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Take Another Zoloft

June 9, 2010

Here’s an interesting item.  According to Stanford researcher Jon Krosnick, around three-quarters of the country believes that the Earth’s temperature has gotten hotter over the past 100 years and that human activity is principally to blame for it.  You know what else those people believe?  That the American public wants the federal government to do something about it.  Just not anything that, you know, inconveniences the American public:

Fully 86 percent of our respondents said they wanted the federal government to limit the amount of air pollution that businesses emit, and 76 percent favored government limiting business’s emissions of greenhouse gases in particular. Not a majority of 55 or 60 percent — but 76 percent.

Large majorities opposed taxes on electricity (78 percent) and gasoline (72 percent) to reduce consumption. But 84 percent favored the federal government offering tax breaks to encourage utilities to make more electricity from water, wind and solar power. And huge majorities favored government requiring, or offering tax breaks to encourage, each of the following: manufacturing cars that use less gasoline (81 percent); manufacturing appliances that use less electricity (80 percent); and building homes and office buildings that require less energy to heat and cool (80 percent).

Kevin Drum laments this as incredibly childish (“the public doesn’t want to do anything — carbon taxes or cap-and-trade — that might actually work”), and Yglesias points out that there is a way to reduce emissions sans regulatory policy, but it’s much more “economically costly” than regulation because you’d have to figure out a way to replenish the funds you used on tax breaks for new utilities, i.e. raise income taxes.  The bottom line, as everyone knows, is that this is just another one of those instances where the public wants something done about a problem (whether or not you believe the feds should act on climate change—that’s not the point, the American people apparently do) without suffering from it themselves in the short-term.

With regard to the debt, for instance, nobody wants to cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, or defense spending, even though those are essentially the only budget items that are driving our colossal debt.  And, as Steinglass points out, Americans wouldn’t even want to cut foreign aid that badly—it’s at the top of the list in terms of what budgetary item the public thinks should be cut out the most—if they realized that the majority of the foreign aid fund goes to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel.  This is the same thing: everybody wants to reduce carbon emissions, but nobody wants their own electricity bill or their own gas bill to go up.

This is why populism is so bad (and one of the reason I don’t count myself among the Tea Partiers).  I don’t believe I’ve ever said it in this space before, but I’ve always been a fan of Krauthammer’s floor-on-the-price-of-gas schtick—it would curtail demand, decreasing our dependence on foreign oil, it would encourage the development of other energy sources such as nuclear power, and, if you like climate change policy, it would reduce emissions.  Unfortunately, that’s not a popular idea because, well, everybody would be paying $4 a gallon instead of $2.50 (that’s what it is where I’m from, at least).  The problem is that there’s a vast shortage of politicians who are willing to go through with this idea because of the short-sightedness of their constituency.  And that, if you think about it, is really depressing.

The only thing I can glean from all this is that maybe legislators should have term limits.  We should really think about this.  If Senator Incumbentson can’t get re-elected in November because his time is up, then maybe he’ll be more willing to go along with unpopular policies like reducing our national debt and keeping us from losing our credit rating.  But if the only thing that Congress ever gets accomplished is that which is popular with a significant portion of the base of the party in power, then unpopular things, cutting entitlement spending, will never get done.

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