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All Policies Have Tradeoffs. All of Them.
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All Policies Have Tradeoffs. All of Them.

Also, people who push the same policy during near-opposite conditions are not talking in terms of economics.

Hello Readers,

I don’t think I’m divulging any secrets when I tell you I like animals. I’m a charismatic megafauna guy (I also like medium-sized fauna and a few kinds of micro-fauna). I have no moral problem with capital punishment for poaching some endangered animals like elephants, gorillas, and tigers (there are legitimate prudential arguments going the other way, but we’ll save that for another “news”letter). I bring this up to disclose my biases. I love the videos of animals showing up in cities because all the people are gone. I think the picture of lions chilling in the middle of the road are awesome. I also think it’s cool to see images from Indian cities with blue skies and actual blue water flowing through Venice. I’ve always been fascinated with the ability of nature to seize any opportunity to reclaim what is hers. 

I also think this almost instantaneous reassertion of nature opens all sorts of interesting philosophical and environmental conversations. 

Now that I’ve gotten all that out of the way: I think people are losing their minds when they try to piggyback the climate change agenda onto the current crisis. For the last few days, a slew of TV and print outlets, not to mention the usual cadres of activists and politicians, have been trying to squeeze the round peg of the Green New Deal into the square hole of this pandemic. (Note: I’m using the Green New Deal as a useful placeholder term for the broader constellation of ideas about radically transforming the economy to combat climate change.) 

Here at The Dispatch we try to avoid letting Twitter be the metronome of our coverage, but this tweet seems to encapsulate a lot of the thinking out there. 

It’s worth noting that this was a revised tweet. The original actually celebrated the cratering of the oil industry. “You absolutely love to see it” Ocasio Cortez exclaimed. More on that in a moment.

What capitalism is—and isn’t.

Irving Kristol used to say that there’s no such thing as a non-capitalist economic theory. I’ve never completely bought this, but I take his meaning to be that economics rightly understood is simply the study of how markets work: the efficient allocation of resources, the consequences of competing economic decisions, the measurement of production and consumption, the accumulation of wealth, etc. It’s worth emphasizing that Kristol was no economic reductionist. Far from it, he was a “two cheers for capitalism” guy who, by my lights, wrote perhaps the single greatest essay criticizing market absolutism ever written.

Kristol’s point, at least the part of it that stuck with me, is that a lot of non-capitalist economic theories are really political or moral theories trying to leech off of the authority of economics in order to sound more pragmatic or objective. 

For instance, Marx’s “Labor Theory of Value” is ridiculous as a matter of economic theory. It holds that 100 percent of the value of a product derives from the physical labor that goes into it. All profit is stolen value from the workers (the High Sparrow gives a wonderful sermon on this concept when discussing shoe manufacturing in Game of Thrones). According to this theory, if you invent a functioning jetpack, raise the capital to build a jetpack factory, and do all the other things to bring your jetpack to market (advertising, marketing, clearing regulatory hurdles, whatever), all of the profit rightly belongs to the workers on the assembly line. Whether or not you agree with this idea, my only point here is that this is not an economic theory—it is a moral or political theory masquerading as an economic one. And, if you were to give it the force of law, the one thing I can promise you is that you’ll have to wait even longer to get a jetpack.  

Now, to be fair, the moral insight buried in the Labor Theory of Value has some degree of merit. A just society recognizes that workers should be treated with decency and dignity, even if the bottom line suffers. A ruthlessly capitalist system—i.e,. a system that cared only about the maximization of profit—will probably treat workers poorly. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that a ruthlessly Communist or authoritarian society will almost certainly treat its workers even worse. Under Stalin, production, not profit, was the highest good. That is why Soviet Russia institutionalized so much slave labor (and did so much environmental damage as well).

This is one of my problems with the way “unfettered capitalism” is thrown around by the new “common good” conservatives. A nation with unfettered capitalism would not have a fraction of the regulations and entitlements we accept as being necessary—broadly speaking—for a decent society. I don’t want to be simplistic here. One can easily make the argument that treating workers well and provisioning decent health care and retirement benefits is in the long-term interest of a thriving economy. My only point is that many of the things we do as a nation aren’t conceived or implemented in the name of maximizing economic efficiencies and productivity.

The same argument applies to the environment: While there are good economic arguments for why we should protect elephants, they come a distant second for me. I want to save elephants because they are wonderful creatures that make the earth a more glorious place. If poachers wiped out the last tiger on earth to harvest its organs on behalf of the highest-bidding Chinese plutocrat looking for a solution to his erectile dysfunction, global GDP wouldn’t noticeably suffer—but the world would undoubtedly be poorer. 

I am not a climate change “denier.” But neither am I an economics denier. If you want to deal with climate change in an intellectually and morally serious way, the first thing you need to do is calculate the costs as best you can. Only then can you determine a sensible response. Telling me that the enormous costs of your plan will pay for themselves—absent any evidence—is itself evidence that you’re not taking the problem seriously. 

Infallible green socialism.

Which brings me back to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. One way to tell someone isn’t really talking about economics is when they push one policy under a certain set of economic conditions, and then push the exact same policy under near-opposite conditions. When oil prices are very high and balderdash about “peak oil” fills the airwaves, the argument is that we need to switch to “sustainable” sources of energy like wind and solar (but never nuclear!).  Now that the price of oil is almost unimaginably low, the same people are offering the exact same policy. Similarly, when we got most of our oil from abroad, the argument was for energy independence, again with wind and solar (but never nuclear!). Once we became energy independent, thanks to fracking and other technological innovations, the policy solution remained the same. In fact, the modern jihad against oil began with the 1968 Santa Barbara oil spill—long before anyone was concerned with global warming. It’s almost like petrophobia is an independent variable, immune to all other considerations.

As a matter of basic economics, when the price of any input—energy, iron, scotch, whatever—drops dramatically, the argument for switching to a vastly less efficient and more expensive input is at its weakest. Again, you can want to get rid of fossil fuels for all sorts of reasons, and I’m willing to talk about some. But if your argument for doing so is utterly immune to economic conditions and considerations, all I ask is that you stop claiming you’re making an economic argument. 

What is just astounding to me is that, at the moment when millions upon millions of people are losing their jobs here and abroad, we get these bizarre TV segments—intermittently gleeful about the reductions in pollution and CO2 (not the same thing) and sorrowful that these reductions aren’t sustainable. 

We even hear from people claiming that our situation “proves” that major reductions are possible. These people look at the economic carnage all around them and say, “See! We were right!” It’s like they think they’re winning the debate when they throw both the baby and the bathwater into the sewer: “See? We told you it was possible to have an empty tub!”

Yes, it’s true! When all industry and travel grinds to a near halt, emissions will be reduced! Glory be! What these people seem to miss is that they are making their opponents’ point for them. No serious person standing in the way of the Green New Deal ever denied that, if you sharply curtailed economic activity, you would reduce emissions. In fact, that was basically their—our—point! There is a tradeoff between the agenda, economic growth, and employment. By itself, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about climate change. But if you can’t acknowledge the existence of trade-offs, stop pretending you’re talking about economics. 


And now for a special announcement for all GLoP fans and Dispatch members: 

Our last live Zoom GLoP was a smashing success. We sold out the “room” and several people could not get in (blame the bouncer, Jack Butler—not us). But not to worry: We have run the numbers, conferred with the experts, examined the analytics, and ignored the bean counters—and after much deliberation and drinking, we have decided to do another live GLoP on Zoom this Sunday, April 26 at 6 p.m. ET/5 p.m. CT/3 p.m. PT (sorry Mountain Time Zoners, you’ll have to do the math yourself). 

As a perk of your membership to The Dispatch, you will have access to our live Zoom call. Not only will you be able to see the chiseled perfection of Jonah, Rob, and John, but you’ll also have the chance to see what we have planned for the show play out in real time. We’ll have plenty to talk and joke about and we may even have a few special guests. 

Space for this event is limited, and as mentioned above, we sold out the room last time, so be there on time (or early, even). And as a reminder, access to the Zoom call is a members-only perk.

See you on Sunday. Literally. 

Dial In Numbers: US: +1 650 724 9799 or +1 833 302 1536 (toll free)

Webinar ID: 954 6864 4482

International numbers available: https://stanford.zoom.us/u/aZWkeqbb9

Photograph by Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.