stay tuned!

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Why National Unity Is a Pipe Dream

Almost everyone deplores the polarization of politics.  Why can’t our national leaders set aside their partisan views and work together for the good of the country?  As Samuel Goldman explains in the current issue of Reason, it is not the politicians’ fault but rather the deep disagreements within our society.  We are a free country with everyone welcome and encouraged to speak their mind.  This enormous diversity of thought, freely and publicly stated, at a time of a deeply polarized body politic, with each side intolerant of the basic beliefs of the other side, makes it impossible to achieve anything like a national consensus on fundamental issues.

Consider, in no particular order:

  • Crime is increasing in our largest cities.  The five cities (Austin, New York, Minneapolis, Seattle and Denver), all with progressive leadership, which cut police spending the most in 2020, saw murders spike over the past year.  It is mainly white urban elites who are obsessed with police injustice and relatively indifferent to street violence (from which they are immune).
  • Jack Philips, the Lakewood CO baker who is morally opposed to homosexuality and transgenderism, has now been hauled into court twice for refusing to bake custom cakes for a gay couple and a transgender woman. Why is the left-wing so intolerant of traditional morality that it insists on intimidating ordinary working people who refuse to kowtow to the LGBTQ agenda?
  • Vice-President Kamela Harris at the border. The progressive left wants a “humanitarian” immigration policy, i.e. a southern border which is so open that almost everyone crossing illegally into the U.S. is allowed to stay.  Don’t progressives realize that we can’t let everyone into the U.S?   It will be impossible to solve our existing illegal immigrant problem without first closing the southern border so that future immigrant entry into the U.S. is carefully controlled.
  • Voting Rights. The progressives now largely in control of Congress want a federal takeover of election procedures.  This is clearly unconstitutional since election procedures are a state prerogative.  The Biden Justice Department has filed suit to overturn Georgia’s new voting law which actually has no racial bias.  The federal lawsuit represents preposterous interference with a basic state right.

Conclusion.  These are just a few examples of how the progressive left is promoting policies and actions which fly in the face of common sense and are highly disrespectful of ordinary traditional American values.  When a small minority of elites is pushing such a radical agenda, it is foolish to think that any sort of national unity can be achieved.

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Our Booming Economy Needs More Workers!

As the number of new daily coronavirus infections continues to drop lower and lower, it is time for America to return to work.  Consider:

  • Some 80% to 85% of American adults are now immune to the virus.  More than 64% have received at least one vaccine dose and, of those who haven’t, roughly half have natural immunity from prior infection. With more than 8 in 10 adults protected from either contracting or transmitting the virus, it can’t readily propagate by jumping around in the population.  In other words, we have achieved herd immunity!
  • The danger in underestimating or disregarding the protection provided by this “natural immunity” is that it will delay the full reopening of the economy and prolong the state of fear that has many people still wearing masks even when there is no reason to do so.
  • At the same time, job openings hit a record of 9.3 million at the end of April.  Especially high are new job postings in construction, production and manufacturing, loading and stocking, but even food preparation and service as well as hospitality and tourism are showing big rebounds.
  • The federal unemployment bonus of $300 per week was a bad idea to begin with.  Now it is encouraging too many workers to delay going back to work.  It should be ended as soon as possible.

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  • The current inflation rate is now 5%, up from 4.2% in April. The severe worker shortage is damaging our booming economy by increasing inflation faster than necessary.
  • Workers are gaining more leverage over employers all the time. This shift builds on changes already underway in the tight labor market preceding the pandemic, when the unemployment rate was 4% or lower for two straight years.
  • The demographic picture is not becoming any more favorable for employers. Population growth for Americans between ages 20 and 64 turned negative last year for the first time in the nation’s history.
  • Higher wages are already on the way. The most recent jobs report showed that average hourly earnings for non-managerial workers were 1.3% higher in May than two months earlier.

Conclusion.  The U.S. has been very fortunate to have effective vaccines for Covid-19 developed so quickly.  We have now achieved herd immunity and are largely able to resume our pre-pandemic normal lives.  The huge number of current job openings, with rising wages, means that there are excellent career opportunities for millions of Americans who are willing to take the initiative to search them out.

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Do We Really Need a National Infrastructure Plan?

President Biden and Congress are in the process of negotiating a national infrastructure plan, both its scope and how to pay for it.  But is such a plan even a good idea in the first place?

“Joe Biden’s Imaginary America” presents a good discussion of this topic.  Consider:

  • The Biden plan is oddly detached from how the overwhelming majority of the middle-class lives, which is in lower-density, automobile-dependent neighborhoods. The Biden plan is mostly about serving the relatively small sliver of transit-riding apartment dwellers living in denser neighborhoods, at most 10% of the nation’s population.
  • Biden proposes allocating $165 billion for public transit against only $115 billion for roads and bridges. This means that transit, accounting for 1% of overall urban and rural ground transportation, would receive 60% of the money.
  • Transit thrives in only a few municipalities such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Swan Francisco, Boston and Washington. These cities, with the nation’s largest downtowns, accommodate nearly 60% of transit work-trip destinations but only 6% of the nation’s jobs.
  • If deprioritizing roads for transit reflects a coastal-urban worldview, attempts to make suburban development difficult and single family housing a thing of the past are even more out-of-synch with public preferences and market trends. In not one year since 2000 have more people moved into the urban-core counties than moved into suburban and exurban counties.
  • Meanwhile, the suburbs have become increasingly integrated. 83% of Hispanics and 76% of African-Americans, the two most economically disadvantaged groups, already live in the suburbs.
  • During the pandemic, the nation’s heartland – from the Appalachians to the Plains, the intermountain West and the South – has been home to 9 of the 53 metropolitan areas with the highest job retention. But the Biden agenda, with its passenger-rail and carbon obsessions, is not heartland friendly.
  • The rise in U.S. oil and gas production is “perhaps the single largest opportunity to improve the trajectory of the U.S. economy.” But the impact of “decarbonization” would cost more jobs than those lost in the Great Recession.  According to Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, replacing traditional energy jobs with middle-class “green jobs” is “pie-in-the-sky bullsh**.”

Conclusion.  Instead of imposing on the nation one set of policies for every major issue, decision-making should be dispersed wherever possible.  “The country may need infrastructure improvements, but which investments make sense can be best determined by those impacted by them, at the state and local level, not by those who, in the federal stratosphere, know best from on high.”

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What Are the Real Threats to American Democracy?

A perennial political question is the strength of democracy in the United States.  Lately, some commentators believe that American democracy is under siege.

However, I think that democracy is generally strong and thriving even though there are a few threats on the horizon.  Consider:

  • Trump’s presidency is not the problem. Scholars at the Kofi Annan Foundation  say that “Trump’s presidency illustrated the resilience of a document (the U.S. Constitution) drafted over two centuries ago, as well as the vital importance of unwritten norms and customs.  His plan (to overturn the 2020 election) was frustrated at every turn by the courts and a decentralized electoral system operated by honest Americans of both parties…”
  • Polarization is not the problem. Yes, our country is highly polarized politically and not only at the national level.  As of November 2020, only one state (Minnesota) has a divided legislature.  In 31 states (counting Nebraska with a Republican-dominated unicameral), both legislative chambers are Republican while 18 states have both legislative chambers controlled by Democrats.  This degree of state polarization emphasizes the decentralized nature of our republican form of government which adds a strong guardrail for protecting democracy.
  • HR1 is clearly unconstitutional.  The “For the People” Act, already passed by the House of Representatives, would be an unprecedented takeover of U.S. election laws by the federal government.  If enacted, it would destroy the Constitution’s careful balance of federal and state powers.  The Constitution authorizes state legislatures to establish the “times, places and manner” of congressional elections, while providing that “Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.”  In other words, the authority of Congress is limited to “time, place and manner.”  “Prescribing voting qualifications forms no part of the power to be conferred upon the national government by the constitution’s Election Clause,” wrote Justice Scalia in 2013.
  • America’s Welfare State is on Borrowed Time.  Our borrowed benefits syndrome – the government provides large numbers of voters with immediate personal benefits that greatly exceed what it charges in taxes, billing the difference to future generations – is deeply corrupting of democracy.  It absolves citizens of recognizing their dependence on one another and politicians of accountability for managing the conflicts and constraints of today’s society.  Instead, it encourages the fantasy that there are enough “rich” people whose fairs share will pay for the benefits which the government wants to give us.

Conclusion.  Yes, there are some clear threats to our democratic form of government.  But the U.S. Constitution and our political party system are still serving us very well.  We have allowed the welfare state to become too large and out-of-control.  Too many citizens have become dependent on government giveaways that are not being paid for with current tax revenue.  Our out-of-control national debt is likely to lead to a new fiscal crisis in the relatively near future which will be so jarring that it might weaken democratic norms.  Do we have the collective political will to turn this potential problem around before it erupts?

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My Overall Outlook: Optimism Tempered by Reality

My last post listed many of the positive things going on in our country at the present time: rapid pandemic recovery, growing economy, much more economic mobility and equality than generally recognized, much-improved race relations, global warming being addressed BUT, unfortunately, also a massive debt crisis approaching us most likely in the near term.

Let’s look at this dichotomy more closely:

  • The pandemic has accelerated a shift away from the expensive coastal cities. Cities like Indianapolis, Salt Lake City, Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, and others have already recovered from the pandemic.  It is the mostly northern “blue” cities like Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, Chicago, and New York where homelessness and violent crime are on the upswing.
  • Millions of workers will continue, after the pandemic, to work from home offices and avoid the central cities altogether. The shift to online work is encouraging a surge of new company formations.  In the 53 metropolitan areas with a million or more residents, more than three-quarters of African-Americans and Hispanics now live in suburban or exurban areas.  At the same time that Florida was voting to reelect Donald Trump as President, it also voted for a $15 an hour minimum wage.
  • Americans of all colors want both justice and prosperity. The American Dream of home-ownership and upward mobility is very much alive and well.

But there is also a dark, menacing, fiscal reality just below the surface:

  • President Biden’s proposed $6 trillion budget for FY 2022 accelerates a trend going back to 1970 of spending more than current revenue as a matter of routine.

  • In 1970, about 36% of federal spending was in benefits to individuals: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment compensation, and means-tested welfare benefits. Benefits spending is now 76% of total spending.
  • We have created a powerful new principle of political economy: the government provides large numbers of voters with immediate personal benefits greatly exceeding what it charges in taxes, billing the difference to future generations. In other advanced democracies, healthy revenue is raised from broad-based (and regressive) taxes on consumption, such as value-added taxes.  The U.S., by contrast, relies on a highly progressive income tax that doesn’t produce enough revenue.  Furthermore, the IRS has been partially converted into a social welfare agency with a profusion of tax credits for “desired” social policies.  In effect, the U.S. tax system is increasingly an adjunct of a borrowed-benefits policy, a means of distributing benefits rather than paying for them.
  • This “borrowed-benefits syndrome” is a major disease: 1) the so-called “investments” in people will never generate the economic growth necessary to pay for them and, 2) the provision of borrowed benefits is deeply corrupting of democracy.  It absolves citizens and politicians of accountability for managing the conflicts and constraints of today’s society.  Instead, it encourages the fantasy that there are enough “rich” people out there to pay for everyone’s benefits.

Conclusion:  Lots of things are going well in the U.S. right now and much social progress is being made.  But the “borrowed-benefits syndrome” is slowly and gradually eating us alive.  The unprecedented aggressiveness of the new Biden Administration continues and accelerates a fifty-year buildup of fiscal folly.  We obviously can’t go on like this much longer.  Will we be able to turn this terrible predicament around before it is too late?  Keep your fingers crossed and stay tuned!

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Why I am (Mostly) Optimistic about the Future of our Country

I have been writing this blog, It Does Not Add Up, for eight years.  I describe myself as a non-ideological fiscal conservative and social moderate.  Democratic countries are often confronted with serious problems.  The solution to big problems usually is not obvious and, furthermore, it takes time for the democratic process to work its will.

Consider where we are at the present time:

  • We are emerging from a rare, 100 year, pandemic. It broke out of China very suddenly 16 months ago and spread quickly around the world.   The U.S. has responded very successfully to this major threat.  First of all, our decentralized political system, with the states in charge, quickly and efficiently implemented social distancing and mask mandate policies.  The drug companies Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson-Johnson quickly developed effective vaccines which have now been widely distributed around the country.  In fact, we have by now achieved the herd immunity needed to greatly slow down the future spread of the Covid-19 virus.
  • Our unique democratic form of government is highly functional. Yes, Congress is polarized between the two political parties but so are the states, and the people.  A contentious national election was held last year, in the middle of the pandemic, with only a few relatively minor instances of voting irregularities.
  • Our economy is very strong and rapidly recovering from the pandemic.
  • The American dream is alive and well.  Income inequality is greatly exaggerated when taxes and government transfers are taken into account.  Likewise, social and economic mobility between generations is far more robust than generally acknowledged.

  • Race relations are getting better all the time, in spite of George Floyd’s death, and minorities are rapidly moving up the economic ladder.
  • Global warming is serious but solvable. The key to real progress is getting China on board because its carbon emissions are much greater than any other country’s.  Also, technological developments like carbon capture and storage have much potential to help.

  • The national debt. Ouch!!!  It is awful and getting worse.  Furthermore, there is a high risk of a big increase in inflation in the very near future.  Major inflation, when it does occur, will force the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates which will, in turn, dramatically increase interest payments on our rapidly accumulating debt.  This, in turn, will lead inevitably to a new, and much worse, financial crisis than the last one we had in 2008.  We simply must greatly reduce the size of our annual deficits in order to fix the debt problem (much more later!).

Conclusion.  As you can see from the above, I consider most of our current major problems to be eminently solvable.  Our rapidly exploding debt is the only exception.  It may take another, and much worse, fiscal crisis to force our national leaders to act.  A surge in inflation will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, so to speak.  Right now such a surge is quite possible, even if not yet likely.  But whenever inflation does inevitably reappear in the future, hold on to your hats because the outcome will not be pretty.

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Our Country’s Most Serious Problems

The United States is rapidly recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, as evidenced by the steadily decreasing rate of new daily infections.  In fact, we have probably already reached herd immunity, meaning that the percentage of those infected plus those vaccinated is approaching (or exceeding) 70%.

With the economy recovering so rapidly, we’re almost back to normal, so to speak, with only the usual problems to worry about!  Here they are, in roughly decreasing order of severity:

  • Our exploding national debt, at an all-time high and growing rapidly.  Although a few national leaders will talk about it from time to time, virtually no one with sufficient authority is willing to propose the painful course of action (curtailing spending or raising taxes or both) necessary to address it.  Eventually, it will lead to a new fiscal crisis and, the longer this takes to happen, the worse it will be when it does.
  • Inflation. It was 4.2% in April, on a yearly basis. Neither the Biden Administration nor the Federal Reserve are taking inflation seriously.  The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is a deficit spending blowout.  Especially its extra $300 per week in unemployment benefits is worsening the employment shortage and therefore also the supply bottlenecks, both of which lead to higher prices.  The Fed has promised low-interest rates until 2023 and says it is too early to unwind its bond- buying.  The return of out-of-control inflation will nevertheless force the Fed to raise interest rates, which will in turn speed up the coming of the next debt crisis.
  • Our racialized, identity politics.  Everyone understands that there are racial disparities in American society.  African-Americans have the fewest financial assets, fare the worst in school, have the hardest time finding work, live the shortest lives and spend the most time in jail.  Democrats say that their aim is to ensure that all races share equally in economic growth and get a fair shake in the justice system.  Republicans say that Democrats are abandoning equality of opportunity for equality of results, i.e. equity.  This is a very difficult problem with no obvious solution.  It is what “wokeness” is all about.
  • The rise of China is our biggest international challenge. China’s economy will soon be larger than ours.  But we have many strengths in the coming struggle.  Working closely with our democratic allies in Asia will help greatly to “contain” China.
  • Global warming and the cost of healthcare are also big problems but of lesser urgency, see here and here.  Of course, the need for healthcare entitlement reform is a major part of the debt problem.

Conclusion.  The U.S. has challenging problems to address.  The hardest one by far is to fix the debt.  The current flare-up of inflation is a vivid reminder of how urgent the debt problem is.  Our highly polarized politics is made worse by the perceived racism in American society.  Nevertheless, I am (mostly) optimistic about America’s future!  Stay tuned!

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