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Exploiting Scarecrows and Scare Quotes

Justin Katz and I have been having a back-and-forth both on Twitter and in articles about climate change. Katz is a climate change denier (he'd say skeptic). Nonetheless, I've been arguing that many of the ways that we could take action on climate change should be compatible with his market-driven worldview.

Katz responded to my last piece(s) on the carbon tax, and some of the points he made, taken in isolation, have merit. The problem I see with a lot of what Katz says is that he often refers back to a playbook of basic tenets without him taking regard to whether he's actually responding to what is being said by his debate opponent. So a lot of what Katz writes, intentionally or not, has the feeling of a strawman argument

My favorite part of his article was the apparent use of scare quotes around the words "exploiting resources." Katz seems to be implying that I'm calling the use of resources exploitative, whereas to my knowledge, no one uses this phrase with that meaning attached (the roots of the terms probably do diverge from a common root, though: if you exploit someone, you use them like a thing, without giving back). Katz uses scare quotes around the term not once, but twice, and then in a passage, says:
Policies to address climate change seem uniquely designed to lock in current power structures. Those who already have money and influence can find ways around them or just absorb (even profit from) costs and restrictions, while those who need flexibility in the economy are stymied by lost opportunity. That isn’t just a function of “exploiting resources,” but of costs. Even the most non-exploitative entrepreneur in the country could be thrown off the tracks with policies that drive up energy costs and collect taxes from the economy generally in order to give the money to favored businesses.
It might be that I'm misunderstanding Katz's meaning, but it seems like this is designed to push buttons with his audience-- a kind of painting of me as a bedraggled hippie yelling "exploitation" at an Occupy rally, or something.

Katz is not someone with whom I agree often, but he does have insights that are on the right track sometimes. And what's frustrating about his writing, as I mentioned before, is that he seems to align all the right arguments to take down a point that no one is making. For instance, in the first of the two articles I wrote on carbon taxing, I suggested getting rid of the subsidies renewable energy and home insulation that are contained in the Energize RI bill and creating a 100% refund of the proposed carbon tax. I said:
Imagine a wind energy company that receives money from the carbon tax. Does that company’s executive get paid too much? Is that company investing in the right kinds of wind investments to make sure it stays ahead of the marketplace in renewables? Are its choices about where to put windmills the smartest they could be? They may be, but maybe not. If a company is padding its bottom line, there’s not necessarily any check or balance to fix that. And when a company gets special assistance, even if it has the best and most upright of intentions, there is a natural human tendency to slack off, and relax, due to the incentives created by free money. No regulator can truly keep track of all the details.
So clearly there is an awareness that special favored businesses can benefit unfairly, and people who want to address climate change are working hard to structure laws in such a way that that's not the case.

What also makes this a strange tact for Katz to take in his argument is that in the Twitter conversation I cited, I suggested a lot of ways that climate change could be addressed by removing subsidies and special government relationships with certain kinds of businesses. This got nary a yawn from Katz, and he ignored it entirely in his response to me, even acting like I might be on the other side of the issue.

When we subsidize oil companies, create zoning that doesn't allow dense, transit-oriented housing (or even walkable rural villages), when we charge drivers $0.50 on the dollar for a constantly expanding road system, these are all ways that we contribute to specially favored industries, while also worsening climate change. It's just that these are the type of cozy industry arrangements you tend to hear liberals get upset about. They're no less distortions of the market. But they don't appeal to conservative (whatever that means) cultural values. 

You might ask at this point, Why shower so much attention on this conversation? Doesn't it seem clear that you're not going to convince Katz? And, I relent, probably not. But there's two reasons I do continue to address this. The first is that despite many instances in which I've found Katz frustrating, he has surprised me at times. I've posted a number of articles to his blog, and that access is something I consider generous from someone who probably regards me as a crank from the left. He also came out with a very reasonable position on the 6/10 Connector-- again, generous from his position.

The other side is of course more cynical: If Justin Katz is just someone who wants to preserve a sense of entitlement to an energy-sucking lifestyle, he's put in quite a quandary by my response. Will he admit that many of the examples I cite of subsidies are, indeed, distortions of the market? Or will he say that these are fine? My Uncle Charles taught me a lot of what I know about chess growing up. He said never to play "hope chess". You don't play as if you hope your opponent doesn't know what you're doing. You tell your opponent flat out what you intend to accomplish, with the hope that the attack you're making is strong enough to withstand that knowledge. The best attacks are double attacks. If Katz acts generously, as he sometimes has, and calls for the end to these subsidies, that's a win. If Katz blusters, as he sometimes does, and creates complicated evasions, then he exposes his concern for free markets as just a rouse. Win. I'd prefer the first, because it preserves a more positive spin, but either is a win for me.

And now, this (my uncle was also an amateur magician. . . family of nerds. . . ):

Your move, Justin.

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