Thursday, April 22, 2004

Pre-emptive Critiques of the "Copenhagen Consensus" 

Over the next few months, if you visit politics/policy/environment/development blogs, you're going to hear a lot about Bjorn Lomborg and his Copenhagen Consensus project (which I'll call "CC"). CC is a conference sponsored by the Danish Environmental Assessment Institute (set up by the Danish government) and the Economist magazine:
The basic idea was to improve prioritization of the numerous problems the world faces, by gathering some of the world's greatest economists to a meeting where some of the biggest challenges in the world would be assessed.

The unique approach was to use an expert panel to make a ranking of various economic estimates of opportunities that would meet these challenges. Thorough challenge papers were commissioned from leading specialists - the challenge paper authors - for each challenge.

The outcome should be a prioritized list of opportunities meeting the biggest challenges. This list could be beneficial to decision-makers all over the world.
The conference comes at the end of May, and the Economist is already publishing digests of some of the challenge papers. The full roster of challenges includes climate change, communicable disease, conflict, financial instability, malnutrition/hunger, education, corruption/governance, migration, sanitation/water and subsidies/trade barriers. All of these are serious problems (or at least seriously problematic policy areas); it also makes intuitive sense to try to figure out how much bang for the buck attempts to address each problem will provide.

Yet even though limited aid budgets mean that ranking priorities is always a necessity, and even though we don't yet know what the results of CC will be, there's already a spate of pre-emptive criticisms of the project. I do have a few concerns, which I'll discuss below. I do think that such a high-profile effort should be roundly examined, and I'm glad that people are preparing to argue every point addressed. But the tone of the pre-emptive criticism we've seen so far drives me nuts.

That there's a controversy here shouldn't be too surprising to those who've been following environmental politics: Lomborg, CC's creator, is a Danish political scientist who published a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist a couple of years ago. The book caused a firestorm of protest on its publication, including an most of an issue of Scientific American dedicated to discrediting it. You can read Lomborg's reply here. I simply don't know enough about environmental science to comment intelligently on Lomborg's book, so I'll let you judge for yourself.

Some of the pre-emptive critiques of CC are more persuasive than others. Disinfopedia (an anti-corporation, anti-PR-firm project) has a lot to say about the project: its concerns, however, boil down to accusing Lomborg of stocking his panel with "right-wingers." But the actual roster of experts, challenge paper authors, and opponents consists mostly of scholars whose work doesn't neatly fit on either the left or right. One such scholar is Nobelist James Heckman, whom Brad deLong has called "impeccably right-wing," but who has argued (against a large proportion of those sharing his academic discipline) that government civil rights programs have been a major reason for improvement in the economic prospects of blacks in America, and that early-childhood programs like Head Start are more successful than their opponents would suggest.

Or Jhagdish Bhagwati, who irritates the anti-WTO crowd by arguing that environmental and labor-rights concerns should be met via other, non-trade-only international organizations, but also condemns the "Wall Street-Treasury" axis of influence in US policy for going too far in demanding liberalized capital controls. Challenge paper author Barry Eichengreen joins Bhagwati on this decidedly non-right-wing policy prescription, by the way.

And then there's Susan Rose-Ackerman, who has led the attempt to reclaim the methodological advances of the "Law & Economics" school for progressives who care about distributional issues. And Phillip Martin, who has spoken out for developing better protections and educational programs for immigrants in California. These are absolutely not "right-wingers!" Clearly, the debate needs to move beyond simply stating that "these experts are right-wingers, so we lefties must ignore everything they have to say."

Another line of pre-emption has been raised by the Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information (and translated here):
[T]he global community is not an automaton where the correct policy comes out after depositing the economic data. The way of the world is also governed by non-economic values, ethics, traditions, religion, and so forth. Rational or not—this is the one difference between humans and calculators, and therefore Lomborg’s rationale will never—and should never—be the sole governing principle of global policies.
To which I say: "So what?" Even if we find that CC's results are based entirely on purely-economic factors (which is, given what I know about the participating scholars, incredibly unlikely), that doesn't mean that CC is without value. Presumably, elected leaders are better served by having better information to use in assessing whatever part of their decisions are based on "economic data." Ethics, religion and the other elements of policymaking aren't invalidated by getting the economics right.

Information is standing on firmer ground when it points out that
Lomborg’s prioritizations are contained within the coffer that is marked “environment and health.” When spending has to be prioritized, it is, for some reason, not possible to also look at global military spending, investments in the entertainment industry, production of luxury goods, royal weddings, and so forth.
I fully agree that for all sorts of reasons, national governments spend far too little of their budgets on transnational problems like hunger, climate change and development assistance. There's really just no question about it. It would be great if CC also took a look at how to solve this underlying problem of priorities. Still, it makes sense to ask how to spend a limited budget most effectively, even if attention should also be paid to why the budget is so severely limited.

To be perfectly clear, I am very interested to see what comes out of the Copenhagen conference. I sincerely hope that some great ideas are generated and given good publicity by the exercise. At this point, though, it's simply too early to judge whether CC is a stalking horse for climate-change-deniers or a good first step on prioritizing problems. I hope my readers will keep an open mind and set aside the pre-emptive critiques that they're sure to see repeated in the days ahead.

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