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Karl Smith, who is very smart, is still stunningly dense on climate change:

One of the core ideas behind climate change is that if humans continue to burn fossil fuels then the earth will become warmer.

As it stands there are some places on earth that are so hot that no one wants to live there. There are also some places that are so cold that no one wants to live.

A baseline guesstimate might be that if the earth got warmer then the number of places that were too hot would expand and the number of places that were too cold would contract.

A possible strategy then would be for humans to move from the places that are newly too hot to the places that were formerly too cold.

Now this may very well be a horrible idea. In which case I would expect someone to say: I hear were you are coming from Karl but . . . . and that’s why that plan won’t work.

I’ve received a lot of email and tweets on this issue. I have tried to go through them all. So far I haven’t seen one that comes at it like that. Lots of folks mocked me. Some were kind enough to send along information on exactly how hot the too hot places might get and what the consequences of excess heat might be.

Yet, so far, nothing addressing why moving to cooler places won’t work.

Again, even if we are certain this won’t work its probably worth stepping through exactly why it won’t work. At least so everyone can be on the same page.

This is remarkably foolish. Just taking this at face value, you are just sacrificing an enormous amount of non-tradable capital by abandoning cities that would be in the too-hot category. People like Miami and Eilat and Quito and Nairobi and Jakarta and La Paz and Mexico City and all kinds of other places that could become overheated. We would lose a lot of built infrastructure, history, culture, and unique clusters of human interactions that way. Plus, if millions or billions of people are forced to evacuate their homes due to something that was preventable and not of their doing, that’s not very nice.

But this also radically understates what global warming really is. If all it did was “raise the temperature of every place on earth by X degrees” then I would just move to Boston or Montreal and call it a day. But it also, for example, melts the polar ice caps. Which could leave some of those formerly-cold-and-now-warm cities underwater since a lot of them are coastal. It could massively impact food supplies, leading to shortages which lead to starvation. It could cause hurricanes, tornadoes, and other dangerous weather systems to become more common and more extreme. It could make wet places dry and dry places wet, leading to flooding or fires. It could cause mass extinctions of species.

And most importantly, once you get into these kinds of scenarios, the simulations start to get haywire. Kind of like the scene from Sunshine (which tragically seems not be on YouTube) when Capa shows how projections of the bomb’s impact scramble the simulator past a certain point. This is what Matt Yglesias tried to say to Smith in a nice way about “tail risk” – is that it’s very possible that global warming could cause chain reactions of awfulness whose outcomes we cannot possibly predict. It’s the kind of thing economists have trouble pricing, sure, but it’s easier to price it when you acknowledge it. We’re not talking about just relocating vacation homes here.

I mean, seriously, dude, before you piss off the whole internets, at least read this first.



Felix Salmon has a great post in which he links to some great journalism from NPR, and I’d love to talk about it but I am just too distracted by this picture:

I see only three explanations for this picture:

1. John Thune is bribing an AP photographer.
2. John Thune is chosen by God to lead us to a messianic age.
3. John Thune is the Icarus II:

We report, you decide.


Just listened to Planet Money discuss subsidies for having babies, and thought, first of all, since I am now engaged to get married and both the fiancee and I are on the same page re: having a couple kids, I hope the United States institues such a policy! Maybe it could united pro-lifers (incentive to carry pregnancy to term) and progressives (it would largely be a very progressive redistribution of wealth)!

But more importantly the economic logic behind it sort-of-tangentially reminded me of a pet concern of mine:

This can be good for a little while. With a young workforce and fewer babies to take care of, a country can show enormous growth.

But then people start to get old, and governments say uh-oh.

"Who’s going to pay the bills? Who’s going to pay for pensions?" says Patricia Boling, a political scientist at Purdue.

In many countries, including the U.S., workers pay for retirees’ pensions. Fewer kids means fewer workers funding those pensions.

"And in countries that have really low fertility rates, that’s a very extreme problem," Boling says. It "makes what we have in the United States … look like peanuts."

All true! And yet one would think that overall economic growth could fund a higher retiree-to-worker ratio, right?

Here’s my vision for the future of the economy:

  • Robots replace humans at doing some job. A few humans are unemployed, but overall there is a consumer surplus.
  • Repeat.

Here is where my simulation diverges. Essentially, replacing a human worker with a robot is substituting capitol (the machine) for labor (the worker). On a small scale this will simply cause sectoral shifts; if it gets cheaper to buy some tchotchke because a robot made it instead of a human, when I buy the tchotchke I save some money which I will then use to buy coffee and when demand for coffee goes up it causes a commesurate rise in employment in the coffee sector. Yay! But on a sufficiently large scale you are faced with what I like to call the reverse-Ford problem:

Mr. Ford announced that he was doubling the pay of thousands of his employees, to at least $5 a day. With his company selling Model T’s as fast as it could make them, his workers deserved to share in the profits, he said. […]

The mythology around this story holds that Mr. Ford wanted to pay his workers enough so they could afford the products they were making.

In fact, that wasn’t his original reasoning. But others made the point, and, in time, it became part of Mr. Ford’s rationale as well. The idea became a linchpin in an industrial philosophy known as Fordism.

More production could lead to better wages, which in turn would lead to more spending by the public, yet more production and eventually even higher wages.

"One’s own employees ought to be one’s own best customers," Mr. Ford said years later. "Paying high wages," he concluded, "is behind the prosperity of this country."

So what happens to Ford Motors if making the same number of cars requires far less labor input, replaced by less-expensive capitol input? Well you get higher and higher wealth and income inequality as those at the top need not share their profits with a large workforce.

So what happens when there exist enough robots to basically obviate human labor from the fundamentals of the economy?

I see three possible futures:

  • Robot dystopia – a few scions of capitol control all the machines, make vast fortunes, and surrender as little as possible, leaving most of the rest of humanity living at subsistence levels.
  • Robot utopia – socialization of wealth through whatever mechanism, meaning the vast surplus is shared relatively equitably, meaning most people have most of their needs met and are free to pursue higher levels on the Maslow heirarchy.
  • Robot apocalypse – the robots rise as one to destroy us all.

I don’t know what to do about option #3, but I am concerned that ruling that out that option #1 is more likely than option #2. And the reason I think that has to do with, well, baby subsidies. To some extent we are facing a similar problem – the economy is producing more but finding that more and more of the humans in the system don’t have a great deal of utility but still require resources. In theory this shouldn’t be hard, but in practice it’s proving difficult. Even in Japan where they had some nasty economic times they have still passed their original peak GDP and are have a very high GDP per capita, though not nearly as high as the United States. Keep in mind also that a lot of Japan’s troubles here are culturally based; a different country facing similar demographics would probably not have such a difficult time. But looking at the United States where GOP scissors are already being aimed at Social Security despite being projected not to run into any trouble for the next 75 years because raising taxes on wealthier individuals is the dread socialism doesn’t necessarily leave me optimistic that we’ll be able to wrest sufficient control of the Great Robot Surplus from the hands of its nominal owners before they are able to consolidate control.

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