Moralistic Language
January 6, 2011

I tweeted yesterday a link to (Matthew Yglesias linking to) a petition to “Tell Senator Jeff Sessions to Stop Supporting Child Sex Trafficking”. The pretext turned out to be pretty anodyne, so it seems like this specific petition was deliberately misleading. Considering the gravity of their accusations towards Senator Sessions, that’s pretty morally appalling behavior from

What I want to write about, however, is the broader issue of using this kind of moralistic language when speaking about policymaking. I was reminded of this because of yesterday’s tweet, but I think a much better example is Ezra Klein’s assertion about a year ago that, by threatening to filibuster health reform, Joe Lieberman was “willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score”.

This claim drew widespread condemnation from across the media, for obvious reasons, but as far as I can tell Klein’s statement was factually correct. The causal link between not passing the bill and causing hundreds of thousands of deaths seems fairly well-established by the medical and policy literature, and Lieberman could reasonably have been expected to understand this link at the time of his threat, so while I doubt his motive was to kill people I think he would have been responsible (in an ethical sense, not a legal sense) for the deaths if he had successfully filibustered the bill.

Matthew Yglesias pointed all this out at the time, and concluded that “there’s a reason [people are uncomfortable with this argument]: stark moralistic language works”.

I’m really sure this last statement is true, however. One problem is that both sides of pretty much every national policy issue can claim with some justification that the other side’s policy preference “will cost lives”. I can easily imagine such arguments for both sides of policy debates over taxes, energy, the environment, health care, national defense, infrastructure, the deficit, or pretty much any issue that requires government allocation of funds. The argument in favor of allocating funds says that the allocation will save lives, and the argument against allocating funds says that the effects on economic growth will have worse consequences than the problem the allocation is trying to solve. It’s worth noting too that these two arguments do not neatly divide into left/right; for example, liberals are generally pro-allocation for health care, infrastructure, and the environment, but anti-allocation on invading countries and cutting upper-income taxes.

I guess my point about moralistic language is therefore that it isn’t effective because it depends on your belief in the premises of the argument. If you believe that health reform will save lives, then Ezra Klein’s moralistic language will persuade you, but you’re probably already in support of health reform. If you don’t believe that health reform will save lives, then Ezra Klein just looks irresponsible.
Of course, when you throw around moralistic language with blatantly false premises, like did, everyone thinks you’re irresponsible.


Climate Policy Lecture 4
October 11, 2009

This week’s lecture was delivered by an atmospheric scientist who specialized in the study of convective vortices (hurricanes, tornadoes, supercell thunderstorms, etc). He was obviously an expert in this field, but unfortunately, he seemed not to have thought very deeply about broader issues of climate science, and particularly climate policy. He breezed (ha) quickly through the idea that global warming causes more hurricanes and makes them more intense, an idea that makes theoretical sense but I thought still lacked solid observational support because El Nino has suppressed Atlantic hurricane formation or something. I would have liked to hear more on this.


He also presented a plot similar to the one above, showing global mean temperature over geologic time (the time axis is logarithmic) that highlights all the variability over different timescales. It’s a really fascinating record, and I would also have liked to know more about this, but then he admitted he hadn’t thought much about this plot, and then demonstrated that by offering essentially no interpretation of it.

Finally, he gave the first simple explanation I’ve ever heard for why there are multiple equilibria in the climate, but it’s not really interesting enough to share here. The next two weeks there aren’t any lectures, so I’ll have to find something else to write about. (revised on Oct. 12 to make it nicer)

Education Reform, Cont’d
October 6, 2009

I don’t know much about Secretary of Education Arne Duncan except that he’s from Chicago, he has a reputation as an effective superintendent of schools there and a good guy, and he plays basketball. I watched yesterday’s interview with him on the Colbert Report, and I didn’t learn much more about him than that. So my opinions on education policy aren’t the most informed opinions around. I did notice, and decided to point out, that he seems to agree with me about education policy, and particularly his comment around 5:45 in the video with respect to schools becoming community centers. His other ideas seem good as well.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Climate Policy Lectures 1-3
October 4, 2009

It's all gone but the mountains.

It's all gone but the mountains.

Three weeks ago, I started attending a weekly lecture series on climate policy. Since all of the speakers have been very informative, and because I form strong opinions easily, I have a lot to say about each of the talks so far. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me until today that I can and should record my thoughts about these talks here, on my blog. So now I’ll attempt to recap the first three lectures in this post, and then add new posts every week on the subsequent lectures. I think for now I’ll leave the names of the speakers out of the posts for the sake of Google anonymity, but I haven’t really thought about it too much and might be willing to reconsider.


A Brief Dialogue on Neighborhood Design
May 3, 2009


URBANITE: Check out this image, which was published by the Congress for the New Urbanism last year and publicized by Matthew Yglesias last month.

SUBURBANITE: Why do you keep showing me these things? Stop being so sanctimonious about your urban lifestyle!

URBANITE: But don’t you see? This image perfectly explains why my glamorous urban lifestyle is so superior to your wasteful suburban existence. The layout of the major roads and civic buildings is identical in these two neighborhoods; the only difference is in the road network design. In my urban paradise, it’s easy for my kids to walk to school from the purple house, which reduces car usage (good for the environment!), promotes exercise (good for public health!) and fosters a sense of neighborhood and community (good for socialization and instilling values!). In your suburban neighborhood, a family living in the purple house would have to drive to get there, or really to get anywhere, because of the labyrinthine roads.

SUBURBANITE: Yes, I see that. But look how large a yard is available to the purple house in my neighborhood. You have to give that up to live in a high-density urban environment. Yards are highly desirable to me; they provide a safe environment in which me, my children, and my pets can all play.

URBANITE: That’s true, each house does have a much smaller yard in my city. For one thing, that’s good for conserving water and energy. But also, some of those green rectangles in the image represent public parks, where you, your children, and your pets can still play with each other, as well as with your neighbors and their pets! How lovely!

SUBURBANITE: How dangerous! Parks are for homeless people and child abductors – I want nothing to do with them! In fact, even if I lived in your urban neighborhood, I wouldn’t want my kids walking around unsupervised. There’s too much crime in cities!

URBANITE: So your overblown fears about crime are keeping you from moving downtown where you’d be living a lifestyle that is healthier, more sustainable, and more satisfying?

SUBURBANITE: They’re not overblown! Per capita, cities have 50% more violent crime than suburbs! And I also happen to like driving and having a big yard. You know, many people actually prefer the suburban lifestyle to the urban lifestyle, regardless of crime.

URBANITE: And of course plenty prefer the urban lifestyle. But even if suburbia did appeal to me –- and it doesn’t — there are plenty of things I enjoy but abstain from for ethical reasons, like using plastic bags. Your selfish and overindulgent suburban lifestyle is destroying America!!

SUBURBANITE: See, this is what I meant about your sanctimony. Good day.

Education Reform
March 3, 2009


This seems to be a good time to try my hand at a post on public policy. I don’t have a lot of experience writing about policy, so I’d really appreciate comments and criticisms so I can get better at this stuff. I’ll start with education reform, since it’s a subject about which I’m not that well-informed and so I’m putting less of my ego on the line in presenting an opinion. And besides, what’s the fun of being a blogger if you can’t make grandiose statements on subjects you know nothing about?


A Meditation on Power
January 9, 2009

Image Credit Fred Bruenjes (

Image Credit Fred Bruenjes (

Electrical power, that is. The “clean coal” companies want a few billion dollars of the Obama stimulus money to “invest” in more coal power plants for our country, which they claim will be “cleaner” than current coal plants and thus provide cheap power without hurting the environment. Nirmal had a great post a few weeks ago highlighting some of the deception behind the “clean” part of “clean coal”, which I recalled today when I read there was just another such ash spill in Alabama. Also, coal power is by far the biggest contributor to global warming – even more than those fearsome SUVs!

We shouldn’t build any more coal power plants at all. What should we do instead? Personally, I’m a big fan of solar power. Photovoltaic solar panels don’t emit any carbon or other pollution once they’re built (more on that some other time). Solar power is completely sustainable for as long as the sun keeps burning (about 5 billion more years). And, with current technology, it can easily provide all of the power America needs. I find that last statement surprises a lot of people, so I’ll walk through a simple calculation to back it up. This is one of my favorite arguments for solar power, and some of you may have heard it before, but for those who haven’t, it’s really worth following it through one time. And I guess I should warn that it contains some numbers and very basic math. Feel free to challenge assumptions in comments if you’d like.