Saturday, January 29, 2005

The dangers of analogizing: Exhibit A

At A Constrained Vision, Katie quotes Steven Hayword approvingly:
Others have made the observation that liberals say there is no Social Security crisis, or if there is, we can wait and fix it later, while on the subject of climate change, their position is that we have to take drastic action RIGHT NOW to ward off harm that will not appear for 50 to 100 years or more.
This seems like a pretty weak analogy. I'm no environmentalist, mind you, but if I understand the reasoning correctly, things we do to the environment today will be harder to undo tomorrow. This seems to make a good deal of sense: I save money from throwing some chemical into my pond out front rather than disposing of it correctly. However, it'll ultimately end up costing more to undo the damage I've done, since environmental problems are notoriously intractable and actions, once done, are very hard to undo (check out the size of superfund projects, for example). With respect to global warming, a common argument is that it will be impossible to undo. These are the points with which honest anti-environmentalists (for lack of a better term) will have to grapple.

Briefly, on social security: Hayword writes, "Conversely, waiting on Social Security reform will mean that the costs only grow larger, and the options for dealing with it narrower and more painful." That's pretty uncontroversial, I think. I don't see how it bears on the question of social security, however. In some other world, private accounts might work, but in this world the transition and transaction costs are liable to be nothing short of enormous. If we could magically convert the current system into a private account system, most people would be hunky-dory with it (perhaps with some tinkering at the margins). But this isn't an ideal world, and we can't magically switch systems without transition and transaction costs.

So Hayword has got the key concepts, but he applies them all wrong: if we wait on the environment, we accrue enormous extra costs; if we act now on social security, we accrue enormous costs.