15 Reasons why Joe Scarborough will run for president in 2020–and win.


Like many political junkies, I usually start my day with Morning Joe. Over the last few months, I’ve become convinced that not only is Scarborough going to run for president, but that he already is, that he should, and that he would probably win. Handily.

Of course, at one level we live in the world of the permanent campaign, and the race has already begun.  Hard as it is to believe–so powerful was the shock of Trump’s election that, for most of the country, it has still not fully worn off–the 2020 campaign will commence shortly after the midterms.  I predict that some time in early 2019, Scarborough will declare his candidacy on air and suspend the show.

Don’t take it from me. CNN’s Chris Cillizza last summer: “If you wanted to run for president in 2020, you’d be doing exactly what Joe Scarborough is doing right now.”

Continue reading “15 Reasons why Joe Scarborough will run for president in 2020–and win.”

Fake Sense

There are five problems with the Biblical justification of the family separation law policy.

First, Romans 13 is taken out of context and is cherry picking—plenty of Biblical support could be amassed for justifying opposition to unjust laws.

Second, Romans 13 has, historically, been invoked by Loyalists advocating, well, loyalty, to the crown during the American Revolution, and, more disturbingly, by supporters of slavery prior to the Civil War.  And as is well known, Paul supported the institution of slavery.

Third, even if there were clear and unambiguous Biblical support for such a policy, that is not a legitimate justification for any federal law or policy due to the first amendment.  We live in a constitutional republic and a pluralistic democratic society, not a theocracy.  It may be a nation of Christians, but it is not a Christian nation.

Fourth, this justification ignores the difference between morality and legality.  Just because something is legal does not mean it is moral. This has always been an aspect of Judeo-Christian morality and politics, from Moses’ slave revolt against the Egyptians to Christian opposition to infanticide under the Romans to King fighting segregation in America.

Fifth, even disregarding the first amendment, on balance the teachings of Jesus would almost certainly be opposed to such a policy.  The entire thrust of Christian morality tends toward a concern for the poor, the child, the stranger, the disenfranchised, toward mercy and compassion for “the least of these.”  


Beyond the Biblical justification, there are problems with the administration’s rhetoric surrounding the policy, as well as its approach to immigration in general.

First, the administration is not “enforcing the law.”  This is not a statute.  It is a matter of discretionary policy, one the administration chose to enforce.  

Second, this is not a problem created by the Democrats. Trump has employed this strategy before, e.g., claiming that the Democrats created the DACA problem.  That’s another lie.  But even worse, it’s really an attempt to extort broader concessions on immigration policy, as I’ll explain below.

Third, this is not a “crisis” in which the president’s hand has been forced.  The administration has deliberately inflated the immigration problem more broadly.  The facts are these:  Immigration across the southern border has declined precipitously in recent years, in large part because the Mexican economy has improved, its birth rate has declined, and deportations spiked significantly—under the Obama administration.  

Fourth, increasing legal immigration, and providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, is good economic and social policy.  First, it is not true, as Trump and co. often claim, that immigrants are a threat to public safety.  The fact is that such people are less likely, on average, to commit violent crimes.  Second, immigration is good for economic growth, which is a function of two things:  population growth and productivity growth. The US birth rate has declined, so the only way to hit the 3% or 4% growth targets Trump and co. desire is to boost immigration. Third, social security has recently started drawing from its trust fund, and in the middle future there will not be enough payroll tax revenue to fund benefits, making the system insolvent. Increased immigration means more young, productive people paying into the system. 

Fifth, the administration is pretty obviously using this policy to extort concessions on immigration in order to be able to campaign on it in 2018 and 2020.  In other words, this is all about The Wall.  The Wall—a solution we can’t afford to a problem that doesn’t exist—is, of course, not about the Wall—it’s about Trump getting re-elected.  

Sixth, there is a long history of conservative politicians cloaking appeals to resentful white voters under the mantle of “public safety,” “national security, “sovereignty,” “law and order,” and the like:  Goldwater’s opposition to desegregation by appealing to states’ rights, Nixon’s southern strategy promising to restore “law and order,” etc.  Trump doesn’t even bother with the ruse—he openly admitted that the invocation of an obscure national security law to justify the tariffs against our allies was in bad faith.


All of which is to say that the first mistake–made by proponents–is to try to defend the policy on its merits, and the second–made by opponents–is to object to the policy because it doesn’t make sense.  These aren’t really “policies”—they’re political strategies.  Nearly none of the administrations policies make sense—from trade to taxes to energy to climate to Iran to spitting in the face of our allies to the gutting of the State Department to praising authoritarian rulers to healthcare to immigration—because they’re not concerned with solving problems, but with creating them. 

The Trump administration does not make sense.  They fake sense. 

They do not assess the factual lay of the land and decide on how best to solve problems; they assess what their voting and donor bases believe to be problems—and what will best distract, divide, and confuse the public–and then fixate on and inflate those faux problems.  The most important, long-term structural problems—reducing income inequality, funding a new infrastructure plan, combating climate change, and building a globally competitive American renewable energy economy—are neglected.

Finally, the policy is needless, and needlessly cruel, and in this way it is vintage Trump. While the Bible is an inappropriate legal foundation, its invocation in this debate is actually crucially important, because it can shed light on just how heinous, inhumane, and morally retarded Trump is as a person and as a president. What irony that the
party that claims to be so animated by family values has thrown its lot in with a twice-divorced man, a serial adulterer with porn stars and Playmates, and a bully who relishes inflicting pain on powerless people seeking asylum by separating families.


What we need, of course, is not a physical wall, but a moral one.  Trump can rip up trade deals, flout democratic norms, cancel regulations, and perhaps even obstruct justice and collude with a foreign power to sabotage our electoral process.  But the most important long-term damage he is doing is to undermine our respect for the differences between true and false and right and wrong.

Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America, Part VI

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the final installment.]

VI. Study Near


Last summer, America celebrated the 200th birthday of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau did not study abroad. Somewhat like Kant, he spent most of his life confined to a small territory. He went to Harvard, just a few miles down the road from his home in Concord, Mass. But in a way, Thoreau did study abroad; he just didn’t go very far. Thoreau’s study abroad was a mere two miles from his hometown: a modest wooden cabin he built in the woods by Walden Pond. Though he didn’t go far, he stayed a long time: two years. While commonly regarded as a founding father of American environmentalism, Thoreau was also a passionate advocate for what we today would call social justice. His time at Walden changed his perspective on Concord. Living on the fringes of town, he saw first-hand evidence of the marginalization of Concord’s vulnerable residents, including Irish immigrants and Native Americans. And, of course, he made a sustained case for civil disobedience a few years later. It may be a stretch, but perhaps Thoreau intuited what Pope Francis would confidently declare a century and a half later: that environmental and social justice go hand in hand. His time in the near abroad revealed the imperfections of the near.

We have little trouble finding the familiar in the foreign. We are terrible at finding the foreign in the familiar. If travel is not at least a little bit scary and hard and humbling, it’s not travel. It’s tourism. The challenge is not making sense of the new place. It’s not being a tourist at home. This was Thoreau’s signature talent—to daily encounter his tiny territory as an exotic land rich with mystery, never fully known. Travel, rightly done, can teach us how to inhabit our homeland with reverence and awe.

If I were speaking with a student coming back from study abroad, I would ask them some of the following questions: Not where did they go, but why? Not what did you get out of it, but how did it get to you? Who got to you? What stories struck you? What demands do they make on your own? On your country’s?

Ultimately, I suspect that human rights draw their power not from logical arguments, abstract moral principles, or international agreements—important though these are–but from the experiences of recognition, the memories that ravel about them, and the stories we spin from their ragged thread.

Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America, Part V

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the second installment.]

V. The “BC Bubble” and the Hero’s Journey

If there is a moral ideal as hallowed in the Western tradition as human rights, it would be the Christian ideal of neighborly love. We tend to interpret this as, at least, not hurting people and not taking their stuff, and at most, being nice. We typically take the first part as the easy one. Of course we love ourselves! The challenge, we assume, is loving others. But as is usual with Jesus, things are not what they seem, and true wisdom is the opposite of conventional wisdom. The real challenge is loving ourselves, which is only possible through seeing ourselves as we truly are—as vulnerable, suffering, dependent, flawed, mortal, human. We tend to regard our “humanity” in abstract, or perhaps even biological, terms—as a class or species we belong to. But our recognition of our own humanity is actually an intimate affair, something spied far from the madding crowd.


Pope Francis expressed his understanding of this deep truth in his response to the question, “Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” His reply: “I am a sinner.” We tend to put saints and popes and heroes on pedestals, but they’re all flawed, too. In his study of the Argentinian dictatorship, The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War, Federico Finchelstein writes,

In contrast with many other Latin American countries, the Catholic Church was one of the main backers of the junta [in Argentina]…. The basis for this alliance rested on a notion accepted by most Argentine bishops at the time: any condemnation of human rights violations was a threat to the homeland and God…. The intimacy between God and the military nation was emphasized at the time, and Pope Franics, who as Father Bergoglio was the most important Jesuit in the country, never spoke out against this.

Even the best of us are in constant danger of the primordial avoidance. Our egos block us both from a genuine encounter with the neighbor, and a genuine encounter with ourselves. When we pile on additional layers of culture, nationality, religion, class, etc., the wall thickens even more. What maintains superficial bonds with the few undermines deeper bonds with the many.

At Boston College, it is customary to refer to the “BC bubble.” Apparently, the bubble is now portable: I hear students, faculty, and administrators report that for many of the popular study abroad destinations, such as Spain, BC students tend to clump together and, on weekends, skip around to other cities, bringing, in effect, the comforting connections of home abroad. While it is natural to want to maintain connections to the familiar, we should ask what is lost by bringing too many buffers, too many life-preservers, too much of the familiar to cling to that it saps the power of the adventure.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell liked to talk about what he called the “Hero’s Journey.” He believed that at the heart of all great stories—myths, epics, fairy tales, fictions—was a universal pattern. This basic archetype, the “monomyth,” has a threefold structure: 1) departure, 2) initiation, 3) return. Departure is the call to adventure, where the hero is drawn or casts herself into the unknown, a dark underworld, a zone of great power and great danger. There she encounters challenges that evoke qualities of her character and unlock parts of herself she didn’t even know were there. The descent is disorienting, and she must resist the temptation to retreat back to the light-world of the surface. But if she persists, she meets a great trial that, if survived and completed, initiates her into a new order, gives her deep insight, new eyes, a fresh perspective on herself and where she came from. Only from the bottom of the ocean can she finally see the surface. This hard-won pearl in hand, she returns home, sharing her wisdom with the community. Without that plunge into the unfamiliar, she would not have really gone anywhere. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. As Campbell liked to say, “If you’re falling, dive.”

Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America, Part IV

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the fourth installment.]

IV. Human Rights in the Classroom

There is a kind of eternal frustration bound up with teaching ethics. In Plato’s dialogue, Meno, Socrates asks whether virtue can be taught (short answer: No.). In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle insists that the purpose of the inquiry is not to learn what virtue is, but to become good. The moral virtues cannot be transmitted through instruction, but must be acquired through habituation. Teaching ethics in a university classroom might then appear as a fool’s errand. The challenge is to puncture the air of unreality that pervades an academic setting, to help students see how and why these matters—of virtue and vice, of justice and injustice, of human rights—matter, and are bound up with their own lives. The assumption is that that same air of unreality pervades our everyday lives, and that regular puncturing can make us more awake and aware and responsive to reality. The goal, in short, is to make it real.


Continue reading “Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America, Part IV”

Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America, Part III

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the third installment.]

III.  Them—Us–I


The most powerful part of the faculty seminar, for me, was our visit to Villa Grimaldi, a sprawling estate on the outskirts of the city, tucked into the lap of the Andes, that had been converted into a detention and torture facility immediately after the military coup. Our tour guide, Pedro–a tall, poised man with observant, piercing blue eyes—was not only highly knowledgeable, but a great storyteller. About 20 minutes into the tour, when we first came to the torture chambers, his diction shifted: “And this is where we spent most mornings.” His use of the second person pronoun continued for the next several minutes. I traded glances with some of my colleagues, knowing we were thinking the same thing: “Is he using that language for effect, or was he actually a prisoner here?”

Our suspicions were confirmed several tour stops later, when Pedro began to tell his story. How he’d been taken. How he’d been imprisoned and tortured. How he’d been moved from one facility to another, spending a full 16 months in the regime’s detention system.   How he’d been released, yet stuck in a zombie-like stupor for a long time afterward. How he’d learned, years later, that the reason the regime released people in such a condition was to strike fear into the population. And how, finally, he had come to the US, expressing his gratitude to the late Senator Ted Kennedy for his fierce opposition to human rights violations in Chile.

One of the most striking things about Pedro’s story was the ambivalence he felt toward the United States. On the one hand, the CIA helped foment the coup that led to his imprisonment and torture. On the other, Ted Kennedy’s valiant efforts enabled him to come to the US and put his life back together. America provided the kindling for the fire that burned him, and helped him heal from those very wounds. This ambivalence reflects a tension in America’s self-identity: as nationalistic, self-aggrandizing empire, or as cosmopolitan champion of human rights. Or perhaps the reality is more complicated: the attempt to beat back left wing politics in Latin America through covert support of rightwing dictatorships could be seen as part of the geopolitical struggle against communism, a threat to human rights. In any case, Pedro’s story complicated any simple picture of my country’s relation to his.

But what was most striking was not just his story, but how we told it. There was no theoretical discussion about human rights, no political theory or policy analysis, no history lesson. There was only a singular story of suffering, relayed from one person to another.  And the many stories of suffering he told us.  Stories of kidnap, torture, murder, rape.

And this.


One of the cruelest methods of the Chilean and Argentinian dictatorships was “disappearing” prisoners, which chiefly meant drugging them, throwing them onto a plane, and dumping them in the Pacific ocean. For a long time, however, many doubted this actually happened, racking it up to a rumor meant to demonize the dictatorship.  Reports that the disappeared had had heavy objects, such as large rocks and pieces of metal from railroads, tied to their backs to sink their bodies began to trickle out from survivors of the detention camps.  These reports were hauntingly confirmed when officials began to dredge the ocean floor miles from shore.  While flesh, bone, and clothing were all worn and washed away, the only sign of human life left behind was a single button, encrusted in the rock.

Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America, Part II

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the second installment.]

II.  The Age of Neo-Illiberalism

Preparing to leave for a day of museums and tours recounting the atrocities of Chile’s military dictatorship under Pinochet, a headline from that morning’s New York Times caught my eye: “To Trump, Human Rights Concerns are Often a Barrier to Trade.”

Nowadays, it is hard not to hear the phrase “human rights” as hollow. Abroad and at home, the specter of illiberalism has descended. According to political scientist Larry Diamond, the world has been in a “democratic recession” since 2006. From Turkey to Russia, from the Philippines to the Netherlands, from France to the UK and, of course, the United States, the forces of populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism are, for the first time in seven decades, challenging the liberal international order. As Robin Niblett writes in a recent article in Foreign Affairs,

the architects of the [liberal international order] sought to promote not just economic development and individual fulfillment but also world peace. The best hope for that, they contended, lay in free markets, individual rights, rule of law, and elected governments, which would be checked by independent judiciaries, free presses, and vibrant societies.

We are playing at trading the “West”—the post-World War II liberal system erected by the Allies to foster economic interdependence in order to prevent civilizational war, protect human rights, and foster prosperity–for “Westeros”—the fictional world of Game of Thrones, a Hobbesian state of nature riven by warring families and fiefdoms, tribes and warlords, where force and fraud are the cardinal virtues.


According to this worldview, human rights are a luxury we cannot afford to care about. We must look out for #1. America first, humanity second.

Call it the age of “neo-illiberalism.”

Whether this phenomenon is a trend or a tectonic shift, only time will tell. But as Niblett warns, “liberal democracies cannot postpone difficult political decisions any longer. They need to fix themselves first if they are to sustain the liberal international order.” Conservative writer and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush David Frum, in what is perhaps one of the most important reflections on the Trump phenomenon that every American should read–is even darker: “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered.”


It is difficult to convey to students, who by this point are too young to have any memory of the day, just how different the country was before 9/11. I was a sophomore at BC that year, getting ready for class that day (a philosophy course called Romanticism and Idealism, of all things). Before I left for class that day—before the towers fell—it’s safe to say that the dominant historical narrative was Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.” At that time, the country was still flying high off of the “holiday from history” that characterized the 1990s. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, there just wasn’t much of world-historical consequence going on. Fukuyama’s thesis, put forth in a 1992 book, was that the end of the Cold War signaled the end of history: not in the literal sense that time would stop, of course, but that History understood as a contest between competing ideologies was effectively over. The combination of liberal democracy and capitalism had proved to be the most desirable and sustainable way to organize human life, and the remainder of history would be a gradual process of its global spread.

Short of nuclear war, it is difficult to imagine a more deadly blow to this thesis than 9/11. Indeed, after the twin towers fell and al Qaeda had been identified as responsible, the “return of history” was promptly proclaimed. Samuel Huntington’s alternative narrative, the “clash of civilizations,” was resurrected. According to Huntington, geopolitics can be understood through the analogy of plate tectonics: there are certain cultural plates forged through millennia that, over long stretches of time, will inevitably collide. The West was not Civilization, a star destined to draw all lesser satellites into its orbit, but just one civilization among many.

The events of the last two years have thrust us back into Huntington’s world. Or so conventional wisdom has it. But we would do well to remember the other half of Fukuyama’s story. As Paul Sagar suggests in a recent article in Aeon,

Rarely read but often denigrated, [The End of History] might be the most maligned, unfairly dismissed and misunderstood book of the post-war era. Which is unfortunate for at least one reason: Fukuyama might have done a better job of predicting the political turmoil that engulfed Western democracies in 2016 – from Brexit, to Trump, to the Italian Referendum – than anybody else.

Attention is typically focused on the title of Fukuyama’s book—“The End of History”–which he cribbed from Hegel. Little is devoted to the subtitle—“the Last Man”—which he took from Nietzsche. “The most universal sign of the modern age,” Nietzsche wrote, is that “man has lost dignity in his own eyes to an incredible extent.” Fukuyama elaborates the notion of the last man and the risks it poses:

The life of the last man is one of physical security and material plenty, precisely what Western politicians are fond of promising their electorates. Is this really what the human story has been ‘all about’ these past few millennia? Should we fear that we will be both happy and satisfied with our situation, no longer human beings but animals of the genus homo sapiens?

His concern was that, on the one hand, we might become a nation consumed by consumerism, cocooned in comfort, withdrawn from the realm of politics and detached from reality, unconcerned with any greater purpose for our lives or countries or species. Maximize pleasure, minimize pain, and whatever you do, don’t talk or think about religion and politics. Having abandoned God, Nietzsche wrote that the modern world subscribed to the “religion of comfortableness.” The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was filled with hamburgers, Candy Crush, and porn. This is the end of history as secular eschaton of escapism and entertainment. Think Wall-E.


Writing this before the personal computer–before widespread internet access; before the smartphone; before Facebook; before the descent of digital disruption onto everyday life in the last decade—Fukuyama’s warning is prescient. And, when we look at what he has to say about another potential pathway, eerie: “Or is the danger that we will be happy on one level, but still dissatisfied with ourselves on another, and hence ready to drag the world back into history with all its wars, injustice, and revolution?”

This regression, Fukuyama thought, might transpire due to the return of an element modernity represses—of megalothymia, “a desire not just for respect and proportionate recognition, but a need to disproportionately dominate over others in ostentatious and spectacular ways.” His example of an individual possessed by megalothymia is eerier still. Sagar:

In describing the shallow celebrity culture, the essential emptiness, of the habitat of the last man, Fukuyama had a particular example in mind. He went to the same individual for illustration when looking for an archetype of megalothymia – who else but ‘a developer like Donald Trump’.

Sagar lays out the alternatives as Fukuyama saw them:

It was possible that the last men at the end of History might sink down into a brutish contentment with material comforts, rather like dogs lying around in the afternoon sun…. But they might well go the other way. There was every chance that the last men (and women) would be deeply discontented with their historically unprecedented ease and luxury, because it failed to feed megalothymia. If the last men went this way, they would become bored by what Fukuyama called ‘masterless slavery – the life of rational consumption’. The spread of egalitarian values that went along with secular democratic politics would open up spaces of severe resentment – especially, we might now postulate, among those who had lost their traditional places at the top of social hierarchies, and felt cheated of the recognition that they believed they were owed.

An unattributed quote has been circulating around the internet over the past year or so: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” The expansion of egalitarianism poses a perceived threat to the previously empowered—politically, economically, and culturally.

The collapse of confidence in international institutions and the sacredness of human rights flows from the collapse of confidence in national institutions, the decline of democratic norms, the cessation of civility, the deficit of decency, and the recession of the respect that all take root in one place: the primal experience of recognition. Recognition that pierces through all distinctions of race and religion, culture and class, ability and age, distinctions that express but do not exhaust our identity.

The identity politics and “intersectionality” of today’s far Left, and the ethno-nativism of Trumpism (I hesitate to call it today’s far Right out of a conviction that it is an ideologically inchoate beast that lurks about the fringes of our political spectrum) both miss this essential element. Trumpism is fueled by a megalothymic mélange of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia, not to mention a misguided economic protectionism. But the flip side of the quote above is this: “When you are accustomed to oppression, revenge feels like justice.” The rage that fuels the ascendant identity politics of the left is resentful and reactionary in its own way; hence the prevalence of online lynch mobs quick to tar and feather anyone who departs from intersectional orthodoxy. Helen Pluckrose nails it:

It is regrettable that intersectionality in practice so often manifests in restrictive ideological conformity, exclusionary tactics, hostility, tribalism and even racist abuse. It’s regrettable because liberalism could be benefitted by specialist attention to the ways in which specific groups within society are advantaged or disadvantaged. However, focus on group identity and experience should not come at the cost of respect for the whole world of human ideas and experience and every individual’s right to access and subscribe to any part of it. Until intersectionality respects diversity of ideas as well as of identity and supports every individual’s right to hold any of them regardless of their group identity, it cannot be said to represent anything except its own ideology.

Both the far Left and Trumpism traffic, in various ways, in what Martin Luther King, Jr. termed false senses of superiority and inferiority. Both are irrational; they seize upon arbitrary identity markers—race, class, nationality—to construct moral hierarchies. Both, in different ways, are illiberal. And both miss the universalist element, the standpoint from which human rights flow: the ground-root experience of recognition.

Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the first installment.]

I.  Comfortably Numb

I never studied abroad as a BC undergraduate, which was probably for the best, since I had vague designs of going to Australia (primarily to surf, of course). I felt honored to be invited to participate in the faculty seminar in Latin America, and decided to treat it as the study abroad experience I never had. Preparing for the trip, I found myself asking more basic questions: what is the point of study abroad? How does it fit into the greater purpose of college? And what does all of this have to do with human rights? I wondered: beyond the facts and statistics and history of the dictatorships and their litany of human rights violations, what will I learn of great value that I can bring back to my students? It wasn’t until weeks after I’d returned that I recalled a scene from the film Calvary that crystallized the most important thing I learned.


Continue reading “Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America”

The Jaime Lannister of Climate Politics

Bjorn Lomborg is like the Jaime Lannister of climate change politics:  a square-jawed, towheaded, smooth-talking semi-villain who never seems to go away.  Unlike the “Circes” of climate denial, he concedes that climate change is anthropogenic and poses a serious threat.  But he thinks devoting substantial resources to dealing with it is a miscalculation based on mistaken priorities.  He is a skeptic–not of the science, but of the policy.  His latest, an Op-Ed in last week’s Wall Street Journal, “The Charade of the Paris Treaty” (paywall), rehashes the argument he’s been making for years.

You might be surprised to hear that Lomborg’s position on climate passes as liberal for the WSJ Op-Ed page.  Despite being the most widely distributed newspaper in the world, and one of the most widely respected, and a bastion of center-right thought, count the Journal a skeptic when it comes to climate change.

Lomborg’s was the article that tipped me over the edge and led me to spend a morning penning a letter to the editor that, as it turned out, got published a week later (albeit substantially trimmed):


Arguments like Lomborg’s are actually more dangerous than those of climate skeptics or deniers because they threaten to sow doubt among those who are already on board with climate science.

Below, I re-print my original letter to the Journal.  As you’ll see, its length is probably not the only reason they didn’t print the whole thing:

“Unlike the Journal, Bjorn Lomborg (“The Charade of the Paris Treaty,” June 17-18) laudably acknowledges the reality and gravity of anthropogenic climate change.  However, his piece contains several fallacies.

First, Lomborg correctly notes that the first round of pledges will fall far short of the stated goal of 2 degrees Celsius, and cites the failed Kyoto protocol as evidence for Paris’ likely failure, but he misconstrues the long-term logic of the agreement, as well as the way in which Paris is importantly different from Kyoto.  For one, every five years pledges are reviewed and ratcheted up, which aims to foster trust, cooperation, and peer pressure between parties and gradually build toward more ambitious targets.  For another, Kyoto had binding emissions cuts, whereas Paris has voluntary commitments in order to allow flexibility to account for countries’ political and economic feasibility constraints.

Second, Lomborg erects a straw man:  no one serious is claiming that we’re sailing into the solar paradise tomorrow.  The global energy economy is an aircraft carrier, not a speedboat.  The point of Paris is to create a sea change in how countries think about climate:  to see it as deeply tied to their economic and geopolitical interests so that they begin to invest more in renewables and put a price on carbon.  Lomborg ignores the geopolitical dimension of Paris.  The Obama administrations’ most important strategic diplomatic achievement was to elevate climate to the same status as core issues in international cooperation, such as trade and security.

Take it from philosopher and policy analyst Andrew Light, who worked in the Obama Administration to craft and negotiate the Paris agreement:

Trump’s decision will damage U.S. integrity at the negotiating table and impede the ability of this White House to effectively pursue other international issues that require multilateral support. Nicholas Burns, under secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, put it bluntly: “I can’t think of anything more destructive to our credibility” than leaving the Paris Agreement. It will also make it difficult for other leaders to justify to their citizens sitting down with this White House to negotiate anything the U.S. wants, given the broad and deep recognition of the need for cooperative action on climate change among other major powers.

In the new reality, if you’re a bad actor on climate, countries can leverage this against you and make it harder for you to get what you want on a range of issues.  Or punish you—France, e.g., has floated the idea of slapping a carbon tax on US imports.

Third, Lomborg descries subsidies for renewables.  What he fails to mention is that fossil fuel subsidies far exceed the former.  This should bother conservatives, since subsidies distort markets—the price of fossil fuels does not reflect their true cost, which leads to an inefficient use of resources.  This is basic, uncontroversial, conservative economics.   And he should know, from reading energy historian Vaclav Smil, whom he cites, that no major energy transition has ever happened without massive government support.  Bizarrely, he concedes this toward the end of his piece, calling for increased spending on R and D; and indeed, one of the main goals of Paris is to stimulate such investment—hence billionaires such a Bill Gates rallying around the agreement and launching the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.

Fourth, Lomborg clings to the canard that action of climate is bad for the economy.  However, in his work he relies on a morally and economically dubious value for the social discount rate.  Even William Nordhaus, the dean of climate economics and a long time conservative on climate action, has conceded that he was wrong about the value he ascribed to the social cost of carbon.  And others, such as economist Nicholas Stern, claim that the cost should be much higher, which makes the price tag of eventual climate change much, much higher than the investments needed to decarbonize the global economy.  Again, the social cost of carbon is a fundamentally conservative idea:  individuals and firms ought to pay the full costs of the byproducts of their economic activity.  Economic growth is just one value among others, and it is unclear whether it is best fostered by weak climate policy.  Prudent investors hedge against risk.

Lomborg is right to claim that we must approach action on climate in the context of global issues such as education, health care, poverty, etc., and that, in the short term, investments in these areas would have a greater impact on welfare.  But he seems to assume that if we don’t direct resources to climate, they will indeed be devoted to these areas, which seems unlikely.  Moreover, a number of these issues are entangled with and may be exacerbated by climate change.  One reason e.g. that China and India are investing heavily in solar and decreasing their coal dependence is the costs of pollution to public health and their economies.

All told, Lomborg’s position—like the Journal’s editorial stance on climate in general and Paris in particular—is unserious, unconservative, and untenable.”

It seems to me that the winning strategy for climate advocacy is to craft arguments to appeal to 1) social conservatives and 2) economic conservatives.  How, in other words, to explain why Christianity and Capitalism logically lead to action on climate?

Don’t talk about the “environment,” talk about “creation.”

Don’t talk about “ecological balance,” talk about “economic growth.”

Don’t talk about “ecological destruction,” talk about “job creation.”

The language is jobs, infrastructure, investment, insurance, energy independence.

More later on the psychology, culture, and communication challenges of climate politics.

Clinton Kasich 2016: The Final Triangulation


I know.  It sounds crazy. But think about it.

First, let’s back up a bit.  I challenge anyone to disagree that the healthiest race for the country would have been Clinton vs. Kasich. Frankly, they were the only serious candidates ever in the race:  Christie was too mean (and fat); Paul too reasonable; Cruz too craven (and Christianist); Bush too Bush; Fiorina too shrill; Rubio too green (and thirsty); Carson spacey (and, like, generally ridiculous); Sanders too liberal (and grumpy); O’Malley too bionic; and Trump too…well, Trump.

By rights, Clinton and Kasich should have been facing off against each other. They would have likely run the cleanest, most idea-driven, and most issue-based campaigns possible in our sensationalist, sound-bitten era. They would have provided a breath of fresh-air after the silly season of the primaries. They would have been–they are–the most experienced, the most moderate, the most mature, the most qualified candidates. And that is why I think that they would make—that they should forge–the most formidable alliance to beat back and slay the monster that has somehow slithered into the American body politic.

Continue reading “Clinton Kasich 2016: The Final Triangulation”