The first day I got me a fuel pump
And the next day I got me an engine and a trunk
Then I got me a transmission and all of the chrome
The little things I could get in my big lunchbox
Like nuts, an’ bolts, and all four shocks
But the big stuff we snuck out in my buddy’s mobile home.

Johnny Cash, One Piece At A TIme

Ryan Avent at the Economist argues with Matt Steinglass, also at the Economist, about whether “leave it in the ground” is a desirable way to reduce global warming. Here is Avent:

In the end, reduction of fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions is all about the demand sideā€”the supply of fossil fuels on earth is more than sufficient to turn the planet into an oven, and so demand must be rationed. So either you commit yourself to disrupting enough of currently available fossil fuel supply to raise fossil fuel prices, or you quit worrying about supplies and focus on demand-side measures. The former seems to me to be utterly impossible and not that economically desirable, and so I’d urge my colleague to concentrate on the latter…

This debate plays out all over the place: do you support a marginal policy that would reduce global warming by some small amount, or instead focus on promoting the much more efficient carbon tax and forgo these piecemeal policies? I understand why this debate goes on, and I can understand why cynics who are skeptical that we will get a carbon tax would promote piecemeal policies, although I disagree with them.

What I don’t understand is why all libertarians and conservatives don’t recognize that given the public perception on the issue, this is our choice set: we’re either going to do it like Johnny Cash -sloppily, inefficiently, and, one piece at a time-, or we can do it all at once as efficiently as possible. As long as pollution is perceived as being underpriced there will be a large, economically justified demand for piecemeal attempts to reduce it. Why not support the efficient approach and remove the economic case for these inefficient piecemeal policies?

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