Saturday, December 08, 2018

Stripping Bare the False Hopes Behind Climate-Change Complacency


Shortly before the end of the 18th century, a British intellectual named Thomas Malthus made a prediction that turned out to be wrong.  He suggested that because human population would grow geometrically and food production only arithmetically, absent a dramatic drop in birth rates or a dramatic increase in death rates (due to wars or illness), the world would no longer be able adequately to feed itself.   What Malthus didn’t foresee was the tremendous technical advances in food production that would follow the writing of his essay.   Over the past 220 years, we have seen dramatic improvements in agriculture, refrigeration, machines, you name it.  This has enabled us to produce far more food than Malthus could possibly have envisioned, and so now, the poor chap’s name has come to be sullied with the label of doomsayer.  We take him no more seriously than we take Chicken Little. 

And therein lies a problem.  Our world has become dangerously post-Mathusian.  We live in an age where our movers and shakers feel duty bound to ignore doomsayers like Malthus.  Especially in our more entrepreneurial classes, it has become an article of faith that the Chicken Littles should be ignored.   Now, every time a man of letters preaches that the sky is falling, the barons of business simply laugh it off.   “You sound like that silly ol’ Malthus,” they think to themselves.  Or to be more precise, even if we personally have never heard of Malthus himself, we’ve all come to appreciate the existence of thinkers from yesteryear who’ve envisioned all sorts of future horribles, only to have failed to take into account the effects of human ingenuity as reflected in greater and greater technological prowess.   This is why in some circles, it has become almost a religious imperative never again to bet against the ability of the human mind to solve what may appear on the surface to be an intractable technical problem.

Personally, I saw this phenomenon play out when I started my career as an attorney at the Federal Communications Commission in 1984.  Back then, there was a real push to improve communications technology – to usher in the kind of “information age” that has come to characterize the 21st century.  However, the Malthusians among us were warning that if we shook up (deregulate) the telecom industry, we may indeed bring greater prosperity to the rich but the poor may lose their ability to enjoy basic telephone service.   That warning turned out to be bunk – we went ahead with deregulation, and our telecom technology continued to advance so dramatically that rich and poor alike were able to enjoy the fruits of this advance without the need for regulation.   Once again, we all learned a lesson: don’t let the cluckings of Chicken Littles turn us into silly pessimists.  Whenever we really need human technology to come through for us, we can assume that it will advance by leaps and bounds and stave off disaster.

But you know what happens when we “assume” – we make an ass of u and me. And so it appears that our post-Malthusian assumptions are leading us down a path of carbon-guzzling complacency.  The barons of industry and the politicians they fund are well aware of the ubiquity of scientists who make Mathusian noises about the effects of climate change.  But they just don’t care.  They don’t want to hear about Chicken Little.  They are obsessed instead with Mighty Mouse (“Here I come to save the day!”).    Surely, they figure, we’ll be able to improve our technical ability to produce renewal and non-dangerous sources of energy so as to minimize the effects of human-induced climate change.

I don’t think so.  Even if we stipulate advancements in the harnessing of solar and other renewal energy sources, that alone won’t solve the problem.  For one thing, the demand for energy – and for the creature comforts it produces – won’t go away.  You see, demand for creature comforts, once enjoyed, never seems to lessen, and the world’s population continues to rise significantly.   As for the supply of energy, we are deeply addicted to the fuels that threaten our planet.   Perhaps, with a bit more political will we could do away with coal.  But oil?  So many powerful and wealthy companies in so many powerful and wealthy countries are thoroughly dependent on producing oil (as opposed to renewable sources of energy) that it would take a true miracle to stop us from continuing to do so.  Just consider how many people would stand to lose their fortunes – or their jobs – if we attempt a rapid transition away from oil.  These individuals would fight to continue to make their livelihood in the same fashion, politicians would dare not stand up to such a powerful coalition, and demand would continue to surge for their services.  Expecting a dramatic change under these circumstances is like expecting the Titanic to move rapidly to evade the iceberg.  Quite clearly, this is a very different dynamic than the one faced by Malthus in the 1790s (where farmers of all types welcomed improvements in agriculture) or the telecom industry in the 1980s (where AT&T could easily enough transition from old-style phones to improved telephone technology).

I realize that it’s no fun to sound like Malthus or Chicken Little.  It’s far more satisfying either to deny climate change like our President does, or to sound like one of those upbeat social reformers who talk as if we can still stop this freight train as long as we put our collective minds to the task.  I’ll give you this – I think we should try to stem this horrendous tide.  I think we should listen to our scientists, restrict our personal demand for carbon, support renewable energy sources, advocate international climate treaties and domestic regulation on carbon, etc.   But Empathic Rationalism is a philosophy of honesty – both with others and with ourselves.  And I won’t lie to you: I see dire consequences ahead.  I believe we’ve passed the point of no return.  And while I hope I’m as wrong as Malthus turned out to be, I’m no longer living in a post-Mathusian age.  The central “article of faith” I’m following is simple logic.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Time for a Zero-Tolerance Policy



Before I begin addressing my topic for the morning, allow me to join in the chorus of those who are sharing their grief at the death of George H.W. Bush.  I never voted for the man, but I have always liked and admired him.  Some of the most fulfilling years of my career were spent at the Federal Trade Commission under a Chairman who he appointed (Janet Steiger), and I realized then that President Bush was someone who respected the civil service and who appointed people to positions in Government who cared about advancing the mission of their agencies, were pragmatic instead of rigidly ideological, and deferred when appropriate to their staffs. 

This country is as great as it because of men and women like George H.W. Bush.  I am proud to have served in his Administration. He was a patriot in the best senses of that term.   He will be missed.

Now, let’s turn to the topic of the day.    

Like George H.W. Bush, I am a huge sports fan.  His favorite sport was baseball, which should not be surprising since he once captained Yale’s baseball team.  My favorite sport is football, which should not be surprising since I have a real mean streak in me.  But at least I recognize it, I’m not thrilled about it, and I would never it let it cause me to hurt anyone or anything other than my own arteries.

This week, football fans all over the nation were forced to remind ourselves about the connection between football and violence.   Subconsciously, we see that connection whenever we watch a game.  Inherently, the sport is violent – perhaps not as violent as boxing or Mixed Martial Arts, but close.  If you don’t hit hard, you can’t play defense, and if you can’t play defense, we might as well be watching basketball or track.  What makes football great is the irresistible force facing the immovable object.  Without the violence, the object just gets moved down the field like butter facing a knife.  Who wants to watch that?

If you love the game as much as I do, you’re probably at peace with watching the hits, at least if they don’t involve gratuitous shots to the head.  But it is difficult to be at peace with the reports that have come out in the past decade about the consequences of these hits on the body, and especially the brain.   I’ve spoken to a lawyer who handles claims on behalf of football players and their families.  The physical devastation he has reported to me is truly appalling.  And yes, as someone who religiously watches these games and frequently attends them, I recognize that I am an enabler of these consequences – the torn ligaments, the broken bones, and all the symptoms associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (e.g., early onset dementia, depression, uber-aggression, personality changes, etc.).  Those destroyed lives remain on my conscience.  What can I say?  I love the game.  Always have.

Only in the past decade have the barons of football proposed to do something, anything, to minimize the problems discussed in the previous paragraph. Unfortunately, not enough is being done.  I can’t tell you how often vicious helmet-to-helmet hits go unpenalized, and therefore undeterred.   To be sure, we can expect the league to more vigilantly punish this conduct, yet that won’t change the fact that the sport is necessarily violent.  Maybe fewer players will get CTE, but the number will never go to zero.   We fans have to accept that fact.

All that said, here’s what we DON’T have to accept: that the gladiators who hit hard on the gridiron also frequently hit hard off of it.  We don’t have to tolerate the wife- and child-beating that so many of these gladiators seem to view as their birthright.  We also don’t have to tolerate the “boys will be boys” attitude that comes out of the mouths of the suits who run the National Football League, or the football programs that seem to dominate so many universities these days.    It is one thing to love football.  It’s another to accept football culture.  The former had better evolve, within limits.  The latter had better transform itself dramatically.  Stated simply, violence against women and children (or, in the case of Michael Vick, against dogs) must no longer be tolerated by our society.  Full stop.

You would think it was enough this year when the Washington Redskins, my local NFL team, brought in Adrian Peterson to play running back.  You may remember Mr. Peterson as the 6’1” 220 pound man-missile who a few years ago beat his four-year old son with a tree branch 10-15 times, injuring the child’s back, buttocks, legs, and scrotum.  I used to be a big Peterson fan.  Once that happened -- and once Peterson seemed to show only a modicum of remorse -- my ability to enjoy his exploits on the field ended.    This past week, the Redskins signed another off-the-field tough guy to the team.  The new addition is a 23-year old linebacker named Reuben Foster, who had just been cut by the 49ers.  His reputation was already marred by a well-publicized verbal altercation with a hospital worker, and by separate weapons and drug offenses.  This past Saturday night, Foster was arrested in Tampa as part of a domestic violence investigation.   According to his female accuser, he “slapped her phone out of her hand, pushed her in the chest area, and slapped her with an open hand on the right side of her face.” 

In justifying the Redskins decision to sign Foster, team executive Doug Williams responded, “We got people in (high) positions that have done far worse.  This is small potatoes (compared to) a lot of things.”  Probably true – for example, what Adrian Peterson did to his FOUR-year old son is worse.  But let’s just say that when I turn on a football game, I’m not signing up for either.

Later this week, Kansas City Chiefs fans were treated to a video of their star running back, Kareem Hunt, kicking and shoving a woman.   The incident had been reported months ago, and Hunt was allowed to remain on the team.  But after the video came out, the Chiefs had reached their limit – they said that Hunt had lied to them about the incident and were therefore cutting him from the team.   Perhaps the Redskins will want him too – Adrian Peterson is getting older, so maybe Hunt would make a fine replacement on and off the field.

When will the leaders of this sport get together and impose some rules?  When will they create a zero tolerance policy?  And when will my local team, the Washington Redskins, move the hell away from my city so that they can pollute some other environment? We already know that their franchise history is mired in racism – from their unwillingness to hire any black players (they were the last all-white team in NFL history) to their racist mascot (the Indian on the Warpath), no football team says “Bigots” quite like the Redskins.  But do they have to stand for woman and children abuse as well? 

I could go on and on about this topic, but I’ll spare you.  Suffice it to say that if there is any decency left in this sport, can we please change the culture now?  Can we please confine the violence to the field of play?  Can we please tell these players that if they want to beat up on defenseless people, they will have to figure out a different way to make a living than one that pays millions of dollars to play a ball game?

Enough is enough.