Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A must-read from Thomas Friedman

A guilty conscience must be a powerful spur to righteousness after all. Thomas Friedman, who was an avid cheerleader and then apologist for Bush's invasion of Iraq (and so regularly urged extending the stay, in about six month chunks, that Friedman will forever be linked to the term Friedman Unit, as in "A year is two Friedman Units"), has seen the light on the climate crisis and has become the foremost advocate in the archaic media for recognizing that, fundamentally, we have managed the economy and the environment using the same "Screw the future, let's party!" thinking.

His latest column is tremendous. A taste:

Just as A.I.G. sold insurance derivatives at prices that did not reflect the real costs and the real risks of massive defaults (for which we the taxpayers ended up paying the difference), oil companies, coal companies and electric utilities today are selling energy products at prices that do not reflect the real costs to the environment and real risks of disruptive climate change (so future taxpayers will end up paying the difference).

Whenever products are mispriced and do not reflect the real costs and risks associated with their usage, people go to excess. And that is exactly what happened in the financial marketplace and in the energy/environmental marketplace during the credit bubble.

Our biggest financial-services companies, some of which came to be seen as too big to fail, engaged in complex financial trading schemes that did not adequately price in the costs and risks of a market reversal. A.I.G., for instance, was selling insurance for all kinds of financial instruments and did not have anywhere near adequate reserves to cover claims if things went badly wrong, as they did. And our biggest energy companies, utilities and auto companies became dependent on cheap hydrocarbons that spin off climate-changing greenhouse gases, and we clearly have not forced them, through a carbon tax, to price in the true risks and costs to society from these climate-changing fuels.

“When the balance sheet of a company does not capture the true costs and risks of its business activities,” and when that company is too big to fail, “you end up with them privatizing their gains and socializing their losses,” Nandan Nilekani, the co-chairman of the Indian technology company Infosys, remarked to me. That is, everyone gets to rack up their private profits today and pay them out in current bonuses and dividends. But any catastrophic losses — if the company is too big to fail — “get socialized and paid off by taxpayers.”

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