I was glad to see this Op-Ed on public opinion on global warming from Stanford Political Science/Social Psychology professor Jon Krosnick get so much play in the blogosphere today. Krosnick used to be at Ohio State, and it was my privilege to actually get to work with him (there’s actually be a Krosnick, Garst, and Greene, if I wasn’t such a slacker). The guy’s first field is social psychology, yet he knew far more political science than most any PS professor I knew. In my personal judgement, pretty much the smartest person I’ve ever had the opportunity to interact with.
So, the Op-Ed basically does a nice job straightening out what we really know about public opinion on global warming (a topic I remember him working on 15 years ago), from what we think we know from seriously flawed survey questions. It’s good work. Big Steve highlights the value of good social science versus polling firms. Dan Drezner highlights that Krosnick is, in fact, over-interpreting the public desire for real change (and I think he’s spot-on; Krosnick is brilliant at public opinion, he’s not a policy guy). I think Kevin Drum’s take home is sadly, the most important conclusion:
So there you have it: the American public believes in global warming and wants the government to do something about it. However, the American public doesn’t want to do anything — carbon taxes or cap-and-trade — that might actually work.
Yglesias thinks Drum is overstating the case, but basically gives in on the larger point:
A frustrated Kevin Drum glosses this as “the American public doesn’t want to do anything — carbon taxes or cap-and-trade — that might actually work.”
But that’s not quite right. In principle you could seriously reduce overall emissions through these kind of regulatory measures. But it would be much, much, much more economically costly than alternative approaches.
So, maybe the public doesn’t actually oppose the policy solutions that would work, just the solutions that would work far and away the most efficiently. And that’s a real shame. This is why we don’t have a direct democracy (and why we need more courage from our leaders)– the public can be really stupid on complex policy matters. And why is the public so foolhardy on these matters. Yglesias explains why it’s not really they’re fault (long quote, but a really important point):
But the public’s understanding of these kind of issues—and not just in an environmental context—is extremely poor. And I think conservative politicians, conservative pundits, and conservative political institutions deserve a great deal of the blame for this situation. The view that it’s better to achieve policy aims through taxes and fees than through piecemeal subsidies and regulations is a standard consequence of the neoclassical economic model that these people are the strongest proponents of. And in general, taxing undesired externalities is by far the most “free market” way to handle these kind of situations. But the American right offers, in practice, no support for these kinds of market-oriented policies. Instead it’s spent thirty years deeply investing in rabid anti-tax politics that have completely conquered the Republican Party and largely conquered the Democratic Party as well. Now it’s nearly unthinkable to suggest that anyone should ever pay more taxes for any reason. And yet demonizing taxes doesn’t eliminate public demand for policy solutions to broad problems, it simply channels it into less efficient channels.
As a political scientist, the best thing that ever happened to me was being told I had to teach Public Policy against my will in my very first semester at Texas Tech. Thanks to that, and my ongoing interest and expertise in policy that has developed, I get these things now. I always tell my students that, normative issues aside, I’m not interested in “liberal” policy or “conservative” but, rather, efficient policy. Though liberals are far from perfect on this score, it strikes me that liberals are much more interested in good/efficient policy and conservatives are much more interested in policy that fits their pre-conceived notions of how the world works (health care reform is a terrific example of this). Honestly, its a shame. If conservatives actually had a genuine interest in a efficient policy (e.g., carbon tax or cap and trade), this country would be a hell of a lot better off.