James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

3 reasons why cap-and-trade is in trouble

Sep 8, 2009 20:23 UTC

The man who will almost certainly become Japan’s next prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, is promising to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.

That is a far more ambitious target that can be found in the legislation currently making its way through Congress. The cap-and-trade bill passed by the House of Representatives would trim U.S. emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels. That translates to around a 6 percent cut from 1990 levels.

But even that lesser reduction seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. Climate change legislation faces a tough road in the Senate, and it may get pushed back to 2010 or beyond.

Cap and trade is, like healthcare reform, in trouble, and for many of the same reasons:

- There doesn’t seem to be an acute crisis. Polls show that the vast majority of Americans are satisfied with their healthcare. Reasons for complacency can also be found in recent developments in climate change. A new NASA study notes global temperature increases have stalled out this decade, likely because of decreasing solar irradiance.

Obviously some dire event, such as a terrible swine flu season or a brutal spike in temperatures, could refocus public attention and concern. But for now there doesn’t seem to be an emergency to motivate either voters or lawmakers.

- Most people won’t see an immediate benefit. Proposed changes in the U.S. healthcare system wouldn’t immediately change the current insurance coverage of most Americans, despite new government spending and higher taxes. Likewise, cutting carbon emissions will likely incur big costs today with any tangible benefits coming later this century. During a recession, neither provides the sort of cost-benefit analysis that strapped Americans are likely to find compelling.

- Both plans seem off point. If you asked Americans what was the biggest problem facing America, polls show, the most common answer would probably be unemployment rather than healthcare or the environment. And that is one problem, at least as gauged by the unemployment rate, seemingly getting worse rather than better.

To quote the man who jumped from a burning airplane with no parachute, “First things first!” Americans seem to agree.

Given a possible weak economic recovery and worker anxiety about jobs, neither a strong cap-and-trade climate change bill, nor a carbon tax bill, may happen anytime soon.

Instead, a better option might be more government-funded research into technological fixes. The Bjorn Lomborg-led Copenhagen Consensus recently released a list of proposals — such as marine cloud whitening and carbon storage — that could give more bang for the buck than new regulation and taxes.

If politics is the art of the possible, new green technology may be all that environmentalists can realistically expect from America.


Any impact will come from technology to scrub CO2 from the atmosphere, not lower emissions. Only working to lower emissions to stop global warming is like taking your foot off the gas when you’re in a car headed down hill with no brakes. You might crash at a slower speed, but you still crash.

More on the weak U.S. labor market

Sep 8, 2009 14:14 UTC

This analysis from Ed Yardeni:

Based on the previous two cycles, the unemployment rate should peak in 15-19 months, or sometime between September 2010 and January 2011! When might employment recover? The previous two experiences suggest this might occur within the next 11-21 months after June, or between May 2010 and March 2011.

Is that too pessimistic? The optimists argue that companies may have fired too many workers, and will have to scramble to rehire once the economy improves. So far, during the first 20 months of this recession, payroll employment is down a whopping 6.93mn vs. total losses in employment of 2.71mn and 1.57mn during the downturns at the beginning of this decade and the previous one. Debbie and I expect that this recovery will be much more “jobless” than the previous two. The industries that have cut back the most (durable goods manufacturing, construction, and retail) are inherently labor intensive, and they are likely to remain in intensive care for quite a while.


I think that the fate of the economy still comes down to jobs and the consumer, and since there is no catalyst for employment growth in the US, and so many people will be using up their unemployment benefits soon, the Fed is going to choose to print more money to try to avoid deflation. And one of the few ways for the average person to maintain his or her wealth, in my opinion, is to invest in the area that should benefit most from the money printing, which is gold. There are some articles at http://www.goldalert.com that further discuss the employment picture, the Fed’s policies and its potential effects on the gold price.

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Globalization and war

Sep 8, 2009 13:59 UTC

Something to think about  from Tom Barnett when contemplating globalization and the revolt against it:

Connectivity is a dangerous, destabilizing thing, creatively destructive in the worst way. The rap on me (Barnett thinks connectivity creates peace instantly) has always missed the point about it being the Pentagon’s new map: connectivity is revolution. It will almost always get scarier and more unstable before it settles down, and no, containment is a chimera. There is no containing globalization, our international liberal trade order unleashed upon the planet. There is only mitigation. The revolution is largely generational (young v. old) and gender-based (women against men). It offends custom on almost every level possible.

Why economic insecurity isn’t helping Democrats

Sep 8, 2009 13:49 UTC

Some Democrats thought they would have a much easier time pushing through changes in healthcare, trade and labor policy thanks to the recession. The theory was that economic insecurity would nudge people toward the warm embrace of government.  Obviously that does not seem to be happening. Indeed, past polls showed that economic downturns actually make people more skeptical of Big Government. Apparently, that is also true of Big Labor. This from a recent Gallup poll:

The 48% of Americans now approving of unions represents the first sub-50% approval since Gallup first asked the question in the 1930s. The previous low was 55%, found in both 1979 and 1981.

Indeed, there is a statistical relationship between rising unemployment and union disapproval (via Nate Silver):

The regression line finds that, for every point’s worth of increase in the unemployment rate, approval of labor unions goes down by 2.6 points. Alternatively, we can add a time trend to the regression model, to account for the fact that participation in labor unions has been declining over time. This softens the relationship slightly, but still implies a decrease in approval of 2.1 points for unions for every point increase in unemployment. Both relationships are highly statistically significant.

America’s battered labor market

Sep 8, 2009 13:32 UTC

David Rosenberg of Gluskin Sheff analyzes thusly:

1) Jobless claims stuck at 570k — basically in line with a sustained 200k-300k payroll losses.

2) Temp agency job losses are continuing even if at a slower pace — this is not good news.

3) Downward revisions to the prior data — these tend to feed on themselves.

4) No change in the record-low workweek.

5) The Challenger and JOLTS data reveal an ongoing decline in hiring intentions.

After last Friday’s report, we have now lost 6.9 million positions that have been cut during this recession and we have to count in the additional 2.5 million jobs that need to be created — but never were — just to absorb the new entrants into the labour market. The ‘real’ unemployment rate is now 16.8%, so to suggest that this down-cycle was anything but a depression is basically a misrepresentation of the facts.

Me: Maybe jobs will snap back. But given structural/longer-term changes in housing, finance and autos, that just seems unlikely to me.  Lots of entrepreneurial effort needed. But is the stage being set for less innovation rather than more?