Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Pipe Dreams and Paradigms

On Democracy Now, December 12, 2014, Amy Goodman spoke with Sean Sweeney of the Cornell Global Labor Institute about claims that the Keystone XL pipeline would create 250,000 jobs. The transcript below is from the part of the interview that starts at around time 00:55 on the embedded video.

AMY GOODMAN: ...You have been involved at a high level when it comes to Keystone XL and providing the numbers for President Obama around it, is that right? 
SEAN SWEENEY: That’s correct, yes, the job figures. 
AMY GOODMAN: What have you found?
SEAN SWEENEY: Well, the jobs debate has been severely distorted by TransCanada Corporation and the American Petroleum Institute. They put forward numbers that really cannot stand up to serious scrutiny, based on normal research practices and methodologies. The numbers are far, far higher than it actually—real. The numbers submitted to the State Department were far, far lower. And this is borne out with the State Department’s environmental impact statement. 
AMY GOODMAN: Did you brief President Obama yourselves? 
SEAN SWEENEY: No, but we know that the president read the report — it was called "Pipe Dreams: Jobs Gained, Jobs Lost [by] the Construction of Keystone XL pipeline" — because he made reference to the figures. 
AMY GOODMAN: Because that is the issue that’s raised so often, that environmentalists are killing jobs by killing the Keystone XL. Explain how you arrive at your numbers. And how many jobs would be lost or gained? 
SEAN SWEENEY: Well, in many respects, the numbers were submitted by TransCanada to the State Department, and we simply interrogated the claims of the multiplier effect, which wonky researchers understand is the jobs that—indirect and induced jobs that would be created by a certain amount of dollars spent on a project. The numbers, you’ll notice, Amy, have not gone down with the jobs, even though the project is half-completed. So, the numbers that they originally claimed three years ago have not gone down at all, but at least—or almost half of the pipeline has actually been constructed. [emphasis added]
The point Sandwichman has been trying to make over the last couple of months -- beginning with this post on Public Works, Economic Stabilization and Cost-Benefit Sophistry -- is that secondary or indirect benefits have been excluded from cost-benefit analysis for public works projects. By itself, this exclusion introduces the possibility of undervaluing the benefits of public works projects. However, as the  Report of Panel of Consultants on Secondary or Indirect Benefits of Water-Use Projects makes clear, such indirect benefits are "so ramifying, involved and conjectural that the attempt to compute them... cannot properly be regarded as 'measurement'," (see also part 2).

So what are we left with? Exclusion of indirect benefits from cost benefit analysis of public works projects coupled with systematic exaggeration of indirect benefits from private investment. But wait. There's more. Those private investments have social costs that just happen to be estimated according to a formula that discounts future benefits and costs in addition to excluding secondary benefits from current carbon abatement. From "More than Meets the Eye: The Social Cost of Carbon in U.S. Climate Policy, in Plain English" by Ruth Greenspan Bell and Diane Callan:
In the calculation of costs, benefits, and the social cost of carbon, the choice of discount rate has enormous impact, influencing whether economists recommend to invest today or much later. From the policy perspective of the economists who value this calculation, the higher the discount rate, the less significant future costs become.
In 2010 the U.S government's Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon (IAWG) presented its estimate of the social cost of carbon "to allow agencies to incorporate the social benefits of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into cost-benefit analyses of regulatory actions that have small, or 'marginal,' impacts on cumulative global emissions." The IAWG's central estimate for the social cost per ton of CO2 in 2010 was $21 in 2007 dollars, based on a 3% discount rate.

The D.I.C.E. are loaded. Not once. Not twice. But three times.


JerryN said...

This is is an important point that rarely gets any attention. For what it's worth, I'll be sharing this to whoever reads my twitter feed :-)

One small nit to pick. I had to dig into the IAWG report to understand what that $21 figure meant - $21 / ton of CO2. You might want to edit that bit of the post for clarity.

Sandwichman said...

Thanks, Jerry. Added "per ton."

Unknown said...

"...the social cost per ton of CO2..." would seem to be an oxymoron to a dead planet. Sustainability is everything. Just a thought from a life long farmer.

Sandwichman said...

"'...the social cost per ton of CO2...' would seem to be an oxymoron to a dead planet."

Well, yes. Going back to that 1952 Panel of Consultants' report these things are "so ramifying, involved and conjectural that the attempt to compute them... cannot properly be regarded as 'measurement'..."

This is a theme that comes up repeatedly in that report, as well as in Maurice Clark's work in general, the impulse to quantify often oversteps the bounds of reason. When it does the numbers are worse than useless. They are positively misleading.

Anonymous said...

wasn't there a debate between the stern report and nordhaus on the discount rate? i think stern promoted 1.4 while nordhaus was for 3. maybe i come from a religious perspective, but i noted one of the top bishops of the local episcopalian church (the sortuh 'high church' like Natl Cathedral ; maybe even luminaries like dick cheney went there, and they have had black people as leaders (for a 99% white congregation), the dalai lama showed up, etc.) did a 'hit and run' of a bicyclist recently, but she got caught.she probably had a discount rate for use of her time.