Global Warming Versus Social Security

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.

13 thoughts on “Global Warming Versus Social Security”

  1. Hugh,

    What do you think of the likely convergence of the Social Security and health care crises? I can forsee an unpleasant scenario: having sold people on the idea of defining one class of persons out of existence (with abortion), what’s to stop people from doing it again? First it will be pitched as compassion, for the vegetative and those with chronic pain; then it will be pushed as a moral necessity; then it will be enforced by law: at a certain age/degree of infirmity you will be required to take the ‘medication’ (euphemisms will be in use all along the way).

  2. Global warming is not a major problem seeing as the temperature will remain constant until 2042 when the carbon emmissions exceed carbon absorbtion. There is no “crisis”. This is just an example of using scare tactics to advance unrelated agendas. We can fix this later.

  3. What we all need to do is take a much harder look at nuclear power. Doubling or tripling the number of nuclear power plants would go a long way toward providing vast quanties of electricity with minimal environmental impact, especially considering they emit no CO2 or noxious gasses.

  4. Interesting post. It’s not obvious to me that productivity increase is as dependent on energy use as it once was…putting twice as many transistors on a chip probably requires little if any incremental energy for its production. And the things that people will use lots more of, at least in economically-advanced societies, are probably mostly not that energy-intensive to deliver. If everyone ate twice as much food, then yes, roughly twice as much energy would be required to grow and transport it, but there’s a physical limit to how much one person can eat…

  5. “.putting twice as many transistors on a chip probably requires little if any incremental energy for its production”

    You would be surprised how much energy such production takes if you consider the entirety of the production process. Creating a clean room to make chips in requires a lot of stainless steel and similar material which require a lot of raw energy use. But more generally, what we actually see is a trend towards denser, more focused uses of energy. That doesn’t mean that the overall energy use doesn’t increase over time because it quite definitely has. There is no reason to believe that future increases in productivity won’t also be accompanied by increases in energy use (although not necessarily carbon emitting energy)

    The biggest single increase in energy use in the last ten years has come from all the computing devices we now use. In the past, the only items continually drawing power in a household or business were lights with the occasional electric motor kicking in now and then. Now we have embedded computers in almost everything which draw power even when not in use.

    In any case, the decrease in energy use that would be needed to head off the mid-level to catastrophic global warming scenarios would deal a crippling blow to the economy’s ability to support retirees.

    The two problems are inherently linked and it is important that we get people to think of them that way.

  6. Shannon, thanks for putting your boot through one of the foam partitions in our compartmentalized political discourse. Excellent post.

    (If a fellow wanted to support Chicagoboyz, or maybe pick up the gang’s bar-tab sometime, where should I click?)

  7. Shannon…yes, I know that the semiconductor fab process uses significant energy; my point is that when density is increased (as by an improved photolithography process) there is no need for anything like a proportional increase in energy consumption at the fab.

    It’s true that a big reduction in energy use would be economically disastrous. But I do think that there are many increases in productivity that have not been particularly energy-intensive, and there will be many more. Consider CNC machine tools: they don’t use any more energy than traditional machine tools, but they represent a very significant increase in labor productivity.

  8. David Foster,

    I am not sure whether increases in productivity have to be accompanied by increases in energy use but that has certainly been the general trend over the last 500 years. Remember that technologies don’t exist in a vacuum but inhabit a technological ecosystem. A fab plant depends on a vast array of interlocking systems that span the entire planet. That all takes energy.

    Politically, I was more interested in the observation that those most hostile to increased productivity in general are also those most adhered to the archaic party-now-pay-later social security system.

  9. The question I haven’t seen an answer to yet is how difficult it will be to support retirees when their Florida retirement homes are underwater. ;-)

    Seriously, the US economy has been getting steadily more efficient.  The ACEEE says that energy use per unit of GDP fell 42 percent between 1973 and 2000, of which about 3/4 of that was real improvement.  On top of this, conventional fuels are getting more expensive; the NYTimes says that higher natural gas prices are driving utilities to build wind capacity.  Shannon’s claim is that we can’t go off on an expensive ecology binge if we want to maintain Social Security, but an expensive natural-gas binge would be just as bad; if pollutants such as particulates, NOx and SOx led to greater health-care costs, so could coal.

    I’m sure Shannon would agree that misinvestment – in anything – is a problem that threatens the solvency of the government (not just Social Security).  One of the issues WRT energy is that flat-rate electricity is seriously underpriced at peak times, resulting in overconsumption, overinvestment in peaking generation and underinvestment in peak-shaving and efficiency measures.  The NYTimes article mentions that West Texas wind is most available at night and in the winter, when peak consumption is on hot summer afternoons.  Possible solutions to that includeIce-storage systems holding swimming-pool sized chunks of ice frozen when energy is available and used when cooling is requiredCheap non-PV solar technologies, such as evacuated-tube collectors feeding heat to absorption coolers or small-scale concentrators running Stirling engines or heavy-vapor turbinesIt doesn’t necessarily matter if these things are terribly efficient, what matters most is $/W during the periods they’re needed.  We’re already importing evacuated tube collectors from China.  If we can get them to build us cheap A/C systems run by the sun. we won’t have to worry about the cost of fuel to run them, and we will have done all the warming-mitigation that we can do.

  10. Engineer-Poet,

    “Seriously, the US economy has been getting steadily more efficient.”

    True but irrelevant to the central discussion. The economy has been getting more energy efficient for the past 500 years.

    ” The ACEEE says that energy use per unit of GDP fell 42 percent between 1973 and 2000…”

    But total energy use has increased significantly over the same period and thanks to actions of Leftist back in the 70’s that has lead to an overall increase in carbon emissions.

    “It doesn’t necessarily matter if these things are terribly efficient, what matters most is $/W during the periods they’re needed.”

    Very true and this is precisely why any kind of solar driven energy source will never, ever be a principle energy source. They do not produce power on demand, in a reliable ( i.e. predictable over the long term) and high density. Even hydroelectrics are not reliable enough on their own to be the basis for a power system. A multi-year drought can cripple them. Ask California. Alternative power systems are and will for the foreseeable future remain toys.

    The idea that we can run an advanced industrial civilization by a patchwork system of intermittent, low density power sources is a comical as using “Around the World in 80 days” as blueprint for a transportation system.

    The dangling of all these supposed alternatives that has been going on for the last 35 years is the the most intellectually dishonest and destructive activity related to technology that goes on today. Large swaths of the electorate actually believe that a few solar panels and windmills will fix all our energy woes if by gosh those jerks would just stop driving SUVs.

    To significantly replace carbon emitting sources we need alternatives that are as dense, reliable and on-demand as the current carbon emitting sources. In the real world, that means nukes and nothing but nukes but the very same people who scream the loudest about global warming are the same ones who most violently oppose nuclear power.

    If you are serious in your beliefs about global warming you need to stop fiddling with toys and get to work on nukes.

  11. I addressed your issue of demand; if the majority of your peak demand isn’t for electricity per se but something which can be stored, like cooling, you’ve got many more options than if you need to run motors or light lights.  It’s possible to store winter ice for A/C loads in the summer (it was demonstrated quite some time ago).

    I’ve been arguing for nuclear power for many, many years.  I know that it’s damn near impossible to make bombs from spent PWR fuel, and I think that the West’s best bet – if nothing else was a factor – is to burn uranium.

    Unfortunately, my attitudes have been softened by the nuclear proliferation of N. Korea and Iran.  If we have nukes, they will (do!) demand them… and it’s damned hard to keep bomb capabilities away from a nation with a research reactor, let alone a complete fuel cycle.  Iran has sworn to use the bomb if they get it, and N. Korea is a whore who’ll sell to dozens of entities which would.

    I still think that the USA could benefit greatly by building a bunch of pebble-bed reactors or the like, but we should continue working on things like convection towers and hydrogen from artificial photosynthesis, things which yield continuous or storable energy.  The advantage to the “alternate” things is that we can give them to anyone, they work fine at small scales and we don’t have to worry about them blowing up in our cities the next year.

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