One of my pet peeves about politics is that we tend to compartmentalize issues, each into its own little concept space, and then we debate each issue discretely, without any consideration of how one issue impinges on another. I think this tendency results from the need of those in political marketing to create a kind of political brand-awareness for any particular problem. We sever the connections to other problems in order to simplify and focus the debate. I think this is one of the major systemic sources of errors in modern political decision making.
Real-world problems don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist within a vast social, economic and political ecosystem in which interaction between the components is more important than the internals of the components themselves. We cannot truly understand political issues in isolation, any better than a biologist can understand a species without studying its larger environment.
Take global warming and Social Security. On the surface the two seem to share no connection at all. We certainly never debate each issue with reference to the other. We think of global warming as a technological and scientific problem and we think of Social Security as a financial and tax problem. Where is the link between the two?
Based on the economic realities of the 1930s, Social Security should have collapsed by the mid-60s. When the program began, each retiree was supported by at least 15 workers. By the mid-60s that ratio had slipped to around 7 workers per retiree. Not only that, but retirees were living longer than anticipated and receiving higher benefits, not to mention the completely unanticipated rise in medical costs. Social Security tax rates were raised, yet the standard of living of workers continued to rise and they absorbed the tax increases easily. Today the ratio of workers to retirees is around 4 to 1, and we worry about the system failing a couple of decades down the road.
So what changed? How can fewer workers support more retirees without reducing their own standard of living? Easy, the productivity of the average worker increased enormously over the decades. Translated into material terms, an increase in productivity means an increase in energy use. Current means of production use more energy, and use energy sources more efficiently, than did the means of material production in the past. It is easiest to see this effect in agriculture. When Social Security began, about 40% of the population worked in agriculture. Now it’s only 4% who work in agriculture, and they produce more food. The missing workers were replaced by energy-consuming machinery.
The linkage with global warming now becomes clear. Due to many political decisions made over the last 50 years, about 70% of America’s power production comes from carbon-emitting sources. The increase in worker productivity that keeps the Social Security system viable is directly responsible for the increase in carbon emissions over the same period.
Most of the mainstream political proposals for dealing with global warming center around first reducing energy use significantly, and then on phasing in new non-carbon-emitting energy sources. However, reducing energy consumption means a short-term loss of productivity. It can’t be helped. Even the diversion of capital necessary to increase energy efficiency and to build new power sources will cause a loss of productivity. Capital spent to conserve or produce energy is not capital spent to improve worker productivity.
People like to disparage SUVs without considering that the workers who build, distribute and maintain SUVs pay a lot of Social Security taxes. Worse, most real-world proposals for reducing carbon emissions would make it cheaper to manufacture goods in the developing world, causing more workers to lose jobs here and shrinking the tax base even further. I see no proposals anywhere concerning global warming that would not negatively impact Social Security.
A low-energy future is a low-productivity future, and a low-productivity future is not one where 2 or 3 workers can support each retiree. Even if we dispense with the fiction that Social Security is some sort of pension system, and just pay for benefits directly out of general revenues, we won’t change the basic calculus. The more productive — and therefore, the more energy intensive — the general economy, the larger the population of non-workers it can support, and the more easily it can support them.
So the long-term viability of Social Security is directly tied to global warming, but we never discuss the relationship between the two. In fact, those on the regressive Left who staunchly defend the pay-as-you-go Social Security system are also those who scream for the most draconian cuts in carbon emissions. They seem utterly oblivious to the contradiction in those two stances.
We need to learn to think holistically about major political problems. We need to pull problems out of their neatly defined conceptual boxes and understand how they interact with one another. If we don’t, the solution to one major problem may massively exacerbate another problem.