B-school prof in a parody of short-term thinking

by Andrew Gelman on January 5, 2013 · 33 comments

in Blogs

John Cochrane writes:

Yes, infrastructure is crumbling, as a few New Yorkers may have figured out when their power went off, while their politicians — and the Times — instead of talking about burying electric lines and putting in a modern grid, wished instead to stem the rise of oceans and sugar in their soft drinks. But infrastructure spending is a tiny component of the Federal budget; we could support anyone’s wish list without a Federal income tax.

Cochrane has got to be the last person in America not to see the connection between the rise of oceans and the power outage caused by Hurricane Sandy. I mean, sure, he can argue that current policies aren’t doing a good job of stemming the rise of the oceans, he can criticize politicians and newspaper editors all he likes, but here he seems to be missing the connection entirely.

I’m guessing that, living so far inland as he does, Cochrane just thinks of “stemming the rise of the oceans” as something frivolous, to be mentioned in the same off-the-cuff way that he mocks sugar subsidies. To him, taxes are serious business, infrastructure is serious business, but sea level rise is a big joke. Thus he could view Hurricane Sandy entirely as a problem of the power grid and not even catch the relevance of the sea level to a flood.

P.S. As commenters noted, it can make short-term and medium-term sense to fix infrastructure, whatever is done regarding long-term regarding sea-level rise. But the job of politicians is not just to deal with today’s floods; they are supposed to head off long-term problems as well. I was not disagreeing with Cochrane’s advice to spend on infrastructure, I just thought he missed the point when he criticized politicians for working to stem the rise of the oceans. They should be doing both.

{ 33 comments }

Dubby Hess January 5, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Cochrane is more correct than you think. Even if we stopped emitting carbon, it would take decades, if not centuries, for the oceans to recede and to see the impact of this course of action; but investing in infrastructure that can withstand severe weather has immediate impact. The U.S. should be spending more political and economic resources on mitigating the the affects of rising oceans and climate change, rather than trying to prevent it entirely.

Andrew Gelman January 5, 2013 at 5:35 pm

Dubby:

Given what you write, it would make sense for the government to put effort into reducing sea level rises, and into mitigating the consequences. It’s not one or the other. Otherwise the John Cochranes of the year 2043 will be telling us that there’s no point in stemming the rise of oceans now, we should’ve done it in 2013.

Dubby Hess January 5, 2013 at 6:03 pm

Not necessarily. I’m sure that you know that there are people who do not believe the climate change is happening. Then, there are more people that believe that climate change is occurring but do not believe that its the not the result of human activity. Then, there are people who believe that climate change is occurring, its caused by human activity, but do not believe that the current proposed solution, the Kyoto protocols, would not solve the problem, particularly at its current price.

But I would submit that people know that severe weather, regardless if the cause is human caused climate change, damages infrastructure and that is a problem that must be solved. And proposals to improve infrastructure can move forward without having it tied to climate change.

And I believe that Cochrane’s point is that political leaders would rather talk about climate change and soda pop rather than trying to solve the more pressing problem of crumbling infrastructure.

Andrew Gelman January 5, 2013 at 6:33 pm

Dubby:

You write, “Cochrane’s point is that political leaders would rather talk about climate change and soda pop rather than trying to solve the more pressing problem of crumbling infrastructure.” But that’s exactly why I labeled this as “short-term thinking,” to suggest that politicians should only work on more pressing problems and not think about the future. It’s not like they can only do one or the other!

Dubby Hess January 5, 2013 at 6:14 pm

And by the way, people shouldn’t be living on ocean coasts; its a dangerous place to live. Sea shores come and go. Cochrane is making the rational decision, like Native Americans before him, of living inland.

Dan Nexon January 6, 2013 at 10:33 pm

“like Native Americans before him”

Joke, right?

Crissa January 8, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Where should we be living then? Mountains come and go, they slip and slide. Rivers come and go, they meander and they flood. Plains come and go, the flood, erode and have terrible wind storms.

No matter where humans decide to live, the world around them will continue to try to change, whether the humans are ready for it or not.

RobC January 5, 2013 at 5:32 pm

Putting aside the fact that it was on June 8, 2008 that the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal, even if there was a connection between the 3mm per year rise in ocean levels since 1993 and the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, that doesn’t mean it’s not smarter to focus on infrastructure changes (e.g., burying electric lines, heightening sea walls) as local remediation measures for the rising ocean levels rather than focusing on anti-global warming measures that are likely to have minimal if any effect on the rise in sea levels. You don’t have to be a b-school professor to figure that out; a modicum of common sense is sufficient.

Nathanael January 7, 2013 at 8:18 pm

If we keep emitting CO2, the sea levels are going to keep going up. Next effect of CO2 emissions: drought. Next effect of CO2 emissions: collapse of the oceanic ecosystem due to acidification. After that, it gets worse.

We can stop the problem from getting worse if we stop burning fossil fuels ASAP. Whenever we stop burning fossil fuels, we stop the problem from getting worse. As long as we keep burning them, the problem gets worse and worse and worse and worse and worse, and eventually you can’t adapt to it.

Peter T January 5, 2013 at 10:56 pm

If global climate change were only sea levels rising, then it might make some sense to argue about a trade-off between prevention and adaptation. But climate change generates much more severe weather – more hot spells, more dry spells, more intense rainfall. In other words, adaptation becomes harder and harder as it proceeds unchecked. Without prevention, adaptation becomes impossible.

Erik M. January 6, 2013 at 2:37 am

A minor quibble, but surely Cochrane is not mocking sugar subsidies – he’s mocking the ban on selling soda in containers larger than 16 oz.

Mark January 6, 2013 at 12:28 pm

As a policy matter Cochrane is correct. Let’s not argue about the science and just accept the IPCC reports as correct for purposes of this discussion and move to policy.

1. Unlike air and water pollution which the US could successfully tackle on its own, CO2 is a global issue – it doesn’t matter where it is emitted.

2. To eventually stop warming (and Dubby is correct about what is already in the bank) global emissions need to actually be reduced from current levels. However, where those emissions are coming from is radically different than it was 20 years ago. In 1990, the US was 22% of global emissions, today it is 16%. China was 11%, today it is 26% and the difference has been accelerating. In 2000, China emissions were one half of the US; in 2006 they surpassed the US and today they are equal to the US + EU 15. India has gone from 3% to 6% in that time and other developing nations have increased. Global emissions are now more than 40% above 1990. Both the US and EU are approximately stable over that period.

3. The Kyoto Protocol expired on Dec 31, 2012 and the prospects are nil for another agreement that would entail actual emission reductions for China and India. The effectiveness of the Protocol approach is debateable in any event as both the EU (a signatory) and the US (a non-signatory) saw the same reduction in CO2 from 2000 to 2008 (about -1%).

4. Mathematically, even dramatic reductions of US emissions over the next few decades will have almost about no impact on rising temperatures according to the IPCC models in view of increasing emissions, particularly in Asia.

5. On CO2 emissions our best “no regrets” short-term policies are to encourage fracking and the transition from coal to less carbon-intensive natural gas and for the current Administration to continue its slow-growth policies which are supressing energy demand.

6. Other than that we should work on adaptation (storm barriers, encouraging less beachfront construction) and hope the IPCC projections are wrong.

Andrew Gelman January 6, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Mark:

Indeed, much of the task “stemming the rise of oceans” is to work with other countries on reducing global emissions. Foreign policy is part of what the government does. I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m just saying it’s silly for Cochrane to imply it is irrelevant and to liken it to obviously lower-priority issues such as regulation of sugary beverages.

Mark January 6, 2013 at 2:56 pm

It is irrelevant. The interests of the nations that are critical for success are inimical to it. To the extent emissions are reduced it will happen because of technological changes or slower growth regardless of pipedreams about global policy.

JRoth January 7, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Similarly, it was our singular stand against Hitler that won WW2, not some time-wasting nonsense about “alliances” and pantywaist foreign policy. It is literally impossible for foreign entanglements to advance the interests of any nation.

If you were a realist, Andrew, you’d understand this.

JRiordan January 7, 2013 at 5:04 pm

I would guess the Russians (>8 million military casualties, >16 million civilian) might possibly disagree about this. To be realistic.

Nathanael January 7, 2013 at 8:19 pm

I think JRoth was being sarcastic.

Peter T January 6, 2013 at 10:05 pm

Mark

Would “all the bombs are coming from other states, so we had beter just build stronger numkers” make sense? If the US has the leverage to compel European banks and Indian multinationals to curtail trade with Iran, or to drag Swiss financiers inbto court. or to stymie EU aviation emission regulations, then it also has the leverage to push hard on Indian and Chinese emissions. A tariff on imports proportional to carbon content? A ban on export of or financial assistance with coal-fired power, plus subsidies for Indian and Chinese clean power? I am sure you can think of lots of measures, (which would be backed by the EU, Australia and Japan). It’s a failure of political will. But if the US abandons global leadership in this area, maybe it will be harder for it to get its way in others?

Mark January 6, 2013 at 10:44 pm

Actually if the US attempts to lead here it will make it harder for it to get its way in others because the people we have to influence don’t care about this. They would view it as a cooperative thing for us NOT to raise the issue.
The EU just had to back down on its plan to do a carbon tax on international airlines because of Chinese opposition – the US may also have imposed it but it was the Chinese who made it happen. The EU fears them more than us.
And subsidies for Indian and Chinese clean power ?? Do you have a lick of common political sense?? That’s a non-starter with both political parties in our current economic condition.
We need to forget this political fantasyland of a global agreement. Please look at the math. Reducing CO2 emissions to the extent needed just to stabilize things according to the IPCC would stifle economic growth in China which would threaten the survival of the regime. They will never do it.
And these great policy schemes have a way of failing anyway. Look at my comment above – for all the flak the US took for not signing Kyoto our performance was about the same as the EU’s! What does that tell you?

Andrew Straticzuk January 6, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Some people believe that global warming is not happening, some people believe it is happening but not man made…..etc. but also some people believe that the universe is about 3000 years old and that a fertilized egg is a sentient person. I fail to see what the argument is. If the point is that we should be spending more political capital on infrastructure than on reducing greenhouse gas emissions I totally disagree. The exquisite balance that the earth’s ecosystem is in is what made life on this planet possible in the first place. Once you alter that balance you have no idea what manner of catastrophes will visit our planet. Shoddy Infrastructure pales in importance to the seriousness of the global warming problem. The former threatens the existence of humanity itself whereas the latter is rather parochial in comparison.

Andrew Straticzuk January 6, 2013 at 8:24 pm

Obviously I reversed former and latter….

matt w January 7, 2013 at 1:20 pm

Hm.

In February 2009, Cochrane attacked the whole notion of fiscal stimulus. This is his discussion of infrastructure:

Another potential defense of fiscal stimulus lies in this analysis. If, rather than send out checks, the government invests the money in truly valuable infrastructure, if that infrastructure truly does expand output, and if that expanded output generates additional tax revenues for the government, then Investors will be happy to hold a larger quantity of government debt permanently, because that debt is a claim to a worthwhile stream of future taxes. There is a lot of “if” here.

Followed immediately by his conclusion: “In sum, the US needs to keep its fiscal powder dry.”

So, as far as blathering on about irrelevant hokum instead of advocating for infrastructure spending goes, Cochrane needs to take the m*****f***ing beam out of his own eye.

(In a piece called “Fiscal Stimulus, RIP” published after the 2010 midterms, Cochrane does say that it’s good for government to spend on infrastructure during recessions; but he does so only after doing so has become politically impossible, thanks in part to Cochrane’s and his allies’ malfeasance in discussing spending up till that point. If anyone can find a place where he actually advocated for infrastructure spending when it could make a difference, feel free. He seems to me like a political tribalist first and foremost.)

matt w January 7, 2013 at 1:32 pm

More from Mark Thoma on Cochrane’s fecklessness on the question of infrastructure.

Thoma overcourteously elides part of this quote from the article I linked:

“If it’s a good idea to build roads, then build roads. (But keep in mind the many roads to nowhere, and ask why fixing Chicago’s potholes must come from Arizona’s taxes funneled through Washington DC.)”

So Cochrane is in favor of infrastructure spending, except insofar as it might involve the federal government using money to build infrastructure. And except insofar as anyone ever actually proposed a bill to spend on infrastructure.

Andrew Gelman January 7, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Matt:

Wow–that’s a terrible example on Cochrane’s part, considering the notorious variation across states in how much they spend and take from the government. Illinois is a net contributor and Arizona is a net recipient.

Nathanael January 7, 2013 at 8:20 pm

Just more evidence that Cochrane is “playing for Team Republican” rather than attempting to be an intellectual.

Wayne2 January 7, 2013 at 4:53 pm

I think you miss his point: New York City has essentially no influence over sea levels. So talking, at the New York City level, about sea level and preventing sea level rise is literally nonsensical. It’s like the UN talking about how we can prevent the Sun from going Nova someday.

On the other hand, we’ve known for decades (or centuries, perhaps) that Manhattan is subject to tidal surges. The city’s been hit as hard as Sandy in the past — and even without a single centimeter of sea level rise or a single degree of warming, it will be hit by something worse in the future. Yet the New York City leaders and elites have allowed critical pieces of power infrastructure to be built underground, in no way secured from tidal surges?

That’s the point. Do things that you should’ve done 50 years ago. The plane’s lost two engines and smoke is coming from the galley: this isn’t the time for the pilot and co-pilot to be sitting around talking about long-range air traffic control problems in the year 2050.

Andrew Gelman January 7, 2013 at 9:25 pm

Wayne2:

Given what you write, it would make sense for the government to put effort into reducing sea level rises, and into mitigating the consequences. It’s not one or the other. Otherwise the John Cochranes of the year 2043 will be telling us that there’s no point in stemming the rise of oceans now, we should’ve done it in 2013.

Wayne Kernochan January 7, 2013 at 8:38 pm

I find it depressing the amount of half-information and mistaken conclusions that commenters are providing. Far better sources for recommendations are http://www.climateprogress.com and http://www.climatecentral.com.

To cite just a few things: IPCC far underestimates the speed and short-term and long-term impacts of climate change. Adaptation is far more expensive, and less effective than “mitigation” that seeks to minimize carbon increases in the atmosphere. Adaptation vs. mitigation is not either-or; you need to do both to be effective, but mitigation must be given priority. Climate deniers are no more credible than those who don’t believe in gravity; the physics, chemistry, and data are that solid.

Finally, Cochrane is pathetically ignorant of the issues involved. First, the most likely scenario in the next 87 years is now a sea rise of 16 feet, thanks to inaction over the past 15 years. To this add 10-20 feet of increased storm surge. By 2040, as Heidi Cullen notes, a hurricane could not only submerge the subway system but also trigger cut-offs on the sewer system, closing down the outlets and backing up sewer contents onto the streets, with a real prospect of a major outbreak of disease-caused death. Today’s way of putting electric lines underground would not deal with any of this, much less what things will be like 37 and 87 years from now.

That’s the sea coasts. Then there’s dust bowl conditions for much of the US (except the Northeast) by 2050, likely submerging of the Sacramento Valley agriculture that supplies a significant proportion of the US and world food supply by 2060, and costs of natural disasters that require infrastructure repair that have been growing exponentially each decade, with a major (greater than 0.2%) drag on the US and world economy somewhere around 2030 and continuing to increase.

By the way, the effects beyond 2050-2100 are much more horrific.

Kate January 8, 2013 at 1:02 pm

as a long time long island resident, I’ll tell you that Cochrane is at least half correct. First, utilities rates on LI have gone up and up and up — without any attempt whatsoever not only to bury power lines, but also to maintain the above-ground ones we already have. This is because of the huge investment in nuclear power, and we continue to pay and pay and pay for it. so during every storm – *every storm* electricity goes out. in a place 20 minutes from lower manhattan.

His complaint isn’t *that* short term — or at least, it looks verrry long term compared to current policy/investment in utilities in operation.

Crissa January 8, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Water into underground lines and corrosion of embedded lines is actually a thing that is retarding expansion of broadband into many areas.

Of course, we could change how we’re paying for these upgrades, and how we install them, but that’s not politically feasible, either.

Henri February 1, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Cochrane is not the imbecile you (Gelman and consequent supporters) make him out to be. Even assuming the existence of global warming, if only for the sake of this blog, Cochrane still has the right idea about policy. Although in an idealistic world, the government would address the immediate infrastructural issues and the issue of rising water levels, in all reality, especially given the current economy, satisfying both “camps” is rarely an option. The government must keep its current constituents alive and well to be able to, in future, attempt to stem the rising water levels of the oceans. And yes Crissa, it would be a tough political move to make; that is, making the decision to abandon the needs of the living for those yet unborn. Cochrane is absolutely correct on a matter of policy, even if it’s not the best overall solution in a more long term sense, the government can’t focus on the future if they have to clean up dead civilians.

Wayne Kernochan February 14, 2013 at 3:48 pm

@Henri: You have the choice exactly backwards — which is “reasonable”, since that’s the usual choice. The choice in this case is between speculative small numbers of dead , and huge numbers of dead 100-200 years from now.

Here’s an analogy you might be able to wrap your mind around (although I doubt Cochrane can): it is far cheaper to build multistory buildings without outside walls. Gravity predicts with absolute certainty that if you step over the side of those buildings, you will be badly injured or dead. Hence, political feasibility of requiring those who build those buildings to undertake the added expense is not the primary factor in a political or governing calculus. You must do it or large numbers of the people who use those buildings will be dead. The unrealistic ones are those who, like Cochrane, say that because gravity is only a theory and the extra costs will hurt building companies immediately, the only feasible policy is to clean up the dead first.

To misquote Queen Elizabeth the First, “One does not say ‘must’ to science, little man.”

Wayne Kernochan February 14, 2013 at 3:53 pm

sorry, I didn’t understand how HTML would treat careted characters. I’ll have to shout.

@Henri: You have the choice exactly backwards — which is “reasonable”, since that’s the usual choice. The choice in this case is between speculative small numbers of dead NOW, and CERTAIN huge numbers of dead 100-200 years from now.

Here’s an analogy you might be able to wrap your mind around (although I doubt Cochrane can): it is far cheaper to build multistory buildings without outside walls. Gravity predicts with absolute certainty that if you step over the side of those buildings, you will be badly injured or dead. Hence, political feasibility of requiring those who build those buildings to undertake the added expense is not the primary factor in a political or governing calculus. You must do it or large numbers of the people who use those buildings will be dead. The unrealistic ones are those who, like Cochrane, say that because gravity is only a theory and the extra costs will hurt building companies immediately, the only feasible policy is to clean up the dead first.

To misquote Queen Elizabeth the First, “One does not say ‘must’ to science, little man.”

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