01/13/2008 12:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Shellenberger & Nordhaus: Modestly Right, Not Interestingly Wrong

Matt Yglesias has a review of Shellenberger & Nordhaus' book in the NYT Sunday Book Review. It contains a good insight and a fairly crucial mistake -- albeit a mistake common to those enter S&N's hall of mirrors for the first time.

The insight is twofold. First, that the core and most valuable part of S&N's book is about messaging:

"We know from extensive psychological research," they write, "that presenting frightening disaster scenarios provokes fatalism, paralysis and ... individualistic thoughts of adaptation, not empowerment, hope, creativity and collective action." Insecurity, they argue, is an emotional pillar of reactionary politics, not a building block for the sort of farsighted, progressive thinking that is required to prevent ecological disaster.

And second, that the core mistake of the book is in how that insight gets projected onto the realm of public policy.

Matt's mistake is that he thinks S&N are advocating for big subsidies for clean energy instead of regulations on carbon. Many people who read their book come to the same conclusion and have criticized them along the same lines Matt does, insisting that mandatory caps and efficiency regulations are necessary to make the policy work.

But S&N have insisted many times that they do support mandatory regulations on carbon. Says Nordhaus, "we support regulating carbon, we support doing so now." The call is not for green groups to cease lobbying for carbon regulations, but to ramp up their lobbying for public investment. The idea is to switch the relative priority -- to put large, ambitious public investment demands at the top of the lobbying list, and carbon regulations second.

In S&N's defense, that means they have not made the egregious policy error Matt attributes to them. In Matt's defense, he's not the first to do it. I don't know if S&N willfully create the misimpression that they have a fundamental policy difference with mainstream enviros; suffice to say, it's a common misimpression that has garnered them considerable attention.

Further in Matt's defense, his main point stands: the fatal flaw in the book is the pivot from an important psychosocial insight about language to a concrete recommendation about policy. The pivot is not to a mistaken policy recommendation, as Matt has it, but to a fairly conventional one: "Keep pushing for carbon regulation and public investment, but for way more public investment." It doesn't amount to a policy revolution. It is not significant enough to justify the high-flown philosophical noodling earlier in the book. It's not going to be, as one of the book blurbs has it, the Silent Spring of our generation.