Memes, Satire, and Deception

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Not long ago I wrote about how Snopes.com, the alleged “fact-checking” site, had become so politicized that its staff was rating posts on The Babylon Bee as false. Those posts were plainly written as satire. A related issue came to mind last weekend when I saw a meme on social media attributing the following statement to President Trump: “My crimes can’t be investigated while I’m president“. The meme used quote marks, but there was no link to a source.

It’s well known that Trump’s legal team contends that certain statements and actions he might take are protected by executive privilege and immunity. Given Trump’s frequent clumsy use of the language, I thought there was an outside chance that he DID say something like that! My uncertainty was ironic in the wake of my Snopes post! So I did a quick search and found an article in Vanity Fair headlined: Trump: My crimes can’t be investigated while I’m president, without quote marks. The opinion piece that followed was indeed a characterization of the Trump team’s legal strategy. The headline was obviously sarcasm and of course there was no attribution. Trump did not make any admission of criminal activity, contrary to the meme’s implication.

I knew the poster of the meme, whom I’ll call Dan, to be an individual who regards Trump with contempt, and certainly not the sort of guy who would bother to investigate the veracity of such a claim. Against my better judgement, I decided to tweak him a little. I asked if he could provide a source for the quote. He didn’t respond until late afternoon the next day, and not before one of his pals had attacked me for asking the question.

The crux of their defense was this: “It’s a meme! Don’t you know what a meme is?” There were other choice words from Dan’s pal… insults that is. The idea seems to be that memes can say anything and it’s okay if we say so. After all, they must think, people should know that such a misquote is fine because it illustrates the wrongheadedness of the Trump legal strategy… and Trump… via satire.

Do people know that it’s satire? No link. No source. Quote marks added. It was clearly intended to influence people, and I think it was intended to deceive as well. I’m not a Trump hater — more a critic of leftism having little choice other than Trump — but even I had to check on the quote! I’m pretty sure that lots of Trump haters and many non-haters would be duped. Not too many would bother to check, but at least a few did: I was surprised and delighted that Snopes rated the claim as false on Monday, and in a relatively straightforward way. Well, bully for Snopes!

Okay, the ridiculousness of it all! The idea that Trump would take ownership of alleged crimes, as in “my crimes”, an admission of guilt, is kind of funny, but mostly because it sounds like the kind of sloppy language he might have used. And of course people with a jaded view of Trump’s assertion of presidential powers might find the “quote” apropos. They should have their fun, but many of them know little about executive privilege, which is intended to protect the confidentiality necessary to carry out many presidential duties, or they give it short shrift, at least when a republican is in the White House. Less informed Trump detractors might be ready to accept the quote as fact without question.

What’s the difference between satire of the sort produced by The Babylon Bee and the fake quote? Again, posts from the Bee always link to its site, allowing immediate investigation for those who find the headline plausible. The story at the link always adds additional satire, usually so ridiculous that anyone should get the idea. But in case that’s not enough, the Bee clearly promotes itself as “Your Trusted Source For Christian News Satire“. Yes, the Bee has an edge and it is often political. It is designed to get a laugh, provoke thought, poke fun, and influence people. Some of the humor might be too close to the truth to suit observers on the Left, but perhaps that’s why it annoys them so much. Nevertheless, it is satire and it says so.

Humor has long been used as a political tool, but does good faith require some form of demarcation between purported facts and…  the joke? The problem is that many such distinctions must be understood from context, or at least from experience with the source. Cartoons are readily interpreted as humorous commentary. A comedian’s audience is generally under no misapprehension about the “facts” presented during the set. Parody and satire might or might not be billed as such. Much like a comedy club, the audience is probably uninterested in fact-checks. But what about internet memes? They often lack the context provided by a source. It’s still a relatively new form of commentary and an extremely effective means of spreading messages… and misinformation. People have an irrational tendency to believe things they see in print. Quote marks are meaningful, and they should lend legitimacy to a retelling of someone’s words.

Was the “quote” so outrageous that I should have known it was merely a sarcastic meme? Maybe not when the subject is Trump! Anyway, my real objective was to make sure before taking a little dig at Dan, the poster. I quickly concluded the intent of the meme’s creator involved deceit, and I still think so. It’s all too common, which is too bad, but let the social media user beware!

 

 

 

Doomsayers Batting Zero, Draft Kids To Cause

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Empiricists, take note: The kids were out in the streets on Friday, skipping school to warn us of a climate doomsday fast approaching. Like Greta Thunberg, one of several teenage girls billed as modern-day Cassandras, they just know it. But wait, I think I heard the same thing many years ago… doomsday is nigh! In fact, I’ve heard it over and over through my entire adulthood. And here’s the empirical regularity: “Goose Eggs: No Climate Doomsday Warning Has Come True“. Ever. From the link:

     “Some examples:

    • 1967 — Stanford … expert Paul Erlich predicted “time of famines” in 1975.
    • 1971 — A top NASA expert predicted an “ice age” by 2021.
    • 1988 — It was predicted that the Maldives would be under water by last year.
    • 2008 — Gore said the Arctic would be free of ice by 2013.
    • 2009 — [Prince] Charles said there was just 96 months left to save the world.”

Here are a few other warnings that haven’t panned out:

Within a few years ‘children just aren’t going to know what snow is.’ Snowfall will be ‘a very rare and exciting event.’” — Dr. David Viner, senior research scientist at the climatic research unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia [March 2000]”

[By] 1995, the greenhouse effect would be desolating the heartlands of North America and Eurasia with horrific drought, causing crop failures and food riots…[By 1996] The Platte River of Nebraska would be dry, while a continent-wide black blizzard of prairie topsoil will stop traffic on interstates, strip paint from houses and shut down computers. — Michael Oppenheimer in 1990″

There have been many others (also see here and here). Oh, but you just wait, they say. This time it’s different  and it won’t be long!. You know, people just love to worry. Even so, what kind of daft world do we inhabit with children and adults completely freaked out about “problems” that don’t approximate reality.

Predictions of a more clinical variety, such as upward temperature trends, have been way off on a consistent basis: much too high, that is. But here’s the key: all of the other calamitous developments said to be in our future are predicated on those temperature forecasts. The warnings are not based on data per se, but on on crappy climate models (and see here), which are simplifications of reality, loosely calibrated to capture a relatively short period of historical records. And the models are crappy because they often rely on one input, CO2 forcings. The modelers have difficulty addressing the empirical sensitivity of temperature to carbon, the net effects of radiative forcing, clouds, and ocean circulation. In many prominent cases they don’t even try. Hey look, we’re all gonna die!

A striking misconception one hears repeatedly is that we experience many more hot days, and they are hotter, hot days than in the past. Sure, extremely hot days are bad, but not as bad as extremely cold days, and probably worse than warm nights. The truth is, however, that nearly all of the warming experienced over the past few decades has been in nighttime lows, not daytime highs. More “seasoned” climate alarmists don’t seem to have any memory of the hot days of their youth, and the kids… well, they just fell off the turnip truck, so they have no idea.

One of the great perversions of climate alarmism is the notion that the private enterprise system must be heavily regulated or even abolished in order to put an end to global warming. Never mind that governments are directly responsible for a major share of environmental degradation. And as private economies flourish, the environmental efficiency of production actually improves. In fact, if one were to stipulate that climate change is a problem, as I will for just this one sentence, vibrant capitalism offers the best path to environmental solutions. There are several basic reasons. One is that economic growth and higher income levels give consumers the wherewithal to demand and pay for costlier “green” products. More fundamentally, economic growth facilitates development and investment in cleaner technologies by business and government.

Miss Thunberg doesn’t understand any of this, of course, but she’s a pretty good little scold:

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean, yet you come to us young people for hope. How dare you.”

Here’s Arthur Chrenkoff’s take on poor Thunberg and her message:

“[She] should be going to Beijing or Bangalore and staging her protests there instead of, or at least in addition to, Sweden or New York. She should be hounding President Xi and Prime Minister Modi about their shameful emissions. She should be leading throngs of Asian kids out of schools for her Friday student strikes. She should be castigating the industries and the consumers of the developing world for destroying the planet and killing humanity in the process. She should be doing all this if she were serious about the global nature of the problem.”

I especially like this quote from Scott Adams on the “child advocate” phenomenon we’re witnessing:

Adults sometimes like to use children to carry their messages because it makes it hard for the other side to criticize them without seeming like monsters. If adults have encouraged you to panic about climate change without telling you what I am telling you here, they do not have your best interests at heart. They are using you.

Of course, Thunberg is thoroughly propagandized and a useful theatrical tool for the alarmist establishment. She has made all sorts of ridiculous and unquestioned claims before the United Nations and elsewhere (e.g., people are dying from climate change (no); that she can “see” CO2 (okay, her mother said that, but what a hoot!). Don’t think for a second that “we have to listen to the children” is uttered sincerely by any adult climate alarmist. It’s manipulation. I feel sorry for Thunberg not least because she is probably deeply frightened about the climate, but also because she is a tool of a death cult.

You really can’t blame kids for being worried about bogeymen foisted upon them by foolish elders, but you can blame the adults for their own frightened acceptance of chicken-little climate augury. And that’s what the kids are being taught. The schools certainly won’t penalize them for missing classes. In fact, many of their teachers accompanied them to the protests.

The climate scare is part of a larger agenda to dismantle not just capitalism, but a host of innocent individual liberties. Scaring children and making teens into miserable pessimists will groom them as good (if neurotic) environmental soldiers for life. They’ll be fit as compliant subjects of a new, environmental fascist state, never to know the sweet freedom and growth possible without the needless bindings imposed by climate cranks. Children, the protection you’ve been told to demand isn’t necessary or worth it. You’re fighting for goose eggs!

 

 

Who Are the Zero-Sum Winners?

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Productive effort seldom goes unrewarded, but all too often rewards are directed to nonproductive activities and secured in ways that are outright takings of resources and rights from others. These are zero-sum propositions at best, as the rewards come only at equivalent or greater costs to others. Gains from zero-sum activities are often purely consumptive in nature and tend to foster more destructive behavior. A clear-cut example is outright thievery, but there are many cases in which, by matters of degree, the perpetrators are not even dimly aware that their gains bring harm to others.

Sadly, our society has undergone a transition to a state in which everyone collects ongoing streams of zero-sum rewards, which are, by definition, at someone else’s (and often our own) expense. The turbulence caused by this unnecessary and avoidable mix of costs and rewards is all too real for consumers and businesses, but again, they don’t always fully grasp its dysfunctional nature.

The Way To Positive Sums

Of course, there are winners and losers in almost any area of economic life. Even when two individuals engage in mutually beneficial exchange, an otherwise win-win situation, other traders might regret missing out on the deal. Pleasing buyers more effectively than one’s competitors might force those rivals to turn to other pursuits. That’s all for the best from a social point of view, unless they can come up with an even better idea to win back customers. In this way, things can keep getting better and better for everyone, even for the one-time losers who are free to compete in trades to which they are better suited. Winners, then, are defined by their success in creating value for others. These are the productive winners. But again, material success doesn’t always come so honorably.

Bobbing For Booty?

Purely “consumptive” or zero-sum winners might be simple crooks who are able to avoid apprehension, or perhaps they are dishonest business-people who sell goods with hidden defects or inferior workmanship. There are many degrees here: a talented salesperson with shoddy merchandise might compromise on price. A clever product manager might reduce the size of a package slightly without reducing price.

A simple gamble is zero-sum in a purely monetary sense, but both gamblers do it for enjoyment, so there are psychic gains involved. A successful gambler might be a zero-sum winner in a monetary sense, but luck usually runs out on honest players. A cheater qualifies as a zero-sum winner. Conversely, it’s not correct to say that casinos are strictly zero-sum winners, though the odds are always stacked in favor of the house and everyone knows it. Casino patrons enjoy the experience, including other amusements available in casinos, so they are often happy customers despite their losses. They are engaging in mutually beneficial exchange.

Private Affairs Made Public

A short-hand description encompassing much of our zero-sum havoc is “the public trough”. Many zero-sum rewards have arisen out of legislative battles, court cases, and regulatory actions restricting private decision-making and encroaching on private property rights. The unremitting tendency is for expansion of these kinds of actions. Where there are zero-sum winners at the public trough, or an opportunity to expand the trough itself, there are always more covetous seekers of zero-sum winnings, otherwise known as rent seekers. They are reliable promoters of “do-something-ism” relative to the outrage du jour through more legislation, lawsuits, and regulatory filings. The tragic thing about rent seeking is that the process itself consumes resources and undermines private incentives, thereby transforming zero-sum outcomes into wasteful, negative-sum outcomes.

Winners At the Trough

There are many kinds of zero-sum winners at the public trough. The winning and losing often occur separately and asynchronously, connected only by an enabling authority who sets rules and funds winners from proceeds taken from losers. For this reason, it is easy for citizens to lose track of the “zero-sumness” of the many benefits they receive. After all, the government can deliver things for “free”, right? And the connection between one’s obligations, losses, and the gains reaped by others is not always obvious.

All of the following involve some degree of zero-sum activity, and all attract rent seekers:

  • Public aid in exchange for no contribution to output, funded by zero-sum losing taxpayers.
  • Subsidies for politically-favored technologies that are otherwise uneconomic, funded by zero-sum losing taxpayers.
  • Farm subsidies when too much is produced and the output is not highly valued, leading to an overallocation of resources to agricultural activity and rents for farmers funded by zero-sum losing taxpayers.
  • Complex regulatory and tax rules generate income for compliance advisors such as attorneys, accountants, and consultants. Those are rents, pure and simple, paid for by parties who must comply under penalty of law.
  • Regulatory advantage conferred upon firms sufficiently large or dominant to afford compliance. That penalizes smaller competitors and undermines their market position. The additional profit large firms may earn as a consequence is a rent, funded by zero-sum losing consumers and weaker competitors.
  • The award of government contracts is often as much political as it is economic. Such a process is not subject to the market discipline imposed on private contracts, so there is ample opportunity for rents via cost-padding and graft, again funded by zero-sum losing taxpayers.
  • More generally, government purchases of any kind are subject to weak market discipline, like any buyer spending someone else’s money. Thus, government has a tendency to pay prices not supported by economic value, offering rents to suppliers, funded by zero-sum losing taxpayers.
  • The tax deduction afforded to employer-provided health care is a targeted subsidy that leads employees to over-insure. More fundamentally, these employees and their employers are zero-sum winners. It also creates profits for health insurers and drives up health care costs. The zero-sum spoils are to the detriment of other taxpayers and participants in the individual insurance market.
  • Drug prohibition drives up black market profits, creating zero-sum winnings at the expense and safety of users.
  • Social Security creates zero-sum winnings for those who will not or cannot save. But this is a mixed bag to the extent that some people are unable to save privately: their ability to do so is largely usurped via payroll taxes, both on them and on their employer. The many zero-sum losers would otherwise have no difficulty earning better returns on private investments.

There are many other examples. And almost everyone ends up on one side or the other of many different zero-sum outcomes. Show me a government action and I’ll show you zero-sum winners and losers. This is not to say there are no welfare gains associated with government action. Public aid, for example, is intended as social insurance and surely has some value in mitigating the risks of personal economic calamity. Nonetheless, the overextension and poor incentives of aid programs create a significant zero-sum component. Likewise, government spending on public goods creates social benefits, but government is insufficiently incented to economize, creating a zero-sum win for contractors and losses for taxpayers.

Not Zero Sum

While zero-sum winners collect economic rents, the existence of economic rents does not imply a zero-sum winning. For example, members of the so-called rentier class collect passive investment income. Those investments represent a supply of current resources to other parties hoping to transform them into a greater supply of future resources. That’s productive, and so the gains enjoyed by rentiers are not zero-sum winnings, but payments for the use of transformational capital.

Economic profits are those exceeding the owner’s opportunity cost, and they too are called rents. They should not necessarily be classified as zero-sum gains, however. Only sometimes. Successful innovators and first movers often earn economic profits as a reward for their efforts, as do alert entrepreneurs deploying their resources where they are most demanded. This “positive-sumness” applies to monopolists with a hot product just as surely as it applies to a firm facing nascent competition. But economic profits gained through political connections, outright graft, and government-enabled monopoly are zero-sum, enabled by non-market, authoritarian forces. Members of the political class tend to share in these zero-sum gains, and there are many losers.

Zero-Sum Psyche

Unfortunately, zero-sum thinking is deeply ingrained in the human psyche, despite our transition to a higher plane of social cooperation via markets. Even in those markets, certain outcomes might seem zero-sum in the moment. Witness the widespread denigration of the profit motive, which produces efficient outcomes in the long-run. As noted above, over time, the biggest winners tend to be those capable of creating the most value.

If you ask school children today how to get rich, many will say “win the lottery” without hesitation. I know, I know, government-sponsored lotteries are a relatively new phenomenon, and some of the lottery proceeds may benefit schools or other public programs, but the idea that a game of chance is so indelibly ingrained in the minds of children is a manifestation of the psychology of zero-sum success.

The Tangled Mess

So we have the zero-sum winners: successful gamblers, thieves, and rent seekers. The latter root deeply for gains made possible by government intervention in private affairs, actions that always leave room for enduring rents. They always lobby fiercely for new public interventions that might confer private advantages. And then we have the hapless public, stumbling through a series of zero-sum gains and losses made possible by the Leviathan they know and obey. They should look in the mirror, because every law and every program they have allowed their political leaders to hatch, reliably sold as good and just, creates more zero-sum activity to the detriment of long-term economic welfare. Roll it back!

Amazon Fire Fraud

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Leftist activists recently pounced on another opportunity to mischaracterize events, this time in the Amazon Basin, where recent fires were held to be unprecedented. The fires were also characterized as evidence of a massive conspiracy between capitalists and the new government of President Jair Bolsonaro to open the rain forest to commercial exploitation. Warren Meyer squares away the facts at this Coyote Blog post, which is where I found the chart above. Forest clearing in Brazil has been much lower over the past 10 years than during period 1988-2008. It stepped-up somewhat during the first half of 2019, but it still ran at a rate well below 2008. A key reason for the increase is fascinating, but I’ll merely tease that for now.

As for the fires, Meyer provides the following quote about this year’s fires from NASA in a statement accompanying a satellite photo:

As of August 16, 2019, satellite observations indicated that total fire activity in the Amazon basin was slightly below average in comparison to the past 15 years. Though activity has been above average in Amazonas and to a lesser extent in Rondônia, it has been below average in Mato Grosso and Pará, according to the Global Fire Emissions Database.

So what was the cause of all the alarm? Meyer points to a August 22 story in the Washington Post, though WaPo might not have been the first. The article was either poorly researched and “fact checked” or it was a deliberate attempt to raise alarm. The sloppy story was picked up elsewhere, of course, and distorted memes spread on social media condemning the Brazilian government and capitalism generally.

The burning that is taking place has been started by farmers preparing land for crops, a process that occurs every year. Meyer quotes the New York Times on this point, which noted that very little of the burning was taking place in old-growth forests.

What’s really ironic and crazy about all this is that U.S. environmental policy is responsible for some of the burning that is taking place in the Amazon. Meyer notes that U.S. ethanol mandates have subsidized a years-long trend of increased sugar cane production in the Amazon Basin. Of course, burning is a regular part of the normal sugar cane harvest. Moreover, that production has contributed to land clearance, offsetting some of the forces that have brought the rate of deforestation in Brazil down overall.

The whole episode dovetails with the ongoing narrative that fires are burning out of control across the globe due to climate change. We heard similar propaganda last year after several large fires in California. Michael Shellenberger does his best to set the record straight, demonstrating that the annual land area burned worldwide has declined by 25% since 2003. He contrasts that record with the hopelessly errant reporting by major media organizations.

As P.T. Barnum once said, a sucker’s born every minute. He might as well have been talking about the armies of well-meaning but gullible greenies who fall for every scare story told by the likes of Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio. And scare stories are exactly what these tales of a global conflagration amount to. Meanwhile, as Alexander Hammond explains, global reforestation has taken hold. In what is apparently a paradox to some, this is largely the result of economic growth. Hammond discusses the logical connections between economic development and environmental goods, including reforestation and biodiversity. The bottom line is that the best policies for reforestation are not those imposing obstacles to growth, as the environmental Left would have it. Rather, it is policies that promote development and income growth, which are generally more compatible with individual liberty, that will encourage growth in the world’s forests.

“Recycling Is Largely Fake”

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The quotation headlined above is from Duke University economist Michael Munger, and it’s essentially what I’ve contended for years (see “When Is Recycling Not Wasteful?“). Munger’s latest essay on this subject is entitled, “For Most Things, Recycling Harms the Environment“. The reasons are very basic: resource costs. As Munger says, the degree of economic and environmental justification for recycling varies, depending on the item, but few supporters of recycling ever bother to look into the details.

First, a very basic economic point: resource conservation is beneficial for the environment. Sometimes there are technological trade-offs between conservation of different resources, but costs are always a matter of resource use: less use, lower total costs. Resource conservation is synonymous with lower costs. Indeed, that is why we are told to recycle, and that is what most people think they’re doing when they recycle.

But while recycling always conserves some resource more or less directly, the mere process of recycling uses other resources. This includes the costs of rolling trucks to collect the items, including fuel, labor, machinery and labor for sorting, water, chemicals, more distant shipping, and separate processes to convert the items into usable goods. In its entirety, then, recycling often does not conserve resources.

Voluntary consumer-recyclers seldom face the marginal costs of recycling directly. This highlights the general nature of environmental problems that arise in any society: external costs are often borne by parties external to the activity in question. And here is where the story of recycling’s poor economics gets interesting. Recycling advocates would have us believe that our private use of products, for which we generally pay full cost, imposes external or social costs on others unless we recycle all recyclable components of the product and it’s packaging. In fact, the opposite is often true!

Therefore, governments, fully on-board with popular recycling myths, often mandate recycling, which is another way of saying that you are not free to make your own decision based on costs and benefits. So the costs of recycling are on you, but you are unimpacted at any margin along which you can make decisions. You are forced to internalize some part of the costs that are presumptively avoided via recycling according to the myth. You pay taxes to fund the collection of materials at the curb, but governments often require citizens to clean and sort those materials. That carries significant costs that governments prefer to remain implicit.

This is to say nothing of the actual net value of the recycled materials, which is often negative. Certain items require so much processing and produce materials of such low quality that no one wants them. Virgin materials are often cheaper than fully processed recycled material, and usually yield better quality, or both. Far better, then, to pay the cost of transporting these kinds of discards to landfills and paying for the low-cost landfill space, which is plentiful, contrary to greenist propaganda.

Munger provides examples of such wasteful-to-recycle materials. For instance, attempts to recycle glass bottles are often completely non-productive relative to landfilling. That’s due to cost factors, lousy quality after processing, and weak market prices for recycled glass. Plastics are of questionable value as recyclables as well: huge quantities had been shipped to the Far East, but the volume was too much for the Chinese (and too dirty, they claimed), so it often ended-up in landfills anyway. Last year, the Chinese banned imports of recyclable plastics from several countries, which means that our plastic materials are probably headed for our own landfills. Yet we still go to the trouble of preparing and collecting them for recycling.

According to Munger, aluminum cans are worthwhile to recycle relative to landfilling. So are certain types of cardboard (though the Chinese don’t want some of those either). Also, scrap metals are privately recycled via active markets for the materials.

Private parties who can internalize costs in their voluntary decisions are wise to abide by the following:

I have sometimes suggested a test for whether something is garbage or a valuable commodity. Hold it in your hand, or hold a cup of it, or tank, or however you can handle it. Consider: Will someone pay me for this? If the answer is yes, it’s a commodity, a valuable resource. If the answer is no, meaning you have to pay them to take it, then it’s garbage.”

Of course, society as a whole must internalize costs. There’s no way around it. Therefore, governments should behave as if they internalize costs as well, though they hardly ever do. They would sooner mandate recycling when they know full well that the simple economics outlined above don’t support it. That means an unnecessary consumption of resources is attributable to the recycling charade, which is environmentally unsound by the strictest of Green standards.

I am not quite so hard on government recycling mandates when there exist significant external costs associated with sending uneconomic trash to landfills, or when there are real efficiencies associated with recycling. Landfills must price their space efficiently, collecting sufficient fees from users to pay for environmental mitigation as well as the payoffs necessary to mollify those nearby who might happen to harbor NIMBY-ism. But recycling mandates offer strong evidence that the economics of recycling are not worthwhile. So please, whenever you are told that recycling is virtuous, be suspicious. As Munger says, it’s largely a fraud.

Mass Shootings and Mass Manipulation

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The drumbeat for gun control from Leftist authoritarians never stops, and the recent mass shootings in Dayton OH, El Paso TX, and Gilroy CA, have been greeted with so much political agitation that the victims have become mere footnotes. Attempting to marshal facts in this debate can be quite confusing due to the variety of definitions of “mass shootings”. This variety contributes to certain myths about guns and gun violence that are often repeated by the media to a brow-beaten public. The confusion also motivates anti-gun policy prescriptions that are likely to be ineffective at best, and in all likelihood, counter-productive.

What constitutes a “mass shooting”? The traditional FBI definition counted an incident as a mass killling if four or more people were killed, not including the perpetrator. Broader definitions include cases in which 4 or more people are killed or injured, including the perpetrator. Gun rights opponents seem to prefer expansive definitions, including those that count gang-related killings, domestic shootings, or those occurring in the commission of another criminal act. Criminologist John Lott contends that these kinds of killings are driven by fundamentally different social forces than the mass public shootings that are at the center of this debate. For example, with respect to gang killings, Lott says:

“... the causes and solutions to drug gang violence are dramatically different than for the vast majority of mass public shootings, where attacks are designed to kill or wound as many people as possible. Padding the numbers by lumping the two together doesn’t make much sense.”

The more expansive definitions give rise to the notion that mass shootings have been trending-up dramatically in America. In fact, as Christopher J. Ferguson reports, data from The USA TODAY/AP/Northeastern University mass killings database show that the rate of mass shooting incidents per year has been flat since the early 1990s and are not much higher than the averages of the 1970s.

Another prominent distortion often accepted uncritically is that the U.S. leads the world in mass shootings. The U.S. totals are often inflated, but part of the reason for this misperception is that it’s easy to undercount foreign mass shootings. They do not always receive the same intensity of news coverage as mass shootings in the U.S., and tracking reports published in other languages is inherently more difficult for researchers. Lott says the following:

Of the 86 countries where we have identified mass public shootings, the US ranks 56th per capita in its rate of attacks and 61st in mass public shooting murder rate. Norway, Finland, Switzerland and Russia all have at least 45 percent higher rates of murder from mass public shootings than the United States.”

The tragic nature of mass shootings should not prevent us from keeping the magnitude of these events in perspective, as Chris Buskirk explains in “Everything They’re Telling You About Mass Shootings Is Wrong“. For example, almost three-quarters of U.S. mass shootings in 2018 (four or more killed or injured) were associated with criminal activity, bar fights, and the like. And of course other social problems dwarf public mass shootings, such as the 70,000 opioid deaths that occurred in 2018, a phenomenon not coincidentally associated with the War on Drugs. And as Buskirk reminds us, the number of fatalities in public mass shootings is infinitesimal relative to the total number of defensive gun uses.

The Left’s reaction to these events is wrongheaded and their policy prescriptions are dangerous. A simple example is the widespread designation of buildings and public spaces as “gun-free zones”. However, it is highly likely that ending these designations would be an effective preventative against mass public shootings. John Lott writes in “How gun-free zones invite mass shootings” that 98% of the mass public shootings since 1950 occurred in areas where guns were prohibited. And we know that mass shootings are indeed prevented by armed citizens. Yet the Left staunchly opposes such a change and promotes the futile and foolish elimination of gun rights in general (also see this).

Leah Libresco, a statistician and former news writer at Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, was highly disillusioned after devoting considerable effort to researching gun deaths. She expected to find that broad gun control measures were the answer. Instead, she says:

… the case for the policies I’d lobbied for crumbled when I examined the evidence. The best ideas left standing were narrowly tailored interventions to protect subtypes of potential victims, not broad attempts to limit the lethality of guns. 

I researched the strictly tightened gun laws in Britain and Australia and concluded that they didn’t prove much about what America’s policy should be. Neither nation experienced drops in mass shootings or other gun related-crime that could be attributed to their buybacks and bans.”

Then there are the continuing, uninformed calls to ban “assault weapons”. As Libresco explains:

 “… no gunowner walks into the store to buy an ‘assault weapon.’ It’s an invented classification that includes any semi-automatic that has two or more features, such as a bayonet mount, arocket-propelled grenade-launcher mount, a folding stock or a pistol grip. But guns are modular, and any hobbyist can easily add these features at home, just as if they were snapping together Legos.”

Bill Clinton weighed into the debate last week by claiming that his assault weapons “ban”, which began in 1994, was so effective that we should be eager to accede to plans recently put forward by Democrats. Mark Overstreet quickly called him out as a liar, and on no less than six counts. Not only were existing “assault weapons” exempted under Clinton’s “ban”, but Americans actually added to their private stocks of weapons that met the law’s criteria during its enforcement. Existing large ammunition magazines were exempted, as well as imports of such magazines. Thus, Clinton’s so-called ban did not even approach the draconian measures now being proposed, which range from manufacturing and import prohibitions all the way up to confiscation.

Also preposterous are the Left’s routine characterizations of mass shooters as “right-wing extremists”. The truth is hardly clear cut. For example, despite expressing strong anti-immigrant sentiment, the shooters in El Paso and Christchurch, New Zealand were both environmental radicals or “eco-fascists”, in the Christchurch shooter’s words. The Dayton shooter was a self-described socialist and a supporter of Bernie Sanders, as was James T. Hodgkinson, the gunman who attacked a group of Republican legislators at a baseball practice, seriously injuring Congressman Steve Scalese. These madmen clearly weren’t crazed right-wing zealots. If anything, their profiles usually reflect severe psychological as well as ideological confusion.

Even one public mass shooting is too many, but their prevalence in the U.S. has been exaggerated in several ways. The hyperbole is often politically-motivated, intended to create negative public sentiment toward Second Amendment rights. But you can’t stop public mass shootings by foolishly disarming or criminalizing the very law-abiding citizens who are often the only force capable of providing an immediate defensive response.

Snopes Attacks Satire In Ominous Self-Satirization

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Snopes.com began as an investigator of urban legends and rumors, exposing myths in an exercise that was useful and often fascinating. More recently, despite its founder’s weak argument to the contrary, Snopes has fully revealed its bias against certain political viewpoints, along with a tendency to avoid reporting some actual facts as facts when it suits itself. Lately this has reached a pathetic level, with the site drawing amused reaction to its confusion over the satiric nature of The Babylon Bee. The Bee is a truly funny site similar to The Onion, but it bills itself as “Christian Satire”. If you find that off-putting or think it means the humor must be cornpone, think again. Of course, there is no doubt that the Bee’s humor often pokes fun at the Left, which probably explains Snopes’ motives.

Snopes itself has not been above a bit of fibbing. Its “political fact-checker”, Kim Lacapria, is a former leftist blogger, known to have maligned the Tea Party as “Teahadists”, a funny mischaracterization of the unquestionably peaceful movement as violent. She’s not exactly a person you’d trust as an impartial arbiter of political “fact”. Linda Sue Grimes wrote an informative article with several prominent examples of bias by Snopes. There have also been reports of sordid personal and financial exploits  by one of Snopes’ founders, much of which stands up to scrutiny

In its latest misadventure in fact-weaving, Snopes’ has charged that the Bee published a story “intended to deceive” readers, and it claimed the Bee  had done so in the past. The story was entitled “Georgia Lawmaker Claims Chick-Fil-A Employee Told Her To Go Back To Her Country, Later Clarifies He Actually Said ‘My Pleasure“. It was inspired by an incident in which the same Georgia lawmaker apparently had too many items in the express checkout at a Publix grocery store. She claimed that an angry white man told her to “go back to where you came from”. However, the Publix clerk with whom she had the altercation, who happens to be Cuban, denies having said any such thing, though he did admit to calling her a bitch. The lawmaker’s allegation seems suspiciously coincidental, having come in the immediate wake of Donald Trump’s controversial tweet that the quartet of federal lawmakers known as “The Squad” should “go back to where they came from”.

Apparently, the humor in the Bee’s article was just a bit too subtle for Snopes, whose “woke” employees have particularly vivid imaginations. The Bee article was funny precisely because it ridiculed those who hear racial “dog whistles” everywhere. The idea that a Chinese employee working a drive-through at Chick-Fil-A would say such a thing is unlikely to say the least. Anyone who has ever visited a Chick-Fil-A knows it. Too many of those with whistles in their ears haven’t had the pleasure.

Has the Bee intended to deceive its readers in the past? Perhaps Snopes was referring to an article entitled “CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine to Spin News Before Publication“. Snopes went to the trouble of calling that story false and bringing it to Facebook’s attention. Facebook actually issued a warning to the Bee (for which FB later apologized). But here’s the thing, in Grimes’ words:

Debunking a piece of satire renders the debunker as functionally illiterate, appearing too ignorant to understand that a piece of satire does not function to relay information as a news report would.”

It’s actually much worse than that. If Snopes wants to to assess the objective truth of claims, that’s one thing, but it has drifted into the assessment of literary and authorial intent. That’s ominous for the cause of free discourse, especially to the extent that social media sites rely on Snopes as a filter to deplatform certain voices or silence points of view. Snopes has no business attempting to draw distinctions between satire and “fake news” or any intent to deceive, because it’s bound to get it wrong and already has. They might as well fact-check stand-up comics whose routines might confuse a few dimwitted members of the public, and Snopes just might do so if the comic doesn’t support its preferred political narrative. Snopes’ role is not to protect the unsophisticated from satire, and apparently its fact-checkers feel no compulsion to debunk the satire produced by The Onion, for example. The Bee’s pointed satire often serves the purpose of exposing the Left for its congenital stupidity, but that is anything but an effort to deceive, as much as Snopes might wish it was so.

 

Multi-But-Not-Your-Culturalism

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Multiculturalism is not compatible with universal participation. Don’t think for a second that it has anything to do with a “melting pot” in which people from different cultures share a set of values and principles establishing their national identity and governing principles. Quite the contrary: multiculturalism is a clunky cauldron of “identities” competing in a grievance-sweepstakes, and admission to the competition is very selective. Indeed, you might not be from a culture that is celebrated by multiculturalists. And if your not, then your culture is probably one that deserves condemnation. The participation limits inherent in multiculturalism don’t stop there. If you so much as try to celebrate other cultures, you might be accused of cultural appropriation.

The trick to fully participate in multiculturalism is that your culture must have a claim to victimhood. But sometimes even that isn’t good enough. For example, even if your ancestors were holocaust survivors, your identification as a Jew might make your status quite fragile among multiculturalists. Don’t even mention it if you’re a Christian or of European extraction. Even Asians and “white Hispanics” are sometimes “othered” as well, depending on their economic status and political views. Again, as a minimum requirement, your culture must have a claim to victimhood or else you are, by default, part of the privileged class. And yeah, you’re probably a racist to boot.

Rod Dreher prefers the term asymmetrical multiculturalism as a reference for this kind of identity politics. It’s so asymmetrical that even white, gentry progressives who voice unqualified approval are stymied by its power to suppress their own expression of thought. He quotes a reader whose wife recently attended a brunch with some urban friends:

Every single friend confessed that they and their husbands plan to sell their homes and move to other areas of the county because ‘the schools have gotten so bad.’… All of these nice, liberal-signaling people are uprooting their entire lives to get their kids into better schools, but they can never speak the reason aloud. The schools turning bad is force majeure, you see, like a hurricane or an earthquake, but with utterly mysterious origins, like a pulse from another dimension that leaves the world’s top scientists scratching their heads.”

Their children apparently attend schools with growing cohorts of otherwise intelligent, immigrant children who are unprepared to learn, in English, at the same pace and under the same set of behavioral expectations as their own. If you are white, you cannot speak constructively of any shortcomings that might crop up within a multicultural community, especially one with a population of illegal immigrants, without being condemned as a racist. Critical words are seen as evidence of prejudice, according to this view. Its power is manifest in the reluctance of these brunching progressives to articulate the reasons for the decline of their local schools.

At the same time, you better not intimate that your own group has a legitimate “identity”. Peggy Noonan reports that the Inclusive Communications Task Force at Colorado State University has advised that one should not speak of “Americans” because “it erases other cultures”. It makes no difference whether your interests as an American align with those of other groups. Just do not speak of it!

Everything in this game of status depends on the whims of the coterie of jealous multicultural gatekeepers. Writing for The Claremont Institute, Ryan P. Williams describes multiculturalism thusly:

… multiculturalism defines and defends the rights of groups rather than individuals and denies the possibility of any natural standard from which to assess the goodness of political or moral arrangements. … multiculturalism denies equality of each under the law of all. But so too does multiculturalism therefore abandon any principled adjudication of willful or rival claims to prestige, honor, and resources advanced by groups as a matter of right. Will and force replace reason and deliberation.

Multiculturalism is based on the nominal equality (really, the contending wills or force) of oppressed groups, but on a sliding scale regulated by fashionable opinion in the universities and their applied-science workshop, the administrative state. Justice means the due distribution by the state of prestige, power, and resources to this ranked system of groups.”

It would be wonderful if multiculturalism had only to do with the pride, recognition, and the broad sharing of diverse cultures. Today, unfortunately, that is not the thrust, if it ever was. Instead, it is about the promotion and elevation of some cultures at the expense of others. Its rewards are arbitrary and without reference to merit, and it seeks to levy corresponding punishments on those without fault. It is a zero-sum system of thinking about the distribution of rewards and the value of lives. Its advocates are preoccupied with valuing the injustices of the distant past as obligations of innocent human contemporaries. It is about keeping score, rather than creating value. It is bigotry and racism by another name. And it rejects our constitutional principles in favor of selectively assigned rights, including “rights” to reparations.

These are the kinds of dangerous tenets that are slowly becoming institutionalized in our schools, media, administrative agencies, private businesses, and even in the language. We can hope that because the current variant of multiculturalism is so insane, it might be politically unstable. Such a corrupt philosophy attracts corrupt, power- and rent-seeking individuals along with throngs of unstable social justice warriors. Multiculturalism, at least in this perverse form, might well sow the seeds of its own destruction before its divisiveness destroys the country. 

Behold Our Algorithmic Overlords

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A willingness to question authority is healthy, both in private matters and in the public sphere, but having the freedom to do so is even healthier. It facilitates free inquiry, the application of the scientific method, and it lies at the heart of our constitutional system. Voluntary acceptance of authority, and trust in its legitimacy, hinges on our ability to identify its source, the rationale for its actions, and its accountability. Unaccountable authority, on the other hand, cannot be tolerated. It’s the stuff of which tyranny is made.

That’s one linchpin of a great essay by Matthew D. Crawford in American Affairs entitled “Algorithmic Governance and Political Legitimacy“. It’s a lengthy piece that covers lots of ground, and very much worth reading. Or you can read my slightly shorter take on it!

Imagine a world in which all the information you see is selected by algorithm. In addition, your success in the labor market is determined by algorithm. Your college admission and financial aid decisions are determined by algorithm. Credit applications are decisioned by algorithm. The prioritization you are assigned for various health care treatments is determined by algorithm. The list could go on and on, but many of these “use-cases” are already happening to one extent or another.

Blurring Private and Public Governance

Much of what Crawford describes has to do with the way we conduct private transactions and/or private governance. Most governance in free societies, of the kind that touches us day-to-day, is private or self-government, as Crawford calls it. With the advent of giant on-line platforms, algorithms are increasingly an aspect of that governance. Crawford notes the rising concentration of private governmental power within these organizations. While the platforms lack complete monopoly power, they are performing functions that we’d ordinarily be reluctant to grant any public form of government: they curate the information we see, conduct surveillance, exercise control over speech, and even indulge in the “deplatforming” of individuals and organizations when it suits them. Crawford quotes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg:

In a lot of ways Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company. . . . We have this large community of people, and more than other technology companies we’re really setting policies.”

At the same time, the public sector is increasingly dominated by a large administrative apparatus that is outside of the normal reach of legislative, judicial and even executive checks. Crawford worries about “… the affinities between administrative governance and algorithmic governance“.  He emphasizes that neither algorithmic governance on technology platforms nor an algorithmic administrative state are what one could call representative democracy. But whether these powers have been seized or we’ve granted them voluntarily, there are already challenges to their legitimacy. And no wonder! As Crawford says, algorithms are faceless pathways of neural connections that are usually difficult to explain, and their decisions often strike those affected as arbitrary or even nonsensical.

Ministry of Wokeness

Political correctness plays a central part in this story. There is no question that the platforms are setting policies that discriminate against certain viewpoints. But Crawford goes further, asserting that algorithms have a certain bureaucratic logic to elites desiring “cutting edge enforcement of social norms“, i.e., political correctness, or “wokeness”, the term of current fashion.

First, in the spirit of Václav Havel we might entertain the idea that the institutional workings of political correctness need to be shrouded in peremptory and opaque administrative mechanisms be­cause its power lies precisely in the gap between what people actu­ally think and what one is expected to say. It is in this gap that one has the experience of humiliation, of staying silent, and that is how power is exercised.

But if we put it this way, what we are really saying is not that PC needs administrative enforcement but rather the reverse: the expand­ing empire of bureaucrats needs PC. The conflicts created by identi­ty politics become occasions to extend administrative authority into previously autonomous domains of activity. …

The incentive to technologize the whole drama enters thus: managers are answerable (sometimes legally) for the conflict that they also feed on. In a corporate setting, especially, some kind of ass‑covering becomes necessary. Judgments made by an algorithm (ideally one supplied by a third-party vendor) are ones that nobody has to take responsibility for. The more contentious the social and political landscape, the bigger the institutional taste for automated decision-making is likely to be.

Political correctness is a regime of institutionalized insecurity, both moral and material. Seemingly solid careers are subject to sud­den reversal, along with one’s status as a decent person.”

The Tyranny of Deliberative Democracy

Crawford takes aim at several other trends in intellectual fashion that seem to complement algorithmic governance. One is “deliberative democracy”, an ironically-named theory which holds that with the proper framing conditions, people will ultimately support the “correct” set of policies. Joseph Goebbels couldn’t have put it better. As Crawford explains, the idea is to formalize those conditions so that action can be taken if people do not support the “correct” policies. And if that doesn’t sound like Gleichschaltung (enforcement of conformity), nothing does! This sort of enterprise would require:

 “… a cadre of subtle dia­lecticians working at a meta-level on the formal conditions of thought, nudging the populace through a cognitive framing operation to be conducted beneath the threshold of explicit argument. 

… the theory has proved immensely successful. By that I mean the basic assumptions and aspira­tions it expressed have been institutionalized in elite culture, perhaps nowhere more than at Google, in its capacity as directorate of information. The firm sees itself as ‘definer and defender of the public interest’ …

Don’t Nudge Me

Another of Crawford’s targets is the growing field of work related to the irrationality of human behavior. This work resulted from the revolutionary development of  experimental or behavioral economics, in which various hypotheses are tested regarding choice, risk aversion, an related issues. Crawford offers the following interpretation, which rings true:

“… the more psychologically informed school of behavioral economics … teaches that we need all the help we can get in the form of external ‘nudges’ and cognitive scaffolding if we are to do the rational thing. But the glee and sheer repetition with which this (needed) revision to our under­standing of the human person has been trumpeted by journalists and popularizers indicates that it has some moral appeal, quite apart from its intellectual merits. Perhaps it is the old Enlightenment thrill at disabusing human beings of their pretensions to specialness, whether as made in the image of God or as ‘the rational animal.’ The effect of this anti-humanism is to make us more receptive to the work of the nudgers.”

While changes in the framing of certain decisions, such as opt-in versus opt-out rules, can often benefit individuals, most of us would rather not have nudgers cum central planners interfere with too many of our decisions, no matter how poorly they think those decisions approximate rationality. Nudge engineers cannot replicate your personal objectives or know your preference map. Indeed, externally applied nudges might well be intended to serve interests other than your own. If the political equilibrium involves widespread nudging, it is not even clear that the result will be desirable for society: the history of central planning is one of unintended consequences and abject failure. But it’s plausible that this is where the elitist technocrats in Silicon Vally and within the administrative state would like to go with algorithmic governance.

Crawford’s larger thesis is summarized fairly well by the following statements about Google’s plans for the future:

The ideal being articulated in Mountain View is that we will inte­grate Google’s services into our lives so effortlessly, and the guiding presence of this beneficent entity in our lives will be so pervasive and unobtrusive, that the boundary between self and Google will blur. The firm will provide a kind of mental scaffold for us, guiding our intentions by shaping our informational context. This is to take the idea of trusteeship and install it in the infrastructure of thought.

Populism is the rejection of this.”

He closes with reflections on the attitudes of the technocratic elite toward those who reject their vision as untrustworthy. The dominance of algorithmic governance is unlikely to help them gain that trust.

What’s to be done?

Crawford seems resigned to the idea that the only way forward is an ongoing struggle for political dominance “to be won and held onto by whatever means necessary“. Like Bryan Caplan, I have always argued that we should eschew anti-trust action against the big tech platforms, largely because we still have a modicum of choice in all of the services they provide. Caplan rejects the populist arguments against the tech “monopolies” and insists that the data collection so widely feared represents a benign phenomenon. And after all, consumers continue to receive a huge surplus from the many free services offered on-line.

But the reality elucidated by Crawford is that the tech firms are much more than private companies. They are political and quasi-governmental entities. Their tentacles reach deeply into our lives and into our institutions, public and private. They are capable of great social influence, and putting their tools in the hands of government (with a monopoly on force), they are capable of exerting social control. They span international boundaries, bringing their technical skills to bear in service to foreign governments. This week Peter Theil stated that Google’s work with the Chinese military was “treasonous”. It was only a matter of time before someone prominent made that charge.

The are no real safeguards against abusive governance by the tech behemoths short of breaking them up or subjecting them to tight regulation, and neither of those is likely to turn out well for users. I would, however, support safeguards on the privacy of customer data from scrutiny by government security agencies for which the platforms might work. Firewalls between their consumer and commercial businesses and government military and intelligence interests would be perfectly fine by me. 

The best safeguard of viewpoint diversity and against manipulation is competition. Of course, the seriousness of threats these companies actually face from competitors is open to question. One paradox among many is that the effectiveness of the algorithms used by these companies in delivering services might enhance their appeal to some, even as those algorithms can undermine public trust.

There is an ostensible conflict in the perspective Crawford offers with respect to the social media giants: despite the increasing sophistication of their algorithms, the complaint is really about the motives of human beings who wish to control political debate through those algorithms, or end it once and for all. Jonah Goldberg puts it thusly:

The recent effort by Google to deny the Claremont Institute the ability to advertise its gala was ridiculous. Facebook’s blocking of Prager University videos was absurd. And I’m glad Facebook apologized.

But the fact that they apologized points to the fact that while many of these platforms clearly have biases — often encoded in bad algorithms — points to the possibility that these behemoths aren’t actually conspiring to ‘silence’ all conservatives. They’re just making boneheaded mistakes based in groupthink, bias, and ignorance.”

David French notes that the best antidote for hypocrisy in the management of user content on social media is to expose it loud and clear, which sets the stage for a “market correction“. And after all, the best competition for any social media platform is real life. Indeed, many users are dropping out of various forms of on-line interaction. Social media companies might be able to retain users and appeal to a broader population if they could demonstrate complete impartiality. French proposes that these companies adopt free speech policies fashioned on the First Amendment itself:

“…rules and regulations restricting speech must be viewpoint-neutral. Harassment, incitement, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress are speech limitations with viewpoint-neutral definitions…”

In other words, the companies must demonstrate that both moderators and algorithms governing user content and interaction are neutral. That is one way for them to regain broad trust. The other crucial ingredient is a government that is steadfast in defending free speech rights and the rights of the platforms to be neutral. Among other things, that means the platforms must retain protection under Section 230 of the Telecommunications Decency Act, which assures their immunity against lawsuits for user content. However, the platforms have had that immunity since quite early in internet history, yet they have developed an aggressive preference for promoting certain viewpoints and suppressing others. The platforms should be content to ensure that their policies and algorithms provide useful tools for users without compromising the free exchange of ideas. Good governance, political legitimacy, and ultimately freedom demand it. 

Renewables and Preempted Prosperity

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Coerced conversion to renewable energy sources will degrade human living conditions. That’s certainly true relative to a voluntary conversion actuated by purely private incentives. It’s likely to be true even in an absolute sense, depending on the speed and severity of the forced transition. A coerced conversion will mean lower real incomes during the transition (one recent estimate: $42,000 total loss per U.S. household to transition by 2030), and the losses will continue after the transition, with little redeeming improvement in environmental conditions or risk.

The Reality

There are several underpinnings for the assertions above. One is that the sensitivity of global temperatures to carbon forcings is relatively low. We know all too well that the climate models relied upon by warming alarmists have drastically over-estimated the extent of warming to date. The models are excessively sensitive to carbon emissions and promote an unwarranted urgency to DO SOMETHING… with other people’s money. There is also the question of whether moderate warming is really a bad thing given that it is likely to mean fewer cold-weather fatalities, increased agricultural productivity, and significant reforestation.

Another underpinning is that the real economics of renewable energy are vastly inferior to fossil fuels and will remain so for some time to come. Proponents of renewables tend to quote efficiencies under optimal operating conditions, free of pesky details like the cost of installing a vast support infrastructure and environmental costs of producing components. Solar and wind energy are tremendously inefficient in terms of land use. One estimate is that meeting a 100% renewable energy target in the U.S. today would require acreage equivalent to the state of California. And of course rare earth minerals must be mined for wind turbines and solar panels, and fossil fuels are needed to produce materials like the steel used to build them.

But the chief renewable bugaboo is that the power generated by wind and solar is intermittent. Our ability to store power is still extremely limited, so almost all surplus energy production is lost. Therefore, intermittency necessitates redundant generating capacity, which imposes huge costs. When the winds are calm and the sun isn’t shining, traditional power sources are needed to meet demand. That redundant capacity must be maintained and kept on-line, as these facilities are even costlier to power up from a dead start.

LA Hucksterism

These issues are typified by the unrealistic expectations of Los Angeles’ plan to replace 7% of the city’s power consumption with renewables. The cost predicted by LA regulators is slightly less than 2 cents per kilowatt hour for solar and even less for battery power, which are unrealistically low. For one thing, those are probably operating costs that do not account for capital requirements. The plan promises to provide power 16 hours a day at best, but it’s not clear that the 7% estimate of the renewable share takes that into account or whether the real figure should be 4.2% of LA’s power needs. The project will require 2,600 acres for solar panels, and if it’s like other solar plant installations, the stated capacity is based on the few hours of the day when the sun’s rays are roughly perpendicular to the panels. So it’s likely that the real cost of the power will be many times the estimates, though taxpayers will subsidize 30% or more of the total. And then there is the negative impact on birds and other wildlife.

The Question of Intent

Michael Schellenberger goes so far as to say that a degraded standard of living is precisely what many fierce renewable advocates have long intended. Modern comforts are simply not compatible with 100% renewable energy any time soon, or perhaps ever given the investment involved, but a target of 100% was not really intended to be compatible with modern comforts. In fact, the renewable proposition was often intermingled with celebration of a more austere, agrarian lifestyle. Schellenberger discusses the case of Martin Heidegger, an early anti-technologist who said in 1954 that modern technology “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy....” Of course, Heidegger was not talking about the use of solar panels. Others, like Murray Bookchin, were ultimately quite explicit about the “promise” of renewables to dial-back industrial society in favor of an agrarian ideal. And here’s a quote from a new book by John Barry, Professor of “Green Political Economy” (!) at Queen’s University Belfast:

The first question which serves as the starting point of this chapter is to ask if the objective of economic growth is now ecologically unsustainable, socially divisive and has in many countries passed the point when it is adding to human wellbeing?”

If that’s the question, the answer is no! The quote is courtesy of David Middleton. Green Professor Barry has one thing right, however: growing anything will be tough after crowding erstwhile farm and forest land with solar panels and wind turbines. But at least someone “green” is willing to admit some economic realities, something many alarmists and politicians are loath to do.

Welfare Loss

Involuntary actions always involve a welfare loss, as “subjects” must sacrifice the additional value they’d otherwise derive from their own choices. So it is that coerced adoption of renewables implies a starker outcome than zero economic growth. Objective measurement of all welfare costs is difficult, but we know that the adoption of renewables implies measurable up-front and ongoing economic losses. Matt Ridley notes that the impact of those losses falls hardest on the poor, whose energy needs absorb a large fraction of income. This, along with fundamental impracticality and high costs, accounts for the populist backlash against radical efforts to promote renewables in some European states. The politics of forced adoption of renewables is increasingly grim, but attempts to sell a centrally-planned energy sector based on renewables continue.

Ridley is rightly skeptical of carbon doomsday scenarios, but the pressure to curb carbon emissions will remain potent. He advocates a different form of intervention: essentially a carbon tax on producers with proceeds dedicated to new, competing sequestration or carbon capture technologies. Still coercive, the tax itself requires an estimate of the “economic cost of carbon”, which is of tremendously uncertain magnitude. The tax, of course, has the potential to do real harm to the economy. On the other hand, Ridley is correct in asserting that the effort to fund competing carbon-capture projects would leverage powerful market forces and perhaps hasten breakthroughs.

Mandated Misery

The attempt to force a complete conversion to renewable energy sources is meeting increasing political challenges as its cost is revealed more clearly by experience. Alarmists have long recognized the danger of economic damage, however. Thus, they try to convince us that economic growth and our current standards of living aren’t as good as we think they are, and they continue to exaggerate claims about the promise of renewable technologies. One day, some of these technologies will be sufficiently advanced that they will be economically viable without taxpayer subsidies. The conversion to renewables should be postponed until that day, when users can justify the switch in terms of costs and benefits, and do so voluntarily without interference by government planners.