Economists are hard people to love. Cerebral and seemingly disinterested in the people living in the world they are trying to describe, they make the third worst party guests in the world.
Mediocre economists clothe prejudice in the abstract language of mathematics to influence policy debates while obfuscating the fact that they are both pathetic philosophers and worse mathematicians. [Insert Laffer Curve diagram here]
The best economists can and do serve a vital role in human civilization – clearly defining issues related to societal choices about resource usage and equity.
By this definition, in my opinion, the best economist in the world died this week: Dr. Martin Weitzman, Ernest E. Monrad Professor of Economics at Harvard University.
With Weitzman’s death, a little hope for civilization’s ability to face the challenge of climate change died with him. If you care about the future of our species, you should be in mourning now.
In my mind, Weitzman’s contribution to the economics of climate change can best be summed up by a pithy quote from Warren Buffett, of all people:
“A long string of very large numbers multiplied by zero is still zero.”
In other words, it doesn’t matter if your investment returns are 35% per year for years if, in one year, you suffer losses sufficient to entirely wipe out your capital.
Weitzman astutely pointed out that there is a material chance – around 10% by last reckoning – that greenhouse gas emissions will continue along a trajectory sufficient to raise temperatures so much that the earth will be uninhabitable by humans and by most other forms of life we don’t presently try to swat or stomp on.
To paraphrase Weitzman’s research, it doesn’t matter how wealthy a society becomes if, in the pursuit of wealth, we end up rendering our environment an unlivable hellscape.
Even without training in psychology, I can safely say that anyone who can’t buy that argument is a psychopath.
While I was happy that the topic of climate change economics had been recognized by the (fake) Nobel Committee, I was frankly disappointed that Nordhaus had gotten the nod while Weitzman had not.
Nordhaus has a very long history of analyzing and writing about the economics of climate change and he is clearly a brilliant scholar. I agree with many of his ideas about carbon tax and am happy that his voice on the topic (usually) carries more weight than that of moronic pseudo-academics at some oil industry sponsored think tank.
However, Nordhaus’s belief that we will only be able to reduce emissions to an extent that average global temperatures will increase by two degrees Celsius or more is, from a civilizational perspective, disastrous.
Nordhaus, like so many human thinkers, conceives of future change as a continuous extrapolation of current conditions. This is a fantasy made possible by the fact that human lifespans are short by geological standards and that human civilization over the past 12,000 years has arisen during a time of amazing climactic quiescence and stability.
In contrast to Nordhaus’s palatability among policy makers, Weitzman’s ideas about the necessity to manage the material risk of catastrophic global warming was uncomfortable to policy makers. Yes, Weitzman’s work on declining discount rates in considering the pricing of carbon emissions was recognized by President Obama, but generally Weitzman’s analyses were a little too dreary for wide public consumption. Evidently, they were a little to dreary for the (fake) Nobel Committee as well.
That’s a shame. The world is worse off without Marty Weitzman’s voice in it.
Rest in peace, Dr. Weitzman. Good luck to the rest of us.