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2.10.03

What do Howard Dean, George W. Bush, and Bjorn Lomborg have in common?

I've recently been noticing references to a general type of political problem, which I think of as the "half-solution problem" (it probably has another name, given to it by people who actually know something about policymaking). Many policy proposals involve a combination of two elements, both of which are necessary. Take, for instance, President Bush's plan to shrink the federal government. This involves two parts -- reducing taxes, and reducing spending. Neither one of these is sufficient on its own, and may in fact be harmful (for example, if government services are cut, but people don't get a tax cut with which to buy their own education and roads and such). Often, one half of the solution is politically attractive, whereas the other is a tough pill to swallow. This tempts governments into implementing a half-solution. So right now, we have rising federal budget deficits because Bush had plenty of support on the "cutting taxes" portion of his plan, but much less (perhaps even in his own head) on the "reducing spending" problem.

Dick Gephardt's accusation that Howard Dean stood with Newt Gingrich on medicare reform is another example. Dean vehemently denounced Gingrich in general, and opposed the final plan that Gingrich came up with. Yet Gephardt is right that Dean agreed with Gingrich that the rate of medicare growth should be slowed. The problem is that slowing medicare growth was good in and of itself for Gingrich. But for Dean, it was only a half-solution. He wanted to invest the savings from the growth cut in other improvements in health care. So in the end, while one part of their plans matched up, Dean was able to recognize the Gingrich plan as a half-solution and oppose it.

Yesterday, John Quiggin called noted global warming skeptic Bjorn Lomborg "a hypocrite and a fraud" because he works for the Danish government. Lomborg's view is that instead of spending money on stopping global warming, we would get bigger and more certain benefits by investing that money in foreign aid. Quiggin points out that the Danish government has adopted the "cut greenhouse-prevention spending" portion of Lomborg's plan, yet has failed to carry out the "increased foreign aid" portion. Commenters on Quiggin's post have challenged the "hypocrite and fraud" designation on the basis that Lomborg has no influence over foreign aid. This raises the question of whether it's irresponsible to press for a half-solution when you know that the other half will not be forthcoming. This may not be quite such a big issue for Lomborg, because I suspect that he really thinks that reducing spending on global warming is a good thing in and of itself (only a suspicion because I haven't read his manifesto, The Skeptical Environmentalist). But it's a problem for anyone convinced by his utilitarian device of saying that we'd get more bang for our buck with foreign aid than with greenhouse prevention.

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