Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The tragedy of the climate technocrats

Interesting piece by Steve Waldman critiquing my two favorite econbloggers, DeLong and Krugthulu, for technocratic approaches in a moralizing political context. I've altered it below to make it about climate instead of economics, and removed references to the two (UPDATE - from the comments, I'm not sure this experiment of mine is very clear, so I've altered it some more):

[The technocrat] laments that we have been “mugged by the moralizers” and admonishes us that “climate policy analysis is not a morality play“.

But the thing is, human affairs are a morality play, and climate policy, if it is to be useful at all, must be an account of human affairs. I have my share of disagreements with climate technocrats, but on balance I view them as smart, well-meaning people who would do more good than harm if they had greater influence over policy. But they won’t, and they can’t, and they shouldn’t, if they exempt themselves from the moral fray.... climate technocrats in general engage in [unrealistic assumptions] when they ignore moral concerns and the constraints “legitimacy” places on feasible policy.

It should be no surprise that human collectives choose bad climate policies when they deem those policies to be alternatives to policies that are wrong or unjust. Individual human beings act against their material interests all the time, providing full employment for economists who endlessly study the “ultimatum game“. Political choice combines diffuse personal costs with powerful moral signifiers. We should expect politics, including the politics that determines climate policy, to be dripping with moralism. And sure enough, it is! This doesn’t mean that policy outcomes are actually moral. (There’s a hypothesis we can falsify quickly.) But exhortations to policy that cannot survive in terms of moral framing are nullities. They are no less absurd than proposals to “whip inflation” by demanding increased production while simultaneously imposing price ceilings.... 
On the core climate questions of the moment, the climate technocrat explicitly cedes recognizable morality to the other side - the March of Progress, the American/Western World exceptionalism - and in doing so, he cedes the argument. To be fair, moralizing technocratic positions might not be easy.... 
But even in a challenging landscape it is better to fight than to preemptively surrender. There are ways to address, in explicitly moralistic terms, the arguments of the other side.... Rather than eschewing moralism, the technocrat could turn the table on “energy poverty moralizers” and talk about the responsibilities of fossil fuel companies and their political allies... Ordinary people get this stuff....The lament of the technocrats is self-defeating, counterproductive, and ultimately poor social science. Policy ideas that cannot survive in equilibrium with achievable social mores are useless. This needn’t rule out good policy....Ex post, the “good” in good policy will be a double entendre. Policy will be both effective and right. Ex ante, both policy and morality are contested and undetermined. The policymaker’s challenge is to negotiate a space where morality and policy are mutually reinforcing, and where the results of that coherence are in fact good.
(Again, altered from the original.)

The denialist moral subtext is America Is Right/The Western World Is Right, and climate change is just another guilt trip by the Left against people who shouldn't feel guilty. The technocratic viewpoint ignores this viewpoint and doesn't try to engage or defeat it with a different moral framework.

I think like the technocrat (I think), so this is worth keeping in mind on climate, as well as for reading in its original context about economics.


William M. Connolley said...

I'm having a hard time making sense of "It should be no surprise that human collectives choose bad climate policies when they deem those policies to be wrong or unjust". Did you mean this literally: that people deliberately chose unjust policies. Or did you mean to say "It should be no surprise that human collectives choose bad climate policies when they deem those policies to be the alternative to other policies that the think are wrong or unjust".

I don't know what you mean by "On the core climate questions of the moment, the climate technocrat explicitly cedes recognizable morality to the other side" either. A "climate technocrat" would, I suppose, be someone who accepts the IPCC science, and the obvious economics (i.e., carbon tax) so is "the other side" the right wing or the left wing?

Fernando Leanme said...

The "moral fray" argument cloaks the inability to justify policy using rational arguments. What you do is simply declare those who oppose your ideas to be "inmoral" which of course has deep shades of religious intolerance. You should try being a bit more like me and understand the source for the morality plays in your head.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I should read the original, but in altering this to be in the context of climate technocrats being overwhelmed by moralistic arguments I am unclear just which side is which. Ethical claims are advanced by both sides that seem to reduce to 'Think of the Children!'
For the 'Greens' it is the future children, for the 'BAU supporters it is the starving ones...

Which side is making a mountain out of their molehill of the moral high ground?

luminous beauty said...


Phony moral plays, like your wholesale rejection of socialism, are phony. When Jesus said, "Judge not lest ye yourself be judged" he must have been thinking of you.

The wish to reduce the gross degree of suffering of sentient beings, and similarly enhance the likelihood of their happiness, is anything but an irrational argument.

Canman said...

One moral dimension that the technocrats might be missing is the need to debate and defend their technical solutions. Maybe some of them are wrong.


What fun would social engineering be without moral entrepreneurs telling us what words not to use?

Brian said...

Well, maybe this experiment didn't work. I altered the 'quote' some more to respond to William and added this in my own voice:

"The denialist moral subtext is America Is Right/The Western World Is Right, and climate change is just another guilt trip by the Left against people who shouldn't feel guilty. The technocratic viewpoint ignores this viewpoint and doesn't try to engage or defeat it with a different moral framework."

As I say in the OP, my preference is to avoid moral arguments and look at it from a technocratic point of view, but that is giving up some potential arguments.

Unknown said...

Moral imperatives used to make arbitrary decisions work perfectly well until a policy maker uses a moral imperative to make an arbitrary decision against something for which you're a cheerleader.

Tom Curtis said...

Unknown, the mistake is to assume that moral considerations are arbitrary. We should not be persuaded by any persons moral claim unless they can justify that claim as being coherent within a framework of values that we can recognize as laudatory (even if we differ in our own values). To do so merely allows another means of political deception. But if they do so justify their moral claims, then the policy consequences of those claims given an empirical circumstance will be tightly constrained.

I do not think that Brian can be read as calling for the inclusion of moral rhetoric alone (as you assume), but for moral reasoning.

Hank Roberts said...

I fear most of the attempts to set out moral considerations are TL/DR to most blog commenters. This site is one of the better sources for those who like that sort of thing. It links to some of the ones I've taken time to read, and reread:

----for example, this pointer to one such assessment----

"... There are many details, most of which are explained in the report. The key point however, and please keep this in mind, is that the review does not argue that countries should only do their fair shares. Rather, it seeks to identify which countries are offering to do their fair share, which need to do more to meet their fair share, and which must be supported to do even more — sometimes much more — than their fair share if the world is to reach a below 2°C or even 1.5°C pathway.

The full report, the summary report, and the list of supporting organizations can all be found at"


Cheer up Brian-- America being as right as Western civilization ane equally worth preserving , and climate change being one of many guilt trips by the Left against people who shouldn't feel guilty in no way detracts from the fact that the denialists are wrong.

Kevin O'Neill said...

Paul Krugman - Economics is not a morality play, NY Times, Sept. 28, 2010:

"economics is not a morality play. It’s not a happy story in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished. The market economy is a system for organizing activity — a pretty good system most of the time, though not always — with no special moral significance. The rich don’t necessarily deserve their wealth, and the poor certainly don’t deserve their poverty; nonetheless, we accept a system with considerable inequality because systems without any inequality don’t work."

Waldman simply got this all wrong. Is there anything in Krugman's comment he would actually disagree with? I don't think so. Krugman has been very clear that economic policies that seek to punish those less well-off are misplaced and themselves immoral because they are often punishing the innocent.

How this can be construed as ceding the 'morality field' is beyond me.

William M. Connolley said...

You've made what you were trying to say clearer. But doesn't your argument now become essentially vacuous, because of the meaning of "technocrat"?

> The technocratic viewpoint ignores this viewpoint and doesn't try to engage or defeat it with a different moral framework.

But that's what a technocrat is, at least as I understand it. See examples in Italy or Greece. "Technocrat" is used to mean someone who knows what the actual real problems are and knows how to solve them, but ignores politics.

Anonymous said...

Lib(ertarianism) means never having to say you're sorry.

Brian said...

William, maybe by definition the technocrat won't engage in moral arguments, but I think that's a limitation to the technocratic model.

The obvious limitation is in its likelihood of surviving the political process. Less obvious but I think is still relevant is the failure to appeal to moral intuition can lead to bad policy outcomes - Spock isn't always right. Waldman makes this argument elsewhere.

Kevin - Waldman acknowledges that Krugman makes very effective use of moral arguments sometimes, but he argues that Krugman doesn't use moral arguments in some economic policy situations where he should. FWIW, I found the link from Brad DeLong, who apparently considered it a reasonable critique of his own work.

Jeffrey Davis said...

Climate Science and Economics mesh oddly. Today, they meet in the form of Syrian refugees. Do we shoot them at the border or send them back to let their tormentors shoot them? Some European countries "heroically" take in a pitiful few and feel put upon. Strained to the limit. Ah, morality plays. Fernando, you know all about refugees and the cries to send them back. Where should they go?

Anonymous said...

Oh I dunno. I think the idea of fossil fuels being "good for the poor" is a false alternative. In order for fossil fuels to be available to anyone, they rely upon an established network, and those networking costs are included in the price of the fuel.

Networks are set up in places like the United States with the authority of the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution and things like the National Gas Act, and no one seriously interferes with them. But this is not true in many places in the world, particularly where there are poor and, so, while offering fossil fuels to the poor may sound like a plausible thing to do, the question is WHO will build and maintain and, often, DEFEND the network, and WHO will have access to it?

On the other hand, there's the promise of locally generated and locally consumed energy, whether wind or solar-with-storage, and this is inherently distributed. To that degree, on the whole it is also more robust. Breaking one pipeline can affect a lot of people. If there are ten thousand individual villages with their own wind and solar, you can take out some, but it's difficult to take out all.

If they are solar, they are also easy to replace.

William M. Connolley said...

> I think that's a limitation to the technocratic model

Well, duh :-). Yes of course. Which is why they're only brought in as a last resort (Italy, Greece) and never survive very long. Only long enough to start the recovery-from-complete mess, but are always elbowed aside by political opportunists who appeal to the mob's baser instincts. And this is always a loss.

> Spock isn't always right

Only because the scriptwriters have carefully contrived it so. In the real world, it is rather less obvious. With (economic) technocrats we'd have carbon taxes and no border tariffs.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to interrupt:

Russell, vvatt's up with your blog?


Nothing- it's down