Sunday, February 12, 2012

Frets are for guitars ...

A friend of mine once loaned me a book, a piece of fiction about how the United States had degenerated, was threatened by craven, cowardly politicians and its only hope were these wise, somber, deliberate ... militia guys (you know, the guys who plav soldier dress up and run around the woods with guns). Reading the dialogue, I remember where the Vice President was scheming to … I don’t even remember what, but the only people who kept their head in the crisis were the militia guys.

I wonder if that is what Jack Kelly’s world is like (at least this week). After all, apparently in his world, one of the big topics (if not the biggest topic) of conversation on “college campuses” and among “liberal elites” are Paul Ehrlich’s neato theories/predictions about population (which, as Kelly pointed out, really flopped after 1968). Also, apparently Kelly thinks that economists haven’t learned anything since Malthus.

Kelly points out that where Malthus thought population would explode (geometrically) while food production only increases modestly (arithmetically), actually food production abilities have more than kept up with our population growth. Well, I guess anyway, although it still seems like there are still a bunch of starving people around and about, while many, if not most, of us 300 million some “exceptional” Americans are getting fatter. Of course, the reasons people are starving have to do with complicated geopolitical realities that, if you think long and hard about it, don’t make much sense. Our being fat is about our having way too much disposable income (many of us anyway) and price supports for food

But I digress somewhat. This is another one of those columns where I agree part way with Kelly; Malthus and Ehrlich clearly were wrong about population growth causing starvation. But past that Kelly and I disagree. I have a lot of trouble believing Ehrlch is much of a topic on for anyone, let alone college faculty, students or any liberals (whether elite or not), nor is there any indication of that in a Google search on his name.

Kelly tells us that actually world population is about to decline. Maybe so. I remember a class reading in a labor (dismal science) economics class, suggesting that large families are a rational choice in countries with less industrialization and particularly a smaller government structure; large families (where only some children survive) are a de facto retirement program. As governments get better at collecting revenue and offering safety net programs, as countries industrialize (so people are likely to leave their parents homes for better paying jobs elsewhere) and as infant and child mortality rates drop with improvement in national and international health systems, parents stop having as many children as they did in the past.

So there is a (rational) economic analysis/prediction that suggests Kelly is correct about the predictions I assume he is repeating. But the pesky thing is that as I understand it, the world’s population is still increasing.

Of course, there is a racist (or xenophobic) tinge to Kelly’s column when he starts to identify where birth rates are falling. And a little conservative dig with this passage “This means that in advanced countries, there won't be enough people working to pay for the pensions and health care of the elderly.”

The title of the column is “Fretting Liberals”. I might well fit that description, but Kelly does not particularly capture my concerns related to world population at all. I am much more worried about fossil fuel use in the US and around the world. I think that managing our fossil fuel use in the United States (as the world’s biggest per capita user) is actually a national security issue, something that would make our nation stronger (by preserving what assets we have, reducing pollution in the US and contributing to the reduction of climate change). Managing fossil fuel use around the world has implications for how world economic development proceeds, and the totality of how the world addresses climate change. There needs to be an international discussion about whether Europe and America want to deny the developing world the standard of living we enjoy now, or whether the developing countries might benefit more from personal and large scale sustainable technologies. How we all use fossil fuels should also take into consideration the needs of future generations. Yes, there is technical progress, but Jack Kelly has made it clear that he does not support government having a role in any kind of technological innovation. Jack Kelly seems delighted that oil companies are among the biggest in the country, and I guess he would be delighted with the auto companies if the auto companies were to break the unions that infest their companies.

The US is heavily invested in oil fueled vehicles, but whether Kelly likes it or not, oil is an inherently finite resource. If we simply say future generations will take care of the problem, I think we abrogate our responsibility to show we understand reality as science understands it. We lose our chance to manage a transition from using something that will grow scarce (and expensive) before it runs out to finding sustainable fuels (like solar, wind, tidal and water forces) that should last for as long as there is a planet and a sun.


spork_incident said...

I have a lot of trouble believing Ehrlch is much of a topic on for anyone, let alone college faculty, students or any liberals

I believe Jack is engaging in what the kids call a "straw man".

Ironic for someone who writes: "For liberals, it's the narrative that matters; not the facts."


EdHeath said...

Well, actually it's not too hard to refute Ehrlich's and Malthus's specific arguments in the near term, reality has done a good job of that without any help from Jack Kelly. But yeah, the part of Kelly's column where he suggests liberals are holding onto Ehrlich is about as silly as anything I have heard recently. As you say, pretty ironic when combined with other things Kelly says.

I do think a tangential argument to Ehrlich's predictions, that a seven billion people world is gobbling up fossil fuels pretty rapidly, depriving future generations and also spewing carbon (and pollutants) into our world) is a matter for concern. But not for Jack Kelly, apparently. Instead he gives us, (again) as you say, something of a wicker man.