Speaking of the obvious and logical, it somehow badly embarrassed the British government this week that they were ordered to release their calculations of the cost of achieving net zero by 2050. Not because the cost is large, though it certainly is. Nor because the calculations might well have shown the costs vastly to exceed the benefits, had there been any calculations. But because behind all the ponderous fog about experts say, following the science and so forth, it seems it may well have been just a wild guess someone stuffed into an email on the fly.
The starting point to this multi-layered embarrassment is that two years ago a warning from then Chancellor of the Exchequer to then PM Theresa May said net zero by 2050 would cost over a trillion pounds. Which is a lot even for a wealthy society such as Britain, whose pre-pandemic GDP was nearly £3 trillion per year, and also embarrassing, though only because a lot of fools were going about saying fossil fuels really weren’t much good anyway and chucking them would probably make us all richer. We’d all just switch to high-paying, high-tech, high-virtue-signalling jobs in the green energy sector or possibly government PR departments.
People are still making such claims, of course, with as little foundation in economics as in science. And as an aside we think it is not a clever PR strategy because once they are in a position to attempt to implement their plans, which Boris Johnson is, along with Justin Trudeau and now Joe Biden, people will quickly discover that they were fools, rogues or both to say abandoning the energy foundations of our civilization would actually make us richer, and being unmasked as a knave or a dunce is a damaging blow to your credibility.
Speaking of dunces, the looming embarrassment in the UK now is that the calculations themselves were apparently done on a napkin or a Post-it… if even that. We have yet to acquire the actual scrap of paper, digital or otherwise. But evidently the Treasury initially refused to release them on the grounds that they were “internal communications”, which sounds like an evasion since it is very hard to understand what else a discussion within a government branch might be. And it has now been backed into confessing that “communications” wasn’t quite the right word since there was just one email. Not a big long study or discussions back and forth. Someone just guessed and fired it off.
This happy-go-lucky approach is especially awkward because governments in the free world have a habit of justifying any policy or reversal of same, and shaming dissenters into the bargain, by insisting that they were following the science, a variant of the “experts say” meme news organizations now plaster on anything they want you to swallow whole. These politicians don’t tell you what the science said or which science said it, and in many cases their high school transcript would not justify faith in their capacity to understand anything science did say. They rarely even tell you who the scientists are beyond one convenient figurehead gifted with charisma or incomprehensibility.
We don’t only mean on climate, or the pandemic. When it comes to “economic science” their general tone is that a laboratory full of people running a computer that makes Deep Thought look like an abacus did a simulation you chumps couldn’t begin to understand that proves that whatever we were planning to do anyway is a brilliant idea.
Government budgets typically now run to hundreds of pages, full of charts and projections as well as electioneering prose, all of it designed to dazzle and intimidate. You are meant to think it was all done with careful attention to counterfactuals, margins of error, limitations on data, uncertainty about external shocks and so on. But it wasn’t. They had the verdict in hand before they began the trial. No government ever went to the boffins and said analyze our plan and were told it’s no good and put that verdict in the document. And on climate economics, the British government apparently deep-sixed the vital “Social Cost of Carbon” because it was too low to justify going nuts on emissions which, characteristically, the government had decided to do before looking at the science, so it then demanded science to justify a decision that, if it is not based on science, is very hard to see what it is based on.
So there’s something fishy about the expertise even when it’s real. But what if it’s not? What if there was no science or in this case no economic science? If it turns out the UK gambled its future on a few scribbles instead of a massive, dense wall of functions, it will cause red faces.
Of course no such thing could happen here in Canada. But only because no government would ever be forced to disclose the basis of its calculations, on the off chance there even were any.