Why Good Things Are Bad

London burned down in 1666 – it started at a bakery on Pudding Lane – but that was a bad year. The war with the Dutch wasn’t going well either – but we did get some cool insults out of that – Dutch Oven (which isn’t an oven) and Dutch Treat (which isn’t a treat) and so on. Humor helps, but everything was going wrong that September, and that June, across the water in Paris, Molière’s play The Misanthrope opened at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in Paris – the play about the sour man who saw no good in anything. What seemed good wasn’t. Whatever it was, it was going to end in tears.

It was a comedy, although that irritated Jean-Jacques Rousseau no end. A century later, Rousseau was saying that the guy in the Molière play wasn’t a laughable fool at all – that misanthrope had been right about society. We can do better, but we always screw up. It’s wise to assume we will.

Rousseau was a philosopher. He knew. The French Revolution, an effort to fix what was wrong with society over there, followed, and that didn’t go well either. The Reign of Terror from 1793 through 1794 left forty thousand dead in France. Wonderful things were accomplished in the Revolution, and France ended up with Robespierre. These things happen. It’s wise to assume the worst. Let them laugh. They’ll be sorry. It will all burn down.

That’s a conservative position, or perhaps the conservative position. Leave well enough alone. Things are working fine. That’s why Edmund Burke, considered the father of modern conservatism, gave that stirring speech defending poor little Marie Antoinette – any attempt to do good will do very bad things, eventually, or sooner. You can count on it, which is what conservatives here argued about ending slavery, and then about desegregation and voting rights in the South, and about women getting the right to vote, and about Social Security and later about Medicare, and most recently about Obamacare and gay marriage. Sure, these things sound fine, but go there and bad things will follow. It’s best to assume the worst. They are misanthropes, although they call themselves realists. When bad things don’t follow, they have an answer to that too. Just wait. You’ll see. We’re still waiting.

Now it’s the environment, where something good finally happened:

The United States and China pledged Wednesday to take ambitious action to limit greenhouse gases, aiming to inject fresh momentum into the global fight against climate change ahead of high-stakes climate negotiations next year.

President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would move much faster in cutting its levels of pollution. Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to cap China’s emissions in the future – a striking, unprecedented move by a nation that has been reluctant to box itself in on global warming.

The basics:

The U.S. set a new target to reduce its emissions of heat-trapping gases by 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025, compared with 2005 levels. That’s a sharp increase from earlier in Obama’s presidency, when he pledged to cut emissions by 17 percent by 2020.

China, whose emissions are still growing as it builds new coal plants, didn’t commit to cut emissions by a specific amount. Rather, Xi set a target for China’s emission to peak by 2030, or earlier if possible. He also pledged to increase the share of energy that China will derive from sources other than fossil fuels.

And the misanthrope speaks:

“This unrealistic plan that the president would dump on his successor, would ensure higher utility rates and far fewer jobs,” said incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Just wait. You’ll see. And Tyler Cowen adds this common perception:

First, China is notorious for making announcements about air pollution and then not implementing them.

This is only partially a matter of lying; in part the government literally does not have the ability to keep its word. They have a great deal of coal capacity coming on-line and they can’t just turn that switch off. They’re also driving more cars, too.

Second, China falsifies estimates of the current level of air pollution, so as to make it look like the problem is improving when it is not. Worse yet, during the APEC summit the Chinese government blocked the more or less correct estimates coming from U.S. Embassy data, which are usually transmitted through an app. A nice first step to the “deal” with the United States would have been to allow publication (through the app) of the correct numbers. But they didn’t.

James West wonders about that:

China has to act on air pollution. If it doesn’t, the country risks political instability. Top Republicans have slammed the US-China deal as ineffective and one-sided. “China won’t have to reduce anything,” complained Sen. Jim Inhofe (Okla.) in a statement, adding that China’s promises were “hollow and not believable.”

But the assumption that China won’t try to live up to its end of the bargain misses the powerful domestic and global incentives for China to take action. The first, and most pressing, is visible in China’s appalling air quality. President Xi Jinping needs to act now, says Jerome A. Cohen, a leading Chinese law expert at New York University. Why? Because “the environment – not only the climate – is the most serious domestic challenge he confronts.”…

Over the past few decades, China has witnessed the fastest and deepest wealth creation in history, hauling millions out of poverty in the space a generation. That growth has been heavily reliant on coal, which makes up roughly 70 percent of the country’s total energy consumption. China is the world’s top coal consumer and producer. All that has come with big cost: toxic air. According to one Lancet study, pollution generated mostly by cars and the country’s 3,000 coal-fired power plants killed 1.2 million Chinese people in 2010.

That’s an incentive. President Xi Jinping wants to keep his job. Millions dropping dead is a problem there, but that aside, Brian Merchant sees an amazingly good thing here:

The two biggest polluters, who have never agreed on much of anything about climate change at all, are issuing a deal that seriously reflects the scope and depth of the problem. The agreement will have a profound effect on the international community, and it’s already sending cheers through the climate circles around the world. The two immobile pillars propping up the bulk of the world’s fossil fuel infrastructure finally feel like they’ve budged.

The challenges in meeting the targets put forward – and pushing them further – will of course be myriad. But in the face of an unfolding planetary disaster that can seem immune to government action, this deal is, at the very least, a much-needed beacon of hope.

That’s a good thing, right? In the New Republic, Rebecca Leber wonders about that:

The administration says this will be achievable under existing law. It assumes the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations to slash carbon pollution from power plants 30 percent by 2030 are in full swing. But there is also intense Republican opposition to the EPA’s plans, and to Obama’s. The new Congress is led by climate change deniers, who will obstruct the president’s plans. The next Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, has suggested he will use must-pass appropriations bills as leverage to force Obama into delaying or weakening his own climate regulations.

They could shut down the government (again) over this, and then there’s the other party:

Xi may not have to deal with Congress, but China has its own challenges ahead. The next step to watch for is specific regulations and goals that are outlined in China’s next five-year plan. It won’t be easy to meet these pledges: Non-fossil fuels made up 9.8 percent of China’s energy sources energy in 2013. To achieve 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuels, China will need to add clean and nuclear energy at an enormous scale.

Nothing is easy, but in the Washington Post, Chris Mooney says that might not matter:

The experts underscore that this deal has a symbolic value that goes far beyond the literal emissions cuts (or caps) that have now been pledged, precisely because the world’s top two greenhouse gas emitters have now both come to the table. If the agreement lays the groundwork for a broader global agreement – one that encompasses other major emitters like India, Japan, and Russia – then that is the real payoff. That agreement could happen in Paris in late 2015, when the nations of the world gather to try to achieve a global agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Cool. This would be widespread progress, and at Bloomberg View, Christopher Flavelle, says the Republicans are in trouble now:

The Republicans’ best argument against regulating carbon emissions from U.S. coal plants has always been this: If China won’t act, what use is it? Why risk harming the U.S. economy if the resulting drop in emissions isn’t enough to slow the worst effects of climate change?

The U.S.-China climate agreement announced last night turns that argument on its head. Under the deal, China will aim to begin reducing its carbon emissions by 2030, and the U.S. will reduce its emissions by as much as 28 percent by 2025, compared with 2005 levels – “reductions achievable under existing law.”

Translation: The U.S. can only honor its commitment if proposed regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, which aim to reduce power-plant emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, are allowed to proceed.

So if Republicans in Congress block those rules, they risk tanking the agreement with China, which in turn gives China a reason to back out of the deal. The EPA rules that previously looked senseless in the absence of Chinese emissions reductions are now, arguably, the single most important thing the U.S. can do to ensure those reductions.

Ed Kilgore isn’t so sure about that:

I heard Mitch McConnell on the radio last night complaining that Obama had gotten too little out of the Chinese in exchange for the terrible things he plans to do to the Great Coal Idol Mitch worships (along with the Golden Calf of political money). And if there’s anything latter-day Republicans hold in contempt almost as much as climate science it’s diplomatic agreements that bind the proud wolf of America’s freedom of action. I suspect the idea that Obama has sold out to the godless Chicomms is going to be a common theme going forward as Republicans gird up their loins to smite EPA.

Brian Beutler is not impressed:

The key thing about the “why should we act if China won’t?!” excuse is a failure of moral imagination. You only say something like that if you’re extremely confident that the world’s developing economies won’t turn around and embarrass you by seeking to limit their own emissions – that they share your particular cynicism, nihilism, or denialism.

Not everyone is a misanthrope:

It’s not just that China is mature enough to grapple with climate science and the GOP isn’t, but that conservatives are so far down these rabbit holes that they’ve convinced themselves no other rational, developing economy (i.e. non-US and EU) would treat this as a problem that needs solving.

But it is a problem that needs solving, even to the calculating, self-interested leaders of the Communist Party of China. Irrespective of the science, there was always some chance that the right’s claims about the political economy of climate change (or, more accurately, the Chinese government’s views about the political economy of climate change) would be vindicated. They have instead been refuted.

That’s because the problems that climate pollution causes are real, and even the least accountable governments in the world understand that they need to be addressed – even if not for the purest, most idealistic reasons. Once you accept the alarming implications of climate science, then trying to avert them becomes ineluctable. And the only way to explain away how wrong conservatives were here is to conclude that they had actually internalized the view that climate change isn’t a big deal, and might just be a big hoax.

Misanthropes see things that way, and in Foreign Policy, Kate Galbraith considers how things might play out:

If a Republican takes the White House in 2016, he or she could reverse or revise the executive orders that form the core of Obama’s climate push. And it’s going to be a hard fight even before the election: Republicans in Congress, newly empowered after recapturing the Senate this month, are already vowing to undercut the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, is already plotting a way out of the U.S.-China deal. He immediately described it as a “non-binding charade.” He also vowed to do “everything in my power to rein in and shed light on the EPA’s unchecked regulations.” Inhofe has limited direct leverage over the EPA, but the Senate could withhold appropriations to the agency.

James Inhofe is a problem and Rebecca Leber is amazed by his leaps of logic:

“Why would China ever agree unilaterally to reduce its emissions when that’s the only way that they can produce electricity?” he later asked. “Right now – and I have talked to them before, I’ve talked to people from China who kind of smile. They laugh at us and say, ‘Wait a minute! You say that you’re going to believe us that we’re going to reduce our emissions? We applaud the United States. We want the United States to reduce its emissions, because if they do that, as the manufacturing base has to leave the United States looking for energy, they come to China.’ So it’s to their advantage to continue with their increases in emissions.”

In his speech, Inhofe called himself a “one-man truth squad” – twice.

The man has a vivid imagination. This is the Molière comedy all over again, even if it’s not funny, and Jonathan Chait is getting depressed:

The Republican Party and its intellectual allies regard close analysis of Chinese internal motivations as a useless exercise. Conservatives oppose taxes or regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions, therefore they dismiss scientific conclusions that would justify such regulations, and therefore they also dismiss geopolitical analyses that would have the same effect. On the right, it is simply an a priori truth that nothing could persuade China to limit its emission. Obviously, the feasibility of a deal with China is far less certain than the scientific consensus undergirding anthropogenic global warming. What is parallel between the two is the certainty of conservative skepticism and imperviousness to contrary evidence. …

It would be nice to think that evidence like today’s pact would at least soften the GOP’s unyielding certainty about the absolute impossibility of a global climate accord. The near-total refusal of the right to reconsider its denial of the theory of anthropogenic global warming sadly suggests otherwise.

That is depressing, but Kevin Drum says everyone should calm down:

Unlike Obama’s threatened immigration rules, these are all things that have been in the pipeline for years. Obama doesn’t have to take any active steps to make them happen, and Republicans can’t pretend that any of them are a “poke in the eye” or whatever the latest bit of post-election kvetching is. This stuff is as good as done, and second only to Obamacare, this is right up there as one of the biggest legacies of Obama’s presidency.

This is, then, a comedy. The sour misanthrope rails on and on, but everything turns out fine in the end, because it was always going to turn out fine. Conservatives hate when that happens.

That should be good for Democrats, but everyone hates them now, especially the white working class. Noam Scheiber wonders what can be done about that, because they voted Republican by a thirty-point margin in the midterms:

At first blush, the white working class would appear to pose a real dilemma. The set of issues on which the Democratic Party is most coherent these days is social progressivism… But while these issues unite college-educated voters and working-class minority voters, they’ve historically alienated the white working class. …

How to square this circle? Well, it turns out we don’t really have to, since the analysis is outdated. The white working class is increasingly open to social liberalism, or at least not put off by it. As Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin observed this summer, 54 percent of the white working class born after 1980 think gays and lesbians should have the right to marry, according to data assembled from the 2012 election. …

Long story short, there’s a coalition available to Democrats that knits together working class minorities and college-educated voters and slices heavily into the GOP’s margins among the white working class… The basis of the coalition isn’t a retreat from social progressivism, but making economic populism the party’s centerpiece… The politics of this approach work not just because populism is a “message” that a majority of voters want to hear. But because, unlike the status quo, it can actually improve their economic prospects, as Harold Meyerson recently pointed out.

That’s logical, but Kevin Drum argues that it is very wrong:

I agree that social liberalism isn’t quite the deal killer it used to be. … It’s still an issue – especially gun control, which remains more potent than a lot of liberals like to acknowledge – but it’s fading somewhat in areas like abortion and gay marriage. There are still plenty of Fox-watching members of the white working class who are as socially conservative as ever, but I think it’s safe to say that at the margins social issues are becoming a little less divisive among the white working class than they have been over the past few decades.

But if that’s the case, why does the white working class continue to loathe Democrats so badly? I think the answer is as old as the discussion itself: They hate welfare. There was a hope among some Democrats that Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform would remove this millstone from around Democrats’ necks, and for a few years during the dotcom boom it probably did. The combination of tougher work rules and a booming economy made it a less contentious topic.

But when the economy stagnates and life gets harder, people get meaner. That’s just human nature. And the economy has been stagnating for the working class for well over a decade – and then practically collapsing ever since 2008.

Don’t underestimate reflexive misanthropy:

So who does the white working class take out its anger on? Largely, the answer is the poor – in particular, the undeserving poor. Liberals may hate this distinction, but it doesn’t matter if we hate it. Lots of ordinary people make this distinction as a matter of simple common sense, and the white working class makes it more than any. That’s because they’re closer to it. For them, the poor aren’t merely a set of statistics or a cause to be championed. They’re the folks next door who don’t do a lick of work but somehow keep getting government checks paid for by their tax dollars. For a lot of members of the white working class, this is personal…

And who is it that’s responsible for this infuriating flow of government money to the shiftless? Democrats! We fight to save food stamps. We fight for WIC. We fight for Medicaid expansion. We fight for Obamacare. We fight to move poor families into nearby housing.

This is a big problem because these are all things that benefit the poor but barely touch the working class. Does it matter that the working class barely pays for most of these programs in the first place, since their federal income taxes tend to be pretty low? Nope. They’re still paying taxes, and it seems like they never get anything for it. It’s always someone else.

Democrats will just have to accept this:

It’s pointless to argue that this perception is wrong. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. But it’s there. And although it’s bound up with plenty of other grievances – many of them frankly racial, but also cultural, religious, and geographic – at its core you have a group of people who are struggling and need help, but instead feel like they simply get taxed and taxed for the benefit of someone else – always someone else. If this were you, you wouldn’t vote for Democrats either.

I hate to end this with the usual cliché that I don’t know what to do about it, but I don’t. Helping the poor is one of the great causes of liberalism, and we forfeit our souls if we give up on it. And yet, as a whole bunch of people have acknowledged lately, the Democratic Party simply doesn’t do much for either the working or middle classes these days. Republicans, by contrast, offer both the concrete – tax cuts – and the emotional – an inchoate but still intense rage against a government that seems not to care about them.

There’s nothing comic about that. Any attempt to do some good in this world will, somehow, do very bad things eventually, or sooner, and probably to you, personally. You can count on it. Molière’s misanthrope wasn’t really an oddball. Things can go wrong, and probably will go wrong – unless they don’t. The problem is figuring out which is likely. That’s always the problem. People will laugh at you if you get it wrong. Then it’s a comedy.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Why Good Things Are Bad

  1. Rick says:

    Bloomberg View’s Christopher Flavelle thinks the Republicans are in trouble now:

    “So if Republicans in Congress block those [EPA] rules, they risk tanking the agreement with China, which in turn gives China a reason to back out of the deal.”

    I doubt that anything having to do with any of this deal, good or bad, puts Republicans in trouble.

    Republicans have their narrative — in this case, that there’s no reason for America to jeopardize its own economy by cutting emissions if China, which has no incentive to do the same, doesn’t also do it — and that story doesn’t change even if China backs out.

    In fact, there’s no real incentive for the Republicans to change their climate-change argument anyway, since, as Kevin Drum points out, the Republican base voter probably doesn’t even know about this deal; he probably only knows that the Democrats are allowing his poverty-stricken next-door neighbor to not do a lick of work, but still get government checks that keep him alive.

    And not that it matters, but anybody who thinks human beings have no impact on air quality didn’t grow up in the smoggy Los Angeles area back in the early 1950s, back when every back yard, including ours, had an “incinerator” — a stand-alone concrete chimney equipped with a metal door through which you’d dump all your papers to burn every other day. I remember our joke back then was to call California the “Sunshine State”. My eyes burned all the time, and I wasn’t unhappy at all when we moved away to Connecticut. But soon after that, the city banned those incinerators and made some other changes, and when I went back for a visit a few years later, the air was crystal clear.

    And anybody who thinks China has no incentive to clean up its act should consider the lengths the country went to in shutting down factories and sending Beijing residents out of town in advance of last week’s visit of world leader’s for the APEC summit. Of course, these attempts mostly failed, prompting China to block that app that reported air quality in town, but this just highlights the fact of their embarrassment.

    If they’re working this hard to keep the world from knowing how dirty their air is, you have to assume the Chinese government has a deep interest to solve this problem — at least as much as our Republicans do, and probably more.

    Rick

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