Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Silly Season Rages On

I think I might be an Obama addict. I see that big O in a newspaper or on a magazine, and it's like a magnet: I drool a little bit; my body goes half slack; and my eyeballs yank me toward the headlines. It is a worry. I have psychoanalyzed myself, however, and I'm comfortable with the results:

A. As my ex-politician grandfather says, it's the Silly Season, and I'm a sucker for silly.

2. I like Obama, and I like him more and more. It's weird. I know. We are talking about a politician here: someone that gave up a perfectly prestigious and maybe even useful job teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago and decided instead to sell his soul to the ghost of Richard Daley and go into politics. The guy seems different, though. Maybe he has me fooled. Maybe the system is going to stifle him even if he doesn't have me fooled. But maybe he'll do something crazy. And maybe it'll be good.

D. I'm convinced that, one of these days, someone's going to rope a candidate or two into a meaningful discussion about the economics of our world's environmental situation. When that happens, I can't miss it.


I spent the day in Washington DC yesterday. The Washington Post was lying around. I saw an O on the editorial page. I read about it. And I think might have found a little preview of the discussion for which I've been waiting.

Sebastian Mallaby, a think tank economist and bi-weekly columnist, wrote a piece about Barack Obama and bad ideas.

In last Thursday's debate, Obama said: "Understand that what's lacking right now is not good ideas. The problem we have is that Washington has become a place where good ideas go to die."

Mallaby heard that and took issue. He thinks good ideas are exactly what we're lacking. And he thinks we have a particularly acute lack of ideas about how to address climate change. For example...

Hailing biofuels as our saviors? Bad idea. Converting forests and wild grasslands to industrial corn or switchgrass farms emits a whole lot of greenhouse gases. So much, in fact, that sticking with petrol is a cleaner alternative.

Kyoto's manner of involving developing countries in its carbon economy? Bad idea. Apparently, "China has deliberately designed factories to release prodigious quantities of greenhouse gases, then pocketed billions for redesigning them."*

Cap and trade systems? Carbon taxes? More bad ideas. There's no way to get all countries involved in a unified global system, so "import loopholes" will throw the whole thing out of whack. (Sorry for the unimpressive explanation here. This is something I don't really understand. I first read about these loopholes yesterday, and it looks like I need to get more familiar.)

Mallaby not only thinks Obama is wrong about the existence of good ideas, he also thinks Obama sounds like an unoriginal, pseudo-optimistic, "anti-intellectual" Washington hack when he says we're not lacking them. He thinks Obama ought to be screaming for debates about ideas. If he wins the Democratic nomination, he'll kill McCain on ideas. McCain will try to turn the election into a foreign policy experience conversation, and Obama should counter right back with reasonable, nuanced, well-presented economic policies that creatively address tough problems like climate change. He should counter back with ideas.

I agree that Washington hasn't offered the world any groundbreaking climate change ideas. I agree that Kyoto isn't perfect. And I agree that, when the time comes, Obama should challenge McCain on ideas. But my feeling is that Obama would agree too.

I think Mallaby misunderstood and overreacted. Obama didn't mean to claim that corn-based ethanol was a good idea. He meant to remind us that even very good ideas DIE in Washington. Making fuel out of plant matter is a perfectly good idea, but politicians take good ideas, water them down, and spit out garbage like corn-based ethanol. I think Obama meant to remind us that he'll do his best to keep the good ideas alive.

That's a tall order, and I'll believe it when I see it, but I think it was a perfectly acceptable thing to say.

*Note: I'm not ready to believe this yet. There is a frightening get rich quick attitude permeating the Chinese economy, so I totally agree that we should be on the lookout for system gaming. About 6 months ago, however, I asked a Beijing-based British carbon trader if she had ever heard of a Chinese factory upping its carbon emissions pre-inspection to earn more retrofit credits. She reassured me that that kind of behavior simply wouldn't fly. Carbon buyers won't touch suspect situations. Inspectors can spot deliberately bad design from miles away, and buyers have no interest in the credibility loss that would come along with a purchase of artificially saved carbon.

Another note: I couldn't help it with the A, 2, D list. I've been resisting the urge on this blog for a while now, but, as soon as I wrote the word "drool" in the first paragraph, I knew I had to follow my heart. The second time I saw Home Alone was in college, and A, 2, and D have been haunting me ever since. Watch it again if you haven't seen it in a while. It's an awesome movie, and it gives you lots of awesome home brew booby trap ideas.