Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Right-wing doublethink

Sometimes - just sometimes - I get the impression that the rest of the world, the great and good in places like the USA and Europe (heck, even Australia for that matter) - don't pay all that much attention to New Zealand politics. It's almost as if they see it as remote and irrelevant to them.

Go figure.

And so I was quite pleased to see the Wall Street Journal today devote an entire editorial to saying that we'd gone crazy. Not least because it gives me the chance to retort in kind.

Background: our beloved leader is trying to set up a "cap and trade"-type scheme to limit carbon emissions. There is a great deal of debate as to what targets should be set for reducing emissions, but almost none as to the desirability of the goal in itself. New Zealand simply doesn't have a noticeable community of global warming doubters. From where we sit, human damage to the world environment is all too obvious.

But the WSJ thinks differently. That journal belongs firmly in the camp of those who hold that global warming is some kind of hoax designed by the global Marxist conspiracy to reduce the rightful profits of rich people. I had heard that the Journal had escaped lightly from the Murdochisation process, but having sampled its writing, I no longer believe it.

Now, I'll admit there are problems with the global warming theory. And I'll be the first to agree that a great deal of alarmist claptrap has been spouted about it - much of it by Mr Murdoch and his cohorts, in their unending quest to sell the indefensible. (The Day After Tomorrow, let it be noted for the record, was a 20th Century Fox production.)

But it's a long, long way from those two concessions to the conclusion that "there's nothing to worry about". I did the maths on this myself back in the early 90s, and I worked out then that if we dug all the known coal reserves out of the ground and burnt them, we would approximately triple the atmospheric concentration of CO2. You can't tell me that the environment could simply mop up that much change without dramatic effects.

Compare the WSJ's language:
Their report, issued last week, doesn't question disputed United Nations climate-change assumptions, nor explain the cost to the average Kiwi of taxing every corner of the economy — especially agriculture, the country's biggest export. The authors brush aside the fact that New Zealand only emits 0.2% of global emissions, calling it "small," but "not insignificant." Thus Wellington should "act now" to reduce emissions "to protect our international reputation, particularly in the areas of trade and tourism."


The best advertisement for New Zealand isn't to support ideas that make the country poorer. Instead, Mr. Key's government would do better by focusing on encouraging strong economic growth to support a vibrant, entrepreneurial society. That way, tourists may want to come to New Zealand and stay.

I should damn' well hope that a NZ Parliamentary committee wouldn't spend its time "questioning" United Nations climate-change assumptions. They don't have the expertise, the resources or the time for such a masturbatory exercise. The only reason I can imagine for doing so is to make sure your inquiry comes to an answer that you'd already decided on before you began.

Then the Journal goes on to tell John Key his job. Now, while I might privately believe that Key needs a great deal of help in that department, I can't help but wonder about the author's motives here. "Tourists may want to come to New Zealand and stay" - actually, that happens quite a lot already, and I have to tell you there's no great clamour among most Kiwis for higher immigration. (Personally I'd welcome it, but I'd be in a minority.) I get the feeling that the author has his (or, possibly but improbably, her) eye on New Zealand as a place to retire to, and wants it to be a tax haven.

As for "vibrant, entrepreneurial society".... whatever makes you imagine we'd want one of those? What do you think we are, Australia or something?

But the real 350kg gorilla in this argument is the curious assumption that a carbon tax will, axiomatically, be bad for the economy.

Now, I understand the basic libertarian argument that all taxes are bad for the economy, because they distort the free market. As an argument it may be dumber than a sack of bricks, but at least it's coherent. What I don't see is any prima facie reason to believe that a carbon tax is any worse for "the economy" than, say, a road tax, or compulsory employee health insurance, or a sales tax. What it does, like all taxes, is to favour certain types of economic activity at the expense of others.

But a carbon tax, in particular - what that does is to encourage efficiency. Doing more with less. The WSJ is not backward in criticising China and India for subsidising fuel, because they "thwart prudent energy consumption".

But then, of course, those subsidies are aimed chiefly at the poor...

Businesses, the WSJ assumes, need no incentives to restrain their energy consumption. It's not as if they'd ever treat externalities as "free". Surely it's sheer paranoid Trotskyite fantasy to suggest that businesses, left to their own devices, would wilfully or wantonly poison our air and our beaches, slaughter wildlife and destroy whole environments?

I'm delighted that our government is exposing our industry to harsh competitive conditions. Just as we have some of the most liberal agricultural trade policies in the world, and those haven't - contrary to many predictions - either destroyed our farmers, or forced them to go to wholesale industrial production such as used in countries like, ooh, America... so I look forward to our industry becoming leaner, fitter and stronger by having to pay the true costs of its activities.


Cian said...

I for one salute any country trying to limit the damage we as humans are contributing to our environment. In Ireland our Government (Coalition including The Green Party) are going to introduce Carbon Taxes. Personally I believe that they should have been introduced before now, but better late than never.

Tourism New Zealand has a very successful campaign on 'Pure New Zealand'. The ideals of limiting Climate Change, Carbon Taxes, Environment Protection etc. fits nicely here. The WSJ believes that in order to encourage tourism (and getting them to stay) in NZ needs to "focusing on encouraging strong economic growth to support a vibrant, entrepreneurial society" Why? Tourists generally do not care about economic growth or vibrant entrepreneurial societies. Heck - if anything these can damage tourism. This is something that Ireland has experienced with our recent economic boom we have had higher than average inflation and now tourist are flocking elsewhere because we are too expensive! Fair enough environmental taxes can affect the spending power of tourists too, but it should encourage industries to become more efficient to avoid those taxes/costs. To me efficiency is about producing something cheaper including social and environmental costs not just monetary costs.

I believe that New Zealand has the ability to sell itself as a Green Clean Country (Pure NZ again!). This should increase tourism in the long-term. I am hopeful that more and more people will look at the environmental impact on their holiday destinations and choose those destinations which are promoting such qualities.

But it really is sad to read the WSJ Opinion. It says to me that we are far from winning this uphill battle (One could argue that it is too late to win - but we should not give up on trying). It certainly makes me more determined to do my part to ensure that we do the right thing by our environment.

Way to go New Zealand! Please show the world what we as humans are capable of achieving.

vet said...

Thanks, Cian. And welcome.

The NZ dollar is preternaturally strong at the moment - much to my personal cost - and that might be putting off a few tourists. But the big thing about NZ, the first thing you'll notice if you look at a map, is that it is a bugger of a long way from anywhere. Even Australia - it's as far from Auckland to Sydney as from Dublin to Rabat, Morocco. And if you're coming from anywhere with a large, wealthy population - like East Asia or North America or Europe - you have to burn through a helluva lot of jet fuel just to get here. That means that when we - meaning me and the missus - go on holiday, we tend to generate more pollution in one flight than in the whole of the rest of the year put together.

That's a lot to offset.

Personally, I'd like to see NZ act as a proof-of-concept for the idea that an advanced economy can actually be carbon-neutral. Then we'd have no trouble attracting visitors.

But I still don't see why we'd want them to stay. Come, be welcome, see the country, have a great time - then go home. What's wrong with that?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a good post, Vet.
Thanks to Cian for an informative comment.

That's all.

(Generally, the US of A is quite happy to tell NZ what to do - send more troops to fight in Afghanistan, overturn the nuclear-free policy, allow free trade, allow USA to subsidise US diary industry, etc. Get ripped off, basically.)