Thursday, January 10, 2013

Social Security & Carbon

I have so far avoided explicitly political questions on this blog, but I have always planned to post on issues involving technology and the environment.  Here is a sample. 
It has occurred to me that the Democratic Party is dramatically at odds with itself concerning energy and the environment.  On the one hand, Democrats are almost exclusively concerned about climate change.  The failed cap and trade legislation pursued by the President in his first term is one example.  The federal mandate on light bulbs is another.  All policies proposed to curb carbon emissions work (if they did or could work) to curb energy consumption. 
On the other hand, the Democratic Party is much more firmly committed to maintaining and increasing federal spending.  This is especially true when it comes to the major entitlement programs.  It seems obvious that the Democrats will do whatever is necessary to prevent any significant reductions in entitlement spending.  I could point out the problems in fiscal logic involved here, but I will focus on something else. 
More and more over time, federal spending has become and will increasingly become devoted to maintaining consumption.  The whole point of most social policy and particularly of entitlements is to make sure that as many people as possible have as much to spend as possible.  Social Security directly funds consumption.  Medicare and Medicaid make it possible for people to get medical care without diverting their resources away from consumption. 
The result is that more people have more floor space, comfortably heated and well lit.  They have more cars and fuel to put in the tank.  They have more wealth to spend on trips about the country, in RVs or airliners, to see the grand kids or visit the Grand Canyon.  This is pretty obviously a good thing as far as it goes. 
However, consumption requires production and production requires the extraction and burning of energy.  Not all the energy efficient light bulbs or all the hybrid vehicles encouraged or mandated by federal law will count as anything next to the consumption levels that our social policies are designed to maintain.  If we know anything about energy use, it is that every increase in energy efficiency is more than matched by an increase in energy use in bigger houses and kitchens, larger TVs and more devices. 
The social policies that the Democrats religiously protect fund ever higher levels of energy consumption, thus wiping away whatever good may come from their environmental policies.  If environmentalists were really serious about curbing energy consumption, they would switch to the Republican Party and push hard for entitlement reform. 
Of course, they won’t ever do that.  Environmental politics is, like all politics, polemical.  Polemical thinking makes it hard to reconsider who your friends and enemies are.  That Democrats are the party that cares more about the environment weighs more heavily than the fact that Democrats may not be the party that is actually good for the environment. 
Another reason that the environmental left will not abandon the Democrats is that the Democrats bring clout to the table.  Democrats can actually block the Keystone pipeline.  They can do this in part because they have the unions and the AARP behind them.  It would require amazing courage and imagination to give up that support in order to move toward really effective environmental policy.  Don’t hold your breath. 
I am not saying that we should impose draconian limits on consumption to save the planet.  While it is true that technological innovations favoring energy consumption have so far been outmatched by energy consumption for new and more expensive living conditions, the ratio will eventually shift if technological advance continues at the present rate.  Sooner or later we will be able to live in very comfortable housing at a negligible cost to the environment, if we continue to innovate. 
I just point out a major contradiction in environmentalist support for the Democratic Party at the present time.  Right now, rising consumption in the developing world is the major driver of carbon emissions.  In the US, emissions are rather stable.  This is due to new technologies like fracking.  Still, personal consumption is the major driver of energy use here as well.  Social Security may be good for the elderly, but it is not good for reducing carbon emissions.  Just sayin’. 

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