I love scientists. It’s not because of their socks and sandals, pocket protectors or their crazy hair. It’s their ruthless pursuit of the truth. Discussion is always welcome, constructive criticism even, because the most important thing to them is figuring out how the natural world works, in all of its intricacy and detail. They explain and quantify what they observe and the best among them thank you for pointing out errors in their thinking.
If a scientist said to me, “I am not interested in debating,” I would assume they simply needed another cup of rocket fuel from the espresso machine or a nap before the discussion could continue. If they told me a tenuous theory based on complex computer models which failed to predict actual measurements was “not debatable,” I would assume that they were an utter impostor.
Yet this is exactly what scientist and newly appointed Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz told Energy Department employees shortly after his swearing-in.
“Let me make it very clear that there is no ambiguity in terms of the scientific basis calling for a prudent response on climate change,” Moniz said. “I am not interested in debating what is not debatable,” he continued. “There is plenty to debate as we try and move forward on our climate agenda.”
Despite Dr. Moniz’s unwillingness to discuss it, the issue of climate change still needs thoughtful and objective debate. There is a vast ocean of uncertainty and just about everyone, especially those claiming to be scientists, are interested in figuring out what effect CO2 really has on the climate. The problem is that computer models which have predicted drastic warming do not jibe with actual measurements, especially the ones which show a relatively flat temperature trend for the past fifteen years despite rising CO2 levels. Mixed into the debate is the idea that CO2 emissions cause more frequent and powerful storms. Upon careful examination, this appears to be not the case. In the policy world, the debate over what keeps people safest from changes in climate is only just beginning.
The mark of a good scientist is the ability to explain complex issues, systems and solutions to everyone else. I expect more from a scientist than “the discussion is over because I know better.” As a newly made politician standing behind a podium, Moniz’s words take on a whole new meaning.
Let me translate for you: his authority is not debatable. Disagreeing is futile, because no matter what the evidence shows, he is not willing to look at it. Evidence, observations and discussion will be dismissed out of hand. And he certainly won’t be asking your opinion when it comes to implementing policies that make your energy expensive, inefficient and scarce. After all, it’s “not debatable.”
These are not the words of a scientist but of a dogmatist wielding political power.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand said that to force a man “to act against his own judgment, is like forcing him to act against his own sight.” This often happens with government regulations, especially when they force businessmen to take actions that are obviously destructive to their business and harmful to their customers.
The Renewable Fuel Standard mandate is a prime example of such a regulation. This mandate requires that an increasing amount of ethanol be blended into gasoline as part of the government’s broader campaign against fossil fuel usage.
Ethanol is corrosive, and so high concentrations of ethanol are bad for engines. Rich Herder—a shop owner who annually repairs thousands of lawnmowers, chain saws, and other machines—estimates that 75 percent of the damage he sees results from the use of ethanol. “It’s the biggest disaster to hit gasoline in my lifetime,” says Herder.
Gasoline today typically contains up to 10 percent ethanol. But, to continue to comply with the mandate’s increasing requirements, refiners must likely start blending a lot more E15—gasoline with 10 to 15 percent ethanol.
EPA stickers insist it is safe to use E15 in vehicles that were produced after 2001, but many automobile and oil industry representatives disagree. Chrysler, Toyota, General Motors and other automakers have written to Congress warning that E15 may damage fuel systems on newer vehicles. Urging the immediate suspension of selling E15, the American Automobile Association (AAA) has issued a similar warning. Urging the immediate repeal of the RFS mandate, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers have also warned against forcing more ethanol into gasoline.
The danger of corrosion from ethanol is so acute that the EPA itself prohibits using E15 in the hundreds of millions of other products that need gasoline, such as lawnmowers, boats, motorcycles, snow blowers, and other outdoor equipment. All of these products must instead be fueled by E10.
By forcing refiners to use more ethanol than they think is safe for the majority of intended uses, the government is forcing refiners to choose between creating a product that they fear will harm consumers or facing the legal consequences of not following the mandate. Paraphrasing Rand’s point, it’s as if refiners are being forced to act against their own sight.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
In his “first big public appearance” since being named Barack Obama’s chief antitrust enforcer, Assistant Attorney General William Baer addressed a gathering of antitrust lawyers at the American Bar Association. Baer stated that during the last five years, U.S. antitrust prosecutors collected 10 times as much money in criminal fines as they spent on criminal prosecutions.
“That’s a return on investment a lot of people in the private sector would envy,” he said.
There is so much wrong here that it’s hard to know where to start. First of all, was he joking? Perhaps–actually, I’d say he was half-joking. So let’s take the serious half seriously and ask what his little quip accomplishes.
In my mind, what stands out is how he blurs the line between economic power and political power. Economic power is productive ability–essentially, it’s Apple’s ability to offer an iPhone that millions of people want to buy. Political power is coercion–essentially, it’s the government’s ability to separate citizens from their property by threatening punishment, or by direct seizure.
The term “return on investment” offers a measure by which one can compare the profitability of placing money in various productive enterprises. If ROI is 2% in grocery retailing but 5% in petroleum refining, then that’s one factor in making an investment decision. But the government does not produce economic goods, nor does it generate profits. All it can do is seize the profits of productive enterprises.
Government officials who want to augment their power have every incentive to blur this distinction. Baer would like some of the aura of profitability to rub off on him. We shouldn’t let him get away with it.
If a common criminal “invests” $250 in a pistol and makes off with $10,000 in cash from a bank, has he achieved a 4,000% “return on investment”? Of course not. Clearly the robber produces nothing, he only takes. It would be a corruption to apply the term “return on investment” to his activities.
Taking money at the point of a gun–whether the gun belongs to a robber or a federal prosecutor–is not and can never be productive, and it’s a moral offense to equate the two. I’ve written elsewhere about why I question the propriety of the antitrust regime, as well as the penchant of federal antitrust enforcers to brag about their criminal prosecutions of businessmen. Baer’s little half-joke deserves to be completely condemned.
Image: Anders Sandberg via Compfight
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I have a new piece on Forbes.com on General Motors, the United Auto Workers, and the nature of labor laws. It contains a blend of history and analysis.
Long before General Motors neared collapse, it was a proud and flourishing symbol of American manufacturing. In the 1950s, GM was the first company to ever make $1 billion in a single year, and it had 50% of the domestic automobile market. GM executives used to proudly quip, “we’re still losing 5 out of every 10 sales!” What happened to this great company?
Many factors are acknowledged as contributing to GM’s decline: it juggled too many brands, over-extended its dealer network, failed to respond rapidly to market cues, and struggled to work with its union, the United Auto Workers.
But the extent of its problems with the UAW is astonishing—and the problems themselves warrant explanation. Consider some of the onerous arrangements that GM’s management agreed to. . . .
Read the whole thing.
(This is cross-posted from Voices for Reason.)