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Two Kinds Of Commons

Below I commented that Communal Sharing would negate itself if one of my housemates took advantage of the access Communal Sharing granted them in order to hoard all of the cookies for themself. This suggested a refinement of our thinking about common property systems.

The social science literature on the commons was sparked by Garrett Hardin's classic article, arguing that common property inevitably leads to a tragedy as individually rational action leads individuals to overuse the commons. The bulk of social science reaction to Hardin's article, led by Elinor Ostrom, was based on the argument that the commons as Hardin describes it is not an accurate depiction of common property systems around the world. In most common property systems, some form of social organization -- most often Equality Matching, in which all participants are expected to make equal contributions to maintenance and are allocated equal shares of the produce or given an equal turn at using it -- explicitly limits exploitation. These authors concede that in the case of what is referred to as an "open access resource," such as oil, the Tragedy of the "Commons" plays out much like Hardin describes.

In discussing the Communal Sharing model, Fiske repeatedly asserts that common property falls under this model. And in fact his ethnographic descriptions of Communal Sharing among the Moose do resemble Hardin's open access rather than Ostrom's Equality Matching commons. No quotas are set on people's use of land or water, they are simply given free to anyone who asks. So why don't the Moose succumb to a Tragedy of the Commons?

I would suggest that there are actually two models of non-Tragic commons: the Ostromian and the Lockean. The latter gets its name because its features are suggested by Locke's account of property. Locke argues that appropriation of resources is initially limited by the inability to use more than a certain amount. There's no point in taking more apples than you can eat before they go bad. Locke says that this system will and should be superseded by the development of non-perishable, hoardable stores of value (namely money). With the ability to turn them into money, people can appropriate an unlimited amount of resources.

Among the Moose and other groups that use this system, the Lockean commons is spared from this monetary Tragedy by the very Communal Sharing ideas that underly the open access rule system. In a Communal Sharing situation, the boundaries between self and other are blurred. I do not think of you as another person with whom I must compete for resources, but as a fellow part of the larger group. So it makes no sense to hoard resources for the future use of my self -- and thus no rules limiting exploitation are needed. Each of us can take as much as we need, and the limits of our ability to use resources at once will (hopefully) be sufficient to keep the resource from being overexploited.

What the Tragedy of the Commons exhibits, then, is a dysfunctional system resulting from a mismatch between people's orientations (Market Pricing) and the social rules they encounter (Communal Sharing). But contra Hardin, the Market Pricing orientation is not universal.

Social Theory Of Cookies

I just noticed a bit of anecdotal confirmation of a bit of Alan Fiske's work on relational models in my own life -- specifically, in my handling of cookies.

Fiske's theory is that there are four basic models of social interaction. Different societies mix and match them differently, implementing them in different domains with different parameters, but the underlying structures, motives, and ethical principles are the same. The four models are:
  • Communal Sharing: All members of an "in" group are considered equivalent -- so much so that the lines between individual selves are blurred. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is the guiding maxim.

  • Authority Ranking: People are ordinally ranked, with those higer up able to command obedience and to offer noblesse oblige on their own terms. Those lower down gratefully accept their superiors' paternalism.

  • Equality Matching: Balanced reciprocity rules, with qualitatively equal goods or services exchanged. Everyone gets an equal share regardless of need, want, or power. Equal division of a pool, "one man, one vote" systems, or turn-taking are all examples.

  • Market Pricing: Exchange ratios (often recorded in a universal medium such as money) allow trading off of qualitatively different goods or services, and bargaining for the best deal is pursued.

Classical economics teaches that Market Pricing should be preferred in situations involving the distribution of the most valuable and scarce items. The efficiency of the market mechanism is most needed for items most crucial to life -- a more lax system would lead to a Tragedy (of the Commons or otherwise)*. Yet Fiske finds among the Moose people of Burkina Faso that just the opposite is true. They adhere to the Communal Sharing model for exactly those items that are most scarce and valuable for them -- land, water, and food.

This was the finding that my cookies replicated. I often have a package of fairly typical store-bought cookies, such as Oreos, around the house. I keep them on the shelf, which signals to my housemates that they belong to me by virtue of having been bought at the store with my money. Should they take one, I wouldn't go so far as to Market Price it, but there would be a (vaguely specified) expectation that they would Equality Match it, either by giving me food at some future date or by going to the store and buying me more Oreos.

On the other hand, I recently picked up my order of Girl Scout Cookies from my sister. Girl Scout cookies are both tastier and rarer than Oreos. By the economic rationale, if my housemates were to eat some I should either expect replacement in kind (a difficult task, since Girl Scout cookie season is over) or some other bargained-for (Market Priced) compensation. Yet in fact my impulse was to Communally Share them. I put them on the table, intending to extend an open offer to my housemates to eat some. (I would demand Market Pricing if one of them wanted to claim an entire box for themself, though. That would be a case of self-negation of Communal Sharing -- using the cookie access granted by Communal Sharing in order to cut a Sharer out of the loop.)

For Fiske, this parallel would be just a coincidence. He denies (at least in the early work of his that I've read) the existence of any master-rule guiding the choice of model in any particular situation -- his point was to undercut economics' assertion of the primacy of Market Pricing, not to erect an alternative rule of the primacy of Communal Sharing. And certainly other models are used to structure use of the most valuable resources in other contexts. But I can't help wondering if there isn't a good explanation for why valuable and scarce resources would be attractive candidates for Communal Sharing.

*Certainly there is some truth to this at the opposite extreme, as Market Pricing is nonfunctional where there is no scarcity.

Kiosk Update

I haven't updated the Kiosk in a very long time, but while listening to the otherwise enjoyable Camper van Beethoven song "Take the Skinheads Bowling," I was reminded of another thing that annoys me: song lyrics that comment on their own lack of rhyme. I'm fine with song lyrics that don't rhyme. But "There's not a line that goes here that rhymes with anything" is not acceptable. So, to the Kiosk with you!


Editing The Past

Hugo Schwyzer is one of my favorite bloggers because he continues to falsify any theory I try to construct about what makes him tick. He manages to simultaneously bare his soul and keep his personal life a jealously guarded secret. He recently posted about the pitfalls of LiveJournal-style blogging, posting all the gory details of your day-to-day life. He's concerned that some of his youth group kids are being insufficiently cautious about what they post. I quite agree in terms of the need to remember who has access to what you write (though the use of friends filters and the brouhaha over "frienditto" a few months back suggest that most LJers are already thinking hard about these issues). Most of my life never shows up here or on my LJ, and I'm happy with that level of privacy.

But then Schwyzer offers another rationale for being more private that I'm not so keen on: "By documenting so many details of their intimate lives, many are losing the opportunity to start over, to change, to redefine themselves in the eyes of their peers, parents, and everyone else." I understand the need to be able to change, both internally and in the eyes of others. That change is easier when information about your past is not readily available. People have an understandable skepticism about claims to have changed, and are quite willing to use details of the past against each other.

On the other hand, I don't think that such documentation of the past is a bar to change. One need not (in some cases cannot) use the "born again" model, in which the past is wiped out or treated as if it belonged to a separate person. There is a role for being honest about what you have done and how you interpret it as part of the history of the person you are today. Having the "raw data" available can put a check on wishful thinking or rationalization about where you came from.

While I've never blogged (or even privately journaled) about the kinds of sex, drugs, etc. issues that Schwyzer is concerned about, but political opinions can be rather personal. I'm concerned about people -- including myself -- thinking that I'm a good writer with intelligent things to say. As I was building my personal website, I had the opportunity to edit my own past, picking and choosing what elements of my past writing were made available. I'll admit that I had a strong impulse to censor it, to decline to put up anything from my embarassing first couple years of political writing. Even now I cringe at the thought of people following the link and reading some of the things I wrote years ago. But I also felt that I would be a bit dishonest with myself if I did that. I don't want to be thought of as the kind of person who writes "Colgate's E-Mail Wars Could Teach NATO A Thing Or Two", but I'll accomplish that by putting it in the context of my development as a writer and thinker.

So be aware of what happens when you hit "post," but don't assume you must err on the side of privacy.


No Fights?

To Love, Honour, And Overrate

... "Whatever does she see in him?" is a common refrain from mystified friends as yet another acquaintance settles for a strange choice of partner. The conventional explanation is that "love is blind" but new psychological research suggests that long after the first flush of passionate love has ebbed away, distorted, unrealistic perceptions of one's partner are the key ingredient to a successful marriage.

... The secret, it seems, is to see your partner as a lot nicer than he or she really is.

The latest research, just about to be published in the academic journal Social Behaviour and Personality, measures a phenomenon referred to as "marital aggrandisement".

Marital aggrandisement entails an idealised appraisal of one's spouse and marriage to the exclusion of any negative beliefs and perceptions. Those who aggrandise their marriages tend to endorse items on personality tests that are extremely unlikely to be completely true, for example, "My spouse doesn't make me angry" or "I do not recall arguments with my spouse".

-- via Foreign Dispatches

I wish I could see the actual paper this is based on. I'm wondering what kind of objective standard they were comparing the subjective assessments to (some sort of data on the actual number of fights the couple has had?) If all they've got is a correlation between marital happiness and claiming you haven't fought could support the aggrandizement hypothesis. But it's also consistent with the commonsense hypothesis that not actually having fights leads to both happiness and a lack of memory of the non-existent fights. Indeed, there could be a mutually reinforcing loop, as a happy couple would be less likely to have additional fights.

Certainly the aggrandizement hypothesis remains plausible as well, and it's consistent with recent psychological research that suggests that attitudes and affect have primacy and remembered facts are put together as post-hoc rationalizations. (An attractively existentialist theory, it seems.) But I must admit to some bias, as I feel very certain that I had only one (minor) argument with my ex, who I dated for three years, and none so far with my girlfriend of five months.

Utilitarian Shades Of Gray

Guest-posting on Evangelical Outpost, Kevin T. Keith presents a decent summary of consequentialist and utilitarian ethics. There are various nits I could pick, but one of his statements stood out to me because it reminded me of a post I'd been meaning to write. In his section on objections to utilitarianism, Keith mentions perhaps the most popular: it's too hard*. Utilitarianism as typically presented demands that we select the utility-maximizing action, declaring all other actions to be wrong. Given our natural selfishness, most people would find it impossible to truly maximize utility. Peter Singer, perhaps the foremost contemporary utilitarian philosopher, is famously hypocritical for not donating as much of his income to charity as his stated ethical system demands.

However, I think the "it's too hard" criticism relies on a binary moral template improperly imported from non-consequentialist theories (an importation made by Bentham and Mill themselves). In deontological and command-based ethics, rightness is presented as a black and white issue, so each act can be classified as either right or wrong. This kind of system is appealing because of its simplicity -- it gives a clear yes or no, which is useful both for the actor and for those judging him or her. But consequentialism provides us with a more subtle metric of rightness. Acts can be ranked by their contribution to utility -- and hence by their rightness. The utility-maximizing act is not the only right act, rather it is the most right act possible in the circumstances. Suboptimal acts are no longer collapsed into a single category of "wrong," but are rather judged as attempts with varying degrees of success. If he were to adopt this way of conceptualizing rightness, Peter Singer would no longer be a hypocrite, but rather a person doing better than many people but not as good as theoretically possible.

*Given the location of the Keith post, I should note that Christianity is quite explicit about the fact that God's commands are also too hard for people to obey, thus necessitating forgiveness and salvation.


It Was Funny The First 20 Times

If I see another cartoon of Newsweek being flushed down the toilet, I'm going to scream. And cartoonists wonder why their profession is being downsized.


Anthropology Infringing On Biology

Orgasmic Science

... He went on to suggest that the clitoris, and by extension the female orgasm, also had no purpose in evolutionary terms. In a situation exactly analogous to the male nipple, [Stephen Jay] Gould wrote, the clitoris and the female orgasm were simply developmental echoes of the male penis and orgasm, whose importance to reproduction is obvious.

Gould's article (later reprinted under the title "Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples") ignited a war in the letters column of Natural History, though he was not the first to make the argument that the female orgasm serves no evolutionary purpose. After the anthropologist Donald Symons made the same point in his 1979 book "The Evolution of Human Sexuality," the feminist anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy noted in a review that "a gentlemanly breeze from the 19th century drifts from the pages." The argument that the male orgasm was a naturally selected miracle and the female one a wan copy, she thought, smacked of sexism.

... "If the clitoris is an irrelevant organ," asks the Emory University psychologist and primatologist Frans de Waal, "why in cultures that want to control female sexuality do they have it removed?"

-- via feministe

I'm no biologist, so I can't offer an opinion on the scientific validity of the claim that the female orgasm is a by-product of the evolution of the male orgasm rather than being directly selected for*. But I can comment on the two bits of anthropology that show up in the bits of the article I quoted.

First, Hrdy's contention that Gould's thesis (drawn from Elisabeth A. Lloyd) is sexist has some merit but doesn't go deep enough. It's true that there is a long history of evolutionary and sociobiological explanations being used to justify sexism. It's easy enough to see how a sexist bias could lead a person to conclude that the female orgasm is derivative, and that that conclusion could easily be used to justify sexism. These are good reasons to be suspicious of the Gould-Lloyd thesis and to give careful scrutiny to the evidence and arguments offered in its favor. But that suspicion can't itself be a refutation of the Gould-Lloyd thesis. They could be correct despite a coincidental agreement with the conclusions that sexists would illegitimately arrive at. And if further examination upheld the Gould-Lloyd thesis, we would be in a tough spot -- either accept a scientific finding that seems to justify sexism, or suppress the truth in order to stabilize social equality. This shows that what we need is to also undercut the use of design arguments in ethics. Whether the female orgasm was directly selected for by evolution has no bearing on whether the orgasms experienced by women are important. It's not where it comes from that's important, but what we can do with it from here on out. If we can free our society of the wrongheaded idea that what evolution "designed" a feature for tells us anything about how we should use it, then the Gould-Lloyd thesis will pose no threat to sexual equality.

De Waal's argument starts off with a misreading of the Gould-Lloyd thesis that is exactly the kind of thing that Hrdy fears will be done with it. He interprets "not directly selected for" as "irrelevant" -- a move that only makes sense under the incorrect premise that natural selection can be interpreted as indicating some sort of binding will of nature. Nobody is denying that females today (often) experience orgasms. That fact is a sufficient explanation for why certain societies would see fit to remove the organ responsible. Clitoridectomies are equally useful in controlling female sexuality if the clitoris is the direct result of natural selection, or if it's a happy side-effect of the evolution of the penis. It's the origin of this undisputed empirical fact that's at issue, an origin that occurred over a much longer time scale than the development of the practice of clitoridectomy.

*Though I think I can offer some reassurance to Lauren, who thinks that if Lloyd's theory is correct, women may gradually lose the ability as evolution goes on. While the female orgasm may not make a positive contribution to survival and reproductive success (and hence isn't selected for), I have trouble seeing how it would have a negative influence (and thus be selected against) -- and it seems like a pretty big negative influence would be necessary to justify the substantial changes in how sexual differentiation develops that would be necessary to deprive females of orgasms without similarly depriving men. As an evolutionarily neutral feature, I would expect the female orgasm to be dragged along by the evolution of the male orgasm.


Refuge From Groping

Women-only Train Cars Irritate Some Men

... Several of the Japanese capital's railway companies introduced the single-sex carriages Monday as part of a city effort to tackle the problem of men who take advantage of overcrowding to grope female passengers.

In a Tokyo survey last year, almost two thirds of women aged between 20 and 40 said they had been groped on a train.

... "Women-only carriages are a form of discrimination against men," one opponent told the Asahi Shimbun daily.

-- via Iconochron

Yes, this is discrimination against men. But it's justified discrimination, because it leads to a reduction in other forms of harm and discrimination. For the anonymous opponent's case to hold water, he would have to make one of two additional arguments: 1) that the plight of men on the remaining coed cars is worse than the plight of women being groped on a fully coed train (which is absurdly unlikely to be true), or 2) the government should pursue a clean-hands policy with respect to sexism, a philosophical orientation based on an unjustifiably strict act/omission distinction.

I wonder, though, about the fate of those women who by choice or necessity continue to ride in coed cars. It seems they would experience even more groping for both structural and message reasons. Structurally, women-only cars would increase the ratio of men to women on the coed cars, thus making the remaining women bigger targets. The option of a woman-only car would also create the false impression in lechers' minds that women who ride coed cars are consenting, even asking, to be groped, thus reducing gropers' inhibitions. (Note that I am not saying these concerns outweigh the good done by women-only cars -- they just reinforce Iconochron's point that this is a Band-Aid on a deeper problem.)


Humans Improving the Environment, and Relativism in Practice

Perhaps the most interesting piece of political ecology that has been produced thus far is the work of James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, who challenge some prevailing notions of environmental degradation in Africa. Along the border between the Sahelian savanna and the tropical rain forests in west Africa, we find numerous patches of forest amid grassland. The prevailing notion among government and development agency personnel was that human activity had destroyed large swaths of forest, turning it into savanna through indiscriminate burning, farming, and overgrazing. They rushed to slap restrictions on the use of the remaining bits of forest, hoping to preserve them from destruction by limiting human activity.

Through some careful use of historical sources, Fairhead and Leach found that just the opposite was true. The areas in question were "naturally" pure savanna, and human activity had created the forest patches. Fallow fields and areas around villages had the soil conditions necessary to support forest growth (it's unclear whether the forest, once established, is self-sustaining, or whether continued human disturbance is necessary to prevent the savanna from encroaching). Think about that: it's an example of an instance of human activity not degrading, but improving an ecosystem.

This research launched a major new school of political ecology, superseding the older Marxist-structuralist variety. However, from my perspective the second wave of political ecology focused on the wrong parts of Fairhead and Leach's work. This new school (well represented in The Lie of the Land, edited by Leach and Robin Mearns) was drawn to Fairhead and Leach's analysis of why the powers that be had gotten the story of the African savanna-forest mosaic so wrong. They drew on a variety of constructivist, poststructural, and postmodern theories to critique other prevailing environmental narratives.

Constructivists fight a constant battle against accusations of relativism. To some degree I sympathize, as many critics lump all left-of-positivist theories together and are reflexively hostile to any attempt to question the workings of science. On the other hand, to answer the charge of relativism it is not enough to assert that one is not relativist. The real test is not whether you say "material" a lot, but whether your analytic approach gives us any tools for grappling with the external world.

Unfortunately, most constructivists do not. By going beyond constructivism as a method of challenging particular stories, into constructivism as an overarching philosophy, they lose their grasp of any means of researching nature itself in order to talk in a more radical way about our ideas of nature. This is made apparent in the actual products of constructivist research. Rarely do we see carefully documented assertions about what the state of the environment actually is, of the kind Fairhead and Leach made. At best, we get a sort of rotating hypocrisy -- while the writer's constructivist lens is focused like a laser on the scientific discourse in question, he or she draws without critical comment on other scientific findings. The findings of a few "new ecology" studies are presented as uncompicatedly accurate in the course of a ruthless deconstruction of a narrative based on a few "old ecology" studies. At most, this use of science will be justified through its political efficacy -- constructivists are always at pains to stress that their constructivism does not lead them to question the basic idea that humans are using nature unsustainably, even as they deconstruct environmental institutions' use of science to buttress that claim.

Constructivist relativism is bad, and constructivism that conceals a realist backside is incoherent. What we need is a philosophy that can recognize how societies might construct accurate answers, thus properly merging constructivist insights about how knowledge is produced with the realist goal of producing accurate knowledge. I understand that Dianne Rocheleau's more recent work has actually engaged with the prevailing theories in biology, rather than asserting that the natural sciences must become constructivist (and wishfully thinking they're on their way) before such engagement is possible. Perhaps that's what I ought to be reading next.


Spirals and Saw-teeth

(I'm going to wind up doing a lot of fairly academic posts for the next month or so, because I'm studying for my oral exams.)

I'm reading B.L. Turner II's "Spirals, Bridges, and Tunnels" article, in which he argues (in surprisingly magnanimous fashion) that the social sciences that lack paradigms (i.e. all of them but economics) are subject to an oscillation or dialectic between positivistic and humanistic approaches. As he presents it, it's a fairly balanced movement, as the difficulties inherent in each approach become apparent and researchers spiral back to take a fresh look at the other approach's possibilities. But I think the spiral is a bit more saw-toothed. The evenness of the balance between the two perspectives is distorted by the looming presence of the natural sciences. The prestige and empirical/practical success of natural science, combined with its unified positivist paradigm, exerts a strong pressure of temptation on social scientists. The disorganized and un-prestigious humanities have no similar allure. On the other hand, positivism has a repulsive effect in the social sciences as well, a combination of resentment of its success in natural science and frustration with the difficulty of applying it to social questions. Thus the movement toward the humanities in social science is as much a push against positivism as a move toward humanism. Humanities theories are tapped as a resource for fending off positivism. The effect of this is to create a series of sharp rejections/rebellions against the natural science perspective, followed by a slow slide back.


Framing Environmental Justice

The environmental justice movement cut its academic teeth in the 1980s with a number of studies -- most famously the national analysis by the United Church of Christ's Commission on Racial Justice -- documenting a high correlation between the locations of toxic facilities (landfills, chemical plants, etc.) and racial minority communities (as well as a much weaker correlation with income). The obvious explanation, and the one championed by the movement's political arm, was that siting decisions were racist. The movement typically asserted that it was conscious racism (and there was evidence for that in some cases where information about the decisionmaking process became public), but also argued that siting that led to disproportionate impacts on minorities was unjust even if no racist animus motivated the decision.

In the early 90s, a study by Vicki Been investigated whether the direction of causality might not be the other way around -- toxic facilities might be sited in a racially neutral manner, but since they stigmatized an area and depressed property values, they would draw disadvantaged people to live near them. Been's study found that this alternative hypothesis was not supported, at least at the scale of analysis she was using (environmental justice studies are notoriously sensitive to scale effects). Yet her alternative hypothesis was quickly popularized among opponents of the environmental justice movement, while the movement excoriated it.

Now, however, something quite like Been's alternative hypothesis has been taken up in the environmental justice literature, notably by Laura Pulido. Pulido argues in the case of LA that "white privilege" -- structural conditions that make certain choices more available to whites -- allowed whites to move away from toxic sites into the suburbs, while blacks and hispanics could not.

Why is Pulido's version of the egg-follows-chicken story more acceptable than Been's? I suspect framing may have quite a bit to do with it. Been's version was conceived in terms of minority immigration to neighborhoods near toxic sites. This seems to subtly blame the victim (and is easily turned into an explicit victim-blame by marrying it to a crude libertarianism that sees only the making of choices and ignores the structural conditions that shape the menu and choice-process). The environmental justice movement is resistant to the idea that minorities might, even under duress, choose a toxic neighborhood (witness the harsh debates about Native American tribes that have chosen to host nuclear waste storage sites), as it seems to allow the legitimacy of a tradeoff between polluting industry and health. Pulido's framing, on the other hand, emphasizes the emigration of whites. While she insists that the process is one of unjust structures channeling individually innocent choices, there is a subtle sense of blame on the whites. More importantly, she focuses on the presence of unjust structures that constrain minority choices. In so doing she openly confronts the kind of crude libertarianism that exploited Been's hypothesis, hopefully preventing it from getting a foothold.


1984 In Central Asia

Here's one for anyone who likes to treat little kids as innocnet moral compasses (i.e. the "even a five-year-old could see that that's wrong). The second volume of Ruhnama, Turkmenbashi's guide to life, recently came out. Meanwhile Turkmenistan's slow march toward being a nation of people who do nothing but read Ruhmnama continues apace. The adults are fatalistically cynical about the need to memorize their leader's blather, but as far as the kids are concerned, Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia:

"I am frightened," said Svetlana, the mother of a nine-year-old daughter. "My daughter hears all this ideology from the Ruhnama and she accepts it as the sole indisputable truth. When she comes home, she tries to convince my husband and me until she’s blue in the face that our president is a holy man chosen by God. None of my pathetic attempts to explain that this isn’t the case, that presidents are chosen by the people, has worked."

What I wonder is how much Turkmenbashi has bought into his own personality cult. Is this merely a brainwashing strategy, or does he genuinely believe that he was chosen by God and that his words are transcendent wisdom?


Who Are You People?

Right now I'm averaging 30-40 hits per day, about half of which are from search engines. I very rarely get comments or trackbacks, so I don't really have a sense of who's reading this blog. So if you're a regular reader, why not leave a comment or send me an email just to say hi?

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Matt Yglesias is concerned that tactical use of the "independence from foreign oil" argument could backfire on environmentalists:

It's important to keep environmental issues front-and-center because they're deeply implicated in the one policy idea everyone (including me) seems to like: trying to power our cars with hydrogen. Hydrogen is only sort of an alternative to oil. ... You need electricity to make it.

So where does electricity come from? Coal, mostly. But also oil, natural gas, nuclear plants, solar, wind, and hydroelectric dams. There are big differences in terms of the environmental impact of all of these things. Most crucially, replacing gasoline with electricity made from coal would be a giant leap backwards in environmental terms. Liberals need to make sure that our arguments on energy policy don't back us into a corner whereby we wind up being unable to oppose that switch because we've given so much credence to the confused national-security case against oil.

I think environmentalists are already in a position that makes it very hard to oppose a switch to hydrogen cars supplied by coal plants. The very popularity of the hydrogen car idea has created a strong association in the public mind between hydrogen cars and environmental friendliness. If environmentalists oppose a switch to hydrogen cars because of the type of power generation supplying them, we'll look hypocritical. Few members of the public are going to sit and listen to a technical explanation of why in the current context hydrogen cars would lead to more pollution. They'll react with their gut association, so it will look like environmentalists are opposing something good for the environment. It will be like the frequent assertions that environmentalists are hypocritical for opposing nuclear power, which has no emissions. Patient explanations of the problems with nuclear waste disposal don't make much impact, though in this case environmentalists are saved from looking totally foolish by the widespread public association of "nuclear" with "dangerous."

Yet I don't think the switch to hydrogen cars supplied by coal power would be all bad. If our ultimate goal is hydrogen cars supplied by renewable energy, it seems to me that the "hydrogen cars" part is much harder and more time-consuming than the "renewable energy" part. Our system of cars and car-fuel supply is vast and decentralized, and intimately tied up in public perceptions. Power generation, on the other hand, is more centralized and removed from the public. Faced with Yglesias's choice, I would not advocate trying to stall hydrogen cars until non-polluting power generation is in place. Rather, I would let the long shift to hydrogen cars get started, while working on improving the power generation system. Hydrogen cars supplied by coal plants might be more polluting than the status quo, but that system has the infrastructure in place to make an easier switch to hydrogen cars powered by renewable energy.


Corporate Welfare Wasted

Here's one for those who think that our current administration is in the pocket of big business:

Gas-Drilling Permits In Rockies Outstrip Ability To Tap Resource

... In response to White House orders to expedite gas extraction on federal lands, the Bureau of Land Management has issued more gas-drilling permits in the West than the industry has rigs to drill with or workers to operate the rigs, according to government records, industry experts and local officials.

The BLM issued a record number of drilling permits last year, but the gas industry is struggling to keep up, with the number of completed wells flat or declining over the past three years.

-- via Daily Scoop

There are two things going on here. On the one hand, the politicians are furiously sucking up to the energy industry. It's less about taking marching orders, and more about plying them with gifts. On the other hand, the corporate lobbyists are making the same arguments about the need for more drilling permits. This, it seems, is a classic bureaucratic failure. The lobbyists are out of touch with the reality on the ground, and so are pursuing a caricature of their companies' interests.