When will Americans demand that the government denationalize money and free the market to do what it does better than anything else: serve the general welfare rather than the special interests?
It’s hard to know what it would take to bring this about, but inflation talk is once again in the air, and that’s bad. Worse, it’s in the shops. It had to happen after years of Fed Reserve’s money creation, through the banking system, in the name of stimulating this or stimulating that. Forget the printing press. All the Fed has to do is buy up oodles of bank assets (government debt and bad private assets), leaving those institutions with billions of conjured-up dollars in their computer accounts. Eventually the funny money would get out among us and do its damage. It had to happen sooner or later. Only the schedule was in doubt.
So why was the monetary system ever trusted to politicians and their bureaucratic appointees in the first place? The idea that a free society cannot provide sound money was an article of faith based on no evidence, like the idea that a free society cannot provide roads or law and order. The alleged failures of market-based money were really the result of government intervention. The “authorities” could never resist tampering whenever they saw the chance. Power is a strong drug.
Inflation is insidious. When central-bank policy robs people of their purchasing power by reducing the value of money, life gets harder. It’s obviously worse for the most vulnerable: the low- and fixed-income members of society, who can least afford the rise in the cost of living. But inflation does so much more. Savings melt away for most people, wreaking havoc with their ability to plan and to take care of themselves.
Even that does not exhaust the ways that the government’s central bank harms us. Prices rise, but not uniformly as though the “price level” were a real thing rather than a construct. What counts are relative prices (interest rates are prices too), which in the unmolested market reflect the relative changing of supply and demand. Market prices are indispensable for signaling that some things are being overproduced and while others are being underproduced. Since Fed-created money enters the economy at particular points in society, it changes relative prices in ways that differ from what would have taken place with market-based money. More havoc in the planning of production that would otherwise have served the general welfare.
Expectations change because of Fed policies, and those new expectations lead to employer and employee decisions that will turn out to be wrong when the inflation ends. When the Fed becomes nervous that things are getting out of hand, it will, as the saying goes, step on the brakes. Then many people will suffer anew from the recession, the great revelation of all the mistakes made under the government-distorted signals. And that’s not the end: the recession will be the excuse for new government interventions, which will only introduce further distortions. Never let a crisis pass without increasing power–that’s the politicians’ motto.
Does this sound like fun? Of course it doesn’t, but that’s what the state has done to us over and over. It keeps happening because government officials gain (though not necessarily in the traditional way), and they are good at blaming others for the bad effects. Economics is not intuitive, especially monetary economics.
Can we hope that the politicians and those who profit from their interventions will let go of the power? Why would they unless they had no choice? Inflation is magic: it, along with the power to borrow, enables our rulers to keep the support of constituencies without the explicit taxes they’d have to levy if the central bank did not exist. (Borrowing might still be an option but also might be more limited without central banking.) To put it another way, inflation is taxation by stealth, embezzlement rather than armed robbery. We pay for the largess the government bestows on special others, but much of it appears from thin air. When people pay the bill at the retail counter, most of them won’t know the government is to blame. That’s just evil.
Imagine if the government had to fight its decades-long wars with open taxation. Would Americans stand for global intervention if every penny of the trillion-dollar military had to be paid to the Internal Revenue Service? The poor military contractors might have to find other things to produce, maybe even things that consumers really want.
We owe it to ourselves and future generations to change this madness once and for all.
I was all set this week to plunge into the details of the Green New Deal so I could see what new impositions the climate-alarmist politicians have in store for us. Then I made a startling discovery. (Startling for me, that is. I’m behind the news curve.)
The Green New Deal isn’t real. By that, I mean no bill in Congress sets out a list of specific government actions thought to be necessary to save the planet from carbon dioxide, heat waves, cold snaps, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, desertification, extinction, more rain and floods, more droughts, more trees, fewer tress, or whatever the latest existential threat de jour is. I wondered why we hear all the talk about a Green New Deal if that’s the case.
According to Reuters, last April two of the usual suspects, Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez again introduced “their set of aggressive climate goals intended to transform the U.S. economy. Initially introduced in 2019, the non-binding resolution seeks to eliminate U.S. greenhouse gas emissions within a decade and transition the economy away from fossil fuels.”
It’s not a bill at all, but two nonbinding resolutions (H.Res. 332, in the House and S.Res. 166 in the Senate. Bills get a B) that list goals. That’s it.
I found confirmation from a disappointed Robinson Meyer, who wrote in the Atlantic, “With so much ballyhoo, it’s become easy to miss the central, implacable fact about the Green New Deal: It does not exist…. Three years after the idea of a Green New Deal broke into the mainstream, you can’t find an authoritative and detailed list of Green New Deal policies anywhere. There is no handbook, no draft legislation, no official report that articulates what belongs in a Green New Deal and what doesn’t.”
In very broad strokes, the Green New Deal legislation [sic] laid out by Ocasio-Cortez and Markey sets goals for some drastic measures to cut carbon emissions across the economy, from electricity generation to transportation to agriculture. In the process, it aims to create jobs and boost the economy. [Emphasis added.]
In that vein, the proposal stresses that it aims to meet its ambitious goals while paying special attention to groups like the poor, disabled and minority communities that might be disproportionately affected by massive economic transitions like those the Green New Deal calls for.
Importantly, it’s a nonbinding resolution, meaning that even if it were to pass…, it wouldn’t itself create any new programs. Instead, it would potentially affirm the sense of the House that these things should be done in the coming years.
In a way, that’s quite a relief. If all our misrepresentatives and public self-servants promise to do issue sense-of-the-Congress resolutions about this, that, and the other, then I say, leave them to it. They can declare that the tide goes out at a particular time, for all I care as long at they don’t do anything.
But the politicians see it another way. They want to do something, and while nothing they could do would actually achieve their bizarre goals, they would do irreparable harm to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the process. Even less ambitious programs, such as (arguably) President Biden’s, will be all cost and no benefit. Nevertheless, Green New Deal champions like Ocasio-Cortez think Biden’s “green”-infused so-called infrastructure plan is “not enough.” In April, she said Biden should spend more than twice the $3 trillion-$-4 trillion he initially called for. (Because of resistance in his own party, his spending plans seem to have been revised slightly downward, but things also seem rather fluid.)
Green New Dealers particularly like Biden’s January executive order calling for, among many other things, a strategy to create a Civilian Climate Corps, which echoes Franklin Roosevelt’s 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps. The new CCC would “mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers and maximize the creation of accessible training opportunities and good jobs. The initiative shall aim to conserve and restore public lands and waters, bolster community resilience, increase reforestation, increase carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protect biodiversity, improve access to recreation, and address the changing climate.”
I don’t know about you, but I am nervous when I hear the government talk about mobilizing workers. I just don’t like the ring of that. I am also wary about Biden’s goal to “place the climate crisis at the forefront of this Nation’s foreign policy and national security planning.” That sounds like the U.S. government telling the poor of the developing world to be satisfied with their lot in life. If people there aspire to an American living standard, Biden could tell them not to worry because he’ll be doing his best to lower that living standard through severe restrictions on the use of hydrocarbons. That’s one way to achieve global equality. Meanwhile, the American taxpayers will be forced to bribe developing-world rulers to go along with policies that will kill the people who already suffer under them.
So what are the goals of the Green New Deal? How much time do you have? It contains everything including the kitchen sink. Yes, there’s the expected stuff: it sets the goals of “global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from human sources of 40 to 60 percent from 2010 levels by 2030; and net-zero global emissions by 2050.” This would badly harm everyone, particularly the poorest Americans, because of the devastation it would wreak on our ability to produce goods that make our lives better. Wind and solar can’t cut it. For the developing world, it would approach genocidal.
The authors are blind to the fact that fossil fuels are indispensable to human flourishing and that CO2 is plant food; indeed, it is essential for all life. And even if such a reduction were desirable and could be achieved (it couldn’t be), it would reduce the average temperature by a negligible amount. Let’s remember, the only way to protect against actual dangers from nature, as the human race has repeatedly demonstrated, is to get richer quickly. Innovation and adaptation require wealth and free exchange, so the government should get out of the way of wealth creation and the free-exchange system.
But the Green New Deal promises so much more than green-ness, including combatting systemic racism, reversing income inequality, providing “free” health care and college, and strengthening labor unions. There’s something for everyone…well, except for most people. So-called renewable energy would doom us to costly and undependable substitutes, like wind and solar.
What’s this all going to cost? The official estimate is: Who cares? (Okay, I made that part up.)
Bear in mind that the premise of the Green New Deal and Biden’s version of it, as expressed in his executive order, is that “we face a climate crisis that threatens our people and communities, public health and economy, and, starkly, our ability to live on planet Earth.”
It takes a herculean effort and a good set of blinders to ignore the mountains of evidence against that assertion and the voluminous demolition of the alarmists’ cooked-up GIGO computer-modeled case, which has time after time proven itself to be wrong. Modern alarmists have been predicting the world’s end for 60 years. Why does anyone still take them seriously?
But, then, the Green New Deal isn’t really about climate at all, is it? It’s just a long-standing interventionist wish list with a deceptive green tint. As Ocasio-Cortez’s former chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti told the Washington Post, “The interesting thing about the Green New Deal is it wasn’t originally a climate thing at all. Do you guys think of it as a climate thing? Because we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.”
In a new book two professors of psychology, Gale Sinatra and Barbara Hofer, seek to explain why what they call “science denial” is rampant today and how dangerous it is. They also give their account in a strange conversation with Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine, from whom we might have expected a tad more “skepticism” or at least some devil’s advocacy.
The views of all three are in some ways vague and even confused, but the condescension toward the unenlightened rubes who disagree with them on certain scientific controversies–primarily climate- and COVID-19-related–couldn’t have been more clear.
While Sinatra and Hofer smear a large and diverse group of people as “science deniers,” they undercut their own claim when they admit that no one actually rejects science per se. So their sensational but misleading title and broad statements are designed not to inform but rather to sell books to their progressive-minded audience. The rubes they are talking about, the authors admit, go to doctors, take prescribed medicines, fly on airplanes, etc. That hardly sounds like general science denial.
So what’s the problem? What the authors have in mind is doubt about or rejection of particular scientific claims. They are willing to apply the label “cafeteria deniers.” But why not call them “cafeteria skeptics”? Or would that hit Shermer too close to home?
My purpose is not to defend or criticize any particular scientific claim in dispute. Some are backed by strong evidence, while others have little or no evidence behind them. Laymen ought to exercise care in (tentatively) deciding who among the contending scientists are likely to be right. Here I only want to raise a big reason for doubt that the authors and Shermer ignore.
But first, to demonstrate authors’ and Shermer’s sloppiness (which may be too charitable an interpretation of what they’re doing), please note that early on they embrace the allegedly near-unanimous (97 percent) consensus among climate scientists on ominous manmade global warming. Their point is that anyone who would take a position contrary to such an overwhelming consensus would have to be a jerk.
In fact, that so-called consensus was cobbled together by examining just the abstracts of a selection of climate scientists’ journal articles over a certain period. Only a third of those papers expressed an explicit or implicit view on whether manmade global warming was happening. Of those, 97 percent agreed on–well, something. But what? What they all apparently agreed on was that an unspecified amount of warming has occurred and that human activity has had an unspecified degree of responsibility.
Notice that no magnitudes and no net assessment of harms and benefits are implied in that sentence whatsoever. By that low bar, most if not all climate scientists and laymen in the realist-optimist camp are part of the consensus! That takes a good deal of the force out of the consensus proclamation, wouldn’t you say?
Yet this “consensus” is decisive for climate alarmists Sinatra, Hofer, and Shermer. (If you think humility is a virtue in scientists, don’t look for it in these writers.) Shermer says what impressed him is that all those in the 97 percent “converged” on that view (again, what view?) “independently,” while the others, he says, converged on no particular theory about the climate. Has he looked into the facts? Or does he go along with whatever is called a consensus by the news media? Is this is how he decides on matters outside his specialty? They’re growing a strange crop of skeptics these days.
Here is the problem: when the authors and Shermer call someone a “climate change (or just a climate) denier,” they are making a slickly illegitimate move; for what’s being denied is not climate change or warming between 1850 and 1998, but a looming climate catastrophe, natural or manmade. Catastrophe denialdoesnot equal climate-change denial. No one–no one!–thinks that climate does not change. Well, actually one group does seem to think this: the alarmists who imply or say outright that except for human activity, climate would not change (or not change very much). But that of course is absurd. The concept change is baked into the concept climate. The only sense in which the climate is not changing today is that it never stops changing.
Sinatra, Hofer, and Shermer spent an hour and a half talking about “science denial,” with no disagreement among them. In all the time none of them mentioned the word politicization, that is, the perverse incentives from government meddling in scientific research. They discussed lots of possible reasons for “denial”–like confirmation bias and other well-known cognitive biases–but it seems never to have occurred to any of them that some people are more inclined to distrust particular scientific claims these days than previously because they have observed that purportedly objective claims (and not just about scientific matters) are used to advance political causes. Sinatra, Hofer, and Shermer have no trouble believing that so-called deniers have hidden political and cultural agendas, but they show no sign of suspecting that those who make the claims, along with the politicians who translate them into coercive government policy, may also have political and cultural agendas–and often not so hidden.
This seems like a serious shortcoming. While Sinatra and Hofer acknowledge that scientists are human beings and subject to the same imperfections as everyone else–envy, greed, ambition, a desire for peer approval, etc.–they assure us that these faults are rooted out by an internal checks-and-balance system. Because of these, no threat to science can arise from within, but only from outside, that is, from “deniers.”
That, however, isn’t how it works out. Checks and balances on paper often bear little relationship to checks and balances in practice. (This is true of constitutions too.) For example, the peer-review process for academic publication and promotion has become incestuous “pal review.” Paradigms are protected against challenges and patched up through ad hoc salvage operations when a paradigm’s shortcomings are exposed.
Moreover, politicians are naturally inclined toward research that identifies “crises” that allegedly only government can address. As H. L. Mencken pointed out, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”
In need of government grants to secure promotion and tenure at their universities, many scientists are inclined to give the politicians what they want. Those are the ones who will get the money, at any rate. An orthodoxy arises, and independent thinkers, no matter how qualified, are marginalized and smeared as, say, “science deniers.” (The obvious association with the properly stigmatized term Holocaust deniers is no coincidence.) It’s happened repeatedly before. It’s happening now. (Again, I don’t mean that every scientific claim that is criticized is necessarily wrong.)
Politicians demand research that goes in one direction, and some scientists are happy to supply it. The politicians then use the research to justify expanded power (the Green New Deal and economic shutdown in a pandemic), which stimulates further research in that direction. I’m not saying that every participant is a cynic, but it is fun to be near the action. To borrow a trope from the analysis of the military-industrial complex, it’s a self-licking ice-cream cone. And all of this is further amplified by the 24/7 news media, which will always prefer reports of looming disasters to good news, and of course the social networks, which are the lookout for “misinformation.”
If you want to see how politicization can create doubters, here’s one case apart from scientific controversies: Russiagate. For years the American people were assured by most of the “objective” mainstream media, fed by “public-spirited” leaks and retired government spies working as dispassionate commentators, that the allegedly nonpolitical intelligence apparatus had solid evidence that Vladimir Putin had rigged the 2016 election to put his puppet Donald Trump in the White House. None of that was true, as shown by the massive FBI investigation led by a sainted special counsel. Don’t you think that a good portion of the American people realize that this establishment campaign was intended to drive Trump from office or at least cripple his presidency, effectively reversing the election? (One need not be a Trump fan–I’m certainly not–to see this.) Germane to my point, if that kind of gross abuse can occur in one matter, why can’t it be occurring in other matters?
A key part of the politicization of science is government finance of research, which Sinatra and Hofer predictably want more of. As I noted recently, in his 1961 farewell speech President Dwight Eisenhower warned about the emerging government-science complex, which he said was just as dangerous as the military-industrial complex.
If climate alarmists regard private support for research as tainted by self-interest, the rest of us are entitled to regard government support as similarly tainted. Sinatra, Hofer, and Shermer really should grow up and embrace what Public Choice political economist James Buchanan called “politics without romance.”
Maybe if politics had not tainted institutional science, fewer people would distrust so many of its claims. Politics is the craft of winning and maintaining power by assembling self-serving coalitions in order to impose costs on everyone else. Some people have justifiably come to assume that many government-financed scientific claims are formulated for that purpose.
If I’m right, then the use of science to advance an interventionist political agenda has sown the very distrust the authors and Shermer abhor. Laymen should certainly be discriminating when they judge scientific claims, and real consensuses should be taken into account. But that does not exonerate the scientists who have actively fed policymakers’ efforts to control our lives.
[T]the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord. Every man … is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way…. The sovereign is completely discharged from a duty [for which] no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interest of the society.
–Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book 4, Chapter 9
The government-“science” complex ostensibly promotes the search for facts about our world, but it actually promotes and enforces orthodoxy, protects resulting paradigms, and manufactures apparent consensuses that are questioned only at one’s reputational peril. That’s why I put the word science in quotation marks. I could have called it pseudoscience or junk science.
In contrast to real science, “science” is little more than the broadcast of evidence-free alarms that politicians and bureaucrats, advised by anointed government-financed “scientists,” use to justify political action and expansion of government intrusion into our lives. The price is liberty.
The procedure starts with a politically amenable conclusion and then moves to a search for confirmation, regardless of whatever violations of good science and statistical analysis are required. Those who voice doubts about any of this, despite their credentials and previous standing, will be subjected to attacks, even on their character. The official slogan of establishment “science” might as well be, “Orthodoxy first! Protect the paradigm!”
Someone of note saw this coming. In 1961 President Dwight Eisenhower gave his televised farewell address, which has become famous for its warning “against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” Eisenhower went on to say, “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
It makes one want to cheer! Far less known, but equally important in his eyes, was Eisenhower’s warning against the government’s centralization of scientific research, which became a real concern after World War II and with the onset of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. As he put it:
Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.
In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government….
Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity….
The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
This is truly remarkable, not to mention prescient. But I don’t know if Eisenhower was quite right. Has public policy become a captive of a scientific-technological elite? Or is it the other way around? It’s probably a combination of both. But we can readily understand how politicians and government grant-managers would naturally be attracted to research that supports their wish for more, not less, power. Some scientists, who after all are human beings too, would then be tempted to cater to this demand, which can create its own supply. If the government shows no interest in financing research that proclaims X, Y, or Z is not a problem justifying a political solution, wouldn’t you expect the number of researchers inclined that way to dwindle?
For decades scientists (and their universities) have prospered through government cash by spreading fear, either real but exaggerated or invented. This has gone far beyond research on weapons and other narrow wartime missions. Three prominent examples since World War II are the fear of dietary animal fat and cholesterol, the fear of carbon dioxide (which all life depends on), and the fear of other people, specifically, of catching COVID-19 from them. (This isn’t to says that pre-vaccine COVID-19 was not a serious danger to identifiably vulnerable people, only that it has been exaggerated beyond all reason.)
The point here is that this would have been far less likely, maybe even impossible, if scientific research funding were not concentrated in the government’s hands, largely through universities, which are hooked on taxpayer money.
Many people believe that the taxpayers must bear the biggest burden of scientific research because no one else has an interest in doing so. This is in essence a public-goods (or externality) argument for government finance. According to this argument, if the cost of doing something would fall mostly on the doer, but the benefits would fall mostly on others and charging free-riders would be unfeasible, then no doer would have a business interest in the project. That is said to be a market failure because everyone would miss out on a benefit. Thus most economists have thought that the government with its exclusive power to tax had to come to the rescue for the good of society.
But that theory, like the theories used to justify the fears mentioned above, doesn’t mirror the historical record. The insistence that basic research won’t be done by private firms sounds like the fictional scientist who insisted that the bumblebee was aerodynamically incapable of flying: he needed only to look out the window. It turns out that private investment in research has been profitable (when the government stayed out).
Writers such as Terence Kealey, Patrick Michaels, and Matt Ridley have shown in recent books that the countries that led the way in the Industrial Revolution were precisely those–Great Britain and the United States–that had almost no government support for basic scientific research until rather late in the game. In other words, private business people found the required research profitable and changed the world. Kealey and Michaels show, moreover, that postwar U.S. government spending on basic science and R&D has not increased economic growth over the previous period. Those writers also point out that revolutionary inventions by nonscientists have sometimes preceded–and even stimulated interest in–basic scientific research, the steam engine being a case in point. Moreover, the assertion that competitors will merely copy other firms’ products–that is, free-ride on others’ research–is more myth than fact because, among other reasons, much knowledge is tacit and not freely attainable through reverse engineering. (That certainly blunts the utilitarian case for patents.)
On the other hand, government finance crowds out private finance and shifts research efforts from the profit-motivated private sector to largely government-supported nonprofit universities. There are only so many really good scientists to go around. The resulting propagation of orthodoxy almost resembles the medieval guilds.
Government centralization may seem like a good idea, but it is not. The profit motive in a free market is good for society, as Adam Smith demonstrated in The Wealth of Nations. It wasn’t competition and decentralization that gave us pernicious peer review in academic publication, hiring, and promotion–a practice properly maligned as “pal review.” (Real peer review should begin after publication.) If you need evidence of such antiscience misbehavior, refresh your memory of the “Climategate” scandals.
We shouldn’t be surprised that decentralization, intellectual competition, and–above all–freedom from government restriction foster human well-being. The harm from coerced, that is, from government-fostered, monopoly, is well-known. The harm is just as bad in the production of knowledge as it is in the production of goods. And it’s a triple whammy for the taxpayers: they get robbed; they get regimented; and they get fear-mongering junk science for their trouble.
F. A. Hayek, the Nobel-Prize-winning economist of the Austrian tradition, provided a possible answer to the question posed in the title. Although Hayek (1899-1992) to my knowledge had nothing to say about the climate controversy, his views on macroeconomics met with a similarly critical attitude from those who practiced economics at a level far, far removed from individual action. He too was in essence called a science denier, in this case the science was economics. Here’s what he said when contrasting the method of the natural sciences of “simple phenomena” with the methods of social and other sciences of “complex phenomena” (transcribed from an interview at 33:00):
All the things I have stressed–the complexity of phenomena in general, the unknown character of the data, and so on–really much more points out limits to our possible knowledge than our contributions which makes specific predictions possible. This incidentally [is] another reason why my views have become unpopular. Conception of scientific method became prevalent during that period [the 1930s, when he worked on his “pure theory of capital”] which valued all scientific theories from the nature of specific predictions at which it would lead. Now somebody who pointed out that specific predictions which it could make were very limited and that at most it could achieve what I sometimes call “pattern predictions,” or predictions of the principle, seemed to the people who were used to the simplicity of physics or chemistry very disappointing and almost not science. The aim of science in that view was specific prediction, preferably mathematically testable, and somebody who pointed out that when you applied this principle to complex phenomena, you couldn’t achieve this seemed to the people almost to deny [!] that science was possible.
Of course my real aim was that the possible aims must be much more limited once we’ve passed from the science of simple phenomena to the science of complex phenomena. And there people bitterly resented that I would call physics a science of simple phenomena, which is partly a misunderstanding because the theory of physics [runs?] in terms of very simple equations. But that the active phenomena to which you have to apply it may be extremely complex is a different matter…. [On the other hand, in “intermediate fields” such as biology and the social sciences] their complexity becomes, I believe, an absolute barrier to the specificity of the predictions that we can arrive at. Until people learn themselves that they cannot achieve these ends, they will insist [on] trying and think somebody [who] believes it can’t be done is just old-fashioned and doesn’t understand modern science.
The relevance to the climate debate ought to be clear. Climate realist-optimists often point out that climates are too complex–with too many interacting and moving parts–to be spoken of and “projected” in the simplistic way that the alarmists routinely try to do. So they naturally dislike when credentialed scientists come along and point this out. This is why alarmists outrageously call the realist-optimists “deniers” and worse.
“I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” —John Stuart Mill, 1828
We mustn’t let the wrongdoing of politicians and bureaucrats blind us to the good things going on in the world. Outside the political realm, many things are doing pretty darn well. The long-term trends for many indicators have been positive for the last couple of centuries. Short-term disturbances, most often the result of political mischief, are temporary, and the progress resumes when the politicians loosen their grip or people find ways to ignore them. Regardless of the source, the data agree. This is not controversial stuff.
But make no mistake: this is not a recommendation for complacency. On the contrary, an outrageous number of people have been left out of the improvement, and that is a crime. We should want them to catch up. But, it has been wisely said, “You can’t fix what is wrong in the world if you don’t know what’s actually happening.
So what is actually happening? To begin with, wealth, real per capita income, per capita consumption, etc. have been expanding along with the world’s population. Poverty is vanishing. (While more people are a good thing, population growth has slowed, and as people get richer and have fewer kids, the population may well decrease a bit.) As Matt Ridley, “the rational optimist,” says, “Over the last 25 years 137,000 people have been lifted out of extreme poverty every day.” (See his video “Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know” and the book it draws on.)
According to the Guardian, “Global poverty has seen a spectacular decline since the 1960s – when about 80% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today that number has been reduced to nearer 10%, with hundreds of millions of people removed from the extremes of hardship.”
In other words, Ridley writes, “The rich get richer, but the poor do even better.”
Most people have no idea this has happened. In fact many think poverty is increasing. Young people are especially prone to this misconception.
Throughout the world, life expectancy is increasing, and infant/child mortality is falling. “Estimates suggest that in a pre-modern, poor world, life expectancy was around 30 years in all regions of the world…, according to Our World in Data. “Since 1900 the global average life expectancy has more than doubled and is now above 70 years. The inequality of life expectancy is still very large across and within countries. In 2019 the country with the lowest life expectancy is the Central African Republic with 53 years, in Japan life expectancy is 30 years longer…. The United Nations estimate a global average life expectancy of 72.6 years for 2019 – the global average today is higher than in any country back in 1950.”
As for kids: “Over the last two centuries all countries in the world have made very rapid progress against child mortality. From 1800 to 1950 global mortality has halved from around 43% to 22.5%. Since 1950 the mortality rate has declined five-fold to 4.5% in 2015. All countries in the world have benefitted from this progress.”
This is all great news, and many other positive trends could be cited, including consumption as compared with the number of hours worked, crop production, planetary greening, health, lessening violence, leisure time, resource abundance, the pace of innovation, and hospitableness of the planet.
Why is this happening? In a word, liberalization. (Of course I mean liberal in the classical Adam-Smith/Mises/Hayek/Rothbard sense.) Liberalism is far from complete anywhere, but in many places, including the developing world, people are freer, if not in political terms, then in earning-a-living terms, than they previously have been. That gives greater scope to entrepreneurship and ingenuity, which Julian Simon called “the ultimate resource.” (So-called natural resources are not natural at all.) The globalization of trade, even when governments tamper with it, is part of this. “The division of labor is limited by the extent of the market,” Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations. In other words, the more people around the world who, guided by market prices, are free (or freer) to choose their work and trade with others wherever they are, the better. Specialization and the market’s law of comparative advantage, which has been dubbed “the most elusive proposition,” make people better off.
This suggests why too many others have lagged behind. They lack essential liberty. And when people lack liberty, including private property, they will also lack significant and just economic growth, that is, growth without government privilege.
A couple of billion people in the developing world lack modern fuels and electricity. This kills such people prematurely, among other reasons, because they cook and heat their homes with wood and animal excrement, which create deadly indoor air pollution. They lack access to modern cheap, reliable, and potentially clean energy (that is, fossil fuels) because their governments create obstacles and arrogant Western politicians egged on by rich social activists block their access–without justification but much irony–in the name of protecting the planet.
That is a crime. So as I said at the start, the good things going on should not make us complacent. Today a large number of Westerners in effect tell the developing world: “Too bad for you, but we can’t allow you to reach our standard of living. We like just the way you are.” So they want to pull up the ladder.
Let us hope that the growing libertarian (that is, true liberal) movement will make a special effort to encourage the people of the developing world to tell the Western elites and their own rulers to get the hell out of the way. The people don’t need to get rich quick; they need to get rich quicker!
When I see four of those yard signs on my morning walk, I chuckle. If I’m in a mischievous mood I might someday suggest a couple of memes that the owners might add.
I could embrace all of those memes, but not without some qualification and in several cases, a good deal of qualification. But that’s for another day.
Today I want to focus on numbers 5 and 6: “Science Is Real” and “Water Is Life.” I wouldn’t comment on these were it not for their ominous implications for government policy. Some people are ready to spend trillions of other people’s money because of what they suppose those sayings mean.
They are true of course, but they are misleading because they are incomplete. (Would many people actually deny that science per se is real or that water is essential to life?)
My suggestion to the sign owners would be, first, to take a Sharpie and squeeze in these words after “Science Is Real”: “But Scientists Are Human Beings Too.” Not every passerby will get it, but some may interpret it correctly to mean that scientists, despite the white lab coats, are subject to the same imperfections as other people: among them, bias, vanity, greed, insecurity, what Herbert Spencer called “the pressing desire for careers,” and a wish to protect the psychological investment that can result when one spends a good deal of time mastering a subject.
The climate row provides a good example here. If one comes to think of oneself as having mastered climatology, one hardly wants to hear other scientists with impeccable credentials say that “the climate” is too complex a subject to be mastered by anyone. In fact, complex doesn’t even begin to describe it. As the scientists who are climate optimists point out to the alarmists, “the climate” is not a thing but a mind-blowing collection of many moving and interrelated parts, the behavior of which is inherently unpredictable and maybe beyond complete comprehension.
That such a complex phenomenon might boil down–sorry about that–to just the CO2 and (noisy) average-global-temperature records dating back, say, a century is something that even we lay people can balk at. As the climate scientist Patrick Frank of Stanford University–who has demonstrated the error-riddled nature of the IPCC’s computer models, which cannot even predict the past–wrote in Skeptic magazine, “Earth’s climate is warming and no one knows exactly why. But there is no falsifiable scientific basis whatever to assert this warming is caused by human-produced greenhouse gases because current physical theory is too grossly inadequate to establish any cause at all.”
Okay, then how about a leftist physicist? Canadian Denis Rancourt: “There are more unknown and unforeseeable CO2 evolution feedback mechanisms [than] there are climate research institutes on the planet.”
This leads to my second proposed addition to the sign. After “Water Is Life” I would suggest adding, “And So Is Carbon Dioxide!” Just as all living things depend on water, so all living things depend on CO2. Plants devour it with gusto, so even we carnivores love CO2 because it feeds the plants that nourish our animal food sources.
Moreover, “CO2 is a vital nutrient used by plants in photosynthesis. Increasing CO2 in the atmosphere ‘greens’ the planet and helps feed the growing human population.” (See this world map illustrating the global greening that the increasing CO2 seems to be producing, much of it in the Amazon rainforest.) Everyone knows that operators of greenhouses pump in CO2 (not “carbon”) to get bigger plants because it isn’t a pollutant–it is plant food.
So which office does CO2 go to to get its reputation back?
I don’t know if we’re in the heyday of questioning the motives of people we disagree with rather than simply rebutting them–character assassination, that is–but it’s got me wondering why this is such a popular pastime these days. Think about how often we hear people’s motives impugned–even when they have impressive credentials–because of their positions on COVID-19, climate change, nutrition, racial policy–you name it. Considering motivation is not a bad thing per se, but too often it substitutes for a counterargument. That’s a confession of vacuity.
To oversimplify a bit, let’s assume that motives come in two flavors–virtuous and vicious. If someone defends a proposition that is easily refuted or has been repeatedly refuted before, we might wonder why that person defended it. Inquiring into the possible motives seems appropriate, but not before the claim is shown to be poor. Of course motives can vary widely, from money to vanity. It’s all too human a temptation to become invested in a position prematurely and then stick to it even after doubts have set in. No one is immune, not even natural scientists, medical experts, so-called public servants. People have livelihoods, reputations, and careers to look after. The mark of maturity is the ability to resist temptation.
On the other hand, if someone offers a serious and solid case for a proposition–one that deserves to be taken seriously–the early resort to motive-questioning ought to strike us as highly suspicious. This is especially so if the speculation about motives precedes any serious attempt to rebut the case. If the first salvo a critic launches is directed at motive, I have to assume that the critic can’t think of anything else to say. That obviously speaks volumes.
Really, why should the speaker’s motives or financing source matter? Who cares if the research was backed by someone with a horse in the race if the findings are solid? A good case is a good case, full stop. (See how physicist and climate optimist Willie Soon handles this issue.) Two kinds of financially self-interested people would want to finance supporting research: those who insincerely hold their position and want to lie to the public, and those who sincerely hold their position and want the truth to be disseminated. You can’t tell who is who merely by the mere fact that they’ve financed scientists to provide evidence. Why wouldn’t, say, a producer of fossil fuels want to defend his products? What counts is the quality of that evidence and the theoretical explanation of it.
It’s worth noting that people who seek government grants should be as open to motive-questioning as those who get their backing from business interests. Government officials for obvious reasons are apt to be more attracted to scientific research that seems to justify their expansion of power than to research that doesn’t. It’s the nature of the beast we call the state. Some researchers–they’re human after all–can be expected to act accordingly. Catastrophists of various stripes, by the way, ask us to believe something highly implausible: that people who know that an existential threat is looming pay other people to do bogus research that says otherwise for money. Really?
Even if an interested party’s case should fail we can still ask: who cares about motives? Talking about motives in these circumstances is a distraction, not to mention a low blow. Many past advocates have made strong arguments that were eventually shown to be wrong. Were all of them corrupt? Of course not. It should take more than a mistaken conclusion to presume corruption.
If you want to see character assassination on steroids, recall the Obama-era attempt to get the Justice Department to use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)–which was written with reference to organized crime–to gag people who reject climate-change alarmism, not just business firms but also think tanks and scientists. The grounds? “Knowingly deceiving on climate risk.” Other scientists have been subject to campaigns to get them fired. You can’t make this stuff up.
Observe the current controversies. For example, even highly credentialed people who reject the climate alarmists’ analyses are likely to be accused of being not just financed but corrupted by the fossil-fuel industry or by ideological think-tanks. Qualified epidemiologists and economists who questioned the hysteria and dominant policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic were accused of being libertarians (!) in the pay of wealthy benefactors. Why isn’t it enough to rebut their arguments? is it because a rebuttal wouldn’t do enough damage? Accusing someone of corruption–even when that accusation couldn’t withstand the slightest examination–might silence the target, as well as others of like mind, because no one likes being called, in effect, an intellectual prostitute or zealot. The chilling effect is well-known. Luckily not everyone is deterred, but we know that many are.
I want to be fair. It seems to me that the preference for character assassination over refutation is more common among what I’ll call the various “consensus catastrophe” caucuses than among their critics. I can’t say it never happens on the other side, but it seems exceedingly rare. I think a reason for this is that today’s consensus catastrophe caucuses, such as those regarding climate change and COVID-19, rest on fragile foundations. They rely on well-rebutted scientific claims and a manufactured consensus. The most famous case of a manufactured consensus is the much-debunked claim about the 97 percent of climate scientists. The big questions of course are: 97 percent of what population exactly and what do they agree on exactly? But invoking that big number works; it can be used to accuse even respected scientists of denying science. If you can’t refute your opponents, all you need to do is portray them as going against virtually all the authorities. To many people, that just sounds bad. “What’s wrong with that guy?” (Ignaz Semmelweis and Alfred Wegener, both of whom were proved to be correct, were also viciously attacked for denying the consensuses of their day regarding puerperal fever and continental drift respectively.)
Each time I hear a consensus invoked against opponents with arguments and evidence, I think of Chico Marx’s famous line: “Who you gonna believe: me or your own eyes?” I also think of Einstein’s reported response when told that 100 intellectuals had put their name to a book arguing that the theory of relativity was wrong: “Why 100 authors? If I were wrong, one would have been enough.”
If the first words out of a critic’s mouth include “consensus” or “motive,” I don’t want to hear anything else he has to say. Science–indeed, thinking!–isn’t about confirming consensuses. It’s about testing them against evidence. No one’s character should be questioned merely because he expresses doubt about even a widely believed scientific or other proposition, especially when it has the potential to impinge on individual liberty and well-being.
Someday our descendants will laugh with embarrassment at the people today who pore over weather records prepared to proclaim an existential threat from a fraction-of-1-degree rise in the average global temperature over any previous year “on record,” that is, unless the government spends trillions of dollars on a program of virtually totalitarian control of our lives. “On record” actually means “in the last century and a half” because that’s how far back “the record” goes. And that, by the way, roughly coincides with the beginning of the end of the Little Ice Age in 1850, which continues to this day. The earth of course is 4.5 billion years old.
Kudos to Glenn Greenwald, a rare leftist voice of sanity on so many issues, for opening his recent article this way:
In virtually every realm of public policy, Americans embrace policies which they know will kill people, sometimes large numbers of people. They do so not because they are psychopaths but because they are rational: they assess that those deaths that will inevitably result from the policies they support are worth it in exchange for the benefits those policies provide. This rational cost-benefit analysis, even when not expressed in such explicit or crude terms, is foundational to public policy debates — except when it comes to COVID, where it has been bizarrely declared off-limits.
He goes on to write that the “quickest and most guaranteed way to save hundreds of thousands of lives with policy changes would be to ban the use of automobiles, or severely restrict their usage to those authorized by the state on the ground of essential need (e.g., ambulances or food-delivery vehicles), or at least lower the nationwide speed limit to 25 mph.” (Watch the video version.)
But no one advocates any of those restrictions, and anyone who did would be dismissed as a fringe character. But why, considering how many lives would surely be saved (1.3 million worldwide)? It’s not because opponents don’t care about human life; it’s because people understand that the costs in so many ways would be far worse the benefits:
It is because we employ a rational framework of cost-benefit analysis, whereby, when making public policy choices, we do not examine only one side of the ledger (number of people who will die if cars are permitted) but also consider the immense costs generated by policies that would prevent those deaths (massive limits on our ability to travel, vastly increased times to get from one place to another, restrictions on what we can experience in our lives, enormous financial costs from returning to the pre-automobile days). So foundational is the use of this cost-benefit analysis that it is embraced and touted by everyone from right-wing economists to the left-wing European environmental policy group CIVITAS….
Exactly so. Once you put safety not just first but above everything else you’re able to come up with the most insane proposals for reshaping society. Heaven help us from those who are concerned only about safety.
Risk is integral to life, social life included. As Thomas Sowell puts it, there are no solutions, only trade-offs–you can’t do only one thing. So each of us does cost-benefit analyses all the time in everyday life. As individuals we could be completely protected from other people simply by living as hermits. But few choose to do so for entirely understandable reasons. Instead we live among others, taking reasonable precautions. Indeed, some of the most admired places to live are the most densely populated places on earth. We accept the costs because the benefits dwarf them–so much so that we don’t normally have to explain it to other people.
But some people forget to apply this common sense in particular matters. Greenwald’s target is draconian COVID-19 policy: “It is now extremely common in Western democracies for large factions of citizens to demand that any measures undertaken to prevent COVID deaths are vital, regardless of the costs imposed by those policies.” Yet, he continues, “It is impossible to overstate the costs imposed on children of all ages from the sustained, enduring and severe disruptions to their lives justified in the name of COVID.
“However, “The latest CDC data reveals that the grand total of children under 18 who have died in the U.S. from COVID since the start of the pandemic sixteen months ago is 361 — in a country of 330 million people, including 74.2 million people under 18.”
Children, of course, are not the only ones who have suffered from lockdowns and lesser restrictions on their activities.
Unfortunately, opponents of these blunt-instrument, liberty-violating approaches, such as the authors and signers of the Great Barrington Declaration, are smeared, if not as uncaring sociopaths, then as blind ideologues or sell-outs.
Greenwald also properly see a class conflict in how the COVID policy has affected people:
The richer you are, the less likely you are to be affected by these harms from COVID restrictions. Wealth allows people to leave their homes, hire private tutors, temporarily live in the countryside or mountains, or enjoy outdoor space at home. It is the poor and the economically deprived who bear the worst of these deprivations, which — along with not having children at all — may be one reason they are assigned little to no weight in mainstream discourse.
He emphasizes that “this is not an argument in favor of or against any particular policy undertaken in the name of fighting COVID. What it is, instead, is an attempt to highlight the pervasive and deeply misguided refusal to assign any costs to the harms caused by anti-COVID policies themselves.”
Consider the “precautionary principle,” the admonition that nothing should be allowed unless it’s proven to be totally safe. Now think of where mankind would be today had our ancestors had adopted this principle. The human race would be considerably smaller. Has it ever occurred to its advocates that the precautionary principle cannot even pass its own test?
COVID is only the latest example of how the obsession with safety can be hazardous to our health. It is by no means the only one. The other most prominent case relates to fossil fuels and climate change. As I discussed recently, if the economic way of thinking–that is, the cost-benefit trade-off approach–informed the discussion of the environment and our place in it, that discussion would look very different. Why? Because people would realize that the elimination or radical reduction of fossil-fuel use worldwide literally would shorten billions of lives, and make the rest of them miserable. Even a small benefit from oil, gas, and coal would outweigh that cost. But in fact the benefits are immense.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its sixth “assessment report” earlier this month. As usual it generated its share of alarmist headlines. The report is several thousand pages long, and I’m certainly not qualified to digest, much less judge, it. I do think it’s wise, however, to view the headlines and politicians’ statements about it critically. The poppycock quotient of rhetoric about the supposedly looming environmental catastrophe is extremely high, not to mention toxic.
At the risk of being accused of cherry-picking, I will point out that one expert on the matter, by no means unfriendly to the IPCC, Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado, writes, “Instead of apocalyptic warnings about ‘immediate risk’ a top line message of this report should be: Great News! The Extreme Scenario that IPCC Saw as Most Likely in 2013 is Now Judged Low Likelihood. I am actually floored that this incredible change in such a short time apparently hasn’t even been noticed, much less broadcast around the world.”
Instead, Pielke notes, UN Secretary General António Guterres said the report is “a code red for humanity” and that “billions of people [are] at immediate risk.” To which Pielke replies: Not only is this wrong, it is irresponsible. Nowhere does the IPCC report say that billions of people are at immediate risk.”
That’s from a guy who says if the IPCC didn’t exist, we’d need to invent it. (Pielke has a follow-up article here, and Nick Gillespie of Reason interviews him here.)
I don’t want to leave the impression that we nonspecialists should be agnostic on the climate question. The most prominent of the political solutions to the problems (real or imagined) associated with climate change would be unimaginably expensive for the world. So new problems–associated with poverty and liberty–would thereby arise. As Thomas Sowell points out, in our world, there are no solutions, only trade-offs. This is woefully unappreciated. I recall hearing an environmentalist say that the first law of ecology is: you can’t do just one thing. But he apparently forgot it in the next moment. That’s also a fundamental law of economics–and indeed all of life.
We face choices, and we must always ask those who propose “solutions”: at what cost–not just in money terms but in terms of human life and well-being?
Enter Alex Epstein, author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and founder of the Center for Industrial Progress. (He has a sequel on the way, Our Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas–Not Less.) Epstein’s work is in the tradition of Julian Simon, author of The Ultimate Resource, whom Epstein acknowledges in his book. See a summary of Epstein’s book here.)
What I want to draw attention to is not his case for fossil fuels per se, which I find persuasive, but his “framework”–a word he is appropriately fond of–for thinking about energy and the environment. The importance of how one frames an issue may seem obvious, but how many people actually ask what the right framework is? Because of its dubious framework, Epstein sees the campaign against fossil fuels as riddled with bias, sloppiness (or vagueness), and an animus toward human beings. The last seems to account for the others.
Before we can decide whether something is good or bad, we need a standard. Good for what or whom? Moreover, in environmental matters it makes a difference whether you see mankind as an invader and destroyer of benignly stable nature or as a species that flourishes by taming often dangerously volatile nature, that is, making it a safer, more hospitable place.
In this regard, Epstein stresses the basic Simonian point that human beings don’t find and then deplete natural resources; rather they create them out of mere stuff, which does not come with a user manual. That makes human intelligence the “ultimate resource” (Simon’s term), a fact that an astounding corollary: as technology increases our efficiency in creating and using resources–as we learn to make more with a smaller quantity of resources–we in effect increase the supply of those resources, which we can use to make new things we couldn’t afford yesterday. In a way, human intelligence frees us from physical limitations. That takes the bite out of scary depletion scenarios.
You can see the implications for the controversy over energy. It is not enough to say that a given type of power has risks. We must be unbiased, meaning that we must look at the pros as well as the cons and compare them to other forms of energy; we must be specific about the magnitudes and probabilities of any actual risks; and, most important, we must judge the energy form by what it does on net for human welfare, not whether it interferes with nature. To live is to “interfere” with nature. For human beings, to live is to transform nature. What matters is whether change improves the prospects of human flourishing or undermines them.
Within this context Epstein goes on to the vindicate fossil fuels and argue that we need more (as well as nuclear and hydroelectric energy, which, oddly, are also opposed by most CO2-phobes). Oil, natural gas, and coal have provided abundant, inexpensive, and reliable energy that has been and remains life-saving. After all, energy underlies all production. The biggest challenge is to get them to the billions of people in the world who have no electricity or very little energy.
But what about the predicted apocalypse? We need to realize that the environmental alarmists’ record of predictions, which stretches back to antiquity, is pathetic. Moreover, the current state of the world does not support the dire scenarios. I’ll pick just two examples that Epstein emphasizes. First, deaths from the climate (extreme temperatures and extreme events) have been plummeting: a “98% decrease in the rate of climate-related deaths since significant CO2 emissions began 80 years ago.” Second, CO2, the most-feared greenhouse gas, is plant food not pollution. The earth is greening.
In summary, he writes, “Fossil fuel use doesn’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous, it takes a dangerous climate and makes it safe.” As a result, billions of people are alive today who otherwise could not be. Cutting back on fossil fuels would require an enormous human die-off. Who wants to volunteer? (No, unreliable and unscalable wind and solar apparently won’t fill the gap.)
This doesn’t mean that particular problems can’t arise: remember, there are no solutions, only trade-offs. The problems, however, should be addressed specifically (tort law has a role), while understanding that individual rights and freedom, private property, competitive markets, entrepreneurship, and the profit motive are the best ways to discover the best remedies.
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