Lindsey Graham on Climate Change

“I have been to the Antarctic, I have been to Alaska. I am not a scientist, and I have the grades to prove it. But I’ve talked to the climatologists of the world and 90% of them are telling me that the greenhouse gas effect is real, that we’re heating up the planet. I just want a solution that would be good for the economy that doesn’t destroy it.”

Source: Here’s How Lindsey Graham Defended His Unorthodox Positions | TIME

And that should be what defines the difference between the Left and the Right on climate change. The left’s position is “climate change is happening, we have the ability to do something about it, so let’s do it.”

Our position on the right should be “climate change is happening, we have the ability to do something about it without destroying the economy or ending the world as we know it, so let’s do it before our dithering makes a reasonable solution impossible.”

Utilities wage campaign against rooftop solar – The Washington Post

Utilities wage campaign against rooftop solar – The Washington Post.

There is a growing body of evidence pointing to a deep divide between the interests of conservatives (and, indeed, of America) on the one hand, and those of corporate America on the other. The campaign being waged by public utilities against rooftop solar is one. The buried lede:

“Conservatives support solar — they support it even more than progressives do,” said Bryan Miller, co-chairman of the Alliance for Solar Choice and a vice president of public policy for Sunrun, a California solar provider. “It’s about competition in its most basic form. The idea that you should be forced to buy power from a state-sponsored monopoly and not have an option is about the least conservative thing you can imagine.”

Excellent article, superb links.

As an aside, I am on the verge of giving up my resistance and subscribing to the WaPo. With The New York Times continuing Pinch Sulzberger’s long, ugly slide to the Left, and the Murdoch-controlled Wall Street Journal digging in deeper on the far right, it is nice to see Jeff Bezos allowing the Post to settle in somewhere closer to a balanced center.

Solar Power Employs More People than Coal: So What?

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse says there are more U.S. jobs in solar industry than coal mining
PolitiFact Rhode Island
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U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has been widely quoted online as claiming that the solar power industry now employs more people than coal. On the surface, that’s a good thing, if for no other reason than legislators like Senator Whitehouse need worry less about upsetting people whose livelihoods depend on rock carbon.

But let’s think this through. Solar accounts for about 0.39% of our total energy usage. Coal counts for around 39%. This means that solar uses 100 times more people to produce the same amount of power as coal.

If we are going to measure the success of alternative energy sources, we would do best to move beyond the politics and into the economics. This statistic makes clear we need to focus far more on increasing the productivity and efficiency of the sector before we worry about increasing the number of people in the sector.

 

Democracy, Policy, and the Experts

The Death Of Expertise
Tom Nichols
The Federalist
January 17, 2014

The Internet has been accused of many things. It has been condemned as a destroyer of value. It has been reviled as the hiding place of gangsters and perverts. And now, in the pages of The Federalist, self-styled social science and public policy expert Tom Nichols accuses it of destroying expertise.

Nichols’ point, brutally summarized, is that by appearing to make everyone’s opinion of equal value, the Internet is slashing the value of an expert’s opinion to essentially zero. That’s dangerous, he says. To kill expertise is to reject knowledge and how we gain it. It is to raise the value of the opinions of people like Jenny McCarthy over those of doctors.

All agreed: we don’t want experts to go away. They offer tremendous value in society, and we would be lost without them.

And he is so very, very right when he notes:

People in political debates no longer distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from the phrase “you’re stupid.” To disagree is to insult. To correct another is to be a hater. And to refuse to acknowledge alternative views, no matter how fantastic or inane, is to be closed-minded.

All Hail the Expert

If this were as far as he took his argument, he would have won the day. Unfortunately, after a good start, Nichols goes off the rails in some important ways that hint at a larger, darker agenda.

He deems as “sanctimonious” and “silly” the idea that every person has a right to his or her own opinion. He launches into a screed against the incompetent taking part in discussions in the public arena. How dare, he suggests, that people who “can barely find their own nation on a map” have strong views on going to war? How dare those who cannot name their legislator have an opinion about how Congress handles a piece of legislation?

How dare, he asserts, anyone have an opinion on a field in which he is not an expert? Only experts, he implies, should be allowed to be heard on anything, unless, of course, the electorate become experts themselves. He doesn’t want a technocracy, mind you:

But when citizens forgo their basic obligation to learn enough to actually govern themselves, and instead remain stubbornly imprisoned by their fragile egos and caged by their own sense of entitlement, experts will end up running things by default. That’s a terrible outcome for everyone.

The threat: either people get a lot smarter about policy, or the experts are going to take over. We’ll let you have your opinions, but we control will remain in the hands of the people trained to run things.

It is sad that Nichols did not quit while he was ahead, making a case that we need to use care where we tread. In suggesting that we have a binary choice between everyone getting a lot smarter really quickly on the one hand, and letting the experts run things on the other, he is being disingenuous: the only likely outcome of those two is technocracy. And so what this article becomes is a case for the experts to take over.

Who is an Expert?

The reasons to distrust this reasoning are manifold. Let us dispose of the easy ones right away.

First, anyone who declares himself an expert is, in my opinion, immediately suspect. If someone who is in a position to know declares you an expert, you may well be one. If you declare yourself an expert, your status is suspect. Declare yourself a specialist or a professional if you must, but allow others do declare you an expert, a master, an authority.

Second, if we grant that he is an expert, his argument on behalf of the primacy of experts is self-serving, and thus suspect. In this, he is little different from the journalists decrying the Internet because it means we are reading less journalism. I feel bad for them, but the horse has left the barn, and experts, like journalists and the rest of us, are all facing a different world.

Trusting Experts

So, let us say that Nichols is an expert, and that he is being selfless. Handing over our policy decisions and our fates is a path fraught with problems. Primary among those “who gets to decide who the experts are?” Expertise is subjective, and the determination of whether someone is an expert demands other experts in that field. Who then appoints those people? This works us into a circular argument, and we wind up with a lot of people claiming expertise, but no objective way of making that determination.

I spent two decades working in China, and three decades studying it. Am any more or less an “expert” in China business than a newly-minted Harvard Ph.D. who did his dissertation on my field? Or than a journalist who has covered business in China for twenty five years? Says who? And why? You see where this is taking us. Multiply this problem by hundreds of fields, and the issue of determining expertise becomes non-trivial.

Once we have decided who the experts are, which ones do we trust? Any competent trial lawyer or white-shoe K Street lobbyist will tell you that on any issue, there are experts, but that often no two experts will reach the same conclusion, and often their conclusions will be diametric. Brookings, RAND, Heritage, CATO, and the Progressive Policy institute are all staffed by experts, but if you got all of their experts on any given issue in a room, you would have a war. Who decides among them and their recommendations?

Further, a reliance on experts implies that there are only two classes of people in any given field of knowledge: experts, and laymen, and only the former have value. This is poppycock. Apart from those with the highest level of mastery are polymaths (who are deeply conversant in multiple fields, though not necessarily expert in more than one;) apprentices, students, enthusiasts, buffs, and talented amateurs. People at any of these levels can make profound contributions to their fields.

Three examples jump to mind. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp proved the value of amateur astronomy when they discovered the comet that was later named after them. A clerk in the German patent office turned astrophysics upside down when he wrote a short paper describing a general theory of relativity. And corporate finance executive Edward Miller, Jonathan Parshall, a software executive, and Anthony Tully, an IT support specialist each conducted research and wrote books that have forced us to reevaluate the history of World War II in the Pacific.

Broad-based Problems, Narrow Solutions

But among all of these, the biggest problem is the nature of expertise itself. Experts are expert, by definition, because they spend their lives focused on a narrow enough field that they are able to achieve a greater degree of knowledge than most others in their field. For that reason, they are excellent at answering specialized and narrow questions. Unfortunately, their expertise is of declining value as they touch on questions that have implications far beyond their narrow field of expertise, and it is axiomatic that many of the most vexing problems faced by government go far beyond an expert’s ken.

Elizabeth Coleman, who retired from the presidency of Bennington College last year after a quarter century in the role, frames the problem with experts more eloquently:

Over the past century the expert has dethroned the educated generalist to become the role model of intellectual accomplishment. While expertise has had its moments, the price of its dominance is enormous. . . . Questions such as “What kind of a world are we making?”“What kind should we be making?” “And “What kind can we be making?” move off the table.

These are precisely the kinds of questions our polity faces today.  You can substitute “nation” if you think “world” is too arrogant, but the issue stands. These are not the kinds of questions Mr. Nichols and his fellow experts are best suited to answer. They are the kind left to the rest of us.

The Tyranny of Experts

Which brings us to the final problem. Nichols contends that the idea that we all have a right to our own opinion is silly and sanctimonious. He is wrong. Giving us each the right to our own opinion, to express it, and to be proven wrong or vindicated is an essential part of the American democracy. To suggest otherwise steps beyond the arrogance of a learned man in awe of his credentials: it is to place us on the road to a technocratic tyranny where we are all the docile wards of the incredibly smart.

Aldous Huxley would have recognized what Nichols is suggesting, as would anyone who has read Huxley’s Brave New World. It is a world where because all men are not equal, their say in the way the world is run is not equal. That may appeal to the elitists. But that is not democracy, that is not the way the founders of the United States meant this country to be, and it is not a country that I would want to live in, either as an expert or a layman.

Let us keep this in mind: experts have value in that they should always be invited to inform the broader debate. Laymen need to think more critically and question the definitive statements of those who are not deeply knowledgable in the field in question. When faced with an expert versus a layman, deference should be paid to the point of view of the expert, but critical deference should be paid to all.

But experts should never be allowed to dominate that debate or, even worse, by dint of their knowledge be allowed to circumvent it. They are our servants. We shall not be theirs.

Rushing to Judge the Stanford Climate Plan

Stanford scientist to unveil 50-state plan to transform US to renewable energy.

Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson and several of his fellows have introduced a roadmap that will supposedly allow New York, California, and Washington to make a complete switch to renewable energy by 2050.

That’s an intriguing plan, in part because it opens the door to an economy based entirely on renewable energy, an in part because it gives us 35 years to accomplish it.

I have one friend, on the Left, who has already convinced himself that the Jacobson roadmap is a lost cause.

“Now if only people in those states were smart  enough to follow thru. [sic]”

I am a fan of exploring how far we can go with alternative energy, and I applaud Jacobson for his efforts in drawing the roadmap. God, however, is in the details. It is premature to condemn as mentally challenged people who will not adopt a plan until we understand the costs of its implementation as well as its benefits, and until that study has had the benefit of review by a wide range of qualified, unbiased experts.

Rethinking Amtrak

Review & Outlook: Amtrak’s Banner Year – WSJ.com.

If this editorial was not such a naked appeal on behalf of petroleum-dependent passenger transportation industries, we would have enjoyed it a lot more.

Amtrak P40DC #832 pulling the now-discontinued...
Amtrak P40DC #832 pulling the now-discontinued Desert Wind. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The editors are right: there is something wrong with a passenger rail system that loses a half billion dollars after enjoying a banner year.

Where the editors are wrong is in condemning passenger rail altogether. Buses and airplanes are fine substitutes for passenger rail when Brent crude is selling at $88.34 a barrel. Once that price begins to rise – and it will – rail is going to become an essential mode of travel for a growing number of people.

The way I look at Amtrak – right or wrong – is as the seed corn for a new passenger rail industry that we will need at some point in the foreseeable future. That said, it is time we started digging into how to make Amtrak more efficient – even if it means dropping some money-losing routes.

Fix Infrastructure – But Not With Blank Checks

Repairing infrastructure can help repair economy – The Washington Post.

Barry Ritholtz, author of Bailout Nation and finance blog The Big Picture offers his list of infrastructure projects that the U.S. needs to undertake in order to ensure our future competitiveness.

While he draws some of his data from a report by The American Society of Civil Engineers (which, apart from being a professional association, is also a lobbying organization with a political point to make), Ritholtz is correct when he notes:

We still enjoy the benefits of the interstate highway system, which allows goods to be moved cheaply around the nation. Innovations at NASA led to many new products and industries, including innovations in the semiconductor, satellite and mobile computing sectors. And DARPAnet? You might recognize that as today’s Internet. All three are massive economic wealth generators, filling a role that is too long term and too expensive for the private sector. [Emphasis mine]

Ritholtz makes an essential point. Whatever the virtues of the private sector, long-term vision and a willingness to make investments of this nature are not among them. Nor should they be. Some infrastructure and research needs to be government-driven, or it simply would not happen, to the detriment of us all.

What we should not do, however, is write checks for infrastructure projects without thinking through the process and oversight first. The nation has plenty of money to spend on roads, ports, the grid, and future-oriented research, but it does not have a single penny to waste. As important as infrastructure reconstruction is to this country, a massive project of this nature can all to easily turn into a morass of waste, inefficiency, corruption, and worse.

History has proven that organizations both public and private will, if left to their own devices, become bogs of lousy performance, especially when the taxpayer is paying the bill. We need to stop trusting both businesses and bureaucracies to do things right: we need to build performance standards into every contract, and painful penalties for failure to perform.