Thursday, August 27, 2009

Picking up your own footprints

  • We don't want to rob Peter to pay Paul.
  • We don't want to see Paul without food, clothing, shelter, and now health care apparently. (I suppose a job will be next.)
  • We especially don't want to reward laziness, recklessness, or in any way remove Paul's intrinsic responsibility to take care of his own.
On it's own, this poses quite a dilemma. Obviously we're willing to borrow enough from Peter to ensure Paul enjoys a parity of opportunity--a more than fair chance to discover a self-sustaining role in our society. This is justified as simply maximizing Paul's potential to become a productive member of society. We can even calculate the minimum amount we should be willing to invest (the loan amount that would be fairly repaid by the average person's share of GDP over their lifetime.)

Also obvious is the fact that Paul is unlikely to simply die without the basics, but will obtain them via some means that creates victims out of some of the rest of us. This seems equally irresponsible because it effectively dumps what is a problem facing all of society onto the handful of people who end up being victims (typically the most vulnerable among us.)

Even worse, it undermines our ability to do justice at all. If you force someone to steal in order to survive, and treat them as you do someone who steals out of greed, then all you've really accomplished is to tarnish the credibility of society itself. It actually forces us take the law into our own hands. (I think it might explain why people reach for a gun for protection before an exit strategy. Hostility may be a natural reaction to a needlessly unjust world. I know it makes me mad.)

While at the same time, we're looking for a way to make it harder to put a carbon dioxide molecule into the air, or to use water, energy, or any resource wastefully. We've invented some ad hoc strategies to deal with it, from tiered rates to all manner of politically charged allocation formula. But there's one strategy no one seems to mention which is odd because it seems the most obvious, most fair, and offers the most benefits.

Suppose we considered the pollution absorbing capacity of our biosphere to be something that we all owned equal shares in. If you used more than your share of any resource you would essentially be buying up someone else's share of that resource in the course of doing so. The reason to do this isn't because it elegantly solves the problem of funding the Paul's that can't cut it. The reason to do this is because it is necessary to be fair. We really do all share the air we breathe; the quality of our environment is a resource people are free to spend more than their equal share of without actually redressing the miniscule loss everyone else experiences as a consequence. This approach kills a whole flock of birds--not just the too poor and the too rich. (Another example of this is the airwaves. We are the only reason they have value; that is why we each deserve an equal share of the revenue generated by leasing them.)

A feedback mechanism is necessary to create the selective pressure--the economic opportunity--to motivate discoveries of less impactive more mutualist lifestyles, products, and social structures. It places every economic entity, from giant multi-national to the lowliest citizen (I'm sure we must have one by now) in touch with their own footprint and with a perfectly equivalent incentive to reduce it. And it does so without taking a single dollar out of the private sector--although in practice it will appear to be a tax, it honestly isn't. Every penny is returned.

Creating an income stream for everyone in the world in this way has some pretty nifty side effects. (Note that revenue generated by polluting the atmosphere in this scheme rightfully belongs to all people, not just Americans. But the revenue generated by most other things, from water to the airwaves, public lands, etc. belongs almost exclusively to Americans.) This will at least partially subsidize foreign aid (admittedly less than 1% of our budget, but every little bit helps.) It proves we're serious about being accountable for our behavior as global citizens. It earns us the respect of individuals worldwide who will immediately grasp the fairness of it and put pressure other all government to copy the policy. It even promises more tools to both document human morbidity, mortality, and rights violations data; and to prevent it.

Having a lifelong steady income stream that's inversely proportional to the impact of your lifestyle will have a vastly more dramatic effect on waste than higher prices via new taxes could. This is because there is a psychological incentive created by the awareness of where you stand with respect to average that will motivate people to beat the system by using less than their fair share and generating income from the scheme. People will not consume significantly less, just more wisely because for the first time there is a feedback loop they directly experience. The costs they cannot control today because they are collective costs to our whole society become direct costs they can and will control effortlessly. It even allows the wealthy to better enjoy their wealth knowing they are fairly redressing their huge footprint in doing so.

No other approach could be as easily or painlessly phased in. This is because the amount these shares trade at is completely arbitrary and can be very gradually adjusted to create as much or little economic pressure as we like. Some will liken it to a wealth transfer scheme--because it will indeed result in a higher level of taxes for those who consume more resources and a lower level for those who consume less. But it has nothing to do with how wealthy they might be.

I could list a lot more wonderful synergies this approach promises--from the means to make criminals fund their own incarceration, to better access for all to higher education. But this essay is already too long. And I never even got to the reason that's most important to me personally (an all too common predicament for Asperger victims:) it is an essential part of any society that wishes to allow its citizens to treat their neighbors with genuine respect.

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