Monthly Archives: October 2007

Climate bill followup: Sander’s bill better? Jury still out.

I’m in the process of playing catch-up with the climate legislation moving (or stalling, as the case may be) around Congress. I think I might have been wrong to identify Lieberman’s S.280 as the leading climate bill in the Senate. Turns out Bernie Sanders’ alternative bill, S.309, has close to twice as many co-sponsors (19) vs. Lieberman’s 11–including Senators Clinton, Obama, Dodd, and Biden, a clean-sweep of the Senate’s presidential hopefuls. Oh wait–politics sure is messy–Clinton and Obama are also cosponsors of the Lieberman bill. Covering their bases, it seems. In Lieberman’s favor, his cosponsors include a bunch of Republicans, so while he has fewer cosponsors, that indication of “bipartisanship” might mean his bill would do better in a full Senate vote. Maybe so, maybe not.

I’ve only skimmed the Sanders’ bill so far, but frankly I’m finding it rather confusing. Well, maybe not confusing, but overly vague. (That’s something Lieberman’s has less of; it proudly wears the badge of corporate welfare on its sleeve.) The heart of it seems to be with Section 704 (f) (2), where it directs the EPA Administrator to establish a market-based program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The vagueness lies in the fact that the Administrator is not obligated–as far as I can tell–to use an auction for distributing the pollution permits (“emissions allowances”) to industry. This seems to leave open the possibility of a give-away. If that happens, then this bill will turn out to be not much better than Lieberman’s. While Section 704 (f) (2) (A) tells the Administrator to distribute any leftover permits to “households, communities, and other entities,” this is only an after-the-fact distribution. First industry gets a crack at the permits (through a give-away? an auction?), and only after that do households and communities get a chance to participate in the program. I’m sorry to say, that sounds like something paving the way towards a give-away.

Also, if I understand it correctly, Section 704 (f) (2) (D) grants the Administrator the ability to issue extra pollution permits (or by some other means to give relief to industry) if the cost of permits rises too high (according to the Administrator’s understanding of “too high”). That’s a dangerous loophole. Again, I find the law-speak a bit confusing, so the size of this loophole isn’t entirely clear to me. It does seem–thankfully–to be limited, because the Administrator is required to begin reducing the number of permits available after a maximum of three years of stalling the program. Still, all this vagueness and potential loopholiness has got me feeling more cautious than optimistic.

That’s it for now.

Valuing the intellectual commons

Ubuntu is a popular distribution of the Free/Libre/Open-Source Software (FLOSS) GNU/Linux computer system.

Using the COCOMO model to estimate the cost of producing computer code of specified length and complexity, a linux enthusiast estimated the actual cost to produce the software in the Ubuntu repositories. The Ubuntu software repository contains over 121 million lines of code, and the estimated cost to produce it is over 7 billion dollars.

Is this a lot?

On the one hand, it’s an incredible achievement for volunteered, uncoerced, even joyful labor. And the COCOMO approach seemed like a clever way to value this important part of the intellectual commons.

On the other hand, Microsoft’s market capitalization is 280 Billion, and in my opinion, Ubuntu does almost everything that Microsoft can do. (Well, not really; Ubuntu does not compete with the Microsoft X-Box gaming system or the Microsoft network, but Ubuntu does offer a complete computer system, including office software, web browser, operating system, multimedia viewers, etc.) So why do the valuations differ by a factor of 40?

Thanks to Kristian Hermansen of the UMassLUG (UMass Linux Users’ Group) for the lead.

Lieberman climate bill: “worse than nothing”

The other night I attended a presentation by Peter Barnes at Vermont Law School. He was talking about different possible policies Congress might pursue to address global warming. Barnes is a persuasive advocate for a specific form of cap-and-trade on greenhouse gases, wherein the limited permits for emitting greenhouse gases are auctioned off and the revenue that comes in from the auction is then distributed on an equal per-person basis to everyone in the country. More on that in a moment (or see Jonathan Alter’s nail-on-the-head article in Newsweek).

I’d heard about Barnes proposal before–in fact, Nancy Folbre, James Heintz, and I used it as the basis for a bit of the Field Guide to the US Economy. What I hadn’t realized was that there is currently legislation working its way through Congress that would implement a different variation of cap-and-trade on greenhouse gases. The leading version is Joe Lieberman’s S.280 in the Senate and the near-identical bill fostered by John Olver, H.R.620, in the House. (Part of my ignorance stems from the recent birth of my daughter Susannah. I haven’t been keeping up with the news very much.) (But she sure is cute!)

“Wow,” you might be thinking, “Congress might actually pass a bill that deals seriously with global warming. Will miracles never cease?” Well, um, don’t get too excited just yet.
Read more

“On being black and green” –anticipating unforseen consequences

Marcellus Andrews is guest blogging at On the Commons and has a nice essay on how the world looks to an economist who’s “black and green”–an African American with a passion for the environment. “Somewhere along the way, I became a bit green in my views on economic life and policy, though my ‘greenness’ has a distinctly black undertone.”

Further down in his essay, Andrews raising the question of how unequal racial power might force its way into scenarios that seem to be so wonderfully egalitarian, like the proposed “Sky Trust.” (See this previous Econ-Atrocity.)

…Yet, even as I struggle with mathematical models exploring all the ways that such “sky trust” type systems reconcile efficiency and justice in a narrow sense, my studies evade the ruthless bio-politics of inequality bound to turn “the commons” into another hierarchy of the powerful over the vulnerable. The vulnerable forever stand apart and below the powerful ““ even green, progressive power ““ objects of charity or even redistributive justice, but objects nonetheless. Charity becomes thin, stingy, evincing slight degrees of sadism when, when the vulnerable are the wrong color.

Green power, like all power in divided societies, will balance the needs of rulers and ruled, whether the rulers are a clique, a board of directors, or a voting majority with blood-based antagonism toward the Others. Green power ““ the use of public and private power informed by scientific, particularly ecological, and economic reason ““ is far more likely to be humane than other forms of power precisely because it is imbued with a sense of limits and balance. Indeed, green power, at its best, constructs better ways of pricing and managing collective risks, thereby mitigating the destruction of natural capital.

But our individual, family and communal access to resources and the resulting unequal control of development are shaped by the bio-political facts of society: we are born into families and communities of color, class, region, religion and language, inheriting access to resources and levers of power or the abyss of powerlessness. We inherit and the bequeath the social wars that grant us access to power or leave us in weakness, even the power to shift policy in a green direction.

As you can see, I am struggling with the uneasy relationship between sustainability and equality in a market and technology driven world economy, where economic and social innovation must now redesign capitalism to make it cleaner and ecologically viable, yet where the mechanisms of social/racial inheritance threaten to reinforce bio-political and social power in unacceptable ways. I ask your patience and your help as I work through the problematic economics of equality and sustainability, hardened as I am by my American blackness. I want to think about the economics of the commons in light of the fact that green power is unlikely to be shared across American color lines, even as it reconciles the way we make a living to the life process of the Earth….

More power, so to speak, to Andrews for his willingness and ability to face the demons we might wish away. A sky trust will be a great institution for many reasons, but it will not only change society, but be affected by the pre-existing features of society in a give-and-take sort of way. Not all of them will necessarily be for the best.

Social Security in the presidential debates

I didn’t see the Dartmouth College debate myself, but the local paper has an editorial pointing out that Tim Russert pressed the Democratic candidates on “what to do about the pending crisis” of Social Security at the debate in Hanover, NH, the other day. This makes for a good time to remind readers that the crisis is not nearly so cut and dry as it is generally portrayed. See these Econ-Atrocities from March 2005:
Bush’s fundamental error: Social Security is insurance, not a pension
Social Security: A Mythical Crisis

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