Wealth of Nations February 2007

Don't Think I'm Defending Bush, But ...

Once Bush is gone, not every idea that Bush has defended will be regarded as wrong merely for that reason.
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Skeptical, independent, open-minded moderates (such as myself, in case you were unsure about it) are having a difficult time under this presidency. The arguments that the White House uses against its critics are so incompetent, the favors it does its friends so brazen, that finding any merit whatever in the Bush administration's positions has come to seem instantly disreputable. Everything has to be prefaced with, "Don't think I'm defending the administration, but ... " It gets you off to a bad start.

Defending the administration has become next to impossible, of course. This is not the problem. The problem is that the country is now so angry and disaffected that defending the nonpartisan center—if tainted by so much as glancing contact with the administration's views—is also becoming an uphill task.

One wonders how far the country's still-gathering mood of repudiation of George W. Bush's presidency might go. Don't think I'm defending the administration, but the growing force of that rejection seems likely to sweep away good ideas as well as bad. It is already clear that Bush's legacy will not be the policies he has championed. They are doomed. His legacy will be the momentum of the backlash against them. I think it will carry away more than it should.

Three key instances come immediately to mind. One is Iraq. This ill-founded and appallingly executed war has discredited all of the administration's foreign-policy thinking. I don't mean to defend the administration, but some of that thinking was correct. Bush is right, in my view, that America cannot rely for its security on multilateralism; that the United States should not give other countries veto power over its actions abroad; that global jihadism needs to be forcefully confronted; that pre-emptive action against these new enemies is warranted; and more besides. A calculating, enlightened, and level-headed unilateralism is the right way, in my opinion, for America to conduct itself in the world. Right now, though, what chance is there of a fair hearing for any kind of avowed unilateralism?

Next up, tax policy. The White House is right that incentives matter. Push progressive tax rates too far and revenues rise less than you would expect, because of avoidance and evasion at the top. And high taxes on capital—on capital gains and dividends, for instance—do discourage investment. This is not just about helping the rich: The economy as a whole has a big stake in getting tax policy right. But by skewing his reforms so outlandishly in favor of the rich—when the incomes of the highest earners were leaping ahead in any case, and when middle-income households were doing much less well—Bush has discredited that whole line of thinking. The forthcoming backlash on taxing capital and the highest incomes may go too far, harming the economy and in the end hurting those on middle and low incomes too.

The most striking instance of all is global warming. This is worth a closer look. Here, the administration has moved so far out on its limb that it has isolated itself not just from public opinion but even from the interests it thinks it is defending—an amazing thing.

Two weeks ago it was reported that ExxonMobil was talking to Resources for the Future, an environmental think tank in Washington, on how best to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions. The company has stopped its financial support for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a pro-market think tank that has downplayed the dangers of global warming, even to the point of running TV ads with the parody-defying tagline, as I noted in my June 3 column last year, "Some call it pollution, we call it life." Apparently that was too much even for Exxon. A spokesman said that the company had been "widely misunderstood, and as a result of that we have been clarifying and talking more about what our position is." That's right: The oil companies are distancing themselves from this ardently pro-oil White House and its positions on energy and the environment. Remarkable.

In congressional hearings this week, ahead of a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, senators took turns stressing the gravity of the climate issue. Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., according to The Washington Post, said he did not want his children and grandchildren to blame him for doing nothing. "I don't want them to say, 'What did you do about it? Weren't you in the Senate?' " Carper said he wanted to be able to tell them, "I tried to move heaven and earth to make sure we took a better course." The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was holding a hearing of its own. Members are looking into charges that the White House has doctored or suppressed the government's own scientific findings on climate change—a long-standing and entirely credible accusation.

Informed public opinion must be coming to the view that there are just two sides in this debate: an intellectually corrupt White House cabal, in pathological denial about the whole issue—and anybody with any expertise in the matter who wants to "move heaven and earth" to attend to the problem.

Don't think I'm defending the president, but it really is a little more complicated than that. So far as I know, nobody with any credentials is denying that the planet is warming, and the overwhelming majority of climate experts think that man-made emissions of greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide) are to blame. On that, the anti-Bush consensus is solid. But there is no such clarity on the costs of climate change—not even on the costs of the warming experienced so far (that question, in fact, get surprisingly little attention).

As for future warming, it seems close to certain that it will happen, but determining how much is very difficult. The IPCC's simulations, which describe wide ranges of possible outcomes, stretch beyond the end of the century. Its numbers for temperature change are based on forecasts of greenhouse-gas emissions, and these in turn are based on forecasts of global economic activity. How much trust would you place in an economic forecast for the year 2010, never mind for 2100 and beyond? The uncertainties are vast, and saying so should not arouse disgust.

This is not to deny the risks, or to argue against changing policy now. I favor a gradually escalating carbon tax as the best, most flexible, and most internationally scalable approach to the problem. (A cap-and-trade regime for greenhouse-gas emissions—an idea that Exxon will hear a lot about at Resources for the Future—can be made to mimic the effects of a carbon tax.) But the huge uncertainties and colossal costs argue for thinking hard before "moving heaven and earth."

My point is this. The awesome obtuseness of the administration on the issue has created a falsely confident and passionate opposing consensus. Attitudes on that side can be just as tyrannical as they are within the White House. In both camps, the view is: You are either with us or against us—and if you're against us, by the way, you're an idiot. Focused on opposing Bush, the global-warming consensus has no appetite for complications and doubts of any sort, about how big a problem this is going to be, or about the best ways of addressing it, even though some of those ways might be immensely expensive.

In this poisoned atmosphere (forgive the expression), government scientists are not the only people being stifled. For instance, some experts have credibly criticized the economic forecasts underlying the IPCC's simulations on technical grounds. That is apparently impermissible: The critics were immediately dismissed as climate-change deniers. Another example: In thinking intelligently about how to respond to climate change, policies aimed at adaptation should be weighed alongside steps to slow the rate of warming. Some mixture of the two is sure to make the best sense. Again, however, to talk of adaptation—to talk of weighing costs against benefits in any methodical way—is to be regarded as an ally of the White House: "Oh, you agree with Bush that global warming is not a problem." Allies of the White House, it goes without saying, are not worth listening to.

Once Bush is gone—and with luck, sooner—anti-Bush sentiment will lose its polarizing force, its power to bind and exclude. At that point, merely opposing Bush, which many have decided will do for now, will no longer be mistaken for a policy agenda. And not every idea that Bush has defended will be regarded as wrong merely for that reason. A more enlightening debate on foreign policy, taxes and global warming might then begin.

The country seems an awfully long way from there at the moment.

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