On apocalypse clocks.

On apocalypse clocks.

The world is complicated. There’s so much information out there, so much to know. And our brains are not made well for knowing much of it.

I can understand numbers like a dozen, a hundred. I can make a guess at the meaning of a thousand. Show me a big gumball machine and ask me to guess how many gumballs are in it, maybe I’ll guess a thousand, a few thousand.

But numbers like a million? A billion? A trillion? These numbers are important, I know. These numbers might be the population of cities, or of planets, or of solar systems. These numbers might be the ages of species or planets. These numbers might be how many stars are in the sky, or how many stars in the sky might harbor life.

These numbers don’t mean much to me.

I don’t think the problem is just my brain. I’m fairly good with numbers, relative to the average human. It’s been years since I’ve sat in a math class, but I can still do basic integrals and derivatives in my head.

Yet I can’t understand those big numbers. They don’t feel like anything to me.

So we make graphs. Charts. We try to represent information in ways that our meager human brains can grasp.

A good chart can be a revelation. Something that seemed senseless before is now made clear.


An apocalypse is a revelation. The word “apocalypse” means lifting the veil – apo, off; kalyptein, conceal. To whisk away the cover and experience a sudden insight.

An illustration that depicts information well allows numbers to be felt.

Often, though, we illustrate information and we do it poorly.

The scientific method is gorgeous. Through guesswork, repetition, and analysis, we can learn about our world.

But science is never neutral. We impart our values by the questions we choose to ask, by the ways we choose to interpret the world’s ever-oblique answers.


Geological time is often depicted as a clock. A huge quantity of time, compressed down into a 24-hour day. Often, this is done with the ostensible goal of showing the relative unimportance of humans.

Our planet has been here for a day, and humans appear only during the final two minutes!

Unfortunately, this way of depicting time actually overemphasizes the present. Why, after all, should the present moment in time seem so special that it resides at midnight on our clock?

The present feels special to us because we’re living in it. From a geological perspective, it’s just another moment.


In Timefulness, geologist Marcia Bjornerud writes:

Geologic textbooks invariably point out (almost gleefully) that if the 4.5-billion-year story of the Earth is scaled to a 24-hour day, all of human history would transpire in the last fraction of a second before midnight.

But this is a wrongheaded, and even irresponsible, way to understand our place in Time. For one thing, it suggests a degree of insignificance and disempowerment that not only is psychologically alienating but also allows us to ignore the magnitude of our effects on the planet in that quarter second.

And it denies our deep roots and permanent entanglement with Earth’s history; our specific clan may not have shown up until just before the clock struck 12:00, but our extended family of living organisms has been around since at least 6 a.m.

Finally, the analogy implies, apocalyptically, that there is no future – what happens after midnight?


Timefulness is a lovely book, but Bjornerud does not present a corrected clock.

And so I lay in bed, thinking. How could these numbers be shown in a way that helped me to understand our moment in time?

I wanted to fix the clock.


The first midnight is easy – the birth of our sun. A swirling cloud of gas condenses, heating as gravity tugs the molecules into more and more collisions. Nuclear fusion begins.

Gravity tugs molecules inward, nuclear explosions push them outward. When these are balanced, our sun exists. Twelve o’clock.

Two minutes later, our planet is born. Metal and water and dust become a big rock that keeps swirling, turning, as it orbits the sun. It’s warmed, weakly, by light from the sun – our star shone dimly then, but shines brighter and brighter every day.

Our sun earns low interest – 0.9% each hundred million years, hotter, brighter. But wait long enough, and a low interest is enough.

Someday, shortly before it runs out of fuel, our sun will be blinding.

By 12:18 a.m., there is life on Earth. We’ve found fossils that many billions of years old.

And at 7:26 p.m., there will be no more life. Our sun will have become so bright that its blinding light evaporates all the oceans. The water will boil so hot that it will be flung into space. The Earth will be a rocky desert, coated perhaps in thick clouds of noxious gas.

Currently, it’s 10:58 a.m.

The dinosaurs appeared 35 minutes ago. 9.5 minutes ago, all of them died (except the ancestors of our birds).

Humans appeared 1 minute ago.


So, we have 3.5 billion years remaining – another 8.5 hours on our clock – before we have to migrate to the stars.

Humans certainly can’t persist forever. Empty space is stretching. Eventually, the whole universe will be dark and cold, which each speck of matter impossibly far from every other.

But our kind could endure for a good, long while. Scaled to the 24-hour day representing the lifespan of our sun, we still have another 300 years before the universe goes dark.

So many stories could fit into that span of time.


It’s 10:58 a.m., and life on Earth has until 7:26 p.m.

Humans crept down from trees, harnessed fire, invented writing, and built rockets all within a single minute. Life moves fast.

Quite likely, life from Earth will reach the stars.

But it needn’t be us.

The dinosaurs were cool. They didn’t make it.

We naked apes are pretty cool, too. I love our cave drawings, art museums, psychedelic street art. Our libraries. But we’ve also made prodigious mounds of trash. We’re pouring plumes of exhaust into the sky as we ship giant flatscreen televisions from place to place.

We burn a lot of fuel for the servers that host our websites.

We humans aren’t the first organisms to risk our own demise by pumping exhaust into the atmosphere. The industrial revolution was fueled by ancient plants – our engines burn old sunlight. But many microbes are happy to eat old sunlight, too. These microbes also pump carbon dioxide into the air. They’ve warmed our planet many times before – each time the permafrost thawed, microbes went to town, eating ancient carbon that had been locked up in the ice.

Foolish microbes. They made the Earth too hot and cooked themselves.

Then again, the microbes may have more modest goals than us humans. We’ve found no fossils suggesting that the microbes tried to build spaceships.

For our endeavors, we’ve benefited from a few thousand years of extremely stable, mild climate.

We still have 8.5 hours left to build some spaceships, but a thirty second hot squall at 10:59 a.m. would doom the entire project.

So much time stretches out in front of us. We could have a great day. We, in continuation of the minute of humans who preceded us, and continued by the seconds or minutes or hours of humans who will be born next.

We shouldn’t let our myopic focus on present growth fuck up the entire day.

Honestly? My children are four and six. I’d be so disappointed if I took them for a hike and they guzzled all their water, devoured all their snacks, within the first minute after we left our house.

On suboptimal optimization.

On suboptimal optimization.

I’ve been helping a friend learn the math behind optimization so that she can pass a graduation-requirement course in linear algebra. 

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool.  Biochemists love it – progression toward an energy minimum directs protein folding, among other physical phenomena.  Economists love it – whenever you’re trying to make money, you’re solving for a constrained maximum.  Philosophers love it – how can we provide the most happiness for a population?  Computer scientists love it – self-taught translation algorithms use this same methodology (I still believe that you could mostly replace Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations with this New York Times Magazine article on machine learning and a primer on principal component analysis).

But, even though optimization problems are useful, the math behind them can be tricky.  I’m skeptical that this mathematical technique is essential for everyone who wants a B.A. to grasp – my friend, for example, is a wonderful preschool teacher who hopes to finally finish a degree in child psychology.  She would have graduated two years ago except that she’s failed this math class three times.

I could understand if the university wanted her to take statistics, as that would help her understand psychology research papers … and the science underlying contemporary political debates … and value-added models for education … and more.  A basic understanding of statistics might make people better citizens.

Whereas … linear algebra?  This is a beautiful but counterintuitive field of mathematics.  If you’re interested in certain subjects – if you want to become a physicist, for example – you really should learn this math.  A deep understanding of linear algebra can enliven your study of quantum mechanics.

The summary of quantum mechanics: animation by Templaton.

Then again, Werner Heisenberg, who was a brilliant physicist, had a limited grasp on linear algebra.  He made huge contributions to our understanding of quantum mechanics, but his lack of mathematical expertise occasionally held him back.  He never quite understood the implications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and he failed to provide Adolph Hitler with an atomic bomb.

In retrospect, maybe it’s good that Heisenberg didn’t know more linear algebra.

While I doubt that Heisenberg would have made a great preschool teacher, I don’t think that deficits in linear algebra were deterring him from that profession.  After each evening that I spend working with my friend, I do feel that she understands matrices a little better … but her ability to nurture children isn’t improving.

And yet.  Somebody in an office decided that all university students here need to pass this class.  I don’t think this rule optimizes the educational outcomes for their students, but perhaps they are maximizing something else, like the registration fees that can be extracted.

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool, but it’s easy to misuse.  Numbers will always do what they’re supposed to, but each such problem begins with a choice.  What exactly do you hope to optimize?

Choose the wrong thing and you’ll make the world worse.


Figure 1 from Eykholt et al., 2018.

Most automobile companies are researching self-driving cars.  They’re the way of the future!  In a previous essay, I included links to studies showing that unremarkable-looking graffiti could confound self-driving cars … but the issue I want to discuss today is both more mundane and more perfidious.

After all, using graffiti to make a self-driving car interpret a stop sign as “Speed Limit 45” is a design flaw.  A car that accelerates instead of braking in that situation is not operating as intended.

But passenger-less self-driving cars that roam the city all day, intentionally creating as many traffic jams as possible?  That’s a feature.  That’s what self-driving cars are designed to do.

A machine designed to create traffic jams?

Despite my wariness about automation and algorithms run amok, I hadn’t considered this problem until I read Adam Millard-Ball’s recent research paper, “The Autonomous Vehicle Parking Problem.” Millard-Ball begins with a simple assumption: what if a self-driving car is designed to maximize utility for its owner?

This assumption seems reasonable.  After all, the AI piloting a self-driving car must include an explicit response to the trolley problem.  Should the car intentionally crash and kill its passenger in order to save the lives of a group of pedestrians?  This ethical quandary is notoriously tricky to answer … but a computer scientist designing a self-driving car will probably answer, “no.” 

Otherwise, the manufacturers won’t sell cars.  Would you ride in a vehicle that was programmed to sacrifice you?

Luckily, the AI will not have to make that sort of life and death decision often.  But here’s a question that will arise daily: if you commute in a self-driving car, what should the car do while you’re working?

If the car was designed to maximize public utility, perhaps it would spend those hours serving as a low-cost taxi.  If demand for transportation happened to be lower than the quantity of available, unoccupied self-driving cars, it might use its elaborate array of sensors to squeeze into as small a space as possible inside a parking garage.

But what if the car is designed to benefit its owner?

Perhaps the owner would still want for the car to work as a taxi, just as an extra source of income.  But some people – especially the people wealthy enough to afford to purchase the first wave of self-driving cars – don’t like the idea of strangers mucking around in their vehicles.  Some self-driving cars would spend those hours unoccupied.

But they won’t park.  In most cities, parking costs between $2 and $10 per hour, depending on whether it’s street or garage parking, whether you purchase a long-term contract, etc. 

The cost to just keep driving is generally going to be lower than $2 per hour.  Worse, this cost is a function of the car’s speed.  If the car is idling at a dead stop, it will use approximately 0.1 gallon per hour, costing 25 cents per hour at today’s prices.  If the car is traveling at 30 mph without breaks, it will use approximately 1 gallon per hour, costing $2.50 per hour.

To save money, the car wants to stay on the road … but it wants for traffic to be as close to a standstill as possible.

Luckily for the car, this is an easy optimization problem.  It can consult its onboard GPS to find nearby areas where traffic is slow, then drive over there.  As more and more self-driving cars converge on the same jammed streets, they’ll slow traffic more and more, allowing them to consume the workday with as little motion as possible.

Photo by walidhassanein on Flickr.

Pity the person sitting behind the wheel of an occupied car on those streets.  All the self-driving cars will be having a great time stuck in that traffic jam: we’re saving money!, they get to think.  Meanwhile the human is stuck swearing at empty shells, cursing a bevy of computer programmers who made their choices months or years ago.

And all those idling engines exhale carbon dioxide.  But it doesn’t cost money to pollute, because one political party’s worth of politicians willfully ignore the fact that capitalism, by philosophical design, requires we set prices for scarce resources … like clean air, or habitable planets.

On two degrees and the worst year (yet) to be alive.

On two degrees and the worst year (yet) to be alive.

The United States is pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than we were last year.

The amount of heat-trapping gas in our atmosphere is already too high – ideally, our net emissions should be negative.  Which is entirely feasible.  When we cultivate forests, trees pull carbon from the air.  But each tree can do only so much.  We also need to reduce the amount of energy we consume.

We don’t need to be less happy, though.  As the economy improved, people began flying more … but many flights aren’t producing happiness.  Most people look harried and sullen in airports.  If we all switched to taking trains, the cultural expectations for the rhythm of our lives would shift – instead of short bursts of misery, our travels could be pleasant spells of intermediate time. 

And the giant server farms needed to run websites like Facebook gobble energy.  Facebook, just like any other advertising company, profits by making people less happy.  Many people would be happier in a world where these servers used less energy.

We have a compelling reason to change our behaviors.  If we don’t, the global climate will rise by two degrees Celsius or more.  (Of course, any individual location could become much warmer or colder – a nearby warm ocean current keeps Europe’s climate mild, but if melting polar ice redirects this current, countries like England could become quite frigid.)

How different might life be if global temperatures changed by two degrees?

In the year 536, global temperatures were about two degrees lower than they are today.  (Which does prove, obviously, that the global climate can change for reasons that are not humanity’s fault.  But the current changes are caused by us.)

Historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick believes that this two degree change in temperature made our planet an utterly miserable place to live. A volcanic eruption had darkened the sky, preventing incoming sunlight from warming Earth.  “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,” says McCormick. Snow fell in summertime; crops failed; people starved.

And now we, in all our wisdom, are about to tug the needle just as far (if not farther!) in the other direction.

The Dark Ages were literally dark.  Ashen clouds lurked overhead.  Beset by such nightmarish conditions, people feared that God had forsaken them.  Europeans abandoned science and literacy partly as penance, hoping to appease the source of wrath that was killing them and their children.

Plants have evolved on Earth for many millions of years.  Many plant species will find a way to endure even if we change our planet’s climate.  But human food crops are quite young, in evolutionary terms, and exist in precarious swaths of monoculture. A two degree increase in global temperatures will cause these plants to die.  Famine will ensue.  Global violence and warfare will increase as hungry people fight to survive. 

A two degree change in temperature is totally sufficient to usher in a new worst year to be alive.

Sadly, nobody will be eating any Doritos made from these drought-scorched corn plants.

If we change the global climate by two degrees, there’s also no assurance that our planet won’t keep warming.  Weather is dictated by complex feedback loops that we don’t yet understand.  Our oceans soak up heat, which is changing their chemistry; warmer water takes up more space, flooding the coasts, and will melt the polar ice caps from underneath, which further accelerates warming because ice reflects sunlight, but bare ground or water absorbs it.

Venus may have been habitable, once. But climate change spiraled out of control after the atmosphere filled with too much heat-trapping carbon dioxide.  The oceans evaporated.  Now, searing sulfuric acid falls as rain from the sky.

If we tip over the precipice, every living creature on earth will be doomed.  No one understands enough about the feedback loops that dictate a planet’s climate to know how close to the precipice we are.

Although, really, a two degree change would be awful enough.

Which is worth reiterating … especially because the cohort of humans that has contributed most to climate change, and currently holds the wealth and political power needed to prevent catastrophe, is of an age that perhaps they want the world to be a little warmer.  Wealthy Americans in their fifties to seventies have long migrated south in pursuit of warmer climate.

The current generation of 50- to 70-year-olds was given the most of the Earth’s plenitude.  The world of their youth was very different from the world in which my children were born. While that generation was alive, insect populations plummeted by 90% or more.  The fecundity of other wildlife diminished in turn.  Forests were clearcut, and the environment – including the very air we breathe – was devastated to produce the world’s current wealth.

Perhaps some of the people in power now do want a warmer planet.  But it is not theirs.  As phrased by Wendell Berry,

the world is not given by [our parents], but borrowed from [our] children.”

We should feel horrifically embarrassed to return this world in worse condition than when we were lent it.

Featured image: Night Landscape with Ruined Monastery by Lluís Rigalt (1814 – 1894).

On the water-fueled car.

On the water-fueled car.

“I heard there was, like, a car that runs on water … “

“Dude, no, there’ve been, like, six of them.  But oil companies bought all the patents.”

A lot of the people who attend my poetry class in jail believe in freaky conspiracy theories.  Somebody started telling me that the plots of various Berenstain Bears books are different from when he was a child, which is evidence that the universe bifurcated and that he’s now trapped in an alternate timeline from the path he was on before …

old hat(New printings of some Berenstain Bears books really are different.  Take Old Hat New Hat, a charming story about shopping and satisfaction: after the protagonist realizes that he prefers the old, beat-up hat he already owns to any of the newer, fancier models, a harried salesperson reacts with a mix of disgust and disbelieve.  This scene has been excised from the board book version that you could buy today.  Can’t have anything that tarnishes the joy of consumerism!)

I’ve written about conspiracy theories previously, but I think it’s worth re-iterating, in the interest of fairness, that the men in jail are correct when they assume that vast numbers of people are “breathing together” against them.  Politicians, judges, police, corporate CEOs and more have cooperated to build a world in which men like my students are locked away.  Not too long ago, it would have been fairly easy for them to carve out a meaningful existence, but advances in automation, the ease of international shipping, and changes to tax policy have dismantled the opportunities of the past.

Which means that I often find myself seriously debating misinterpretations of Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” theory (described midway through my essay, “Ashes”), or Biblical prophecies, or Jung-like burblings of the collective unconsciousness.

Or, last week, the existence of water cars.

In 2012, government officials from Pakistan announced that a local scientist had invented a process for using water as fuel.  At the time, I was still running a webcomic – one week’s Evil Dave vs. Regular Dave focused on news of the invention.


When scientists argue that a water-powered car can’t exist, they typically reference the Second Law of Thermodynamics (also discussed in “Ashes”).  The Second Law asserts that extremely unlikely events occur so rarely that you can safely assume their probability to be zero.

If something is disallowed by the Second Law, there’s nothing actually preventing it from happening.  For an oversimplified example, imagine there are 10 molecules of a gas randomly whizzing about inside a box.  The Second Law says that all 10 will never be traveling in the exact same direction at the same time.  If they were, you’d get energy from nothing.  They might all strike the north-facing wall at the same time, causing the box to move, instead of an equal number hitting the northern and southern facing walls.

But, just like flipping eight coins and seeing them all land heads, sometimes the above scenario will occur.  It violates the Second Law, and it can happen.  Perpetual motion machines can exist.  They are just very, very rare.  (Imagine a fraction where the denominator is a one followed by as many zeros as you could write before you die.  That number will be bigger than the chance of a water-fueled car working for even several seconds.)

When chemists talk about fuel, they think about diagrams that look roughly like this:


The y axis on this graph is energy, and the x axis is mostly meaningless – here it’s labeled “reaction coordinate,” but you wouldn’t be so far off if you just think of it as time.

For a gasoline powered car, the term “reactants” refers to octane and oxygen.  Combined, these have a higher amount of energy stored in their chemical bonds than an equivalent mass of the “products,” carbon dioxide and water, so you can release energy through combustion.  The released energy moves your car forward.

And there’s a hill in the middle.  This is generally called the “activation barrier” of the reaction.  Basically, the universe thinks it’s a good idea to turn octane and oxygen into CO2 and H2O … but the universe is lazy.  Left to its own devices, it can’t be bothered.  Which is good – because this reaction has a high activation barrier, we rarely explode while refueling at the gas station.

Your car uses a battery to provide the energy needed to start this process, after which the energy of the first reaction can be used to activate the next.  The net result is that you’re soon cruising the highway with nary a care, dribbling water from your tailpipe, pumping carbon into the air.

(Your car also uses a “catalyst” – this component doesn’t change how much energy you’ll extract per molecule of octane, but it lowers the height of the activation barrier, which makes it easier for the car to start.  Maybe you’ve heard the term “cold fusion.”  If we could harness a reaction combining hydrogen molecules to form helium, that would be a great source of power.  Hydrogen fusion is what our sun uses.  This reaction chucks out a lot of energy and has non-toxic byproducts.

But the “cold” part of “cold fusion” refers to the fact that, without a catalyst, this reaction has an extremely steep activation barrier.  It works on the sun because hydrogen molecules are crammed together at high temperature and pressure.  Something like millions of degrees.  I personally get all sweaty and miserable at 80 degrees, and am liable to burn myself when futzing about near an oven at 500 degrees … I’d prefer not to drive a 1,000,000 degree hydrogen-fusion-powered automobile.)

Seriously, I would not want this to be happening beneath the hood of the family ride.

With any fuel source, you can guess at its workings by comparing the energy of its inputs and outputs.  Octane and oxygen have high chemical energies, carbon dioxide and water have lower energies, so that’s why your car goes forward.  Our planet, too, can be viewed as a simple machine.  High frequency (blue-ish) light streams toward us from the sun, then something happens here that increases the order of molecules on Earth, after which we release a bunch of low-frequency (red-ish) light.

(We release low-frequency “infrared” light as body heat – night vision goggles work by detecting this.)

Our planet is an order-creating machine fueled by changing the color of photons from the sun.

A water-fueled car is impractical because other molecules that contain hydrogen and oxygen have higher chemical energy than an equivalent mass of water.  There’s no energy available for you to siphon away into movement.

If you were worried that major oil companies are conspiring against you by hiding the existence of water-fueled cars, you can breathe a sigh of relief.  But don’t let yourself get too complacent, because these companies really are conspiring against you.  They’re trying to starve your children.

On free-market economics & the actual meaning of words.

On free-market economics & the actual meaning of words.

CaptureDespite being rather politically liberal, I consider myself a free market economist.

(Maybe it’s unfair to self-describe as an economist, though?  I did the coursework for a master’s degree in economics… but couldn’t get a degree because I didn’t complete the residency requirement.  I was enrolled as an undergraduate at the time, and apparently would’ve needed to be enrolled as a graduate student for my coursework to count.)

Sure, there are instances where free markets don’t fare so well — the free market solution to entertainment is for people to pirate whatever they’d like to watch, hear, or read, and then for producers of those media to realize they can never turn a profit.  But for many types of commerce, free markets work great.

But, just like the term “pro-life” (I describe myself as pro-life, for instance, which can confuse people because I am a staunch supporter of women’s rights and lives), the words “free market” have taken on a political connotation that doesn’t always gel with actual meaning.

For instance, I promptly began to pout when I read the following paragraphs in James Surowiecki’s New York Review of Books article, “Why the Rich Are So Much Richer“:

CaptureThe redistributive policies [Joseph] Stiglitz advocates look pretty much like what you’d expect.  On the tax front, he wants to raise taxes on the highest earners and on capital gains, institute a carbon tax, and cut corporate subsidies.  But dealing with inequality isn’t just about taxation.  It’s also about investing.  As he puts it, “If we spent more on education, health, and infrastructure, we would strengthen our economy, now and in the future.”  So he wants more investment in schools, infrastructure, and basic research.

If you’re a free-market fundamentalist, this sounds disastrous — a recipe for taking money away from the job creators and giving it to the government, which will just waste it on bridges to nowhere.  But here is where Stiglitz’s academic work and his political perspective intersect most clearly.  The core insight of Stiglitz’s research has been that, left on their own, markets are not perfect, and that smart policy can nudge them in better directions.

A strange turn of phrase.

Sure, it’s reasonable to imagine a free-market fundamentalist kvetching over increased taxes on high earners and capital gains (progressive taxation means that, for anyone outside the bottom tax bracket, choosing to work one additional hour produces income taxed at a higher percentage than the average tax rate being applied to your current income.  So the claim is that progressive taxation causes people to work less.  This claim is unverified, though, and indeed you could make an equally plausible argument for the opposite: if people want a certain post-tax income, raising tax rates will cause them to work more in order to earn that same amount).

But it’s very strange to write that a free-market fundamentalist would consider it “disastrous” to cut corporate subsidies.  How do government handouts to high-fructose corn syrup manufacturers reflect the free market?

They don’t, obviously.  But it’s so ingrained in our culture to equate things like “free-market fundamentalist” and “right-wing economist” that even very bright people (I enjoyed the rest of Surowiecki’s article) sometimes make claims about one when they mean the other.

Similarly, I think that someone who self-describes as “pro-life” should be concerned about women’s well-being, would weigh the well-being of a sentient neglected child above that of a pre-sentient fetus, would be an advocate for economic & social justice, would have empathy for livestock subject to torturous existences in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation), would be appalled that environmental harm & climate destabilization is aggravating armed conflict across the globe.  Obviously I was thrilled to read Thomas Friedman’s editorial, “Why I Am Pro-Life.”  I thought it’d mean I’d get fewer confused looks.

It didn’t.  But it’s still a lovely editorial.

And, getting back to economics: even though right-wing politicians oppose it, a free-market fundamentalist would support a carbon tax.

CaptureProducing carbon is a negative externality.  That means it’s a cost of production that is not inherently paid by the producers — other well-known negative externalities are the raw sewage, bad smells, & concomitant reduced property values brought by CAFOs, or the suddenly poisonous well water in towns adjacent to certain types of coal mines.

For the free market to work properly, negative externalities must be priced through taxation.  If not, too many of the associated good are produced and everyone’s utility (“happiness” is a reasonable synonym for the word “utility”) is lower than it could’ve been.

(Well, almost everyone’s — in some cases net utility is lower, and all but one person’s utility drops, but the person operating a mine at below-market rates and poisoning everyone’s water is happier.  The mine owner might earn enough that he can afford to buy bottled water, a big house, & a politician or two.)

This is analogous to the well-known “tragedy of the commons,” the idea that if all shepherds have unlimited free access to a shared space, they’ll have their sheep overgraze it.  After a few years, the grass is dead & everyone’s sheep starve.  Similarly, if we give all corporations unlimited free access to the atmosphere as a garbage bin, each has an incentive to overpollute and kill us all.

If that sounds overdramatic, please read the Easter Island chapter of Jared Diamond’s Collapse.  The book’s central message is that environmental disaster obliterates societies, and Easter Island is perhaps the best example of a once-fertile land pillaged by its inhabitants, who then could not survive minor geological shocks.  To this day the island is covered by grassy hills & insouciant gods, but it was once densely forested & harbored a variety of plant life.  Then the inhabitants chopped down the trees.  In Diamond’s words:

CaptureI suspect that landscape amnesia provided part of the answer to my UCLA students’ question, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?”  We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity.  Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site.  Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference.  Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago.  Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important.  At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance.  That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets.  No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

Sure, a free-market fundamentalist would bemoan government interventions like a cap & trade system to regulate pollution.  I’m a hippy-dippy liberal and I hate the idea of cap & trade, too.  But assessing the cost to all for each unit of carbon production, then levying a tax so that corporations know the true consequences of their decisions?  That is a free market solution.

Similarly, a free-market fundamentalist should support government subsidies to education, infrastructure, and basic research.  Those are all goods with significant positive externalities, meaning each produces benefits that accrue to the population as a whole, not just to the individual who had to pay to build a road.  Since the value of these goods to the economy as a whole is undercounted, the correct equilibrium amount won’t be produced unless they are subsidized.

CapturePositive externalities are things like keeping bees.  If you keep bees, you get some honey, maybe you get some pleasure by looking at your hive from time to time.  But your decision to keep bees also makes all nearby farmland more productive.  Because it’d be difficult to track each bee & charge each nearby farmer for every flower fertilized by one of your bees, it’s more sensible to simply subsidize beekeeping (with perhaps some restrictions on where you’re keeping bees — if you’re living in the middle of a city, your bees might not be helping much).

Similarly, if you educate children, employers gain access to a more competent workforce, citizens gain more pleasant neighbors, often less needs to be spent on policing & prisons a few years down the line.  Government-funded research made possible our wireless technologies, the internet, microwave ovens — & these make everyone’s lives more efficient.  The free-market solution that compensates the researchers who gave us all these near-magical technologies is to subsidize their research.

The other common solution, the one that is not a free-market approach but is favored by many right-wing politicians, is to grant patent protections, artificially disallowing all but one corporation from producing any of a good.

That type of distinction is why it saddens me to see habitual misuse of words or phrases as slogans lend them a connotation that’s so different from their actual meaning.  Especially because, in the case of something like “free market” or “pro-life,” the distinction changes the world in appreciable ways.  Like, okay, if everybody wants to use the word “peruse” to mean “skim,” of if everybody wants to use the word “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate,” I’ll just stop using those words.  I don’t want to use them incorrectly, but I don’t want to confuse anyone, either.  But “free market” and “pro-life” are such big, emotionally-charged concepts that I get upset about political efforts to commandeer them.