America can maintain its status as the most successful country in the world and, arguably, in world history. That said, success is not guaranteed.
There is a power struggle underway about whether to continue to premise our policies based on confidence in what used to be called “good old Yankee ingenuity” or to vest authority in the hands of experts (whether government or corporate) whose superpower is the creation of clever models to dictate our course.
There is also a dispute between proponents of growth, like us, and proponents of “limits to growth” or even “degrowth,” which we call out as “shrinkage,” to better the human, and Earthly, condition.
We believe that “good old Yankee ingenuity” will produce more good for more people, and for the ecology, than central planning, here or yon, ever has or ever will. There are reasons for that.
It has policy implications.
The Way the World Really Works
Inventors and innovators seek to produce new, desirable, products at lower cost. Sometimes it works.
Think iPhones. These currently carry around a billion dollars’ worth
of 1980 computer performance now costing around $1,000. That’s a millionfold cost reduction.
This was the outcome of Steve Jobs and Jony Ive’s inventiveness, extended by Tim Cook. Not diktat.
They achieved this by fusing vision, acute design sense, and expertise with trial and error. Yankee ingenuity.
Our lead co-author Jeff Garzik has first-hand experience. He wrote some of the Android (3.6 billion phones) code, also producing comparably dramatic extensions of computing power at a dizzyingly lowered cost.
The evidence is compelling that prosperity through innovation, not austerity through autocracy, is the optimal way to reduce our environmental impact.
This, as we shall present, is empirical. Not
So, there is a struggle between those who live under what has been called a narrative structure – “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” – and empiricism – “assessment based on real world data.”
As to narrative structures, Hayek, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, eruditely indicated “the pretence of knowledge.”
“The conflict between what in its present mood the public expects science to achieve in satisfaction of popular hopes and what is really in its power is a serious matter because, even if the true scientists should all recognize the limitations of what they can do in the field of human affairs, so long as the public expects more there will always be some who will pretend, and perhaps honestly believe, that they can do more to meet popular demands than is really in their power.
It is often difficult enough for the expert, and certainly in many instances impossible for the layman, to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims advanced in the name of science. The enormous publicity recently given by the media to a report pronouncing in the name of science on The Limits to Growth, and the silence of the same media about the devastating criticism this report has received from the competent experts, must make one feel somewhat apprehensive about the use to which the prestige of science can be put.
But it is by no means only in the field of economics that far-reaching claims are made on behalf of a more scientific direction of all human activities and the desirability of replacing spontaneous processes by “conscious human control”. If I am not mistaken, psychology, psychiatry and some branches of sociology, not to speak about the so-called philosophy of history, are even more affected by what I have called the scientistic prejudice, and by specious claims of what science can achieve.”
To be sure, modelers (so long as they don’t let the elegance of the model seduce them into scientism or into speculating beyond the data) are not inherently inimical to the innovators.
A good, reality-based rather than hopium-based, modeler indeed can enhance an innovator’s success. That said, to be useful the tail of doctrine must be wagged by the dog of empiricism.
Now, for a little humility (and Yankee ingenuity’s secret sauce). This is distilled by Hollywood icon William Goldman’s Law:
“Nobody knows anything.”
Upon Goldman’s passing, Varietyobserved:
“If you work in this business — and Goldman was clear-eyed
about the fact that the film industry is an industry first, where art and ideas must serve the bottom line, or perish — it’s worth getting those three words tattooed on your forearm.”
Washington Power and Light’s focus is energy policy, specifically energy policy pragmatism. This means we advocate judging policies by their real-world outcomes rather than by the nobility of their intentions.
Beware the “Gingrich Effect”
In addition to doctrine and dogma, one must also be wary of something we have dubbed “the Gingrich Effect,” named after then-House Speaker
Newt Gingrich. Gingrich ascendent (perhaps even rampant) in 1995 confessed to journalist Gail Sheehy, writing for Vanity Fair,
“I think you can write a psychological profile of me that says I found a way to immerse my insecurities in a cause large enough to justify whatever I wanted it to.”
Grandiosity is not unknown among elected officials. Indeed, the
higher the offices the more prevalent grandiosity becomes.
In politics, almost any action or expenditure, no matter how dubious or lavish, can be rationalized by claiming it will avert an existential crisis and “save the world.” (Silicon Valley entrepreneurs take note.)
That said, the ability of our policymakers to make the appropriate choice is
governed, at least in part, by the ability to make grounded assessments as to the most likely outcomes of the policies they propose to adopt. Not grandstanding.
Additionally, there’s also an ongoing argument between advocates of “degrowth” and proponents of whether what Adam Smith called “universal opulence” – ubiquitous economic growth – as better both for people and
We empiricists are persuaded that growth works.
And we are persuaded that degrowth is not healthy for children and other living things. Including the Earth’s ecosystems.
Degrowth’s proponents, to the consternation of humanitarians both left and right, proclaim in terms (take your pick) either Orwellian or Zenlike, that “less is more.”
It would be more candid to use the Seinfeldian term: “shrinkage.” Shrinkage: “Like a frightened turtle.”
What to Do
It is probably safe to say that most people, Republican, Independent, or Democrat, American or foreigner, mostly want the same thing: security, prosperity, and dignity.
The real argument is over the means rather than the ends.
Is growth or shrinkage better adapted to bring these desiderata about?
The common frame for this argument has been Capitalism (imperfectly exemplified by the USA and, less imperfectly, by the Nordic states) vs. Communism (à la the late USSR and the Chinese Communist Party’s hybrid model better described as “state capitalism”).
That said, there are other, more meta, ways of scoring this struggle. One is to view the real struggle as between decision-making based on dogma vs. empiricism.
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
We believe that the evidence overwhelmingly proves that actions based on empiricism – facts and analysis – provide better outcomes, and by far, for most people – than do actions based on ideologically-determined premises.
Furthermore, it seems clear that iterative (learning from experience) engagement consistently produces much better outcomes than theoretically determined strategies. As boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
This dichotomy, and the superiority of fact over doctrine, apparently is not
intuitive to many of America’s social elites. To provide just one bitterly poignant example, consider this observation by Bryan Caplan, at Econlib:
“When I was in Econ 1, we actually used the infamous 1989 Samuelson text – the one that said, “the Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.” So I was delighted when my colleague David Levy and his co-author Sandra Peart decided to put Samuelson’s Sovietology under a microscope. Back in 2006, they published some preliminary findings; now we can see Levy-Peart’s full story. Quick version: Samuelson habitually overestimated Soviet growth, edition after edition. … Levy-Peart find that Samuelson was hardly alone. Successive editions of competing textbooks were also stubbornly high on the USSR….”
Ah, the power of romanticism! Socialism has failed, by one credible count,
at least two dozen times out of the two dozen times it has been
tried. One marvels at the power of the imagination that gets people to continue to try.
After early accolades while the seed corn is eaten, of course, each failed frolic with Karl Marx’s vision is dismissed as “not real socialism.” Malarkey!
Nobody has ever formulated the contrast between capitalism and socialism better than Winston Churchill on the floor of the House of Commons, on October 22, 1945, “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent virtue of Socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”
With socialism’s catastrophic repeat failures (environmental as well as economic) straining the credulity of all but the young and the foolish (of whatever age), some intrepid public intellectuals are trying out a new strategy: to rebrand, exalting misery as a virtue.
So imagine our astonishment at the report last year on National Public Radio – and not even as one of its clever April Fools Day pranks – on a study contending that Americans could cut our energy use (commerce, transportation, home heating, cooling, lighting, and kitchen) by 75% … and ending up happier, healthier, and all around better off:
“How much energy does it take to have a good and healthy life? A new Stanford University study has found that the answer is far less than the average American is using.
“Comparing energy use and quality of life across 140 countries, researchers found that the magic number is 75 gigajoules a year, or less. For context, one gigajoule of energy is equal to about 8 gallons of gasoline.
“Americans use 284 gigajoules a year per capita, nearly four times that much energy, according to the new research.
“’That suggests to me that we could nudge energy use downwards in a bunch of hyper-consuming countries and not just make a more equitable world, but perhaps make ourselves healthier and happier,’ said lead author and professor of earth system science Rob Jackson.
“The link between more energy and better quality of life is established. Globally, around 759 million people lived without electricity and 2.6 billion without clean cooking fuel in 2019, according to the World Bank. That comes at an enormous human cost. Around 4 million people die each year from conditions caused by indoor air pollution from cooking fires, according to the World Health Organization. Access to electricity is critical for providing medical services and powering modern economies.
“But this study measured when those benefits plateau.”
Wait, what? Cutting our annual energy consumption down to
the equivalent of 600 gallons (about 12 gallons a week) of gasoline from 2272 gallons would improve our health and happiness?
The report touts increasing efficiency, which, if it passes a sensible cost/benefit allowance, we fully support.
However, efficiency is presented as offering a rather paltry 20%, not 75%, savings for household energy use… even assuming we start washing our laundry in cold water and drying it on a clothesline, as our grandparents or maybe parents did.
Coyly it hints at imposing much greater lifestyle changes than “efficiencies,”; for instance, reducing “the amount of air travel Americans do compared with other global citizens…. It also means you’re walking and biking more, using public transport and making less long trips….”
It coyly alludes to the purported ecological and equitable virtues of degrowth.
Yet, the report does not specify how taking fewer airplane flights or drying our clothes on a clothesline will increase the headline benefits: our health and happiness.
That’s… assumed. One is reminded of that old joke about economists.
Castaways are marooned on a desert island. A crate of canned food washes up on the beach.
How to open the cans? The economist: “Let’s assume we have a can opener and start eating.”
Hopium is Hokum!
That approach smells, to us, like “hopium.” That’s slang for wishful thinking and, often, social engineering.
We contend (and can prove, via facts), rather, that rigorous engineering calculus is the way to bring about the preferred middle-class security and amenities, the lifestyle to which practically everybody in the world aspires.
And need not apologize for doing so. Security, comfort, and even amenities are good. And not antithetical to environmental integrity, not even to climate change.
We wish our aging hippie friends, the few remaining romantic utopians of a Thoreauvian (Henry David having died at age 44) bent, well. We respect their right to live austerely.
That said, if they propose to impose their preferred lifestyle on those of us less enthusiastic for Woodstock we ask them to be candid about the sacrifices they prescribe.
Under the blandishments to use bicycles and buses more, and to drive and fly less, we detect some soft-pedaling of the “back to the stone age” lifestyle to pursue an obsession with cutting CO2 emissions.
One hears a faint echo of Hayek’s blistering criticism, cited above, “The enormous publicity recently given by the media to a report pronouncing in the name of science on The Limits to Growth, and the silence of the same media about the devastating criticism this report has received from the competent experts….”
Good and Better News!
Notwithstanding the predicament outlined herein, there is good and then better news.
First, the good news.
There is no obvious political consensus, either from the left or the right, for degrowth. More on this in a moment.
Second, the great news.
Responsible thought leaders are looking at real, achievable engineering solutions, supported by empirical facts rather than romantic notions.
For example, experts are now looking into using better engineering to staunch the methane emissions in hotspots such as Uzbekistan.
The Good News
Regarding the lack of political consensus for degrowth, many consequential left-of-center thought leaders recognize, and proclaim, the impracticality of “degrowth.”
Thoughtful progressives are alarmed by this proposition, which will hit the poor harder than the affluent.
Meanwhile, the right, reliably anti-regulatory, is already inclined to oppose shrinking our industrial base to address climate change with greater urgency.
So, there really is no political consensus, or even political beachhead, for degrowth.
The recent orgy of Congressional spending does not even remotely ratify shrinkage. Such spending is an artifact of Congress’s propensity to throw money at things, even implausible and impractical ways to degenerate greenhouse gases.
Call it green pork.
For example, center-left (and delightfully empirical) blogger Noah Smith summed matters up at Noahpinion on May 23, 2023:
Degrowth: We can’t let it happen here!
We won’t help the environment or the poor by
valorizing poverty and decline.
A year and a half ago, I wrote a post entitled “People are realizing that degrowth is bad”. Around that time, the degrowth movement had started to receive a bit of attention in the U.S., as part of the general push for major action on climate change. But writers like Ezra Klein, Branko Milanovic, and Kelsey Piper spoke up and criticized the idea. In a nutshell:
Klein pointed out that major reductions in living standards would be politically unacceptable in rich countries.
Milanovic showed that meaningful global degrowth would have to go beyond rich countries; it would have to stop poor countries from escaping poverty, which would be both politically untenable and morally wrong.
Piper noted that coordinated global degrowth would take much more economic central planning than we’re actually able to do.
These were all correct and solid points, and together they probably spell doom for degrowth’s chances of gaining serious support either in the U.S. or in Asia, or in almost any other region of the globe.
On the technolibertarian side, MIT principal research scientist Andrew Mcafee, author of More From Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources—and What Happens Next at Wired on October 6, 2020, declared: Why Degrowth Is the Worst Idea on the Planet
Despite still growing over the last 50 years, we already figured out how to reduce our impact on Earth. So let’s do that.
FOR HALF A century, we’ve been told that we had to embrace degrowth in order to save our planet. We haven’t listened. Around the world, human populations and economies have continued to grow at rates that are virtually unprecedented in the history of our species.
Over that same span, an unexpected and encouraging pattern has emerged: The world’s richest countries have learned how to reduce their footprint on Earth. They’re polluting less, using less land and water, consuming smaller amounts of important natural resources, and doing better in many other ways.
Some of these trends are also now visible in less affluent countries.
However, many in the degrowth movement seem to have trouble taking yes for an answer. The claims I just made are widely resisted or ignored. Some say they’ve been debunked. Of course, debate over empirical claims like these is normal and healthy. Our impact on our planet is hugely important. But something less healthy is at work here. As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Some voices in the conversation about the environment seem wedded to the idea that degrowth is necessary, and they are unwilling or unable to walk away from it, no matter the evidence.
But evidence remains a powerful way to persuade the persuadable …
Throughout our history, we humans have been climbing a difficult path
toward longer, healthier, more prosperous lives. As we climbed that path, we turned the environment around it brown and gray. Our mania for growth was in many ways bad news for the planet we all live on.
Recently, however, we have figured out how to make our path a green one,
how to continue to grow while reducing our impact on Earth. The world’s richest countries are also putting more land and water under conservation, reintroducing native species into ecosystems from which they had been hunted into oblivion, and improving Earth in many other ways.
For reasons that I don’t understand well, and that I understand less the more evidence I look at, degrowthers want to make us turn around and start walking back down the path, away from higher prosperity. Their vision seems to be one of a centrally planned, ever-deepening recession throughout the rich world for the sake of the environment.
The Great News
Moving from policy to the engineering side, opportunities beckon which presents as superior to proposals to take us back to the stone age.
While we are not here proposing to close the Gateway to Hell (a huge pit of burning methane, yet another Soviet-era environmental nightmare), let’s use that as a synecdoche for public policy informed by engineering smarts: quantification of the emissions and practical ways to ameliorate those without dialing back the world economy.
It appears clear that we can use technology to staunch substantial localized methane emissions at their sources without taking draconian, economically punitive measures. As reported by The Guardian recently:
“Methane is responsible for almost half of short-term [climate] warming and has absolutely not been managed up to now – it was completely out of control,” said Antoine Rostand, the president of Kayrros.
“We know where the super emitters are and who is doing it,” he said. “We just need the policymakers and investors to do their job, which is to crack down on methane emissions. There is no comparable action in terms of [reducing] short-term climate impacts.”
Super-emissions from oil and gas installations were readily ended, Rostand said, by fixing valves or pipes or, at the very least, relighting flares: “It’s very simple to do, it has no cost for the citizen, and for the producers, the cost is completely marginal.”
This line of approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions without impairing equitable prosperity is obviously attractive.
Thus, this is not a counsel of apathy toward or negligence about climate change. To the contrary.
The evidence is clear that pragmatic engineering solutions are the only proven and palatable approach to provide the cure for environmental challenges without beggaring ourselves in the process.
As John Hendrickson, writing recently in The Atlantic about
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s presidential candidacy, observed, “The line
between fact and fantasy has blurred, and fewer and fewer Americans are tethered to something larger or more meaningful than themselves.”
We are committed to facts and are tethered to something more meaningful than ourselves.
Our value proposition is to offer to help to unblur the line between fact and fantasy for policymaking purposes, with emphasis on energy policy as the pivot of the world economy.
Human and ecological flourishing derive from policymakers making grounded assessments from real-world data. Magical thinking belongs in the realm of fairy tales.
The overwhelming data support the proposition that economic growth, not
“shrinkage,” correlates with (and is the most plausible cause of) humanitarian and ecological progress.
We, thus, respectfully submit that energy policy be derived by reference to the scientific, engineering, and commercial data to produce optimized legislation, regulation, enforcement, and other means to bring forth upon this continent both equitable prosperity and responsible ecological stewardship.
Growth derives from good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity. Yankee ingenuity is a winner both for the economy and the ecology.
Jeff Garzik serves as the founder and chairman of Washington Power and Light. Before co-founding Bloq, he spent five years as a Bitcoin core developer and ten years at Red Hat. His work with the Linux kernel is now found in every Android phone and data center running Linux today.
Ralph Benko serves as cofounder and general counsel to Washington Power and Light. He also worked in or with 3 White Houses and other federal agencies. He is an award-winning columnist.
This article was originally published by Jeff Garzik and Ralph Benko on Hackernoon.