Matt Yglesias’ Run-of-The Mill Specieism

Matt Yglesias scoffed at a commenter who pointed out that requiring companies to provide maternity leave constitutes a subsidy for having children, excess children is bad for the planet and therefore we should remove such subsidies:

The beginning of wisdom here is to note that pollution isn’t “bad for the planet.” The planet is a gigantic roughly spherical chunk of rocks that can easily survive whatever level of greenhouse gas emissions or whatever else we care to pump into the atmosphere. The big picture ecological threat is a threat to human beings [...] Radical population reduction would sharply reduce the quantity of anthropogenic ecological impacts, but to what end? The goal needs to be to reconfigure human activity in order to make it sustainable over a longer time horizon.

I won’t get into how I feel about the conservative notion that it’s the government’s job to encourage people to live the standard American lifestyle – suburbs, cars and kids – or, indeed, any lifestyle* beyond to say that I’m not exactly a fan and that he neglects that lower population is a saner alternative to lifestyle adjustments alone for ecological issues. I’ll just address the specieism his post espouses and the oversimplification of what exactly our planet is and does.

If you take a raccoon from the woods, take it into your home and then drown it, you will rightly face animal cruelty charges (among others)**. If you purchase property that is habitat to a hundred raccoons and flood it to provide a reservoir, somehow the mass cruelty flies under the radar. This of course makes no sense. If cruelty to one animal is indefensible, then cruelty to many is more so.

Biodiversity itself may only be of instrumental value. Just like there isn’t much of a difference morally between a mass murder of 1000 individuals and genocide consisting of 1000 individuals, there isn’t that much of a reason to get worked up about minor biodiversity loss itself so long as it is eventually recovered and there remains enough in the present time. However, habitat destruction and the reduction of numbers means that individual sentient organisms are starving to death or otherwise dying in a bad way or living a more impoverished existence. For this reason, any environmentalism that doesn’t make the welfare/rights of all beings, not just humans, central isn’t worth discussing. Matt Yglesias seems to be suggesting we all need to do our part to use less resources to make room for more people. This fails because as we can see it disregards the welfare of wildlife and it also fails because it takes a total view of happiness. Two people living okay existences aren’t really better than one person living a fabulous existence. In a true eco-utopia, everyone will have plenty of unharmed wilderness to explore and achieve oneness.

Another minor point is his assertion that the planet is just “a spherical chunk of rocks.” Clearly, when people say planet, they are not referring to its geology, though the bulk of the mass is, indeed, lifeless silica and minerals. They are referring, of course, to the ecosphere, which supports us and all the other life on the planet. It is perhaps of only instrumental value but very great value indeed. If we fix up Señor Yglesias’ comments accordingly, we still don’t see a powerful argument to reduce humanity to the stone age nor to view children as little packets of evil (however annoying they may be), but you also certainly don’t come to the conclusion that child rearing, something people gladly voluntarily do anyway, needs to be subsidized so as to encourage it anymore than our biology and existing social pressures already do.

* I don’t want zen fascists telling me to live in an apartment, ride the bus and not have kids either.
** Actually, this depends on the jurisdiction. If you at least feed the raccoon first, it will then be your [illegal] pet that you are being cruel to. If you at least agree that someone 
ought to get in trouble for kidnapping, then drowning a raccoon, then you should agree with my logic, even if the law isn’t quite like I make it sound.

What Good is “No Gas Day” Supposed to do?

It would be so entertaining to see well-meaning people engage in some sort of symbolic act that does nothing material other than “sending a message” were the joke not so tired. Seriously. What the hell good is going to the gas station on Wednesday or Friday instead going to do? (incidentally, I won’t run out of gas until this weekend and even that’s only because I’m going way out to the desert) It is exactly like meatless Mondays. How about meatless every day of the week except for Mondays? How about no gas week instead of no gas day? If there is any value to be had in these symbolic demonstrations (and that’s a pretty big if), it is this – it could be a chance to genuinely try out a habit or lifestyle or to think about something one generally avoids thinking about. Maybe.

What most bothers me about the whole concept isn’t the empty symbolism; I’m used to that and expect such from facebookistan. It is that it is yet another example of this cognitive dissonance I too often see in our movement – conflating the very different concerns of the health of the planet on one hand with very separate egalitarian goals, however laudable, on the other. The protest is about gas prices. If the prices are high, great. Maybe alternatives will finally be viable in the market. Don’t get me wrong; there is reason for environmentalists to protest gas prices – for being too low. It’s time to end the gas subsidies, end our oil diplomacy (and “diplomacy”) and end the socialization of costs where otherwise Americans’ stinginess (a force that knows no parallel) might otherwise prevent unwise use of scarce resources.

Soil Pill

My wife tells me I’m 天の邪鬼, meaning I go out of my way to be strange or not conform. Perhaps from a Japanese perspective I am. Maybe she’s right. All I know is I’ve resisted every temptation to blog about the spill. What can be said about it that hasn’t been said? Well, I have come to realize that it’s time to conform and give my two cents, though it may take wading through everyone and their dog’s opinion to find the gem that is mine. The real injustice I’m seeing, the reason I must write, is that, by the very nature of environmental catastrophes and our system, it’s impossible for all those affected to be duly compromised for damages done to them as well as for damages done to non-humans (turtles, manatees) to be duly punished, but I’ll defer the issue about critters for now.

Am I on crazy pills? Everyone I know misses that he's obviously a sea sponge made out to look like a household sponge. It's called artistic license!

Many people say that the best salve for environmental issues is strict enforcement of property rights with activists legally assisting those affected by pollution, etc. It’s worth a try as state environmentalism causes people who otherwise would want to do their part to protect the planet to instead resent the whole movement and feel as if it were forced upon them*. If our system was just, it should be possible for everyone along the gulf coast (and not just in America, but even in other islands sufficiently close to be affected) to do a class-action lawsuit against BP and actually get compensated for the damages. If BP truly believed this was possible, they would have made sure no one cut any corners in meeting safety regulations or, in the absence of safety regulations, would probably have paid to develop their own. Experience tells us that instead of this happening, the rabid pragmatists in our legal system won’t allow for a company that’s an important part of the economy to be utterly destroyed by mere tort. Exxon managed to delay and delay having to pay and managed to get only a slap on the wrist in the end, despite decimating an entire community and doing untold damages to wildlife. Even the ship is alive and well, living on as the the Dong Fang Ocean. This, however isn’t the bigger problem since it’s “simply” a matter of not having a state that claims to act in the interests of the people, but instead acts in the interests of the bureaucrats’ friends. No, the bigger problem is that cases like this amount to such a tiny fraction of the depreciation of natural resources. Wetlands, for example, that make up the invisible bedrock to our economy by performing services we’d pay as much as necessary to get if it wasn’t free, are being nickel and dimed to oblivion by numerous polluters and it’s affects are divided equally by everyone in the vicinity.

You may own a piece of property and essentially do with it as you wish, but on what grounds can you be said to own the air above it or the water below it? These things are passing through and as you use and abuse these things, you automatically damage everyone else’s property. Everyone’s part of the burden is sufficiently small that it’s not worth it for them to seek damages. If that alone were the problem, I think we would have a problem that everyone can live with. Of course the market is going to have negative externalities and if it’s sufficiently minor, there’s no need to bother addressing it. However, not just what I do on my property to the air, but what every single manufacturer contributes to the air adds up to something that harms peoples’ health and destroys the beauty of un”improved” land. Though I said I’ll defer the issue, let’s not forget what we do to creatures who no doubt can suffer, but lack the ability to legally defend themselves. To such situations, I propose an alternative.

Earlier, I blogged about my idea of EcoTax, which turns out to be very similar to Henry George’s idea, though with important differences. I’ll post later with an updated version of my idea, but to summarize, I propose as a practical alternative to numerous mini-torts the government** having an alternate plan for companies (or individuals – a company is just a bunch of individuals) that must pollute as part of their operations. For such companies, they can opt to, instead of being subject to numerous torts, which they will then be forced to actually pay up on, they can simply pay in proportion to how much they pollute, and the funds shared with everyone. This will make it cost to pollute and it will make products that carry a heavier eco-burden to reflect more accurately their ecological costs. The market, which is to say, the creativity of everyone working together, will then work towards solving ecological problems in a bottom-up way, instead of us hoping that the commands from a distant bureaucracy, funded and controlled by elites is the right one, as it would be the one we’ll all be stuck with. Furthermore, it will let people have their freedom to live as they choose rather than a specific brand of green living forced on them.

* There are other problems with state environmentalism too, like the fact that the government bureaucrats and their private supporters don’t have the spotted owl’s best interests at heart.

** The government or whatever legal order(s) there may be. My basic idea is perfectly compatible with a libertarian society. It doesn’t need an army to prop it up!

Livable Hamlets

Lately, I’m scouring statistics to find places to move to and really just feed my curiosity. Going through city-data’s top 101 lists and was curious which places have the most people walking to work (once I saw the list existed). Naturally, a great many of them are military bases, but I also see that most of them tend to be small towns, not the dense metropolises that make up the wet dreams of the new urbanists.

My Proposal – EcoTax

There is a deep, serious flaw in our tax system – it is too damn complicated. Which is to say, administrative costs dig in to what revenue it brings in and it is spurious (which means it is unfair). Whatever incentives and breaks might be won for the sake of the lower classes, there is an inherent bias in favor of those who can afford good accountants. Also, the process of having a governmental cash-ectomy would at least be less painful if it was quick.

There are a number of tax reforms, mostly proposed by the Right, to make things “fair” (same law applies to everyone) and simple. Some of them are quite ingenious and appealing, but I’ll explain why they all suck and mine is better (even though I’m not an economist… I hope a real economist gets a hold of the idea and fills in the cracks). I for one am not a right-winger (quite the opposite) but rather I think like a programmer. Where I see spaghetti code, I want to untie it and I see more spaghetti in our legal system than in an Italian restaurant (zing!)


This taxes products at the end of the value chain – when purchased by the end-user. This replaces all the complicated mess of even paying taxes with a tax on final goods sold. The beautiful part is ordinary people don’t have to fill out paperwork. If you own a business, you simply have to pay the sales tax on what you sell. Genius. One problem with this is that, naturally, as you get richer, the proportion of your money you use to buy things decreases (the likes of MC Hammer and Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk notwithstanding). In this way, it disproportionately taxes the poor. FairTax partially gets around this through (p)rebates to families based on income.

On the Wikipedia article, you’ll see this picture. Yeah, that’s what I mean by untying spaghetti code. All those books are our current tax code, and that man is holding FairTax. Awesome.

Negative Income Tax

I believe this was Milton Friedman’s brainchild or at least he’s commonly associated with it. I think it sort of fell out of fashion among Libertarians in to FairTax, but it is also a good system. You pay the government a fixed percentage of your income, minus a fixed amount, the percentage and amount being the same for _everyone_. If it happens to be a negative amount (which happens if your income divided by the percentage is less than the fixed amount), the government pays you. Your tax is a linear equation. If you took math in middle school you are halfway to being a CPA. Awesome.

The system is, however, likely to be a lightning rod for fraud. Tax evasion now is simply a loss of income for the government (and therefor taxpayers), but if you could convince the government you make nothing, you automatically receive welfare. This also still has the disadvantage of making every citizen go through the trouble of filling their taxes. Okay, next.


Now to my proposal, EcoTax. Turn FairTax on its head. Instead of only taxing things at the end-product level, we only tax raw materials as they are taken out of the Earth. We’re not talking about any tariffs right now, since that’s complicated and really another subject. As far as product created within America is concerned, the tax is at the beginning and it’s up to these primary producers (homotrophes, to use an analogy to ecology) to increase their prices to offset their costs. In this way, the costs of things to a greater degree reflect their true ecological costs. This would naturally mean no subsidies for farmers (rather, they would be taxed for the water and soil they use).

The way EcoTax would work is this: the EPA would be given a new job assess the degrees to which various natural resources are renewable, the degree to which various activities are harmful to human health, etc. They will make no fiscal decision, but rather calculate a schedule of ratios. The income needed by the government to meet its operations and economic predictions will be factored in to create a multiplier. The taxes for the different activities will simply be the ratio in question times the grand multiplier. It’s so simple. The only thing an accountant needs is the latest copy of this (which the government should supply as a free PDF, too). Perhaps the government could supply free software with source code for this purpose to make it even simpler. The important thing is for the ratios to not be politically determined or for other concerns to be taken into account (that’s the job of politicians setting fiscal policy on how to use revenue and what to set the multiplier to).

Note this is related to the idea of Ecotax (or Pigovian taxes in general), but it’s different (you can tell because I capitalize the T). The best way to summarize the difference is this: I propose the only tax being Ecotaxes and the rationale is slightly different. The capital in the free market is derived from two main sources – labor and natural resources. I say you own that which your labor created, but that which is derived from our common natural heritage or which clearly has a negative externality you don’t truly own. Certainly, no one owns the atmosphere, though a section of it will be on your land at any given time and a part of the water table, which you also don’t own, may happen to be under your property. I don’t want to get into the specifics of well rights, etc, but just to point out the obvious fact that, as aging hippie douche would say “you can’t own the ocean, man!”

EcoTax isn’t meant to be the panacea of environmental protection. Rather, we’re removing the artificial economic incentive to destroy that which you do not own. Protecting our species’ viability, wild places, natural habitats and so on cannot rely entirely on the government. Indeed, to the degree people value these things (which they should), they shall donate to private charities that buy up land, such as the Nature Conservancy. The government must not force people to be eco-conscious (it’s not the government’s job to make people do the right thing all the time), but to protect that which is everyone’s property from the few.

The biggest drawback I can see with this is there may be a drop in revenue unless the multiplier is set high enough to put some good companies out of business. There should be a transition period where the old scheme is slowly replaced with the new to give people a chance to switch to other industries. There could temporarily be harsher tariffs against countries that use too much farming subsidies to give our companies enough time to compensate, then the tariffs must be dropped again. This may also make things hard on small farmers, but that could be remedied by in the short term paying for Dutch farmers to teach Americans better efficient farming techniques. A purist Libertarian may scoff at the idea that government intervention is needed to counter the ill effects of government intervention, but it is a fact. “Government intervention” refers to too broad a category for that scoff to be taken at face value.