Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

UPDATE: We All Agree ... Don't We?

John Quiggin, an economist crusading against Bjorn Lomborg (the "Skeptical Environmentalist"), posts some interesting comments on the discussion MWQ has been having with Arnold Kling. Professor Quiggin offers his own poll of Australian economists which he says shows that at least 30% of the academic economists in that country support the Kyoto Protocol - which is not surprising and entirely as predicted by MWQ. Professor Quiggin also writes that "a promised statement of economists opposed to Kyoto never appeared, apparently because the number of credible signatures was so embarrassingly small." And while he cites nothing to support his "apparently," his suggestion is consistent with my own experience with academic economists in the United States - as I noted in my prior post.

I don't mean to be construed as endorsing Professor Quiggin's views or approach. He seems to object to my describing him as a "vicious critic" of Lomborg, but he has been described that way elsewhere and, with only arguable hyperbole, as a practitioner of "Green McCarthyism." The reader is invited to Google up a few articles by Professor Quiggin (there are also a good number linked on his web site) and evaluate his approach independently.

The reader is also invited to evaluate whether Professor Quiggin advances his cause with assertions such as "MWQ clearly wouldn't know an economic model if he fell over one, but he still knows what answer should come out. Kling is even more interesting. In general he's a techno-optimist, supporter of free markets and a believer in the flexibility of technology, as opposed to the fixed-proportions model adopted by many environmentalists." Professor Quiggin is perfectly within his rights to see "clearly," but without supporting examples, gaps in MWQ's technical abilities that have for some reason not been seen by others. May he go with God. Of the many criticisms the MWQ has experienced in life, this particular criticism has not previously been tendered. I shall cherish it and keep it in my butterfly box. Professor Quiggin is also within his rights to detect a bias on my part against Australians (or Australian economists) which I never intended to convey and do not believe I did convey. In fact, I thought I had rather drolly if indirectly tweaked Mr. Kling on this point.

But before attempting to intellectually ghettoize Arnold Kling as Professor Quiggin does, he may want to give at least some indication to his readers of what other economists oppose the fixed-proportions models and give at least one cite to one prominent economist who believes some modification of the model structure solves the problems. For example, has Professor Quiggin consulted with, or researched the views of, Robert Solow on this point?

And this riff of Professor Quiggin's almost seems to be an exercise in how many ways he can undercut his own credibility by misunderstanding and misinterpreting both of Messrs. Lomborg and Kling:

Lomborg dismisses global emissions trading as politically infeasible because it would involve the redistribution of billions of dollars to developing countries (page 305). But then he turns around and attacks alternative ways of implementing Kyoto by suggesting that the billions required could be better spent - by redistributing them to developing countries. Apart from the inherent contradiction in Lomborg's argument, the crucial point here is that he rejects market mechanisms on political grounds, the kind of thing Kling would scorn if it came from an environmentalist.

In the first instance, Lomborg is simply saying that as a matter of political reality it is unrealistic to think wealthy countries are just going to make a huge wealth transfer to poor countries. No reasonable person could disagree with Lomborg on this point. Then Lomborg says that even if one could overcome this practical political reality, there would be better ways of spending the money. There is no inconsistency, although Professor Quiggin thinks the inconsistency is clear. Moreover, while Arnold Kling is perfectly capable of defending himself from the likes of Professor Quiggin, I will say that nothing I have ever seen suggests that Arnold Kling thinks that in contexts other than environmentalism one should ignore or minimize the practical difficulties of effecting hypothetical gratuitous transfers of huge chunks of the planet's wealth - as Professor Quiggin asserts. Professor Quiggin might help his cause by citing to even one place where Mr. Kling has done this - but I seriously doubt that such an example exists.

Professor Quiggin is a example. He is an example of the kind of person I was suggesting on general grounds almost certainly exist in superabundance when I wrote:

Most academic economists move in the comfortable, insulated, liberal world of academic communities - places in which the Kyoto Protocol normally commands much more respect than, say, the writings of Moses or Saint Paul. Even before doing a search, why would one presume that there are no (or almost no) "green" economists from such communities who are either convinced that Kyoto is good for the world, or willing to use their expertise to cobble together arguments supporting it?

My guess is that Professor Quiggin is sincerely convinced that Kyoto is good for the world and is full of intentions he believes to be among the best. But it is also my guess – and it is only a guess - that the comfortable, insulated, liberal world in which Professor Quiggin moves has dulled his awareness of how vicious he is, or has become, and how much that affects his thinking. In this sense, Professor Quiggin is an example of another sort: a Lomborg critic of the type noted by, for example, the Economist magazine and many others, who gets so emotional and self-righteous that most intellectual substance just drops out of their arguments while their personalites suffer greatly from the strain.

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