Monday, February 22, 2010

Taxes can promote sustainability

The majority of U.S. citizens favor low taxes because they want to decide how to spend their money rather than letting the U.S. government decide. However, most Americans don't realize that taxes are useful not just for raising revenue but also for discouraging undesirable choices.  For example, gas taxes discourage gas consumption, which reduces our payments to countries that sponsor terrorism, reduces pollution and emission of GHG, and increases national security by preparing America for future gas shortages. If the proceeds from these taxes are used to remedy other chronic societal problems, and in doing so increase the quality of life of all Americans, we get a win-win situation. For example, the three E's of sustainability are environment, economy, and equity. Raising gas taxes is an investment in the environment, and it improves the economic situation of the federal government, making it more sustainable. If the revenue is used to provide health insurance and education to poor children, we've made a wise investment in human capital and increased equity, making our society more sustainable. Many people would rather not have to pay the gas tax, and use the money they save to buy stuff like HDTV's.  But that use of money is not in the best interests of society, or even of those individuals.  I believe that the benefits of having a healthy, educated citizenry far outweigh the benefits of having more unnecessary stuff. Would you give up the chance to upgrade to an HDTV if it meant you might live longer (due to reduced pollution)? That you would pay less for your healthcare because hospitals would not have to charge the insured to cover the uninsured? That as an employer you could more easily find well-educated workers, which would improve your bottom line? That all Americans would benefit because a better educated citizenry would make our country more competitive in the global marketplace and our workers more valuable in the global workforce? And since we are now competing globally, a better educated, healthier workforce would make all U.S. companies more competitive and richer, which would make their employees richer, which would increase the amount of tax revenues flowing to the government, which might result in future tax reductions.  Thus our choice to raise gax taxes and invest the money in people rather than stuff improves environment, economy, and equity, making the whole country more sustainable.  Yes, not all taxes reap so many benefits, but we have to acknowledge that they have the potential to, and therefore be willing to pay them, recognizing that they are simply another form of investment.  Wouldn't you rather invest in people rather than stuff?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Failure of the U.S. Government to Address Sustainability

The U.S. Government will fail to adequately address sustainability issues, and American citizens will have to abandon the top-down approach and rely on a bottom-up approach to solving these problems that affect our national security. I say this because Congress and the public have become so polarized along ideological lines that compromise and political progress have become impossible. As a result, moderate members of Congress are choosing to leave rather than run for reelection. On February 16, 2010 when moderate Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) announced that he would not seek reelection after two terms, he stated that "there is too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving" on Capitol Hill (Kellman and Jackson, AP, 2/17/2010). Nowhere was this more apparent than when the Senate in January rejected a bipartisan deficit commission that could have forced Congress to make painful budget decisions. Members of Congress are unable to agree to reduce capital outflows, but they refuse to increase capital inflows by raising taxes because that is politically unpopular. Most telling was the fact that some Republicans who originally supported the commission changed their votes after President Obama endorsed it. Clearly these members of Congress were acting in the interests of their political party rather than of the country they serve.

By rejecting the establishment of a commission that could have taken the heat for such unpopular decisions, Congress essentially sealed the economic fate of the federal government. This plot shows the federal deficit over time. The total area under the annual deficit bars is a measure of the total deficit, i.e., the economic overshoot = outflows - inflows, which is also shown by the cumulative deficit line that is now approaching $6 trillion. The federal budget is seriously out of balance, but even worse, in most cases these deficits were planned. Unbalanced proposed budgets are passed every year now.


In this plot I've shaded Republican administration years red and Democratic administration years blue. Notice that until Barack Obama took office in 2009 the red area was much greater than the blue area, meaning that until 2009 Republican administrations contributed more to the deficit than Democratic administrations. Of all of the Presidents since 1970 only Bill Clinton managed to balance the budget, ringing up surpluses in his last three years of office. In contrast, President George W. Bush changed the budget surplus of his first year in office, which was budgeted by Clinton, and turned it into record deficits within two years.

As a result of the economic recession in President Obama's first year in office in 2009 the annual federal budget deficit rose to the highest level ever. It remains to be seen if the benefits of the money spent on the economic stimulus package to stave off the recession outweigh the harms resulting from the increase of the deficit, but if the trend continues, the federal government will soon be unable to meet its financial obligations, and this will likely result in an economic collapse. Most economists predict that interest payments on the budget deficit will consume 80% of all federal revenues by 2020 (Tom Raum, AP, 2/15/2010).

And it will only get worse. In January the U.S. Supreme Court, dominated by political ideologues, voted to eliminate any limits to political contributions by corporations or lobbies. Most American citizens believe that members of Congress are already in the pockets of corporations. Now these corporations will have unlimited influence. The fate of bills will be decided by who has the deepest pockets. And when it comes to the three ABCs of unsustainability, who do you think will win when Congress tries to regulate Automobile, Beef, and Coal producers? Will members of the Senate ever vote to limit CO2 emissions when wealthy oil companies are paying them not to?  Congress is losing its integrity and its independence. Soon it will lose its economic power and therefore its influence. We can't rely on Congress to fix our problems.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Do snowstorms disprove global warming?

The two snowstorms that hit the U.S. east coast in the past few weeks have been touted by many climate change contrarians as proof that the theory of global warming is incorrect. Much of the focus was on Washington, DC, because that's where media people and contrarian politicians are concentrated. Here I examine the many errors associated with this line of thinking.

First, contrarians argued that snow equals cold, and therefore that an unusually large amount of snow means unusually cold. Of course this is a logical fallacy: anyone who has lived in a snow-prone area like my hometown of Buffalo, NY knows that unusually cold means less snow, because very cold air holds less moisture. Large snowfalls are usually associated with warm, moisture-rich air. In Washington DC it is usually cold in enough in January and February to snow, so what was unusual about the two snowstorms was how much snow fell, not how cold it was. Thus, people were confusing precipitation and temperature. In fact, the theory of global warming predicts more intense storms, because the atmosphere has more energy, and greater amounts of precipitation, because the atmosphere is warmer and therefore can hold more moisture. The storms on the east coast resulted from warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico moving northeast and hitting cold dry air from Canada. This caused the warm moist air to cool, and because cold air can hold less moisture than warm air, the excess moisture fell as snow. This was expected because El Nino has been active off the U.S. west coast, and this typically causes more precipitation in the southern and eastern U.S. (note that El Nino events are expected to become more frequent and intense as warming continues).

Contrarians were also confusing local and global. They were committing the logical fallacy of over-generalizing when they inferred from observations on the U.S. east coast the condition of weather globally. They don't seem to understand that it's possible to be unusually cold in some areas but unusually hot in the rest. For example, looking at a global map of temperature anomalies for the month of December 2009 (data from NASA), we can see that it was unusually cold in the U.S. and Siberia, but unusually warm in the rest of the world:


Finally, contrarians were confusing weather and climate. On the short term of weather (days, months) it is entirely possible to have unusually cold temperatures; warming just makes them slightly less probable. But over the long term of climate (years, centuries, millennia) the trend is towards increasing average global temperatures.

So when arguing that snowstorms on the U.S. east coast refute global warming, contrarians were confusing precipitation and temperature, local and global, weather and climate. Is it possible to get any more confused about global climate change?

For more information see

For humorous takes see