Reduce and reuse before you offset

by John Quiggin on April 2, 2008

Following up on Chris’s post a little while ago, it seems obvious that the best way to offset emissions from travel is not to travel at all. I’ve been trying hard to reduce air travel, and making some progress, though it isn’t easy.

I’m doing my first videoconference presentation for the year on Friday, appropriately enough at a University of Sydney one-day seminar on the economics of sustainability. My talk will be on “Uncertainty, awareness and the precautionary principle”. I’ve lined up two more videoconferences for the first half of this year, and I hope to do some more in the second half.

The other part of my plan to reduce my carbon footprint and the amount of time I spend travelling is to make one trip cover multiple events. I’m in Melbourne right now, for a visit that includes three presentations and several meetings.

With all this, I’m still travelling a fair bit more than I would like. But I think there is a network effect here. The more people get used to videoconferencing as an alternative, the better it will work, and the more demand there will be for technical improvements.

Buried within the U.S. Treasury Department’s just-released blueprint for a new financial regulatory structure is a “proposal”: for a new approach to regulation. The report calls the regulatory status quo an “institutionally based functional system,” and as a long-term goal seeks to replace this with “objectives-based regulation.” In fact, OBR is celebrated in the document as the optimal regulatory structure. Strong words indeed. I’ll resist the temptation to dismiss this as recycling “management-by-objectives” for the public sector. Instead, it is useful to regard OBR as one of a new set of approaches to economic regulation, all of which stem from criticism of “old-fashioned” command-and-control regulation. These new approaches include “principles-based” regulation and “performance-based” regulation.

Whatever their faddish qualities, the problem they respond to is real. When regulation is done by promulgating detailed rules (that explain what the regulated shall and shall not do, and how), and then enforcing compliance with those rules, two problems arise. First, the regulated activity or industry typically evolves faster than the governing rules, and so the latter become increasingly irrelevant. In fact, escaping the grasp of static regulations becomes a big incentive to innovate. Regulators trying to keep up will usually add more rules, spelled out in excruciatingly greater detail, until the ungainly corpus of rules looks like, like, well, … the IRS code. Second, compliance increasingly becomes formal compliance with the strict letter of the law, even when such compliance violates the spirit of the law. It encourages a “check list” mentality that focuses solely on the literal meaning of the rules. OBR, and the other alternatives, try to avoid such difficulties by recasting regulation so that it focuses on a desired outcome or objective, and then grants a measure of flexibility to the regulator to steer towards that goal in whatever way seems best. Flexible regulations make sense if the behavior, market or industry that is to be regulated is dynamic, innovative, or highly variable.

Is OBR truly optimal? Who knows? Evidently the Australians have some experience with it, and the British know something about its close cousin “principles-based” regulation. But OBR certainly isn’t a failsafe measure, for the flexibility that makes OBR adaptable can also be used to render it ineffective or even toothless. The discretion that it necessarily entails means that both the regulators and the regulations matter. Thus, people who fear regulatory capture get even more worried about the possibility that the captured regulators possess lots of authority that they can legally exercise under the rubric of broad rules.

Duties of justice

by Chris Bertram on April 2, 2008

Normblog has published an argument by the Manchester political philosopher Jon Quong to the effect that national Olympic committees (and presumably states) would be justified in imposing a top-down boycott of the Beijing Olympics on their athletes. I don’t want to engage in the China-specific aspects of the argument here, but rather to note one of the steps in Jon’s argument, viz

bq. (2) We are each under a duty of justice not to participate in, or benefit from, projects or activities that involve violations of other people’s rights. _I assume this premise is uncontroversial_. [Emphasis added by CB]

Jon adds some further clarification of this point in the following step:

bq. (3) The duty described in (2) is very stringent, and it cannot be ignored on the grounds that doing so would prevent us from achieving something we very much desire to achieve, even if this means we will never get to achieve the thing in question. Here’s an example in support of this premise. One of the things I would most like to have done in my life was talk about political philosophy with John Rawls. Suppose, before Rawls died, I were invited to a dinner party where Rawls would be the guest of honour. But also suppose, unbeknownst to Rawls, that the host of this dinner party would be employing slave labour to work in the kitchen. I am under a duty not to go to the party, even if we are certain this represents the one and only chance I will ever have to talk philosophy with Rawls, and even though my non-attendance will not halt the party. If I went to the party I would be participating in, and benefiting from, a gross injustice, and the duty not to do so is more weighty than my desire to take the once in a lifetime opportunity to engage with Rawls.

I have to say that what Jon takes to be an uncontroversial premise strikes me as very questionable indeed, at least pending some further detail about what is to count as a “project”, an “activity” and “involvement”. It seems arguable that involvement in just about any major institution or in economic activity is going to violate this prohibition. Certainly, if you buy into even a part of Thomas Pogge’s arguments about the effect of global economic institutions on the poor, then all citizens of wealthy countries routinely breach it. Drink coffee? Eat fruit imported from a nation that violates rights? And what about the past? Most residents of countries with a history of imperialism or colonialism certainly benefit from past projects or activities that involve rights violations. Many current citizens benefit from the exclusion of would-be immigrants from labour markets in ways that also involve such violations. And we could add the ways in which our taxes contribute to the sustaining of our own governments which regularly breach human rights in various ways (think Belmarsh, Guantanamo).

Following Pogge, we might want to discuss how justice might require _compensation_ in some form for such involvement or benefit, or, possibly might require some action from us to oppose injustice. But the duty of non-participation, as Quong states, it strikes me as anything but uncontroversial.


by Chris Bertram on April 2, 2008

Apparently, Christopher Hitchens believes that lying “without conscience or reflection” and being “subject to fantasies of an illusory past” are traits that “constitute a disqualification for the presidency of the United States”. Whilst I largely agree with him about the immediate matter at hand (la Clinton), someone with his historical sense must know that neither characteristic has been an obstacle in the past.

Bertie finally bows out

by Maria on April 2, 2008

Bertie Ahern has finally announced that he will go. And the reason he hung on for so long while evidence of money received, tax evaded and lies told by him piled up one on top of the other? He truly believes he did nothing wrong.

In an emotional speech surrounded by his Government colleagues, Mr Ahern expressed thanks to his supporters over more than three decades in the corridors of power.
However Mr Ahern said he had no doubt that a simplistic analysis will suggest that his decision was influenced by more recent events at the Tribunal.

Mr Ahern insisted he had never put personal interest above the public good.

‘I have never done anything to corrupt my office’ he said. ‘I know in my heart of hearts that I have done no wrong and wronged no one.’

Accepting tens of thousands of pounds from cronies, passing it on to your mistress to buy property, being pursued by the Revenue Commissioners for dishonest tax returns, and lying about it to the Dail, to a Tribunal and to the people of Ireland again, and again, and again – Bertie, you wronged us all.

Charles Haughey has a lot to answer for. Ahern believes there is nothing wrong with accepting money from political supporters for his personal use, as long as he can’t be proven to have given anything in return. Even the least materialistic of Haughey’s coterie believes to the depth of his being that accepting money illegally is morally sound, because it is simply his droit de seigneur.

I’m glad to see Ahern finally go, but sickened that yet another self-serving generation of the largest political party in Ireland will believe we have wronged this liar and thief, and not the other way around.


by Ingrid Robeyns on April 2, 2008

I’m working on a co-authored paper on the notion of agency in Amartya Sen’s work. Agency as related to empowerment and autonomy, and not as an institution such as a real estate agent. Suddenly I recalled that when I was teaching on Sen in Louvain-la-Neuve two years ago, I was told that there is no word in French for ‘agency’. So now I am wondering: is this true? And if so, are there more languages that do not have a word for ‘agency’? (in fact, I even have a hard time to come up with an appropriate translation in Dutch). I checked it with “an internet translator”:, which only translates it (for Dutch and French) as an institution, not as a property of human beings. Weird.

The hobgoblin of little minds

by Kieran Healy on April 2, 2008

John Gruber twittered the following:

bq. Suggestion for Gallup: how many Americans both (a) are offended by sermons of Obama’s Christian pastor and (b) think Obama is a Muslim?

Which led me to check out this Pew Center Report:

bq. The recent controversy surrounding sermons by Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Wright, and Obama’s March 18 speech on race and politics have attracted more public attention than other recent campaign events, according to Pew’s weekly News Interest Index. Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) say they heard at least something about Wright’s sermons (51% a lot, 28% a little) and about half (49%) have seen video of the sermons. … There is little evidence that the recent news about Obama’s affiliation with the United Church of Christ has dispelled the impression that he is Muslim. While voters who heard “a lot” about Reverend Wright’s controversial sermons are more likely than those who have not to correctly identify Obama as a Christian, they are not substantially less likely to still believe that he is Muslim. Nearly one-in-ten (9%) of those who heard a lot about Wright still believe that Obama is Muslim.