The sequel to the surprise-hit Freakonomics — I think the sequel is called Freako II: The Empire Strikes Back or something like that — is causing waves due to commentary on global warming in Chapter 5. I haven’t seen the book or read the leaked chapter 5, which is circulating online. I’m not a climate scientist, nor do I play one on my blog. I haven’t even read too many of the commentaries on Freako II, Ch. 5. Of the ones I have read, I find the energy with which some people have lept into battle against the chapter somewhat surprising. (Stephen Dubner responds to some of the critics at the Freakonomics blog.)
Brad DeLong has been prominent in jumping on the chapter, but he identifies his latest post as the last. In this last post he does the reader the favor of patiently combing through Chapter 5 and explaining fairly precisely what changes he would recommend. Many of his notes seem fairly thoughtful and constructive. Personally, I would have been unwilling to suggest that the U.S. could resort to military force as a way, ultimately, to coerce other nations to implement policies to combat global warming. (See DeLong’s notes for p. 173.) I would guess the hint of military invasion is intended mostly as a signal of how important the issue is to DeLong.
DeLong does follow Leavitt and Dubner into electric power issues somewhat closer to my area of competence. DeLong observes:
p. 187: Claim that “coal is so cheap that trying to generate electricity without it would be economic suicide” needs much, much more backing-up: I can’t see how it could possibly be true.
Well the meaning of “economic suicide” is lacking in sufficient content to be clearly true or false, but if we interpret the Superfreak sentence as claiming “suddenly giving up coal-fueled electric generation would cause a substantial negative shock to the economy sufficient to push the economy deep into a recession which would take several years to recover from,” I’d be inclined to agree. Slowly phasing coal-fueled generation out of the electric power mix here and elsewhere, say over a twenty year period, would not be “economic suicide.” But a ban on coal use, whether immediate or slowly phased in, probably isn’t the right industrial policy for our future. Really, just amongst us economists, can we agree not to demonize particular fuels and technologies and instead direct the force of public policy toward externalities?
While I’m not a climate scientist, I have thought some about the economic incentives facing pundits and reporters. In the meta-discussion surrounding the Freako II controversies, discussion of why pundits might trade-off factual observations for controversy. Mark Thoma’s thoughts, riffing of a post by Mark Liberman on Language Log, were interesting in this regard. Liberman says game theory explains why pundits always take the low road, suggesting a kind of Gresham’s Law theory where bad (but sensationalize) analysis drives out good.
Thoma offers some thoughtful exploration of the issue. He says, “It drives me crazy that, for example, people invited to appear on CNN will say something that is an outright lie, and the person saying it clearly knows it is a lie or misrepresentation, but yet they get invited back anyway due to their entertainment value.” Yeah, me too. Or rather it would drive me crazy if I watched CNN much. Can’t stomach too much cable news watching.