Monday, July 23, 2012

Loading the Climate Dice

July 22, 2012


A couple of weeks ago the Northeast was in the grip of a severe heat wave. As I write this, however, it’s a fairly cool day in New Jersey, considering that it’s late July. Weather is like that; it fluctuates.

And this banal observation may be what dooms us to climate catastrophe, in two ways. On one side, the variability of temperatures from day to day and year to year makes it easy to miss, ignore or obscure the longer-term upward trend. On the other, even a fairly modest rise in average temperatures translates into a much higher frequency of extreme events — like the devastating drought now gripping America’s heartland — that do vast damage.

On the first point: Even with the best will in the world, it would be hard for most people to stay focused on the big picture in the face of short-run fluctuations. When the mercury is high and the crops are withering, everyone talks about it, and some make the connection to global warming. But let the days grow a bit cooler and the rains fall, and inevitably people’s attention turns to other matters.

Making things much worse, of course, is the role of players who don’t have the best will in the world. Climate change denial is a major industry, lavishly financed by Exxon, the Koch brothers and others with a financial stake in the continued burning of fossil fuels. And exploiting variability is one of the key tricks of that industry’s trade. Applications range from the Fox News perennial — “It’s cold outside! Al Gore was wrong!” — to the constant claims that we’re experiencing global cooling, not warming, because it’s not as hot right now as it was a few years back.

How should we think about the relationship between climate change and day-to-day experience? Almost a quarter of a century ago James Hansen, the NASA scientist who did more than anyone to put climate change on the agenda, suggested the analogy of loaded dice. Imagine, he and his associates suggested, representing the probabilities of a hot, average or cold summer by historical standards as a die with two faces painted red, two white and two blue. By the early 21st century, they predicted, it would be as if four of the faces were red, one white and one blue. Hot summers would become much more frequent, but there would still be cold summers now and then.

And so it has proved. As documented in a new paper by Dr. Hansen and others, cold summers by historical standards still happen, but rarely, while hot summers have in fact become roughly twice as prevalent. And 9 of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000.

But that’s not all: really extreme high temperatures, the kind of thing that used to happen very rarely in the past, have now become fairly common. Think of it as rolling two sixes, which happens less than 3 percent of the time with fair dice, but more often when the dice are loaded. And this rising incidence of extreme events, reflecting the same variability of weather that can obscure the reality of climate change, means that the costs of climate change aren’t a distant prospect, decades in the future. On the contrary, they’re already here, even though so far global temperatures are only about 1 degree Fahrenheit above their historical norms, a small fraction of their eventual rise if we don’t act.

The great Midwestern drought is a case in point. This drought has already sent corn prices to their highest level ever. If it continues, it could cause a global food crisis, because the U.S. heartland is still the world’s breadbasket. And yes, the drought is linked to climate change: such events have happened before, but they’re much more likely now than they used to be.

Now, maybe this drought will break in time to avoid the worst. But there will be more events like this. Joseph Romm, the influential climate blogger, has coined the term “Dust-Bowlification” for the prospect of extended periods of extreme drought in formerly productive agricultural areas. He has been arguing for some time that this phenomenon, with its disastrous effects on food security, is likely to be the leading edge of damage from climate change, taking place over the next few decades; the drowning of Florida by rising sea levels and all that will come later.

And here it comes.

Will the current drought finally lead to serious climate action? History isn’t encouraging. The deniers will surely keep on denying, especially because conceding at this point that the science they’ve trashed was right all along would be to admit their own culpability for the looming disaster. And the public is all too likely to lose interest again the next time the die comes up white or blue.

But let’s hope that this time is different. For large-scale damage from climate change is no longer a disaster waiting to happen. It’s happening now.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Pathos of the Plutocrat

July 19, 2012


“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” So wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald — and he didn’t just mean that they have more money. What he meant instead, at least in part, was that many of the very rich expect a level of deference that the rest of us never experience and are deeply distressed when they don’t get the special treatment they consider their birthright; their wealth “makes them soft where we are hard.”

And because money talks, this softness — call it the pathos of the plutocrats — has become a major factor in America’s political life.

It’s no secret that, at this point, many of America’s richest men — including some former Obama supporters — hate, just hate, President Obama. Why? Well, according to them, it’s because he “demonizes” business — or as Mitt Romney put it earlier this week, he “attacks success.” Listening to them, you’d think that the president was the second coming of Huey Long, preaching class hatred and the need to soak the rich.

Needless to say, this is crazy. In fact, Mr. Obama always bends over backward to declare his support for free enterprise and his belief that getting rich is perfectly fine. All that he has done is to suggest that sometimes businesses behave badly, and that this is one reason we need things like financial regulation. No matter: even this hint that sometimes the rich aren’t completely praiseworthy has been enough to drive plutocrats wild. For two years or more, Wall Street in particular has been crying: “Ma! He’s looking at me funny!”

Wait, there’s more. Not only do many of the superrich feel deeply aggrieved at the notion that anyone in their class might face criticism, they also insist that their perception that Mr. Obama doesn’t like them is at the root of our economic problems. Businesses aren’t investing, they say, because business leaders don’t feel valued. Mr. Romney repeated this line, too, arguing that because the president attacks success “we have less success.”

This, too, is crazy (and it’s disturbing that Mr. Romney appears to share this delusional view about what ails our economy). There’s no mystery about the reasons the economic recovery has been so weak. Housing is still depressed in the aftermath of a huge bubble, and consumer demand is being held back by the high levels of household debt that are the legacy of that bubble. Business investment has actually held up fairly well given this weakness in demand. Why should businesses invest more when they don’t have enough customers to make full use of the capacity they already have?

But never mind. Because the rich are different from you and me, many of them are incredibly self-centered. They don’t even see how funny it is — how ridiculous they look — when they attribute the weakness of a $15 trillion economy to their own hurt feelings. After all, who’s going to tell them? They’re safely ensconced in a bubble of deference and flattery.

Unless, that is, they run for public office.

Like everyone else following the news, I’ve been awe-struck by the way questions about Mr. Romney’s career at Bain Capital, the private-equity firm he founded, and his refusal to release tax returns have so obviously caught the Romney campaign off guard. Shouldn’t a very wealthy man running for president — and running specifically on the premise that his business success makes him qualified for office — have expected the nature of that success to become an issue? Shouldn’t it have been obvious that refusing to release tax returns from before 2010 would raise all kinds of suspicions?

By the way, while we don’t know what Mr. Romney is hiding in earlier returns, the fact that he is still stonewalling despite calls by Republicans as well as Democrats to come clean suggests that it could be something seriously damaging.

Anyway, what’s now apparent is that the campaign was completely unprepared for the obvious questions, and it has reacted to the Obama campaign’s decision to ask those questions with a hysteria that surely must be coming from the top. Clearly, Mr. Romney believed that he could run for president while remaining safe inside the plutocratic bubble and is both shocked and angry at the discovery that the rules that apply to others also apply to people like him. Fitzgerald again, about the very rich: “They think, deep down, that they are better than we are.”

O.K., let’s take a deep breath. The truth is that many, and probably most, of the very rich don’t fit Fitzgerald’s description. There are plenty of very rich Americans who have a sense of perspective, who take pride in their achievements without believing that their success entitles them to live by different rules.

But Mitt Romney, it seems, isn’t one of those people. And that discovery may be an even bigger issue than whatever is hidden in those tax returns he won’t release.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Who’s Very Important?

July 12, 2012


“Is there a V.I.P. entrance? We are V.I.P.” That remark, by a donor waiting to get in to one of Mitt Romney’s recent fund-raisers in the Hamptons, pretty much sums up the attitude of America’s wealthy elite. Mr. Romney’s base — never mind the top 1 percent, we’re talking about the top 0.01 percent or higher — is composed of very self-important people.

Specifically, these are people who believe that they are, as another Romney donor put it, “the engine of the economy”; they should be cherished, and the taxes they pay, which are already at an 80-year low, should be cut even further. Unfortunately, said yet another donor, the “common person” — for example, the “nails ladies” — just doesn’t get it.

O.K., it’s easy to mock these people, but the joke’s really on us. For the “we are V.I.P.” crowd has fully captured the modern Republican Party, to such an extent that leading Republicans consider Mr. Romney’s apparent use of multimillion-dollar offshore accounts to dodge federal taxes not just acceptable but praiseworthy: “It’s really American to avoid paying taxes, legally,” declared Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. And there is, of course, a good chance that Republicans will control both Congress and the White House next year.

If that happens, we’ll see a sharp turn toward economic policies based on the proposition that we need to be especially solicitous toward the superrich — I’m sorry, I mean the “job creators.” So it’s important to understand why that’s wrong.

The first thing you need to know is that America wasn’t always like this. When John F. Kennedy was elected president, the top 0.01 percent was only about a quarter as rich compared with the typical family as it is now — and members of that class paid much higher taxes than they do today. Yet somehow we managed to have a dynamic, innovative economy that was the envy of the world. The superrich may imagine that their wealth makes the world go round, but history says otherwise.

To this historical observation we should add another note: quite a few of today’s superrich, Mr. Romney included, make or made their money in the financial sector, buying and selling assets rather than building businesses in the old-fashioned sense. Indeed, the soaring share of the wealthy in national income went hand in hand with the explosive growth of Wall Street.

Not long ago, we were told that all this wheeling and dealing was good for everyone, that it was making the economy both more efficient and more stable. Instead, it turned out that modern finance was laying the foundation for a severe economic crisis whose fallout continues to afflict millions of Americans, and that taxpayers had to bail out many of those supposedly brilliant bankers to prevent an even worse crisis. So at least some members of the top 0.01 percent are best viewed as job destroyers rather than job creators.

Did I mention that those bailed-out bankers are now overwhelmingly backing Mr. Romney, who promises to reverse the mild financial reforms introduced after the crisis?

To be sure, many and probably most of the rich do, in fact, contribute positively to the economy. However, they also receive large monetary rewards. Yet somehow $20 million-plus in annual income isn’t enough. They want to be revered, too, and given special treatment in the form of low taxes. And that is more than they deserve. After all, the “common person” also makes a positive contribution to the economy. Why single out the rich for extra praise and perks?

What about the argument that we must keep taxes on the rich low lest we remove their incentive to create wealth? The answer is that we have a lot of historical evidence, going all the way back to the 1920s, on the effects of tax increases on the rich, and none of it supports the view that the kinds of tax-rate changes for the rich currently on the table — President Obama’s proposal for a modest rise, Mr. Romney’s call for further cuts — would have any major effect on incentives. Remember when all the usual suspects claimed that the economy would crash when Bill Clinton raised taxes in 1993?

Furthermore, if you’re really concerned about the incentive effects of public policy, you should be focused not on the rich but on workers making $20,000 to $30,000 a year, who are often penalized for any gain in income because they end up losing means-tested benefits like Medicaid and food stamps. I’ll have more to say about that in another column. By the way, in 2010, the average annual wage of manicurists — “nails ladies,” in Romney-donor speak — was $21,760.

So, are the very rich V.I.P.? No, they aren’t — at least no more so than other working Americans. And the “common person” will be hurt, not helped, if we end up with government of the 0.01 percent, by the 0.01 percent, for the 0.01 percent.