Both President Obama’s 2016 signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change and President Trump’s withdrawal from that agreement today fit into a category I will label as QTIIPS.
QTIIPS stands for Quantitatively Trivial Impact + Intense Political Symbolism.
QTIIPS policy changes provoke fierce political battles over trivially small policy impacts. Passionate advocates on both sides ignore numbers and policy details while fighting endlessly about symbols.
A policy change is QTIIPS if:
- its direct measurable effects are quite small relative to the underlying policy problem to be solved;
- it is viewed both by supporters and opponents as a first step toward an end state that all agree would be quite a large change;
- supporters and opponents alike attach great significance to the direction of the change, as a precursor to possible future movement toward that quantitatively significant end goal; and
- a fierce political battle erupts over the symbolism of this directional shift. This political battle is often zero-sum, unresolvable, and endless.
Advocates on either side of a QTIIPS policy change have desired end states that represent fundamentally different policy outcomes. But while the policy gap between their desired end states is measured in miles, on a QTIIPS policy, actual changes are measured in inches. The battle rages over which end state is the right one, but when policy shifts back and forth it changes direction often but moves only a tiny bit each time. Political constraints make the theoretical debate about miles-apart differences irrelevant because neither end state will ever occur, but that does not deter the theoretical war from raging during the real-world battles over a tiny actual change in direction.
If you listened to President Trump’s remarks today you would think staying in the Paris Agreement would destroy the U.S. economy. If you listen to many advocates who support the agreement, you would think you need to start building an ark, soon.
I therefore read the text of the agreement to see for myself. Doing so reinforced the view I developed when the agreement was concluded. Relative to the scope of the problem it is trying to solve, the Paris Agreement is quantitatively trivial. It is a set of weak process agreements, with many areas of ambiguous language and “flexibility” for countries […]