Buddhist Wonk
Why Courts Will Never Review the Platinum Coin Law

So I think this Kevin Drum piece could use the perspective of a lawyer:

‘There is, apparently, a widespread belief that courts will uphold a literal, hypertechnical reading of legislative language regardless of its obvious intent, but I’m quite certain this isn’t true. Courts are expected to rule based on the most sensible interpretation of a law, not its most tortured possible construction. I don’t think there’s even a remote chance that any court in the country would uphold a Treasury reading of this law that used it as a pretense for minting a $1 trillion coin.

I am, obviously, not a lawyer. So if someone with actual legal training in the appropriate area of the law says I’m wrong, then I guess I’m wrong.”

The problem isn’t so much that Drum is wrong, but he misses a critical fact: courts are never going to reach the merits on a case like this.  Most apparently, there is the problem of standing – courts are only able to review the legality of Obama’s interpretation of the statute if there is somebody who can make a claim that Obama’s action caused them injury. 

Ask yourself: who is hurt by the decision to not default on the national debt and destroy the economy?  I don’t think there is anybody who falls into this category. Understand, the injury that you have to demonstrate is more than just being a policy loser, it means an particularized, concrete harm to a legally cognizable interest.  Congress clearly does not qualify.  I know I’ve heard speculation that bondholders could qualify, but as Jeffrey Rosen wrote last year, that is probably foreclosed by a 1935 case that rejected bondholder standing under somewhat similar circumstances.

Even if you were able to dredge up an argument for bondholder standing or find someone else you could claim was directly injured, this is the kind of case that federal courts avoid.  By the time the court got to this case, the validity of the trillion dollar coin would be so baked into the broader economy that removing it would be nearly impossible – indeed, it’s not clear how a court order enjoining the Treasury Department could operate.  This case would present itself as a high-stakes political fight between the branches of government with the entire global economy at stake.  The court created doctrines like standing specifically to avoid these kinds of cases.   

Now, just because Obama’s action is non-reviewable doesn’t mean that it’s legal.  Obama may feel bound by the intended meaning of the statute even though he knows that there is no legal authority that will reprimand him if he prints the coins.  I actually think legally the stronger argument is the 14th Amendment argument.  But truth be told, I think the real argument here is that when the executive is faced with a law like the debt ceiling law whose correct application will result in a massive economic calamity for the world, he should find a way to ignore or evade the law.  If that requires stretching some other statute beyond all recognition, so be it. 

Care about your carbon footprint

This is an excellent post by Felix Simon with an unfortunate concluding paragraph:

One message I did get from the panel is that individual attempts to minimize our carbon footprint are not going to make any real difference. When I see people suffering a significant loss of utility because they’re watching their footprint and refuse to fly, for instance, it’s pretty clear that the personal cost of their decision is much greater than any global benefit. Even if they act as a role model and persuade others to follow their lead, they’re still perpetuating the idea that individual actions count. 

But individual actions do count, and I don’t only mean that in a touchy feely “throwing starfish on the beach" way. The development of new technologies requires alpha consumers to buy early generation products which tend to be more expensive and, on some level, require personal sacrifice.  Solar panels will eventually pay for themselves, but if you’re just in it for the money, there are probably better ways to invest than putting panels up on your roof.  With the price of oil inevitably rising over the next 20 years, electric vehicles are probably destined to become the primary way we power our cars.  But if you’re looking for a car this year, current fuel costs alone can’t really justify the purchase.  

If you’re buying these things, you’re probably buying them because you are trying to make a personal statement that you care about the future of the planet and you are willing to invest your resources to do something about it.  In the process, you’re creating a consumer market for the product that encourages more of them to be built. Manufacturing more of something means that each item costs less for future buyers. The widespread consumer market is a major part of the reason why the cost of solar electricity is nearing parity with natural gas and will surpass coal within the next 10 years:

Of course, a big part of that story is also state renewable energy mandates - individual action alone isn’t sufficient.  But the reason we’ve been able to win state renewable energy mandates is because the market got big enough to prove the validity of the technology.  

Smaller purchases such as more fuel-efficient appliances follow the same pattern: the bigger the market size for Energy Star refrigerator, the more the incentive to produce the big and small innovations that will drive down electricity use.  

As Simon argues elsewhere in the same piece, increasing the size of the clean technology marketplace goes hand in hand with increasing our ability to create strong climate policies. If the solar industry had the political clout of the oil industry, a price on carbon or a cap on emissions might be able to pass Congress. 

Finally, to get a little more touchy-feely, I think Simon also understates the importance of cultural norms.  Studies have shown that the installation of solar panels in a neighborhood increases the probability that a new solar panel will be installed. Others indicate that people are much more likely to engage in political action after they’ve made a commitment in their personal lives.  Spreading the value of concern for the environment is itself one of the most important things we can do to build political power, and for many people, the most likely path to spreading those values is through commitments in their personal lives.  

The establishment of cultural norms cannot easily be described in the language of utility - it’s hard to talk about comparing the utility of a lost plane ride with the “value” of establishing a cultural norm - but that kind of individualistic attitude is at root a problem for the climate movement.  

Accounting and war

Ezra Klein asks:

Let’s say the intervention in Libya goes fairly well. We save many thousands of lives, and Moammar Gaddafi leaves. What replaces him is imperfect and a bit chaotic, but not a disaster. How much is that worth? Which is to say, if we could’ve gone in knowing the price tag of that outcome was $50 billion, should we have done it? How about $200 billion? Or $15 billion? When you try to put a price on something like that, how do you do it?

I don’t think there is a way to objectively answer a question like this.  There is a certain temptation to try to force all the complicated aspects of this decision into some massively complex single framework like Bentham’s hedonic calculator, that inserted arbitrary values for the worth of, say, a human life (or “Quality Adjusted Life Year”), a prevented rape, or for deontological principles like the justice of putting the end to an evil rule or the feeling of liberation if the government is replaced.  Inevitably, the justification for such systems is that even if those valuations are arbitrary, it at least would provide us with some framework to compare incommensurate values to each other and come up with an actual answer.  

But I think any system like that would pretty quickly fall apart, given the complexities of the analysis, and the unbelievably difficult task of assigning degrees of probability. In the real world, the temptation to manipulate a framework like that to achieve an outcome desired for other reasons would be overwhelming (think: what would Heritage Foundation’s formula look like, versus Code Pink?).  I think you should generally beware of metrics that produce results that are more precise than accurate - e.g. a calculator that can tell you, with 1% certainty, that the Libya action will result in a net $1.382 billion increase in total value for humanity is probably telling you less than what you could guess with your own intuition and careful judgment.  

The better way of asking the question is to admit that there is no objective answer, and just be forthright about comparing the value to humanity to the financial cost by assuming that every dollar spent is a dollar that will have to be raised in taxes.  So, for example, there are 138 million taxpayers in the United States.  If the government spends $15 billion to get a positive result from Libya, it would have to raise $108 per person in tax revenue.  Would I pay $108 to have a good result in Libya?  Yes.  OK, at $50 billion that cost goes up to $362.  Would I pay that much?  OK, I can probably deal with that.  At $200 billion we’re headed north of $1 grand per person, and while I might not want to admit it publicly, when I think about taking that much out of my paycheck for Libya, I start to get a little uncomfortable.  

Ideally, the way all decisions about war would be made would be:

1) The government does honest and straightforward accounting of the likely costs of the war and the likely benefits;

2) The government proposes tax increases that demonstrate how the costs of the war will be paid.  (If deficit spending is necessary to pay for the war, the government proposes future tax increases to pay down the deficit when it becomes affordable);

3) When asked, the people are given clear information not only about the war’s goals but also the taxes that will be necessary to pay for the war (e.g. “Do you support President Obama’s action in Libya, which will be paid for by a $1 increase in the gasoline tax beginning in 2013?”)

It goes without saying that in the real world, we could never have a system like this.  Even if our government accountants were thoroughly non-partisan and honest, the probabilities are still too difficult to determine and decisions about war need to be made quickly.  

But even if we could only have the total costs and payment mechanisms determined after the war begins, I think it would provide a critical check on the decisions of the executive branch to require a plan to pay for all wars and combat actions that the U.S. gets into.  If the President knew that today’s announcement of a war to save the struggling rebels in Libya required tomorrow’s announcement of new tax increases to pay for that war, it would change his decision today, and for the better.  If the war is important enough, the American people will support taxes to pay for it.  As it is, in the court of public opinion every military action appears to be free, and thus it is not surprising that the American public is so immediately supportive of every conflict we get into. 

IOW, to summarize, what we don’t need is a formula to force incommensurate values to be measured against each other.  What we do need is an honest political process that can evaluate those incommensurate values honestly and openly.

Everything Republicans are saying about gas prices is a lie

A guide to the deceptions involved in each major Republican talking point on oil prices: 

1.     Obama is to blame for oil prices going up.


Sarah Palin: “[Obama’s] war on domestic oil and gas exploration and production has caused us pain at the pump, endangered our already sluggish economic recovery, and threatened our national security”

John Boehner: “The Obama administration has consistently blocked America’s energy production. They are imposing steep regulations on American businesses that are going to sharply increase the cost of energy.”

This argument is indefensibly false. The rise in the price of oil is driven by two factors.  In the short term, it is driven by the instability in the Middle East, an obviously complicated and unpredictable situation that could get better or could get much worse very quickly.  As long as our economy depends on oil, the price that we pay at the pump is going to be significantly impacted by the unpredictable events of oil-rich countries.

In the long term, rising oil prices are driven by exponentially increasing demand in developing countries like China and India.  The total number of cars on the world’s roads is growing from 400 million in 1990 to 900 million today, and projected to grow to 2 billion by 2030.  China especially is already the largest global market for automobiles.  Global oil supplies simply cannot keep up with all the new vehicles on the road.  

The temporary moratorium on new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico - instituted following what was arguably the largest ecological catastrophe in American history - does slightly reduce the total oil supply.  But compared to the enormous growth in global demand, the impact is so trivial that it makes no difference whatsoever on the price that we are currently paying at gas stations.  As B.U. economics professor Cutler Cleveland argues, it’s dust in the wind:

On June 8, the International Energy Agency in Paris reduced its estimate of GOM oil production in 2015 by 100,000 to 300,000 barrels per day (bpd).  Wood Mackenzie, an industry consulting firm, said 340,000 bpd could be lost by 2015.

The U.S Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that world oil production in 2015 will be 89 million bpd. The lost GOM production amounts to 0.1% to 0.4% of global oil production in 2015—dust in the wind.

To their credit, some media sources have been doing what they should do when a politician makes an argument that is demonstrably false – immediately noting that this argument flies in the face of all available evidence.  Others have continued to play the he-said, she-said game.

Variant: “Partially” responsible

Many oil industry supporters intuitively understand that this argument is demonstrably false, so they elude to it as much as actually state it.  Lisa Murkowski said that Obama is “partially” responsible for higher oil prices, which is true in a sense - the oil crisis is perhaps 30% Middle East unrest, 70% increasing demand, and 0.1% percent Obama’s offshore drilling moratorium.  

This America’s Solutions video put together by oil industry lobbyists does an even more impressive job.  It contrasts Obama making statements about how we need to freeze drilling in the Gulf with reports about rising oil prices, and seemingly irrelevant ominous storms on the horizon.  No argument needed.  It’s a perfect visual demonstration of the difference between correspondence and causality.            

Steven Chu Variation

Another variant is to make the argument from intention.  For example, Haley Barbour attacks Steven Chu for a statement made in 2008: “the Secretary of Energy said in 2008, Secretary [Steven] Chu, then Dr. Chu, said what we really need in the United States to get the cost of gasoline up to where it is in Europe $8 or $9 a gallon.”  This of course skips the tedious step of demonstrating any actual relationship between Chu’s statement and an increase in gas prices, which would be difficult, since there isn’t any.

“Backdoor Cap and Trade”

And yes, Republicans are also dragging out the bloated corpse of the climate bill in order to beat it around some more.  For example, pro-Global Warming crusader James Inhofe said that “the real problem” was President Barack Obama’s efforts to enact a cap-and-trade plan to curb emissions of greenhouse gases blamed by scientists for global warming. 

The most bizarre version of this argument is that the EPA regulations of greenhouse gas emissions are the cause of rising oil prices.  This is especially bizarre since, of course, the most relevant EPA regulation of greenhouse gas pollution to oil dependence is the new fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, which together are projected to save over 1.8 billion gallons of gasoline and over 900 million metric tons of global warming pollution. 

The argument here seems to be:

1) Cap and trade regulations would increase gasoline costs. 

2) EPA regulations of global warming pollution are “backdoor cap and trade”. 

3) Therefore, EPA regulations of global warming pollution will increase gasoline costs. 

2. Increasing offshore drilling will reduce gas prices.


Newt Gingrich: “Your support will help us put the pressure on Congress and the Obama Administration so that we can open up more domestic drilling. This will result in lower gas prices and less reliance on foreign dictators. 

This is a claim that makes a certain intuitive economic sense, but only to people who don’t understand the scale of the problem.  It is true that, generally, increasing supply of something will reduce the price.  But in this case, the size of global oil markets are so huge, and the increase in supply is so small, that the impact of increasing offshore drilling would be, in the word of George W. Bush’s Department of Energy, “insignificant.”  In return for putting the entire Atlantic and Pacific Coasts at risk of another disaster, consumers are going to get no benefit whatsoever. 

How about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?  Because of the nature of the Arctic ecosystem, drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge would have terrible and irreversible effects on the Arctic ecology.  In return, the Department of Energy estimates that by 2026, a best case scenario for drilling in the Arctic would slow the increase of gas prices by 3 pennies per gallon. 

3.     The United States has trillions of barrels of oil available in the Rocky Mountain Region.


Rep. Frank Guinta: “America’s oil shale deposits (primarily located in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah), hold an estimated two trillion barrels of oil, and are the largest unexploited hydrocarbon resource on Earth”

This is technically true, but it avoids mention of the serious ecological and economic limitations on the development of oil shale.  Oil shale is a rock that contains a small percentage of kerogen, which can be converted into crude oil through extensive processing.  To separate the rock from the kerogen, it first must be heated to over 900 degrees Fahrenheit – giving off toxic chemicals and greenhouse gas pollution in massive quantities.  For every barrel of oil produced from oil shale, up to 126 gallons of water have to be used and contaminated.  So we could only get those 2 trillion barrels of oil if we were willing and able to pollute 252 trillion gallons of water to help process it.

That’s 50 times more water than flows through the entire Colorado River.

Even though the environmental implications of oil shale would be incalculable, the actual reason we aren’t “tapping” this resource is because it is severely impractical.  The oil companies themselves do not think that this resource is worth their investment – at least, not yet. However, as oil prices get higher, people who care about water and air quality in the Southwest should pay increasing attention to efforts to develop oil shale.  

* * *

The tragedy of Republican deception on oil prices is not limited to the nihilism of a party that will seize any talking point that is politically useful to damage the President.  It’s the absence of any serious plan to deal with the emerging oil crisis.  America’s dependence on oil should not be a Republican or Democratic issue.  Our dependence on oil impacts concerns that all Americans share, from the quality of our air and water, to economic impact of billions of dollars sent overseas to pay for our oil, to the national security implications of fighting wars in oil rich countries like Iraq and Libya.  This should be an area in which both parties compete with each other to present the public with real, sensible solutions to the energy crisis.

There are a few exceptions.  Senator Dick Lugar has called for a comprehensive plan to reduce oil dependence by millions of barrels per day, and introduced legislation that contain some good ideas about how to best reduce our dependence on oil.  Senator Olympia Snowe, whose constituents in Maine are particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in oil prices because of Maine’s reliance on oil to heat their homes, has co-sponsored legislation that would reduce our consumption of oil.  Senator Lamar Alexander has helped promote electric vehicle legislation in Congress. 

One hopes that as the oil crisis grows more severe that these legislators will be joined by other Republicans who care about our air and water, the strength of our economy and the impact on our national security to offer real solutions, instead of finger pointing and meaningless talking points.  

On the psychology and identity of Hobbes

I think to really understand the identity of Hobbes, you need to place him in the proper context of an intelligent, immature and precocious 6 year old.  If Tyler Durden is a projection of all the qualities that Jack wants to be, Hobbes is a projection of the qualities of emerging maturity that Calvin resists and therefore projects on to an imagined other.  Where Calvin is impulsive and unconstrained, Hobbes is temperate and wise.  Where Calvin is ego-centric, imagining himself as a character of unparalleled importance in the world, Hobbes shows acceptance and contentment with normal life.  Where Calvin hates girls and forms a club to publicly express his hatred of girls as loudly as he can, Hobbes is openly sexual - which means that Hobbes can act on the quasi-romantic feelings that Calvin has for Susie that Calvin can only express through teasing and harassment.  

I don’t think it’s true therefore that Hobbes is “smarter” than Calvin; the way I would express that is to say that Hobbes represents Calvin’s emerging wisdom that Calvin understands, but is not yet willing to incorporate into his own persona.  That is, I think the best way to understand the conversations between Calvin and Hobbes about God, gender, morality, and so on is as a visual way of presenting the interior conversations of a single individual.  Watterson himself clearly values solitude, nature, and personal meditations on profound subjects; I suspect that the personas of Calvin and Hobbes ultimately grow out of two different kind of voices that he has in his head when he goes walking through the woods, or tobogganing through the snow. 

Lind’s astonishing arrogance

Michael Lind’s screed in Salon really deserves a more thorough Fisking:

Following the world wars, the U.S. and other liberal democracies rebuilt themselves as modern, technology-based, progressive societies that offered a higher standard of living to ordinary people than ever before. Gradually they liberalized their cultures, shedding the vestiges of priestly control, moved toward meritocracy away from aristocracy and dismantled racial caste systems. They devoted themselves to great civil engineering projects, like hydropower dams, nuclear power plants, continent-spanning highways and space exploration.

Amazing that Lind skips right over the Transcontinental Railroad. Was that not a great engineering project?  

The decision by the United States government after World War II to spend hundreds of billions in highways rather than railroads was a response to specific conditions at that time. Oil was cheap.  American automobile companies were the undisputed champions of their industry.  Environmental concerns were unknown or secondary.  

Other countries – equally modern, Enlightened societies - faced different conditions and made different choices.  Japan, whose primarily liability during World War II was limited access to oil, made rail the primary transportation strategy of the country.  European nations saw the dangers of oil and placed heavy taxes on it, and used that money to build public transit.  As a result, they now are far less dependent on oil than we are.  

Those transportation decisions turned out to be enormously consequential for our country.  Our status as a major producer of oil evaporated, and through the 1970s our status instead became the world’s greatest oil importer.  Concern about access to oil has permanently impacted our relations with a dozen countries, most of whom (because of the resource curse) are dictatorships.  Rapid increases in the price of oil have driven our economy into repeated recessions.  

Lind, of course, doesn’t mention anything about any of this.  As far as Lind is concerned, nuclear power and the Interstate Highway System were the pinnacle of human achievement during the Enlightenment, until those dirty hippies got in the way:

And then their people suddenly got tired of modernity and tried to crawl back into the past.

On the left, technological optimists were replaced by Rousseauian romantic primitivists. In the 1970s, Green guru Amory Lovins promulgated the gospel that “hard” sources of energy like nuclear power are bad and that called for a “soft path” based on hydropower, wind and solar energy. Other Green romantics decided that even hydropower is wicked, because it is generated by dams that despoil the prehuman landscape.

The New Left of the 1960s and 1970s longed for small, participatory communities, and rejected the giant organizations that New Deal liberals had taken pride in. In the 1980s and 1990s, new urbanists converted most progressives to their nostalgia for the ephemeral rail-and-trolley based towns of the late nineteenth century. GM foods, which New Deal liberals like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson would have embraced as a way to feed multitudes while sparing land for wilderness, were denounced by progressives who favored “heirloom” turkey and melons that the Pilgrims might have eaten. The increasingly reactionary American left, disenchanted with nuclear power plants and rockets and suburbs, longed to quit modernity and retire to a small town with an organic farmers’ market and an oompah band playing in the town park’s bandstand.

Michael Lind would make a great scriptwriter for Sarah Palin: he makes passing a few passing asides to the substantive arguments in these paragraphs, but the real energy of the piece comes from a set of cultural resentments, with the rightness of Michael Linds position confidently asserted rather than justified or debated.  New urbanists are against suburbs because of a romantic vision of the 19th century.  People worried about GMOs just want turkeys to be like they were in the 18th century.  No need to debate the merits of their arguments or have some tiresome debate about who, specifically, he is characterizing with these broad pronouncements.  

Indeed, in Lind’s piece, not only is the generalized other wrong, he is so wrong that his views are a repudiation of the entire European Enlightenment, whose fundamental principles self-evidently prioritize roads over rail, suburbs over cities, and presumably, single-use zoning over mixed-used zoning and government subsidies for nuclear power rather than solar or wind.  

There is very little relationship between the caricature of environmentalists that Lind presents and the actual culture of environmentalists.  In fact, there are a wide range of views within the environmental community on issues such as GMOs, nuclear power, and pretty much everything else.  Frankly, you can’t sit down in a meeting with a group of environmentalists talking about almost any issue without hearing every person state a slightly differing, more nuanced position or argument or gripe about the thing that environmentalists have been getting wrong all these years.  

That’s a good thing, and it’s a reflection of the fact that environmentalism is a product of the Enlightenment just as much as nuclear power or highways.  

It’s not my issue, but I would add that I find his comments about abortion equally arrogant, poorly argued and generally wrong. 

Lind’s stupid article

I find it utterly dumbfounding that Michael Lind manages to conflate a “modernist” agenda with an aggressive defense of regressing to a mid-20th century transportation policy.  The era of unlimited suburbs, cars, trucks and highways was a response to specific conditions that no longer exist - that is, the 1950s, when oil was cheap and plentiful and carbon dioxide was not understood to be a significant problem. With hundreds of millions more cars on the road in developing nations, oil supplies stagnating and oil responsible for 42% of our total carbon emissions, a transportation policy that tells people to keep spreading out further and further from urban clusters and provides people with no public transportation is a recipe for disaster.  

Nobody wants to “ban suburbia” - a nonsense phrase of no real meaning other than to baselessly brand his opponents as authoritarian.   But we do need a transportation agenda that anticipates future challenges and builds towards a sustainable future.  That is a real modernist agenda.  


How do you think the American public would respond to a politician who said the following:

“Burning pure, unfiltered and unsequestered coal is the cheapest way to deliver electricity to consumers. But it’s toxic to our health and it threatens catastrophic danger to our climate. Switching to clean energy alternatives means that in the short run, we’re going to have to pay a little more for electricity. But in the long run, renewable and domestic energy sources will be cheaper and better for our economy.

I don’t mean that as a rhetorical question. Is the problem:
1) That the American people are genuinely unwilling to pay even a penny more per Kwh for electricity?
2) That our politicians don’t trust the public to make the argument for paying higher energy costs?

Either way, the thing that makes the RES politically feasible is that it isn’t immediately obvious that it is going to make electricity cost more. That’s the real Iron Law of Climate Politics: the American public will accept any climate policy that requires a basic understanding of economics in order to figure out that it will make stuff cost more. As a result, our country will gladly spend $2 - or even $100 - to do through command and control regulation what we could do for $1 through market based regulation. What I’m not sure of is whether its the public, or the politicians, or even the environmental organizations that are currently the problem.


How do you think the American public would respond to a politician who said the following: “Burning pure, unfiltered and unsequestered coal is the cheapest way to deliver electricity to consumers. But it’s toxic to our health and it threatens catastrophic danger to our climate. Switching to clean energy alternatives means that in the short run, we’re going to have to pay a little more for electricity. But in the long run, renewable and domestic energy sources will be cheaper and better for our economy. ” I don’t mean that as a rhetorical question. Is the problem: 1) That the American people are genuinely unwilling to pay even a penny more per Kwh for electricity? or 2) That our politicians don’t trust the public to make the argument for paying higher energy costs? Either way, the thing that makes the RES politically feasible is that it isn’t immediately obvious that it is going to make electricity cost more. That’s the real Iron Law of Climate Politics: the American public will accept any climate policy that requires a basic understanding of economics in order to figure out that it will make stuff cost more. As a result, our country will gladly spend $2 - or even $100 - to do through command and control regulation what we could do for $1 through market based regulation. What I’m not sure of is whether its the public, or the politicians, or even the environmental organizations that are currently the problem.