Green Police

A glimpse of the future from Audi’s Superbowl ad:

Hat tip: In The Agora.

Norman Borlaug, the Greatest Person Ever, has Died

Since he’s not a eccentric pop star, Norman Borlaug’s death is unlikely to be particularly newsworthy. Here’s a short video outlining his contributions to human wellbeing:

PC has a nice round-up of obituaries, etc.

That Word Doesn’t Mean What You Think it Means…

The title of this press release from Living Streets Aotearoa – “Helping Kiwis Choose to Walk More Often” – nicely illustrates how seriously most public health advocates, environmentalists, and other do-gooders take the concept of choice.

If you want to help someone make a choice, you could give them information or point out any flaws you find in their reasoning; but when you’ve decided in advance what the right choice is, you are not taking their capacity as a person capable of agency seriously. You know what the right choice is and want to manipulate people or alter the incentives people face in order for them to do what you want. What the press release really means is “Making Kiwis Walk More Often Without Using Force.” That’s not a goal I find particularly objectionable, but it has nothing to do with helping anyone choose anything.

At least in this case nobody seems to be using coercive means such as sin taxes to “empower” smokers or fatties to make the right choices.

The War on Convenience

The U.N.’s Misanthrope in Chief  wants a global ban on plastic bags:

Single-use plastic bags, a staple of American life, have got to go, the United Nations’ top environmental official said Monday.

Although recycling bags is on the rise in the United States, an estimated 90 billion thin bags a year, most used to handle produce and groceries, go unrecycled. They were the second most common form of litter after cigarette butts at the 2008 International Coastal Cleanup Day sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy, a marine environmental group.

“Single use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased out rapidly everywhere. There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme. His office advises U.N. member states on environmental policies.

Save the Humans has many good posts on the folly of environmentalists’ plastic bag obsession.

Bootleggers and Baptists: Climate Change Edition

I’ve been blogging about bootleggers and baptists a bit lately, so I should probably mention this excellent WSJ article on The Climate-Industrial Complex from Bjorn Lomborg.

The partnership among self-interested businesses, grandstanding politicians and alarmist campaigners truly is an unholy alliance. The climate-industrial complex does not promote discussion on how to overcome this challenge in a way that will be best for everybody. We should not be surprised or impressed that those who stand to make a profit are among the loudest calling for politicians to act. Spending a fortune on global carbon regulations will benefit a few, but dearly cost everybody else.

Do read the whole thing. Once again, here’s Bruce Yandle’s wonderful paper.

Asthma and the Limits of Public Choice

Jason Kuznicki wonders why politics has robbed him of an effective asthma treatment:

My old CFC albuterol inhaler is much more effective than my new non-CFC inhaler. The medicine is the same, but the delivery system is awful.

I’m dreading the day that my old inhaler runs out. Yes, I follow the directions on the new one, and I know that it’s used differently. I know about priming and cleaning and all that. It doesn’t matter. The old inhaler works. The new one, if it works at all, may take around twice as many applications. (…)

But enough about asthma per se. The public choice aspect of the problem seems to run counter to the usual, doesn’t it? Here we have a concentrated group of people taking a huge utility loss. Being unable to breathe is one of the most unpleasant experiences you could possibly imagine. The old inhalers fixed it instantly. That’s what was lost.

The gain from this legislation is tiny, hard to notice, and literally diffused among all the people of the entire world — There are slightly fewer CFCs in the atmosphere. (CFCs are a problem, yes, but CFCs from inhalers were never a serious problem when considered alone.)

Why should it be that in this one case, the tiny, diffuse benefits win out over the large, concentrated ones?

I think it’s because the ban on CFC inhalers is not at all the result of classic public choice dynamics. This nicely demonstrates the limits of public choice theory in understanding politics. As Caplan and Stringham show, most inefficient policies are not the result of concentrated interests having their interests served against the preference of a powerless majority. Policymakers are tightly constrained by public opinion, and cannot normally simply accept bribes in exchange for creating unpopular rules to enrich special interests. We have bad policy because that’s what voters want. The public gets warm fuzzies from banning CFCs, and doesn’t much think about the costs (thinking about costs is, afterall, a downer).

Public choice theory in general and The Logic of Collective Action in particular has opened our eyes to many important aspects of the political process. The good old tyranny of the majority, though, remains of paramount importance. Democracy requires that politicians pander to the whims of the majority, even when there is strong pressure from concentrated interests to do otherwise. Interest groups do have an effect on political outcomes, but can only operate in the cracks of majoritarian democracy. Small, well-organized interest groups can achieve their goals when issue salience is low and voters will not punish politicians; when there is a compelling moral or public-interest argument to accompany their preferred policy; or when there are already legislators in favour of their preferred policy (which obviously depends on a significant constituency) whose legislative efforts they can subsidize. When these factors are absent, the majority will prevail even when there are huge utility losses to a minority.

The upshot of this is that anyone wishing for social change should focus on preferences at least as much as incentives.

Somebody Think of the Children!

Apparently, one third of American kids think the environmental apocalypse will destroy Earth by the time they grow up, and more than half think our evil, consumerist ways will make the planet a rather unpleasant place to live. I normally think of environmentalism as a feel-good pastime, occasionally resulting in bad policies that make us poorer and less free. This survey should remind us that environmental hysteria is also a severe mindfuck for younglings. While environmental externalities do cause some problems, quality of life (including environmental quality) is on a long upward trend and fears of environmental catastrophe are largely nonsense.