Last night, Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics and now the ostensibly freakier Super Freakonomics, appeared on The Daily Show. Jon Stewart expressed his enthusiasm for Levitt’s position that we should be combating global warming in many ways, not only by reducing emissions but also by implementing strategies to actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book so I may be misinterpreting Levitt’s position.) What struck me as odd is that the audience apparently reacted badly to Stewart’s endorsement of these proactive means. At the end of the show he feigned contrition, acting as though he just run over the puppies of everyone in the audience.

This reminded me of a similar incident from a book written in the same spirit of Freakonomics, called Undercover Economist. The author, Tim Harford writes that he once attended a global warming conference where he was asked, when he registered, how he had traveled there so that the conference organizers could buy carbon offsets to make the conference carbon neutral. He pointed out that this didn’t make sense. If the goal of the conference is to reduce carbon emissions, the organizers should buy as many offsets as they could afford, not just enough to make the conference carbon neutral.

What seems to be at the heart of the conflict is a fundamental mistrust between two ways of thinking. Levitt’s solution, at least to the audience of The Daily Show, smacks of free market utopianism—a perception aggravated by his association with the University of Chicago. The problem with that is the assumption that the market will eventually solve every problem. It won’t; the market will only solve profitable problems. Burning coal and oil is cheap; using cleaner energy sources, at least for now, is hard. There does need to be regulation to correct for the market’s indifference to our gradual suffocation. But we also need to be proactive. It’s not enough to stop exacerbating the problem; we also have to actively fix it. As long as our efforts are oriented in that direction, we should welcome all new ideas, even if they do come from the University of Chicago.

Similar Posts: