Hank Paulson, the former Treasury secretary, wrote a very sad op-ed about climate change in The New York Times recently. We must act, he declared, in the same way we acted to contain the financial crisis.
It's a dubious analogy: the crisis in 2008 was fast-moving, and people like Mr. Paulson could credibly warn that unless the United States took action, the whole world economy would fall apart in a matter of days. Meanwhile, climate change is slow but inexorable, with enormous momentum; by the time it becomes undeniable that there's a crisis, it will be too late to avoid catastrophe.
But that's not the sad part about Mr. Paulson's piece. No, what's sad is that he imagines that anyone in the party he still claims as his own is listening. Earth to Mr. Paulson: The G.O.P. you imagine, which respects science and is willing to consider even market-friendly government interventions like carbon taxes, no longer exists. The reins of power now rest firmly, irreversibly, in the hands of men who believe that climate change is a hoax concocted by liberal scientists to justify Big Government, and who refuse to acknowledge that government intervention to correct market failures can ever be justified.
Given the state of American politics today, climate action is entirely dependent on Democrats. With a Democrat in the White House, we got some movement through executive action; if Democrats eventually regain the House of Representatives, there could be more.
If Mr. Paulson believes that he can support Republicans while still pushing for climate action, he's delusional.
Social Responsibility of Wonks
The economist Jared Bernstein agonized in his blog recently over the role of wonkish analysis in a political environment in which "facts and smart policy are on the run." It's something I worry about too.
On one side, if wonks don't point out what we really should be doing, who will? To take a current pressing example, it may be that nobody in the British political mainstream is willing to take a stand against austerity, but economists should nonetheless keep pointing out that it's really bad policy.
On the other hand, if wonks only propose things that won't happen, what good are they?
The best answer I can come up with is to work on two tracks — to talk about first-best policies but also be prepared to support second-best policies if that's what is on offer. Obamacare is a Rube Goldberg device that is nonetheless much better than nothing — and it's working. Carbon taxes would be the way to go in a better world, but in this one, various administrative actions may be the best you can do.
It's a tricky balancing act. You don't want to give up on good ideas and make it seem as if flawed political compromises are better than they are — and if they're bad enough, you have to oppose them. (And how do we know if they're bad enough? Um ...) But as a wonk, you certainly haven't done your job if you just lay out your fine theory and walk away from the real choices on offer.
Nobody said life would be easy.