What would you do before a zombie apocalypse?

This was a fun discussion Josh and I once had, inspired by a question Josh got in a consulting interview.

You find out that in one week, a virus will be released that will quickly spread all over the world. You stumbled upon this secret and absolutely convincing information, but unfortunately the evidence was lost/destroyed as soon as you saw it. You know it’s too late to stop this virus from being released, or the subsequent rapid spread. This virus will turn everyone it infects into a zombie, who will then try to basically turn normal humans into zombies, and kill/eat normal people. Other than that, you don’t really know what the zombies will be like (whether they’ll die after some period of time, be stronger/more durable, retain intelligence, etc), but it’s highly likely that the extent of the pandemic will reach apocalyptic proportions.

What would you do given that information? Post what your plans would be, and at the end of the week we’ll post what we came up with originally.

–update–

Follow-up post here.

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Why do Americans hate the estate tax?

The “estate tax” is a tax on money and property transferred from the estate of a dead individual. It’s getting a lot of press recently because it’s set to expire in 2010 (and return in 2011). As it currently stands, 2009’s rate is up to 45% on estates over $3.5 million, and 2011’s will be 55%. As a bit of a side note, I’d like to see the death rate (and suicide rate and gift-giving rate) among wealthy elites in late 2010 compared to the same periods in other years.

As a NYTimes editorial describes, the qualifying threshold right now is so high–$7 million for couples and $3.5 million for individuals–that 99% of estates in America will never qualify for it. Yet according to a Harris Interactive poll cited by Forbes, “two-thirds of those surveyed in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009 said they favored “completely eliminating the estate tax, that is, the tax on property left by people who die.” This is despite only 17% of individuals believing they would personally benefit from a repeal of the estate tax.

It’s interesting that only 1% of estates qualify for an estate tax as it’s currently written (though with the expiration of the current estate tax law in 2010, the rate will increase from current levels 10% in 2011 the number, and the number affected could increase due to a triggering of new capital gains provisions), and yet 17% of Americans think they’ll benefit. For one, it indicates that a large number of Americans (the gap between 17% and two-thirds) are not thinking about personal benefit but the fairness of the tax itself. The estate tax is consistently ranked as one of the most unfair taxes the government imposes, compared to income tax, Social Security, excise taxes, etc. After paying taxes on my income once before I could use it to purchase an item, and a second time through sales tax in buying it, why should I have to pay it a third time when I die? If I don’t have any liquidity, why should my transfer of say, an heirloom diamond ring or a family beach house, be restricted because my poor nieces and nephews can’t pay the tax on the expensive property?

Personally, I admit that I’m not unmoved by these arguments, but there’s also a lot to like about the other side as well. First, I should say I hate it when people say “this tax will never affect you”. A tax, or any law, should be good on its merits, not because its unfortunate impacts are limited to a small minority. The first reason is of course, like any disproportionate tax on the rich, that it’s a good way to raise a lot of money, and assuming we’re spending the same amount of money, that will help reduce the amount of taxes collected by the poor(er)–it’s a great progressive taxation scheme. This is just another way we tax the rich more because they benefited so much from the system, and the poor on whose backs their wealth was built could use a little break. Another reason to have an estate tax is that it helps break-up oligarchies of the uber-rich, which might otherwise uncatchably grow generation to generation and come to dominate society. It’s not only about the concentration of power here, but the gradual inability of those without inheritances to penetrate the exclusive sphere, and importantly, stagnation of ability and creativity in that sphere of power.

But what about the gap between 1% and 17%, the number of estates actually affected and the number of people who think they’ll be affected? Surely some have drunk the Republican kool-aid about a “death tax” and how this will be the end of small businesses. I think there’s another group that simply think that they’ll work so hard and make so much money that they’ll end up in that 1%, a sort of nobler and more American version of the classic fool who thinks he’ll be the one to win the lottery. I think a number of the 17% know it’s a good/fair tax to have, but don’t want it just in case they want to be evil in the future–that just in case they get to be in that top echelon of wealth, there will be no estate tax when that happens. It’s like recognizing that there’s a huge tax loophole existing, and wanting to keep it open just in case you’ll want, or be in a position to, use it in the future. Just in case we decide, when we’re rich, that we want to be greedy, we’d like the ability to do so. Perhaps there’s even a group of people who think, “just in case I want to commit a crime one day, I’d like government surveillance to be slightly weaker and defendants’ rights to be slightly stronger.”

Here a good example of this “just in case we want to be evil” phenomenon. Senate Democrats, despite controlling a majority and supermajority of the chamber and complaining about the unfairness of the filibuster refuse to do away with it because each of them harbors some hope of being in a position to hamstring important legislation from the majority when the shoe is on the other foot, even though it would be just as unfair. From Balkinization:

That being said, I think the odds of modifying the Senate rules are close to 0%, unless the Democrats are really willing to confront the oldest continuing myth of the Senate, which is that it is a continuing body whose rules can be amended only in accordance with pre-existing rules, which, as my previous post indicated, requires a 2/3 vote. It is literally inconceivable that Republicans would acquiesce in such a move while the Democrats hold power or, frankly, that Democrats would acquiesce if the situation were reversed. Now perhaps Joe Biden will rule that rules can be changed by a straight majority vote. I still would be extremely doubtful if 50 Democrats would vote for that, simply because they can envision being back in the minority when they will want to torpedo Republican legislation. (After all, the Senate can’t even cure the absolutely pernicious custom of “holds,” which allow single senatorial tyrants to tie up nominations, presumably because each senator envisions the possibility that he/she will want to exercise that bit of petty tyranny him/herself.)

The Patriots were (indisputably) the Best NFL Team this Decade

Watching the Pats-Colts rivalry over the past ten years has been an awesome experience as a sports fan (possibly even better than Yankees-Red Sox). That said, listening to commentators foolishly claim that the “team of the decade” title is a legitimate dispute depending on what happens this season has been pretty annoying; even if the Colts go undefeated and win the Super Bowl, they still won’t have been as successful as the Pats.

Basically the question is just a matter of whether you value the regular season more than the postseason. Assuming the Colts win out, they’ll have two Super Bowl wins (out of two SB trips) to the Pats three (out of four) and gone undefeated once (to the Pats once). The Colts would also have an edge in regular season victories of about 117-113. The Colts missed the playoffs only once this decade (2001), whereas the Pats missed three times (00, 01, and 08). Obviously, the Colts were a better regular season team and the Patriots excelled in the postseason. Clearly, the winning in the playoffs is far more important than winning in the regular season. QED, the Pats were better.

Just to pile on a bit more, three more things that tend to go unmentioned in the “best of the decade” discussion. The first is the continuous history of (utter) playoff failure by the Colts that to some extent continued even after they beat the Patriots in 2006 to enter (and win) their first Super Bowl. Over the past decades, the Colts lost their first playoff game five times (four Wild Card games and one Divisional Championships, all of which (I think) they were favored in). If they win this year’s Super Bowl, they’ll have made three Conference Championships, winning two of them. Compare this to the Patriots, who (with the exception of whatever happens this season) never lost their first playoff game and made five Conference Championships (winning four).  The “Team of the Decade” is not the one that constantly disappoints its fans by losing games that matter. Second, the Colts have won more games and been more consistently good, but the Pats have been better at securing a bye in the first round (Pats had four this decade; the Colts had three), so the Patriots were generally better at winning regular season games that matter.

Third and most interestingly, the Pats consistently beat the best teams in the playoffs. This always struck me as the difference between the Pats and the Steelers this decade. Some years in the NFL are marked by a few dominant teams (take this year for example; the Colts, Saints, Vikings and Chargers are a cut above everyone else), and some years have much more parity (last year, two teams, the Steelers and Cardinals, caught fire to make it to the Super Bowl). Each year the Patriots won the Super Bowl, they beat dominant teams, often fairly convincingly. In 2001, they beat the Steelers and Rams both of which were 14-2 one seeds and the latter of which was considered historically good. In 2003, they beat both co-MVPs (Steve Mcnair on the Titans and Peyton Manning of the Colts) before facing a mediocre Carolina team. In 2004 (probably my favorite Pats season), they crushed the Colts, convincingly beat the 15-1 Steelers, and then beat the Eagles (the NFC’s one seed at 13-3, apparently they started out their season 13-1 before resting starters, which I don’t remember at all). By comparison, the 2006 Colts beat a good-but-not-great Pats team (who had upset the dominant Chargers the week before) . The 01, 03, 04, 07, and 09 seasons probably had the most historically great NFL teams this decade, and an underrated Patriots achievement rests in dominating most of those years.

The Shawshank Redemption is a Great Movie.

The Shawshank Redemption is one of my top 5 favorite movies (the others, in no particular order, are Gattaca, 12 Angry Men, The Lives of Others, and Wall-E). As such, I felt obliged to defend my taste and the critical satisfaction taken by millions of lay watchers and film critics alike. There are SPOILERS in this post, since I assume that most people have seen the movie.

Let’s start with what Shawshank supposedly does badly. Josh’s main complaint is that the movie is “dishonest”. It does not, for example, realistically portray a prison environment. None of our heroes are depicted as complexly evil, though they all presumably committed serious crimes to land themselves a prison sentence. Prison is seen as a “crappy summer camp” where you can help pass the time by smuggling in smokes, nudies, and rock hammers. Even the laborious task of re-tarring the roof is romanticized as a Twain-esque whitewashing, capped off by enjoying a cold beer in the afternoon sun. Unlike Josh, I don’t fault the movie for being inaccurate with prison life, though I think its subplot of prison sexual abuse was actually quite groundbreaking, and set the stage for grittier examinations in American History X and the HBO series Oz. The movie is a human drama, not merely a prison drama, and as such isn’t intended to be a documentary about the prison environment, the nature of criminals, or the limitations of the parole process. It should be appreciated for introducing into the public imagination topics of prison rape, guard corruption, and institutionalization, not criticized for not making a thorough study of each. Josh indicates in a prior post that he enjoys The Godfather. Yet once again that film only addresses some (romantic) aspects of the mafia, and as much as Shawshank obscures the very real evils of its protagonists/N-agonists. That film is similarly not meant to be an exposé on mafia and society; the mafia is just the foundation for a story about family and loyalty, father and son, revenge, etc.

Josh also answers his own question when he discusses the nature of redemption in the movie. Andy’s sin is not cold-blooded murder, but cold-bloodedness. My favorite line of the movie is during the trial when he calmly rejects the prosecutor’s implication, “since I am innocent of the crime, sir, I find it decidedly inconvenient”. There are no character witnesses because he has no friends, and later, no visitors in prison. He is a banker, not in a profession known for compassion. He is convicted on highly circumstantial evidence because his callous lack of emotion communicated guilt to the jury and viewer alike. For the rest of the film, however, we witness his transformation through his benevolent actions toward others. His broadcasting of the soaring duet from Le nozze di Figaro sets free the souls of his fellow captors, and he gladly suffers the consequences. He enjoys a small smile while watching his friends enjoy cold beers and feel like free men again, while having none himself. He tutors Heywood, and gifts Red a harmonica. We see him display desperate emotion, for the first time, when he realizes there’s a chance he can be exonerated by Heywood’s testimony. At the end, he invites Red to take part in his life after prison and trusts him with his location, highlighting the true friendship they’ve created, not merely once of circumstance and convenience. The thunderstorm scene, though trite, makes clear that Andy has been redeemed for his moral failings. The other angle of the movie is the triumph of human perseverance and hope through dark times. The many subplots serve a double purpose. Andy’s ‘hijinks’ and long-term goal of escape break up the long monotony of prison that threatened to break his spirit; they restore his agency over his happiness, despite the controlled environment of prison. At the same time, they physically lengthen the movie, literally exposing the viewer to the temporal aspect of long-term imprisonment.

Personally, I don’t actually appreciate movies for their artistic or literary beauty and complexity, or rather I don’t often think about such things in my evaluation of movies. I watch movies purely for enjoyment, and appreciate movies that elicit strong emotional responses throughout, and importantly, happiness at the end. The artistic interpretation of a film can explain why I feel a film is great, but can’t lessen or cheapen the original sublime pleasure I took from it. One thing I enjoyed particularly about Shawshank was how perfectly it exacted justice in punishing the evil characters, in a manner akin to The Count of Monte Cristo from which it certainly drew no small measure of inspiration. Boggs’ punishment was just as violent and brutal as his physical abuses of others. Hadley abused his power over prisoners, and so he was arrested by someone with more power than he, to be put in the same population that he had once terrorized. The Warden’s crime was financial, so Andy took away his money and his livelihood. As satisfied as I was by the appropriate vengeance, I was just as happy by the complete triumph of the good. There was no crap “literary” or “artistic” twist where Andy is slightly foiled, or Red still hangs himself, or Red doesn’t find Andy in Mexico, though I feared there might be. When the good guys needed to win, when the audience wanted them to win, they won completely, without the bitter taste of some bullshit half-victory because the writer/director thought it would be more meaningful and beautiful that way. The viewer wants to feel good after watching a movie, and in successfully fulfilling that all-too-often overlooked purpose, The Shawshank Redemption was a masterpiece.

The Shawshank Redemption is a Bad Movie

OK, not really, but it is a much worse movie than people think. In particular, there’s a certain subset of the population (men (bros?) between the ages of 12 and 40) that thinks it’s one of the best movies ever made; in reality, it’s a solidly good, well-executed movie rather than a great one. The tears that it unleashes represent the melodrama of a Remember the Titans or a Stepmom rather than the catharsis of Terms of Endearment or Wall-E (yup, the characters in Shawshank are less true to humanity than two non-verbal robots).

I might as well start with what the movie does well. I’ve made this post deliberately inflamatory, but I recognize that as a matter of formal craft, Shawshank is quite well designed and executed. It has an engaging mystery (who is Andy Dufresne and did he kill his wife?) to draw the viewer into the plot. It boasts an appealing narrator (Red) with whom the viewer identifies.  It never acts ham-fisted when dealing with its easily caricatured subject of the woes of prison life. Most important to the success of the movie is its handling of hope amidst despair. “Get busy living or get busy dying” is Dufresne’s most famous line, and the major mystery at the core of his character is how he can steadfastly remain optimistic and unbeaten amidst the sexual abuse and official exploitation he suffers in prison.

The movie is also very emotionally accessible to the viewer due to the clear heroes and villains it establishes (I’d give a list of each, but it’s so obvious to anyone who’s seen the movie that I won’t bother). And here lies the problem I have with Shawshank: it’s a fundamentally dishonest movie. It exploits the social stigma of prisoners to create its emotional impact but then unrealistically represents the characters we meet as essentially saintly. It’s a movie ostensibly about forgiveness where the main character has nothing about which to be forgiven.

Indeed, the very title of The Shawshank Redemption is a misnomer: Andy Dufresne is never redeemed of the moral guilt of killing his wife; he didn’t do it in the first place. Perhaps the title refers to Red, who proxies for the viewer and actually did kill someone. Unfortunately, Red also fails to undergo real moral development during the film. By the time we meet him, Red is no longer “the young stupid kid who committed that terrible crime.” He is a cautious, respected, and, most of all, savvy figure in prison. Throughout The Shawshank Redemption, Red never once does anything dumb or reckless; never once shows his temper or acts maliciously or cruelly. In fact, he behaves like the exact opposite of a man who would kill out of anger or stupidity. While it’s true that Red’s demeanor towards the various parole boards changes over the course of the movie, there’s no indication that this reflects some inner moral acceptance on Red’s part; personally, I believe he regretted his murder from the very moment we see him in the movie, but either way, his interaction with the parole board just speaks to the futility of the parole process rather than to his emerging regret (which we never see otherwise).

The one other plausible meaning of the title that I could think of is that Andy, while not guilty of murder, is in fact guilty of being cold and antisocial (which we see at the beginning of the movie with his dispassionate turn on the witness stand). His suffering redeems him of this flaw, forcing him to become part of a prison family, which he nurtures and assists in a most selfless way. I think the movie does attempt to do this, but using Andy as an enigma to lure the audience in contradicts this purpose because it sacrifices our ability to see his perspective. We never see his internal state and only observe his emotions through Red’s eyes. Red is a completely unreliable narrator, since his own understanding of Andy (for the first ten or so years of their relationship) is perhaps even more obscured than our own. Andy doesn’t talk much and indeed is something of a cipher (this is part of the reason the movie works more as an allegory than as a depiction of real life). Our inability to understand any change in Andy from his own perspective dooms any message the movie contains about his arc to superficiality and guesswork on our part.

The title matters because the movie draws its emotional power from this idea of redemption or change. Without such an arc, Shawshank is just a movie about an elaborate means for escaping from prison (and the hijinks that ensue in the meantime). I describe the misfortunes that befall Dufresne as hijinks because without meaningful internal conflict, they just become external contrivances meant to prolong the movie. Since the various characters are so clearly good or evil, there’s not much interesting in an artistic sense about (say) Andy’s fight with the warden if it doesn’t affect his own arc.

Finally, Shawshank also draws its impact on the viewer from the fact that it’s set in prison, and this is the other major way I find the movie dishonest. A realistic depiction of prison would include bad people among its cast of characters (I don’t count Boggs and the Sisters; they’re monsters who fill the same role in Shawshank as the velociraptors occupy in Jurassic Park). Shawshank presents prison as sort of a really crappy summer camp: the activities suck, and there are a lot of terrible things that can happen to you, but if you make the right group of friends (i.e. not the violent rapists), you’ll be ok. In order to be a reasonably honest depiction of prison, I don’t think that all of Andy’s social group needs to be made up of unrelentingly awful people, but I do think at the very least they should either struggle with rehabilitation from their past crimes (accepting guilt or lying to themselves etc.) or they should be depicted in some way that demonstrates their criminality. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which has a fairly similar structure to Shawshank but is about crazy people instead of criminals) does a great job with this: it’s crazy people are actually depicted as crazy, which actually enhances our understanding of Nurse Ratchet’s oppression and grants them greater dignity as human beings.

Ultimately, if Shawshank were a movie set in a POW camp, where the prisoners were blameless for their plight and the lines between good and evil were much clearer, it wouldn’t have nearly the emotional force of the real film. Shawshank’s draws its strength from our attitudes towards prison and prisoners, but it then betrays the truth of its setting by setting up a falsely optimistic worldview where none of the characters are really guilty and their only task is to fight against an undeserved oppression. This is a good artifice but not good art. I’d say it’s a good movie; I certainly enjoyed watching it, and others do too. But it’s not an accurate representation of human life, and its cinematic power derives from the very artistic dishonesty and deceit that render it of minimal value as a depiction of human life.

Movie Reviews – Hurt Locker and The Conversation

In the last two nights I’ve seen The Hurt Locker (in theaters) and The Conversation. I’ve lumped a review of them together, because they each share very high quality but somewhat limited artistic ambitions. Both movies are well worth watching, but their smallness excludes them from the very first rank of the cinema. The films are small and self-contained, yet perfectly crafted.

Each movie focuses on a tiny core of well-realized characters. The Hurt Locker has three: Sergeants James (the wild man who defuses the bombs) and Sanborn (the fraying professional who fears he won’t survive the rest of his deployment), and Specialist Eldridge (the newbie wracked by guilt at his failure to save a former comrade’s life). While there are many excellently-acted smaller parts in The Conversation, that story is entirely focused on just one man: Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul, the Catholic surveillance expert (“the best bugger on the west coast”), painfully awkward, antisocial and paranoid; who denies the role of his conscience but is beset by guilt over some of his past work.

Each movie tells its story entirely from the perspective of those main characters. This drives their tremendous creative achievenments, which are firstly of perspective and mood. Both films pull the audience into the immediacy of the character’s lives to an extent that’s almost impossible for a more ambitious movie. Compare The Conversation with The Godfather; the latter is clearly the better movie, but there the audience feels for Michael Corleone, whereas a viewer of The Conversation feels like Harry Caul.

The Hurt Locker gives its audience the same sensation of dull, inexorable terror that the soldiers themselves experience. Its plot is simply an accretion of mission after mission; the only through line unifying the movie is the emotional states of our characters. At the beginning of each mission, we see the amount of days in their tour that our heroes have remaining — a ticking clock counting down the minutes to the emotional release the audience will feel once we know who has survived. Each mission is hazardous — they could die at any time — but no one mission is likely to be fatal. This constant high suspense, inflicted on the audience over and over again, mirrors the unrelenting bursts of fear that our soldiers are forced to confront again and again until finally the clock clicks down and their fighting ends.

Like Hurt Locker, the plot of The Conversation is fairly simple; Harry Caul records a seemingly innocuous conversation on behalf of a powerful man (“The Director”); he becomes obsessed with the meaning of the recording and the possible harm that could come from its use; after the recording has left his hands, he then tries to discover the consequences of his action.  Unlike The Hurt Locker, Coppola’s movie’s plot is far more directional (it conforms to the typical three-act plot structure) and has a natural forward momentum as Caul tries to discover the meaning of the conversation and then must decide what to do about it. This forward-movement, however, serves to align the viewer directly with Harry Caul. We too want to uncover the hidden meaning of the recording; we too share Caul’s surprise at seeing his employer’s assistant watching Caul at a surveillance convention. As the movie goes on, we begin to share Caul’s paranoia (he triple-locks his door, doesn’t tell his lover anything about himself, and tells people he has no phone) at possibly being observed.

Interestingly, whereas The Hurt Locker aims to give the viewer an understanding of the way its soldiers feel, The Conversation’s topic is surveillance more broadly. Identification with Caul’s character helps us see this: at one point at a party he asks his dancing partner a question that reveals a great deal about himself emotionally; it turns out that his odious professional rival, Bernie Moran, has recorded his conversation and plays it to the rest of the party as a joke. We feel Harry’s sense of violation at this intrusion of his privacy (Coppola sets this up beautifully both by showing how awkward and private a person Harry is and by making Moran an incredibly vivid asshole). Nevertheless, although Harry is a vehicle for the audience’s visceral understanding of surveillance, our identification with him is not total. Most notably, our desire to know a secret from Harry’s past that is mentioned early renders us voyeurs starved for the kind of understanding Harry hands over with his recordings.

Both movies wrap the audience in an omnipresent mood; their smallness enables this, but though small in scale, these movies have much to say about their times — The Conversation was released in the midst of the Watergate scandal, and The Hurt Locker comes as more troops go to fight in Afghanistan. Neither film makes a direct political statement, but the messages contained within them are no doubt important, and, to my mind, they each represent the height of socially-conscious artistry, showing the audience part of the world and then letting us draw what conclusions we may.

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I’m on break from school now; I wanted to do something entertaining but at least somewhat edifying. To this end, I’ve decided to try to explore classic foreign films (my knowledge of foreign cinema is quite low). So far, I’m taking out (of the library) the following movies (though I won’t necessarily watch them all). I’m looking for other ideas (in particular Latin American filmmakers and French New Wave), so if you have other suggestions, I’d definitely love to hear them:

Fellini

  • Satyricion
  • La Dolce Vita
  • 8 1/2

Kurosawa

  • Seven Samurai
  • Rashomon

Bergman

  • Through a Glass Darkly
  • Fanny and Alexander

Miyazaki

  • Spirited Away
  • Princess Mononoke

Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso
Antonioni’s Blow-Up
Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun
Mereilles City of God
Lindvisqt’s Let the Right One In
Ray’s Charulata


Did we need unanimity in Copenhagen? (Part 2)

Debating the intricacies of a climate treaty is not, however, precisely like the ultimatum game because if the first player has their distribution rejected, he doesn’t actually lose all that much. If China and India walk away without any climate goals, all the better for them, in their minds. They were forced to the table to begin with and may have been bargaining in bad faith to start. They actually win when we merely reject their compromises. If the United States truly wants to combat global warming, AND punish China for being so grasping, then it should actually create a punishment scheme that will force the Chinese to bargain better in future games rather than simply rejecting binding treaties wholesale.

Here’s a crazy thought. Europe, Japan, the United States, and all the other countries that care about emissions should just create their own treaty of capping and trading (preferably), or taxing carbon emissions, or etc. They should then announce that they will extend tariffs on products from any countries that do not participate in the treaty or cannot verify that their emissions are below some target. Countries will have carbon emissions monitored by an international agency, and if they (or individual manufacturers) choose to refuse the monitors, then they can eat the tariffs. China and India and other industrialized or developing countries with export economies also have a large incentive to cede to international pressure because they are dependent on the consumer markets of Europe, Japan, and the United States. Importantly, I suspect this will please Americans and could appease Senate Democrats enough to lead to an actual international treaty ratification and domestic climate bill, because if China and India do not comply, then American manufacturing will be (or at least seem to be) more competitive in the international market, and American politicians/Democrats love pandering to U.S. laborers. If they do comply, then Americans are still on no worse footing than the status quo in terms of competitiveness, and should be finally willing to ratify a binding treaty.

One thing to consider is free trade agreements. According to the WTO, countries may enact tariffs on other countries to pursue “noneconomic” goals–presumably saving our environment/future is a noneconomic goal like, say, abolishing slavery or ending a genocide. We also shouldn’t fear reciprocal tariffs since, as we said before, China and India are exporters and would have far more to lose than we do as consumers. Their supply of cheap labor can be replaced by any developing country open to investment, while their free-spending consumers are much harder to come by. Of course, the best case scenario is if Western consumers could exercise enough self-control and refuse to purchase products that weren’t climate-certified by some international agency, but it may not be prudent to trust the fate of the world on the foresight of the Western consumer.

I recognize that this may seem a little extreme and perhaps even “political suicide” (and as such I welcome feedback and criticism), but at some point we need to decide whether or not the problem is extreme enough to warrant extreme measures. If global warming is real, and we think it will actually flood our coasts, or lead to another ice age, then we cannot do enough to either try to stop it ourselves regardless of China/India participation, or force them to help us ‘save the world.’ If we were talking about nuclear weapons, and not global warming, and China and India were non-signatories to non-proliferation treaties and were making and selling nukes, I guarantee you that there would be more serious negotiation than we saw in Copenhagen. If we were talking about missile shields, economic sanctions would definitely be on the table. Is the threat of global warming less serious than nuclear annihilation? It’s time for the United States to wake up, smell the CO2, and figure out how serious of a threat it thinks global warming will become. If we decide, like a consensus of scientists, that it is not only real, probably, and catastrophic, we should enter into binding treaties with Europe and Japan to control green house gases, and if our elected officials have the political courage, we should force China and India into joining that covenant as well.

I wrote the above post before reading Alex’s comment on Part 1. He’s right that there’s something unfair about forcing developing nations into climate change treaties when industrialized nations benefited from being allowed to emit more carbon, and to an extent contributed most to today’s global warming problem. This may be true, but once again we return to the dual adages of life not being fair, and the justifiability of employing of slightly less fair practices in the pursuit of self-preservation. If forcing China and India into a treaty is the only way to start curbing global warming, then it’s necessary for us to do so to save ourselves, and in fact save them as well. We can’t just sit by  acknowledging that there’s a difficult ‘quandary’ while watching the world fall apart around us.

It also seems slightly less unfair, to me, to nudge countries with incentive-producing tariffs compared to coercion at gunpoint. There is no natural right to free trade, and there’s no reason Americans need the cheapest possible products. We employ free trade because it’s efficient and mutually beneficial, and when it fails to be those things, there’s no reason to have it. In a sense these tariffs, like sin taxes and humanitarian-based sanctions, are intended to serve in place of the consumer’s rational decision-making–the Western consumer should not be purchasing products built by slave labor, that fund genocidal wars, or in this case, products that will slowly lead to the destruction of their civilizations through the effects of global warming. Due to the collectivization problem, we should employ a government-imposed tariff rather than rely on a consumer-imposed boycott.