Could Moral Offsets Make Us All Sin-Neutral? Peter Schweizer talks about his op-ed in USA Today in which he asks: Why stop at carbon offsets? Why not offset guilt from other sins as well? Schweizer's suggestions include: "The Adultery Offset" to cancel out your "adultery footprint," and "The Tofu Offset," for those who just have a hard time being vegan.
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Could Moral Offsets Make Us All Sin-Neutral?

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Could Moral Offsets Make Us All Sin-Neutral?

Could Moral Offsets Make Us All Sin-Neutral?

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ANTHONY BROOKS, host:

And now, a segment to help our listeners with their deepest feelings of guilt. As we know, environmentalists who worry about their carbon footprints can buy something called carbon offsets. They calculate how much carbon dioxide their SUVs, 10,000 square foot homes or jet-fueled vacations pump into the atmosphere. Then, they buy a carbon offset in a form of a donation that would help plant trees or invest in renewable energy.

So money can't buy love, but it can at least dissuade your guilt and maybe do some good in the process.

Peter Schweizer is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. In an opinion piece published earlier this week in USA Today, he says we should try to offset other things in our lives. For example, if you eat a lot of junk food, don't stop and don't feel guilty. Instead, you should give money to, say, the American Heart Association. Or if you watch five hours of the "Real World," keep watching. And instead of feeling guilty, make a donation to support two hours of the news hour. Okay, one hour of the news hour - but you get the idea.

We want to hear from you. What would you offset if you could, and how would you offset it? What do you feel guilty about and what would you pay to make that guilt go away? Be creative. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And Peter Schweizer joins us by phone from Tallahassee, Florida. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. PETER SCHWEIZER (Research Fellow, Hoover Institution): Hey, thanks for having me, Anthony. I'm glad to be on.

BROOKS: Yeah. We enjoyed your piece. It created a lot of interest in the room. So I suggested a few offsets there. Let's go to some of your suggestions in the piece. What was on top of your list?

Mr. SCHWEIZER: Well, sure. I had this conversation with a friend who talked about the carbon offsets and said, you know, basically, what you're doing is outsourcing your moral responsibility, and so we started thinking what are some of the other ones that you can apply the same rationale to. The first one, we called the adultery offsets.

BROOKS: The adultery offsets.

Mr. SCHWEIZER: The adultery offsets. This will be for individuals who are not - don't show fidelity. And by this moral reasoning of the offsets, you could make a donation to a pro-family organization to encourage someone else to be monogamous. You wouldn't have to change your adulterous behavior…

BROOKS: So you could go on being adulterous as long as you make this donation.

Mr. SCHWEIZER: Right.

BROOKS: Okay.

Mr. SCHWEIZER: And there's actually a Web site set up in satire by two gentlemen in England called "CheatNeutral," where they sort of jokingly show how this kind of thing would actually work or how ridiculous it would be.

BROOKS: And you have something called the Pilates offset.

Mr. SCHWEIZER: Yeah, the Pilates offset. Of course, you know, America has a problem with growing obesity. It's difficult for some of us to get to the gym. We feel very guilty about that. We need to be working out more. So the idea here is that instead of actually going to the gym, don't worry about it. Just pay for somebody else's gym membership. And this way, you would be basically fat neutral. And like you can get a sticker for your car that says your car is carbon neutral, you could a T-shirts - even if you're very overweight - that says you're fat neutral because you've offset your lack of exercise by paying for somebody else's.

BROOKS: But you can go on eating all the junk food you want and you can get as fat as you want.

Mr. SCHWEIZER: That's exactly right.

BROOKS: Right. Okay. Do I detect a certain cynicism on your part about the whole idea of carbon offsets?

Mr. SCHWEIZER: You do, yes. And, really, I think it's because what we've done in this area is we're outsourcing our moral responsibilities. I mean, if you begin with the assumption that the problem is, you know, people are consuming too much and need to curtail their lifestyle, what carbon offsets basically allow you to do is to continue to do that very thing and just pay somebody else to change their behavior.

BROOKS: But isn't the idea - I mean, even if it doesn't make someone change their behaviors right away, isn't the idea of the carbon offset that it does make us think about this for the first time or in a different way, and isn't that at least useful than doing absolutely nothing?

Mr. SCHWEIZER: Well, I think, you know, the question is if people think that there is a climate change issue and man-made behaviors affecting that, you know, I think you can't really outsource your responsibility. The problem that I have is that a lot of the people that are championing offsets are at the same time telling people that they really do need to change their own lifestyles, you know, the Hollywood starlets or the corporate CEOs.

And I think that's really what it goes to. You know, there's been a research done by the Financial Times in London that shows that a lot of times with carbon offsets, you don't get really what you think you're getting, that the benefits of these so-called offsets are not really very apparent. And in a lot of times, it seems to be sort of almost a vanity or fashion statements.

You know, they give stickers or they give things that people can show to other people. You know, that hey, I'm offsetting what I'm doing. And they announce it. So it seems more to be sort of a cool voguish thing to do in some circles rather than actually something that, you know, is creating any real result.

BROOKS: We're talking to Peter Schweizer. He's a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Give us a call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Tell us what you'd like to offset, or respond this idea that carbon offsets in particular are nothing more than a vanity tool - two invitations there on the table.

Let's go to Maureen(ph) who's calling from Middleburg. Maureen, you're on the air, hello.

MAUREEN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking for my call.

BROOKS: Sure.

MAUREEN: You know, I have - I can address both of those things. I feel guilty, sometimes, for eating meat so - but all my life, I've done animal rescue, so that kind of makes me feel a little bit better about it, but not quite.

BROOKS: So you feel guilty about eating meat, but you do…

MAUREEN: I agree with him. Mr. Schweizer, I think that you're correct about that. That people do do things like this out of vanity, that they buy a hybrid and yet they have houses with so many thousands of square feet and they're using up all these energy.

I mean, my electric bill $56 in the summertime and $28 in the winter. And I'd like to see the match that I think vanity has a lot to do with this. When I see people drive in the Lexus SUVs, suburban mothers in upscale housing areas, I just - it just angers me so much because their footprint is so great. And you multiply that woman by a thousand.

And all the TV shows on like - I don't want to name - but you know, the entertainment shows, they're all focused on consumption and consumerism and shallowness that we've created a nightmare, of a drift of moral values in our kids to take responsibility to the planet. And I don't know how we're going to undo that.

BROOKS: All right, Maureen, well you raise a good question. Peter Schweizer, any ideas - any response to Maureen's quandary there?

Mr. SCHWEIZER: Well I think, you know, Maureen mentions, you know, her view that I share, that there's a lot of vanity involved in this. There was an interesting study that Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post reported on that looked at the persisting habits of people that were buying the Prius, and what they found really was two things.

Number one, that the Prius was selling a lot better than the Honda Civic hybrid. And what they discovered as the reason is because the Prius - everybody knows that it's a hybrid vehicle. And in focus group research, what they found is that people were buying the Prius because it looked like a hybrid and they were expecting to receive acclaim from their friends and relatives and coworkers, that it was really in line of making a statement rather than actually being concerned about, you know, what the hybrid was doing.

BROOKS: Because I would have - but don't you think that a lot of people who are buying these hybrid cars are really interested in proving road mileage, in consuming less gasoline?

Mr. SCHWEIZER: Oh sure, yeah. There's no question about that. And I think, you know, if you look at the question of consistency and concern, I mean, you know, you've got people like, you know, Ed Begley Jr., the actor who's got a, you know, fully solar-powered home and who bicycles around, who's really trying to be consistent. And I think there are a lot of people doing that.

My biggest frustration I think is with those sort of at the very top end, you know, the corporate CEOs, or the movie stars, or the advocates who are driving - who are flying around in private jets and will not give up the jets and feel by, you know, writing a check for a couple of hundred dollars that somehow they shouldn't feel, you know, guilty or inconsistent. So I just think that's outsourcing their moral obligations and they're being inconsistent.

BROOKS: Well, let's go to Jack(ph) who's calling from Denver, Colorado. Hi, Jack.

JACK (Caller): Hi there. I just had another comment about the behavior offsetting. I'm a very avid video game player. And as such, I spend a lot of money on my hobby, you know, with video games nowadays running $60 a pop and video game consoles going as high as six or seven hundred dollars when they come out. I don't make a lot of money, so I often feel a lot of guilt about the money I spend on my hobby, it being purely for entertainment.

But I found a nice way to offset that that benefits both me and others as well. Every four or five years, when the video game console makers make a new console and I'm looking to spending another $700, instead of selling off my old games at a really reduced price, what I do is I box them all up and I take them to a local children's hospital. I donate them.

In that way, kids get to play the old games that I'm done playing and as an added bonus, I get to write that off at the end of the year. It doesn't make up for all the money that I spend, but it makes me feel a little bit about -better about the exorbitant amount of money I spend on video games.

BROOKS: All right, Jack. Well thanks for the suggestion. Good idea.

JACK: Thank you very much. Love the show.

BROOKS: What do you think about that, Peter? There's an offset that seems like a - it has a - makes a real difference.

Mr. SCHWEIZER: Well, absolutely. And I think that, you know, in this case, I mean, you know, Jack's behavior about, you know, playing videogames and we can be - feel guilty about, you know, overindulgence. But that's not probably not something that's really hurting or affecting other people. That's something he enjoys to do and he's offsetting his guilt by, you know, sharing those games with others. So I think that's a, you know, tremendous example and sort of, a good way of dealing with some moral concerns you might have about something you're doing.

BROOKS: We're talking with Peter Schweizer, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He's the author of the piece called "Offset Away Our Guilt." If we can buy carbon offsets for our environmental missteps, why not for our other sins?

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Peter Schweizer, I want to go through - you have a couple more here that are worth mentioning: the tofu offset.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHWEIZER: Well, that's right. We had a caller earlier that talked about, you know, her concerns about, you know, eating meat but supporting animal rights. My suggestion here is that, you know, if somebody wants to be a vegetarian or a vegan but just can't bring themselves to give up a cheeseburger, that we could provide tofu offsets.

In other words, somebody could buy one of these. They could eat all the meat that they want and that would be offset by supporting vegetarians or people who are not, you know, carnivores. And, again, it's - you know, you say you firmly believe something. You say you firmly believe that eating meat is wrong and you support animal rights, but you're unwilling to give up something like a cheeseburger. This is kind of the result of the moral confusion that would result.

BROOKS: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK is the number to call. Let's go to Anne(ph) in Oklahoma City. Hi, Anne.

ANNE (Caller): Hi.

BROOKS: You're on the air.

ANNE: I'm really enjoying your program today. I was at - I'm actually on my cell phone now and thinking that one way to offset for excessive cell phone use might be to write a letter to an actual person maybe, like, once a week.

BROOKS: A letter? Write a letter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BROOKS: I remember what that is, I think.

Mr. SCHWEIZER: I think that's a great idea. You know, a lot of historians -having written books on history myself - a lot of historians lament the fact that there's not letter writing taking place anymore. We don't have a rich reservoir of information as to draw from in, you know, for future generations. So I think letter writing is a great idea to offset guilt about using the cell phone.

BROOKS: All right, Anne. Thanks for the call. Let's go to Jim(ph), who's calling from Ann Arbor. Hi, Jim.

JIM (Caller): Hi. I want to make a comment. You know, it's like in my situation, I can't afford to make all the changes all at once, but I can afford to buy some offsets here and there, while, you know, like, changing light bulbs - unless they pull out all my light bulbs and change them all at once to the higher efficiency ones because that's just too cost-prohibitive.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm.

JIM: But as, you know, but as they burn out, it's like, yeah, put in a newer, better efficient light bulb. But in the meantime, you know, I can afford, like, $25 here and there to, you know, buy a carbon offset.

BROOKS: Okay. So you're in favor -you think - so if they helped you think about the world differently and what you need to do…

JIM: Right. Right.

BROOKS: …I guess, to be a better and environmentally conscious citizen?

BROOKS: Right. And then, you know, and then as I go along in that, you know, it helps me remind myself of why I'm doing it.

BROOKS: Well, I'm glad we got at least one call in favor of carbon offsets. What do you think, Peter Schweizer? Here's Jim in Ann Arbor who seems pretty sincere about how offsets are helping him lead a better life.

Mr. SCHWEIZER: Well, he does. And I mean, I'll say this that I might not agree him on it, but I applauded him because he - what he's trying to do is change behavior. He's come to a moral conclusion about an obligation that he has. And he's saying, you know, I can't afford to make all this changes right away, but I'm going to try to get there.

My concern with a lot of the people that, sort of, you know, higher socioeconomic background that have the enormous homes, that have the private jets - they're not looking at giving those up anytime soon. This is sort of a way of, you know, taking a sort of popular or a chic political stand, but, actually, having them - having it cost them actually nothing in terms of changing their lifestyles.

BROOKS: But isn't that what high profile, famous people do? They take chic stands and people notice it. I mean, I understand that a rock star buying an offset as he jets around the world may appear hypocritical, but he's a rock star. A lot of people are going to pay attention to him and say, huh, maybe I should be thinking differently about what I do.

Mr. SCHWEIZER: Well, I think that may have the effect on some people, but I think a lot of people are very cynical about this. And I think if you look at, for example, Financial Times report investigation - and a lot of the environmental groups for the same reason have come out against offsets. People like Friends of the Earth say, you know, don't buy carbon offset to fly. Just fly less or fly commercial rather than flying in a large jet.

So, I think, you know, if people are sincere on this stance rather than sort of saying I want to make a statement, they should actually act to change their lifestyle. And there are people that are doing that. And you have to applaud them for their moral consistency.

BROOKS: Let's go to Gregg(ph) from San Francisco. Gregg, we have about 30 seconds left, but I'd love to get you into the show.

GREGG (Caller): Yeah. One of the things that I've tried to with my 4-year-old daughter is to teach her not to be as big a consumer. And what we do every time there's a major holiday or a birthday and she gets a new set of presents is to go and take an equal amount of old toys and donate those either - her books to a library or school library or toys to the less fortunate families. And that's trying to teach her at an early age not to be as much of a consumer, and I think that's an offset that she can be giving back to her community and hopefully she carries through for the rest of her life.

BROOKS: All right, Gregg. Thanks. I appreciate that.

Mr. SCHWEIZER: I think that's a great idea, Gregg. We actually did the same thing with our children. It's not always easy to get them to do it, but it's something you want to teach them early on, I think.

BROOKS: Finally, we're going to say goodbye to you at about 20 seconds, Peter Schweizer, but we didn't get you to talk about the Pamela Anderson offset.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHWEIZER: Well, the Pamela Anderson offset is, you know, if you want to be an animal rights activist, but you just can't give up a fur coat or you can't give up veal piccata, you could buy a Pamela Anderson offset. Of course, she's an animal activist. You could buy one of these from PETA. Pay them money and you could continue to wear your fur coats and continue to eat veal piccata and not feel guilty about it at all.

BROOKS: Well, Peter Schweizer, thanks so much for joining us today.

Mr. SCHWEIZER: Thanks for having me.

BROOKS: That's Peter Schweizer, research fellow at the Hoover Institute. His op-ed "Offset Away Our Guilt," ran earlier this week in USA Today.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Anthony Brooks.

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