Category Archives: The New Religion

New President, Same Bad Policies

The Trump administration’s trade war gave economics teachers countless real-world examples of bad policy they can use in the classroom. A new open letter encourages President Biden to provide a similar service by becoming the “climate president.” Signees include prominent business leaders and activists such as Jeff Bezos, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Bill Ford.

Here are a few basic lessons of economics and politics they should have considered before signing on:

  • Green policies are Trump’s trade war in fancier packaging. This is an important, but overlooked, theme in the new administration. The climate doesn’t care if new technologies or business models come from America, Europe, Asia, or Africa. But politicians and their donors sure do. This is why President Biden is continuing President Trump’s “Buy American” policies. The main difference is that Biden is adding a green label to the nationalist branding. Businesses see climate legislation as a weapon against foreign competitors, the same as Trump’s tariffs. Politicians see ways to do favors for these companies, harm enemies, and appeal to voters’ patriotism, all at the same time. But this would raise consumer prices and leave supply networks less resilient—not a good idea during a pandemic and amidst a still-reeling economy.
  • Rent-seeking is a thing. Rent-seeking is the technical term for getting special favors from government. Political connections are often less risky and more profitable than gambling on a new technology. Solyndra was not an isolated incident. When Washington puts millions of dollars up for grabs, many companies will compete in Washington rather than in the marketplace. This leaves fewer resources available for developing new technologies. It also shifts priorities toward what Washington wants, rather than what might actually work.
  • Policy is made by the government we have, not the government we want. It is naïve to believe that Congress, with people like Mitch McConnell and Josh Hawley on one side, and Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on the other, would actually pass climate legislation with the public interest as their top priority. That’s not the way real-world politics works. They’re going to jam in climate-unrelated pork and special interest giveaways. They will lock in today’s technologies so innovators who are less politically connected don’t displace them, as nearly happened with CFL light bulbs and LEDs. In Washington, even the best-meaning policies—especially the best-meaning policies—will not pass in anything resembling their intended form.
  • Green jobs aren’t new jobs on net. They replace other jobs. Putting a million dollars into one project means taking away a million dollars from somewhere else, as Frédéric Bastiat’s broken window parable points out. Calling a project green does not change this. Some green projects are worthwhile. Some are not. But Congress and the president are in a poor position to be able to determine which ones are which—not all the way from Washington, and not without prices and supply and demand giving them feedback. Nor do legislators have any incentive to listen to these signals, with 2022 and 2024 election preparations already underway.
  • There are better ways to address the issue. Even without a carbon tax and a Green New Deal, pre-COVID carbon emissions in the U.S. had been declining for several years. This is because entrepreneurs, wherever they are allowed to, are figuring out how to do more with less. New farming technologies are reducing the need for farmland, leaving more left over for wildlife. Smartphones and tablets are replacing music players, paper maps, VCRs, cameras, newspapers, compasses, metronomes, and more. This dematerialization is reducing demand for metals, plastics, paper, and other resource-intensive materials. As a result, the economy has already passed “peak stuff” for many resources, as Andrew McAfee points out in his recent book More from Less. As CEI founder Fred Smith likes to say, you don’t have to teach grass to grow, but you do have to take the rocks off of it. Congress and President Biden will achieve more of their environmental goals by removing regulatory rocks than with top-down planning, taxes, and subsidies.

The open letter signers’ hearts are in the right place. But no president can do what they ask. Our political structures cannot deliver those things. The letters’ signees would be better off putting their talents and resources to use exploring bottom-up solutions than in a top-down political system that is structurally unable to deliver on its promises. Bottom-up processes are messy, and filled with trial, error, and failures. They also don’t look as good at press conferences. As we’ve already seen with America’s declining carbon emissions and dematerialization, it works. But it will only continue if Washington lets it.

Book Review: Adam Minter – Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade

Adam Minter – Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).

Waste not, want not. Minter’s tour of the global scrap and recycling industry is fascinating. He grew up in the industry, as the son of a scrapyard owner in Minnesota. As Minter got older and learned the business (and dealt with his father’s messy personal life), he discovered a whole world based on turning trash into treasure, and parlayed that into a journalism career, based in Shanghai. The amount of creativity and hidden efficiencies he finds are a source of optimism. A dreary-sounding dirty job turns out to be vibrant, innovative, and highly globalized.

At the same time, Minter is realistic about his industry. There are some shady goings-on in the circuit recycling and scrap metal industries in China, including corruption, dishonesty, and worker mistreatment. On balance, the ingenious ways entrepreneurs find to reduce, reuse, and recycle waste are good for the environment. But there are still some problems, especially in China. While these abuses are almost certainly greener than shutting down these industries would be, there is room for improvement.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, the most effective way to make sure people are responsible environmental stewards is to allow them to make a profit, and allow them to be creative. As in so many other policy areas, progress happens from the bottom up, not the top down.

Minter recently published a sequel of sorts, titled Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.

Best Books of 2018: Factfulness

Re-posted from cei.org.

Review of Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World-and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (Flatiron Books, 2018) by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund.

Think Julian Simon, Matt Ridley, and Steven Pinker’s data-driven optimism, mixed with Michael Shermer and Bryan Caplan’s awareness of human cognitive biases, as told by a kindly, avuncular Norwegian. The book reads easily, is visually savvy, and has a friendly, non-polemic tone.

Rosling, who passed away of cancer while writing this book, wanted it to be his last, grand statement. He wants people to simultaneously believe two things: that the state of the world can be both bad and getting better. Hundreds of millions of people still live in absolute poverty. But for the first time in history, the global absolute poverty rate is now below 10 percent. Improvement is coming so fast that the number of people in poverty is going down even as population increases.

Most people think in binaries—left and right, good and bad, and so on. Rosling encourages nuance. Rather than a simple binary of rich and poor countries, Rosling uses a four-level framework. Level one is absolute poverty—subsistence farming, little or no electricity, crude sanitation, high disease rates, and low life expectancy. Level four is where the rich countries are—the Anglosphere, most of Europe, and the Asian tigers. When people think of rich and poor countries, they tend to think of either level one or level four countries. As it turns out, most people in the world are middle class—they live in level two and level three countries. In varying degrees, these countries offer better health and sanitation than level one countries, along with some industrial development, education for children instead of labor, some degree of political and lifestyle freedom, and so on.

One thing I especially like about Rosling’s framework is that countries can level up. Prosperity is a process, not an on/off switch. And the number of levels is theoretically infinite. Rosling chose to use four levels, but a more granular analyst can use as many levels as they want. More importantly, it may well be that what Rosling describes as a level four country today will be startlingly poor a century from now. Most of the world will have leveled up to the equivalent of level five or higher.

Rosling also provides an important public service in teaching people how to look at data. The most important example is the lonely number fallacy:

Never believe that one number on its own can be meaningful. If you are offered one number, always ask for at least one more. Something to compare it with. Be especially careful about big numbers. (p. 130)

I used this advice in my review of Trump economic advisor Peter Navarro’s coauthored book with Greg Autry, Death by China. The data won’t allow Navarro and Autry to make the case they want, so they have to resort to trickery:

Navarro and Autry give just such a lonely number when they argue that, “On [President George W.] Bush’s watch alone, the United States surrendered millions of jobs to China.” (p. 10) Let’s give that large, lonely number some company. In January 2001, when Bush took office, the U.S. labor force was 143.8 million people. When his term expired in January 2009, it was 154.2 million people, despite the economy being in recession. The data are here.

So even if “the United States surrendered millions of jobs to China,” those losses were outweighed by gains elsewhere, most of which have nothing to do with trade policy.

Keep this in mind whenever you see a scary number in a news story—if it doesn’t come with company or context, it’s analytically useless at best.

Rosling’s book has been warmly received by a politically diverse audience, and rightfully so. Rosling’s optimism is based on widely available data, not his ideological priors. In areas where the world is not improving, he is quick to point to them as a reform priorities.

More importantly, the data show that the world’s arrows are almost all pointing up. Few people realize this—as Rosling humorously shows, most people perform worse than chimpanzees on a simple multiple choice quiz about human well-being. The errors are not random—they are overly pessimistic in participants across countries and in every demographic category.

Rosling was as effective as anyone in trying to correct pessimistic bias with facts, not least through his easy-to-understand bubble charts. Rosling’s son, Ola Rosling, and daughter-in-law, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, are carrying on his work with their group Gapminder—see, for example, their tour of Dollar Street that shows the various gradations between countries in levels one through four.

Things are bad in many places, but getting better. In fact, for most people in most places, living standards today are the best they’ve ever been. It is up to us to see that the process continues. To do that, we need to be aware of both the facts on the ground and our inborn cognitive biases that prevent us from seeing those facts clearly. From there, action. Use your head, not just your heart. You need both.

Why Shouldn’t the Energy Department Run the Entire Economy?

New Energy Department standards for dehumidifiers promise massive benefits. Depending on which set of numbers you prefer (the link goes to the Energy Department’s own numbers), they will cost somewhere between $110 million and $190 million annually. Estimated annual benefits range from $2.0 billion to $3.6 billion. If these numbers are accurate, this regulation will cause a net benefit to consumers between 18- and 19-fold.

Not 18 or 19 percent, mind you, but 18- or 19-fold. That’s 1,800 or 1,900 percent. The stocks that comprise the Dow Jones Industrial Average yield returns of around 8 percent, or 1/225th as much. The U.S Department of Energy, according to the U.S Department of Energy, can create some very impressive returns.

Which brings up an obvious question: Why not just have the Energy Department run the entire economy?

The reason is that entrepreneurs in every sector of the private economy constantly have their ideas put to a profit-and-loss test. The Energy Department only obeys political winds, which blow differently from year to year. Private entrepreneurs must create value for other people; political entrepreneurs need only create value for the right people.

Despite the massive improvement in living standards that entrepreneurs’ market-tested betterment has brought to most of the world for two centuries and counting, they have only brought a 2 or 3 percent rate of growth over that long time, on average. The Energy Department promises 1,800 percent. That is at least 600 times as much as market-tested entrepreneurs, and 225 times as much as the mercenary Dow Jones.

Again: if Energy Department officials are smarter than entrepreneurs, to the point of being able to earn a 225-fold greater return—why not have the Energy Department run the entire economy? Why don’t Energy Department officials enter the private sector, where their ideas could make enormous profits, and do enormous social good?

As Deirdre McCloskey asked many years ago, “If You’re So Smart, Why Ain’t You Rich?” These are serious questions which deserve serious answers. Energy Department officials could learn much from her intellectual humility.

Human Achievement of the Day: Guitars

When Human Achievement Hour rolls around each year, I make sure to do two things. One is to play an electric guitar. The other is to play an acoustic guitar.

Guitars are simple things. Stretch some thin metal wires over a plank of wood, and you’re most of the way there. Electric guitars add a few magnets wrapped in copper wire mounted underneath the strings, called pickups. This deceptively simple invention is one of the pinnacles of human achievement. Music made on guitars has brought unfettered joy to billions of people, most of whom have idea how to play one. Whether you like jazz, punk rock, flamenco, blues, death metal, or classic rock, guitars have enhanced your life. In a way, the guitar is one of the defining objects of modern Western culture.

Regular readers will likely be familiar with CEI’s “I, Pencil” video from a few years ago, inspired by Leonard Read’s famous pamphlet. Nobody can make a pencil on their own. It takes a network of literally millions of people cooperating to make something you can buy in a store for less than a dollar. The network of human cooperation surrounding guitars is arguably even greater.

For example, guitars made by Gibson, such as the Les Paul and the SG, are often made of mahogany wood, which grows mostly in Central and South America. Tennessee-based Gibson has to arrange with people more than a thousand miles away to harvest the lumber and ship it to Nashville, most of whom speak different languages and use different currencies. The fingerboards placed on top of the guitar’s neck are usually made of rosewood, native to Africa and Asia, presenting another coordination problem.

Fret wire, usually made of either nickel or stainless steel, relies on mining and smelting technologies, and requires precise math, skill, and specialized tools to install. Other hardware, such as a guitar’s bridge and nut, pickguard, and tuning pegs, present their own challenges.

Acoustic guitars use a soundboard, chambers, and soundholes in such a way that makes the instruments both loud and tuneful. Electric guitars instead use pickups, potentiometers, wires, soldering, and standardized connections leading to an amplifier powered by electricity. If a pencil is a miracle of cooperation, guitars are even moreso.

Part of the point of Human Achievement Hour is to celebrate modernity. So on March 28, sometime between 8:30 and 9:30, instead of merely leaving on the lights, I will pick up my electric guitar, plug it into my amplifier, and take in the pure, simple joy that comes with banging out distorted power chords. After that, I will pick up my acoustic and admire all the skill, elegance, and mastery of geometry and sound that went into making it. Nobody within earshot may much enjoy my point, but they will likely be thankful for two other human achievements: walls and doors.

CEI Podcast for July 1, 2014: John Holdren’s Poor Data Quality Control

General Counsel Sam Kazman talks about presidential science advisor John Holdren’s refusal to comply with the federal Data Quality Act when CEI questioned some discredited scientific statements in a video he put up on an official White House website. Click here to listen.

CEI Podcast for June 3, 2014: EPA Proposes Major Carbon Emission Regulation

springfield nuclear power plant
Have a listen here.

Senior Fellow William Yeatman breaks down a proposed EPA regulation intended to significantly reduce carbon emissions in the U.S.

CEI Podcast for May 29, 2014: Rachel Was Wrong

screen-shot-2014-05-27-at-9-34-56-amHave a listen here.

Google recently commemorated Rachel Carson and her influential book Silent Spring with a Google Doodle on its homepage. Seeing as Carson’s book set malaria prevention back decades, CEI Senior Fellow Angela Logomasini thinks there are other figures more deserving of such tributes.

CEI Podcast for February 27, 2014: Can the EPA Regulate Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Have a listen here.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in a case that could determine whether or not the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. CEI Senior Fellow Marlo Lewis has written about the case for Forbes.

CEI Podcast for February 6, 2014: Keystone XL Pipeline Inches towards Approval

keystone xl construction
Have a listen here.

Marlo Lewis examines a State Department report finding that Keystone serves the national interest and finds opposing arguments wanting.