The government needs to measure things. Somehow, that’s controversial.
An unassuming but remarkable piece of legislation was introduced in the Senate this week: a bipartisan carbon emissions bill . The bill, introduced by Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) and co-sponsored by seven other senators, would require the U.S. government to start calculating the emissions intensity of industrial materials made in the United States and some other countries around the world. You might assume this bill is significant because it could ultimately pave the way for a carbon border tariff . Or perhaps a broader carbon tax , or some other major climate measure later on. Such policies would be a big deal, for sure. But for now, lets celebrate this bill for the achievement it represents in its own right: a bipartisan agreement that measuring things is good, actually . Perhaps this sounds like a banal statement. Yet in recent years, in our post-truth, alternative-facts political landscape, such sentiments have become curiously controversial. Vivek Ramaswamy , a Republican candidate for president , is campaigning on excising wokeness from government, which he says includes halting all measurement of carbon emissions . More consequentially, Donald Trump spent much of his presidency working to disband or otherwise sabotage the governments independent statistical agencies, including the Census Bureau and the Economic Research Service. These nonpartisan agencies have long been the envy of the world and are critical to the functioning of both our economy and our democracy. But Trump and his underlings found some of their metrics politically inconvenient. Some on the progressive left have likewise lobbied for the government to move away from measures such as cost-benefit analyses of regulations, or traditional budget scores for legislation, by arguing that such calculations are phony exercises rigged to benefit corporations or conservative causes. Its certainly the case that supposedly objective metrics can be gamed or manipulated. (Ive long believed that the people who really control Washington are the accountants, as evidenced most recently by budget gimmicks in the recent debt limit deal.) Our standard measures can also be accidentally wrong, or at least distortionary. Every few years, theres another round of debate over whether our traditional measure of economic output, gross domestic product, should be tossed, because it doesnt attempt to gauge happiness, stress or other important barometers of public welfare. What gets measured gets managed, as the saying goes; ill-conceived metrics can straitjacket policymakers into focusing on the wrong things. Perhaps for these reasons, theres often a temptation to just throw out metrics or number-crunchers altogether, particularly when the results might make ones own team look bad. Hence the rise of data trutherism, again to varying degrees on both the right ( some conservatives lately claim the strong jobs numbers must be fake) and the left ( liberals have attacked lousy inflation and consumer sentiment indicators as wrong, misleading, the product of media brainwashing , etc.). My view is that the solution to flawed measures is to find ways to improve them, not to give up on measuring entirely. Nor is it to undermine trust in government statistics and swampy statistical-agency civil servants . Which is, again, a pretty standard play of late. In the case of that Senate bill introduced this week, the motivations are somewhat complicated. That is, lawmakers are not necessarily driven by some deep epistemological desire to better quantify and evaluate the world around us, particularly as it relates to climate. It would be nice if that were the case, particularly because our current climate-related measures are woefully inadequate. For example, none of our major existing models for estimating the economic consequences of climate change take into account the real cost of recent wildfire smoke days. Yet this apocalyptic air has likely already imposed significant financial costs by grounding flights , canceling performances , postponing baseball games and otherwise keeping workers home . In fact, this particular bill might also turn out to be an act of data warfare just one in which both parties can join against a larger enemy. Other countries are already working toward these kind of metrics in service of creating a carbon border tariff. We need our own math, George David Banks, a conservative climate adviser and former Trump climate official, told E&E News . Otherwise, he warned, Europeans will come up with our own math for us. If this bill passes, I hope it will be used in service of calculating the most accurate and climate-relevant numbers possible, not merely the numbers that serve our short-term protectionist goals. Perhaps that is a tall order in the current political environment. But if theres one thing we should have learned from policy fights these past few years, its this: Bad measurement leads to bad diagnosis, which leads to even worse solutions.